Two technology-trend trackers describe significant inventions that may be just over the horizon.

At the DaVinci Institute, our goal is to forecast future inventions, many of which will have a profound effect on our lives. We do not make value judgments as to whether or not these technologies should be pursued. Our belief is that these unborn technologies will emerge someday with or without our blessing. We believe it is in society’s best interest to thoroughly understand the concepts and be forewarned of the changes that lie ahead.

High-Impact Inventions

Here are snapshots of a few highly probable inventions that our research tells us are likely to have a profound effect on the future:

Personality Services for Computers.

The day is coming when we will be able to hold an intelligent conversation with our computer. But the novelty of a talking computer will quickly give way to the need for a more complicated humanlike interaction. This need will give birth to a new industry: computers equipped with personality services.

Most people will subscribe to more than one online personality service, adding a new dimension to the human-(en)computer interface. If, for example, you were to subscribe to a David Letterman personality service, suddenly your computer voice would start sounding like David Letterman, interjecting jokes and wild comments. If your choice was a political pundit personality such as Rush Limbaugh or Geraldine Ferraro, you would receive stimulating commentary about current political topics. If you wanted to ask your computer about the news of the day, you could subscribe to a Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings personality.

Personality services will be an interesting market to watch as celebrities leverage their name recognition even further and relative newcomers offer unique personality services at bargain prices.

Controlling the Brain.

When a person’s liver stops working, does it stop because the liver gives out or because the person’s brain tells it to stop? This question is currently being debated by theorists in the medical community. We suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the feedback loop of impulses between the brain and the liver. Many medical researchers believe that the brain has an override capability that can keep an organ functioning in spite of a “shut down” order from individual body components. Possibly this brain function could become subject to conscious human control. One can speculate about possible ways to upload a batch file or lines of code to force the brain to override a shut-down signal.

In the past, controlling the brain has always been accomplished through the use of drugs. Chemicals introduced into the body produced a chemical reaction to create the desired effect. In the future, this could be accomplished with medical algorithms, which means sending direct impulses to the brain to trigger the necessary override changes to a given body function. The advantage of algorithms over drugs is that there are no chemical side effects.

Uses for medicinal algorithms could include curing physical maladies such as color blindness or hearing loss, controlling appetite or desire for sweets, controlling addictions or illicit drug use, and improving stamina, memory, or reaction time.

Meat Grown from Plants.

Researchers continue trying to develop hybrid plants to serve as meat substitutes, but a more direct breakthrough could soon yield pork, chicken, and beef plants.

In Boulder, Colorado, a company called Somatagen is in the final stages of producing an artificial blood product. Plants grown using this blood as the primary source of nutrition (instead of water) could begin to exhibit a mammalian type of growth. There may also be other bio-cloning formulations that will accomplish the same thing. And there is definitely a ready market for plant-grown beef among vegetarians and cardiac patients.

Births Without Mothers.

Imagine the sales pitch for an artificial womb: “We offer you childbirth without pain, stretch marks, and morning sickness. We will bring your baby to term in a perfectly safe environment, with a scientifically superior diet, in an artificial womb receiving a wide range of fetal stimulation that you select, ranging from music, to audio books, to mathematical problem solving.”

Japanese scientist Yoshinori Kuwabara has already developed an artificial womb capable of incubating goat fetuses for three weeks until birth. It consists of a clear plastic box filled with amniotic fluid at body temperature and connected to an array of devices to sustain vital body functions. The fetus lies submerged in a “womb” that replaces oxygen and cleans the fetus’s blood with a dialysis machine connected to the umbilical cord.

Kuwabara has expressed caution about the prospects for “no pain” childbirth. His initial goal is to reduce the age of human fetal viability for premature births. Currently, premature babies reach the age of viability at about 22 weeks in the womb.

An incubator capable of preserving a 10-week-old fetus might also be capable of handling a one-week-old fetus. If so, the fetus might not need a human womb: Following fertilization in a petri dish, the growing embryo might be placed directly into the artificial womb.

Overlooked Ideas

There are also a number of significant technologies already invented but generally overlooked. Some concepts are already being developed; others may be tied up in legal or funding battles. Here are four ideas that are within the scope of current technology and have the potential to reshape the thinking in several industries:

Spherical Shaped Computer Display.

Computers come in different colors and sizes, but all computer displays are limited to the same basic shape: the rectangular screen. This configuration hasn’t substantially changed since Philo Farnsworth’s invention of the television was commercialized in the 1950s. Some would say that operating a computer program with our present monitors is like trying to watch a baseball game through a knothole.

A spherical display would have unique applications for computer users who need to observe the surface of the earth or some other planet. Travel agents could easily plan and display complicated international itineraries by means of a true-shaped image of the earth. Meteorologists could broadcast a real-time global view of weather patterns which would appear on a globe sitting on your desk.

Disposable Money Cards.

Inspired by the success of prepaid phone cards, credit-card companies could begin to market stored-value cards in various denominations. The “prepaid credit card” would be a use-once card that would be thrown away when its credit had been used. Credit-card companies could make this a profitable venture by creating a highly automated system for handling transactions and by charging higher discount rates or transaction fees for small purchases. This innovative card would make it possible for more people to have greater access to goods and services.

Web sites would be quick to accept the new prepaid cards. Many items that have been free on the Internet — such as downloads and plug-ins – could then be priced at a nominal fee of $1 or $2. Consumers who are reluctant to use their credit cards online would have no fear of giving out their stored-value card number over the Internet because any potential loss would be limited to the face value of the new card — $10 or $20. Stored- value cards are destined to become the currency of cyberspace, opening up a new market to children who previously could not make Internet purchases.

Computers That Read Aloud.

Systems already exist for visually tracking eye movement; at the same time, talking computers are making inroads. It won’t be long before we have a device that combines these technologies in order to pronounce words as a reader reads them. Such devices would have tremendous value in teaching students to read and to understand foreign languages. They would also create a multisensory learning experience for anyone reading a book, vastly improving levels of information retention.

Underground Steam Irrigation.

In traditional top-irrigation, water soaks down into the ground. By contrast, underground steam irrigation would force a pressurized mist up to the land surface through an extensive array of high-intensity nozzles. Steam is first blasted through to the surface by a pressure pump boiler; once the steam channels have been cut, a more traditional jet-spray form of irrigation takes place. Underground steam irrigation would have no moving parts or lines other than remotely controlled pumps and valves. Once the system is trenched into a field it should provide maintenance-free service for many years. It would also control the surface temperature of crops during freezing weather and warm the ground for earlier crop germination.

Published in THE FUTURIST magazine
August-September 1998
By Thomas J. Frey and Darby L. Frey