Forecasting The Technology Of Tomorrow

25:15 minutes

three different shots of an iridescent circle on a clear pliable, bending substrate
Metalenses. Credit: Seyedeh Mahsa Kamali/Andrei Faraon/California Institute of Technology

Back when Science Friday began in 1991, the Internet, as we know it, didn’t even exist. While ARPA-NET existed and the first web pages began to come online, social media, online shopping, streaming video and music were all a long ways away. In fact, one of our early callers in 1993 had a genius idea: What if you could upload your credit card number, and download an album you were interested in listening to? 

a grid of dots on a clear substrate. they are smaller than 10 millimeters
An array of mid-IR metasurface lenses on a sapphire substrate. Credit: Amir Arbabi/Andrei Faraon

A truly great idea—just slightly before its time. In this segment, we’ll be looking ahead at the next 5 to 10 years of emerging technologies that are about to bubble up and change the world. Think, “metalenses,” tiny, flat chips that behave just like a curved piece of glass, or battery farms, which could transform our energy future. 

Scientific American technology editor Sophie Bushwick helped put together the magazine’s special report, the Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2019. She will be our guide through this techie future.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Andrei Faraon

Andrei Faraon is a professor of Applied Physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

Daniel Schwartz

Daniel Schwartz is a professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Clean Energy Institute at the University of Washington.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Back when Science Friday began in 1991, the internet as we know it surely did not exist. There was the ARPANET. And people were talking about the first world wide web pages. What was that?

But social media, online shopping, streaming video and music, all that was a long way off. In fact, one of our early callers in 1993 had this prescient idea.

DAVE: Let’s say I find some song I really like. It’d be nice to go to, like, Sony or RCA or wherever these record companies are and download a particular song, and if I like it, upload a credit card number.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re saying, instead of having to go buy a CD, you could just download the CD on the internet?

DAVE: Yeah, that’d be great.

IRA FLATOW: That’s a great idea. Thanks, Dave, for calling.

Yeah, that was Dave back in Pasadena back in 1993 with a truly great idea and slightly before its time, because that’s how we download music now.

Well, on today’s program, we’re going to be making our own predictions looking ahead at the next five to 10 years at emerging technologies that are just about to bubble up and transform the world. And we want to hear what you have to say. What emerging technology are you most excited to see go mainstream in the next few years, and why? Lab grown meat, robotic assistants? Tell us, 844-724-8255, 844-SCI-TALK, or tweet @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I.

And to guide us through this techie future is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American, who helped put together the magazine’s special report on the top 10 emerging technologies of 2019. And we have a link up on our website at ScienceFriday.com/emergingtech. Welcome back, Sophie.


IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you back here. How difficult was it putting this list together?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, it was a long process. So basically, we had a steering committee that was made up of people from Scientific American and also from the World Economic Forum. And so we had these experts who also called for submissions from even more experts. And then they had all of these nominations. And they had to winnow them down to make sure they fit these criteria.

So we were looking for things that had the ability to make a big impact on society and on economies. But we also wanted them to be kind of early in their development, things that hadn’t really arrived on the scene yet but that were getting early interest from investors or startups and other sources.

IRA FLATOW: One of the topics in the package that you gave me of all the articles you put together, it was sort of like deja vu, because the big thing in the 20th century was plastics. And now the big thing is bioplastic.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, it’s actually a problem that we liked plastics so much, because we’re producing so much of it. In 2014, we had three 311 million metric tons of plastic going out into the world. And less than 15% of that gets recycled.

So the idea is, we’re looking for plastics that can biodegrade more easily that we’ll be able to recycle and break down and that won’t just end up in the environment where they carry toxins. They get eaten by animals. They even get eaten by us humans. They found plastic in a lot of human digestive tracts.

IRA FLATOW: I think when we talked about this last week a little bit, even going as far back to see that plastics are mentioned in It’s a Wonderful Life, the film of 1947. But we never saw, right? It sort of caught us, blindsided how big a problem plastics would create, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, we were very optimistic at the beginning. And we’re still incredibly reliant on plastics. Plastics, they go into everything. They expect that by 2050, the amount of plastics produced are going to triple. So the hope is that we can find a way to avoid putting some of the plastics into the environment in that way, because it could make the problem even worse.

IRA FLATOW: Now, the series also covers advanced food packaging that would let stores tracks spoiled or contaminated food with much greater precision. When I was reading that, that sounded fascinating and something we really need.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. I think the World Health Organization says that hundreds of millions of people got food poisoning in every year. And hundreds of thousands of people die from it. So being able to tell when food is spoiled is really important.

And there’s a couple different approaches that researchers are taking. One is the development of these sensors that can tell you if a package has been opened or if a certain amount of time has elapsed or even if the air in the package contains molecules that indicate that the food has started to rot. So that’s one way.

And another way is just tracking these sources of poisoning more carefully. So if there’s an E. coli breakout in Romaine lettuce, it’s really important to be able to quickly trace that so we know just what lettuce is dangerous and just which ones are safe to eat.

And the way they’re doing that is actually blockchain, which is a technology we usually think about being asked for cryptocurrency. But it basically allows you to keep track of transactions in multiple places at once. So you could track a case of food poisoning back to the source in seconds.

IRA FLATOW: Now we’ve talked on this show a lot about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is caused by all that nutrient runoff from farms. Your articles say– you say smart fertilizers are on the horizon. What’s a smart fertilizer?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So a smart fertilizer is one that you don’t just dump onto the field all at once where it can’t all be absorbed by the plants. So a lot of it gets washed away. So they’re developing these fertilizers that are contained in little capsules that break down slowly over time. So it has a slow release of the nutrient.

And some of these capsules are actually getting really smart. So some of them can respond to temperature changes. So if it gets warmer, plants are able to grow more. And so this capsule breaks down faster so that the plants can get access to the nutrients they need.

DAVE: Yeah, that would be very useful. We asked our listeners on the Science Friday VoxPop app what emerging technologies they were most excited about. And we got this comment from Al in Los Gatos, California.

AL: Autonomous driving vehicles, because my wife is severely visually impaired. And it’d be a good thing for her, autonomous driving.

IRA FLATOW: Autonomous vehicles, he was saying. Yeah, smart cars.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I think that’s definitely a technology that’s going to be impacting all of our lives in the coming years. I mean, it’s got the potential not just to help people who can’t drive themselves and don’t have access to transportation. But it could really radically change the way we move around. So I’m really excited about the advent of self-driving cars, self-driving buses.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and while we’re talking about energy, what about safer nuclear reactors? Is there such a thing?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes. So we’re hoping that our nuclear reactors that are– this is another emerging technology that we’re seeing. So I think that a lot of people have some justifiable fears of nuclear reactors. But the fact is that if we want to move away from fossil fuels, nuclear power could be a way to help us do that. And now researchers are testing out fuels that are more resilient and reactors that wouldn’t melt down the same way that reactors experienced meltdowns in famous incidents like the Three Mile Island disaster.

IRA FLATOW: And much smaller, on a much smaller scale, which would make them a little bit safer also.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right, yeah, the idea is instead of a giant power plant with a big core, you would have smaller-scale reactors and that they would be more distributed. So you wouldn’t have as much of a danger there.

IRA FLATOW: One of the technologies in Scientific American’s special report is something called the metalens. It’s a tiny lens that could revolutionize optical technology. Here to tell us more is Andrei Faraon, professor of applied physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Welcome, Dr. Faraon.

ANDREI FARAON: Hi, Ira. Thank you very much for the invitation to speak on your show.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, you’re welcome. What exactly is a metalens? How does that compare to the kind of lens we’re used to seeing?

ANDREI FARAON: Yeah, so we’re all used to lenses that are made out of curved glasses or plastics. A metalens is a very thin lens made of a flat substrate. And on that flat substrate, we have tiny little blocks of material that have dimensions of a micron. And a micron is about 100 times smaller than the thickness of a human hair. And basically have these tiny blocks.

And when light hits these tiny blocks, it interacts with them. And you get an effect where light can get focused to a very tight spot, similar to what you can get from a regular lens. And you can use this effect to create images as you can have in a cell phone camera, for example.

IRA FLATOW: And so what are you doing to the metal to make it act exactly the way you want to?

ANDREI FARAON: Yeah, so what do, we take these blocks. And these are made, actually, out of silicon. And depending on how big they are– so you can imagine what these blocks like the buildings in Manhattan, for example. And depending on how wide the building is, light interacts with it differently. It basically propagates through it at a different speed. And this creates the effect that we desire. In this case, it’s focusing the light.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And can you describe what a metalens looks like? So if I was to look at it really close, what would I see?

ANDREI FARAON: Yeah, you would see a lot of pillars. So they can be pillars with a circle that a cross-section or a rectangular cross-section. And so it looks like a like a forest of pillars that are placed on a flat piece of glass.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It sounds kind of like looking down at Manhattan from above.

ANDREI FARAON: Exactly, exactly. But in this case, all the buildings would have to be the same height, because the way we fabricate these things is that we take a piece of material with a certain thickness. And then we etch or we dig down the material. And so everything ends up being at the same height.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, are you sort of cheating the light passing through it into thinking it’s passed through a lens, even though it wasn’t a curved lens it passed through but our little Manhattan there?

ANDREI FARAON: Well, we’re not. In physics, unfortunately, you can’t get away with cheating. So yeah, we’re using basically the effects at the wavelength scale. So these structures are as small as the wavelength of light. And the wavelength of visible light is hundreds of nanometers, which is, as I say, about 100 times smaller than a human hair. And when light interacts with objects that are at that small scale, the wavelength scale, it interacts in rather more non-intuitive ways compared to the interaction with lenses, for example, that we are all used to.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And why would we want to make the light do that instead of just using a curved lens like the ones we’re used to?

ANDREI FARAON: Yes, so having these lenses thin and flat is a big advantage. And the reason is that you can stack them on top of each other with very high ease. So you can make complex optical system by simply stacking up flat lenses.

Also these lenses are made with the same processing techniques as used for semiconductor processors. And so you can think of having glasses that are fabricating the same process as image sensors, for example, or some other electronics. And you can think of optics and electronics being fabricated in the same production line, for example, which is highly advantageous in the long run if you want to make a product.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us today, Andrei. Andrei Faraon, professor of applied physics at Caltech. And good luck with your lenses.

ANDREI FARAON: Thank you very much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. Let’s go to the phones to Bob in Lawrence, Kansas. Hi, Bob.

BOB: Hi.

IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

BOB: Hey, the thing I’m really excited in is in the realm of hydroponic gardening, the vertical gardens that organizations like Freight Farms in Boston are doing with being able to grow in intensive gardens in small space with vertical gardening, hydroponics. And I heard that Kroger is looking at doing some of this in terms of growing hydroponic vegetables on-site at some of the stores. I think the first one might be rolled out in Seattle.

IRA FLATOW: That’s an interesting idea. And you’d make food a lot more local.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yeah, I can imagine–

BOB: Exactly.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It would be kind of cool to imagine going to a grocery store and literally picking your food off the vine there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s like going to a strawberry farm but indoors and doing it that way.


IRA FLATOW: Thanks for calling. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Here with us, Sophie Bushwick, talking about technologies are the future. Let’s see if we can get a phone call or two in before the break. Let’s go to Abraham in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Abe.

ABRAHAM: Hey, and thanks for taking my call. Yeah, I think cryptocurrency, in particular bitcoin, is going to be pretty huge 10 years from now.

IRA FLATOW: What do you think, Sophie? You follow this? Do you think– I’ve heard some people say it’s not going– it’s going to be like the stock market instead of sort of an exchange where you actually buy and sell things.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Right. I think that cryptocurrency is one of those areas where it’s extremely hard to predict, because it has changed a lot quickly. So there was the early days of bitcoin. And then there was the bitcoin crash. And so I’d imagine that we will definitely see discussions of cryptocurrency going on into the future. But it’s hard to tell which way the path will zig towards. I can imagine it being adopted in a more widespread way. But I think that there’s definitely going to be a lot of legal and political issues that swarm around this topic as well.

IRA FLATOW: And as you mentioned in one of your articles, the food technology uses bitcoin.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Uses blockchain, which is the technology behind bitcoin. So I think that something kind of cool about blockchain is it gets all of the attention because of cryptocurrency, but it’s actually got other applications as well that are really interesting.

IRA FLATOW: Lots of tweets coming in. Andrew writes via Twitter, 3D-printed organs, although it’s an excitement that’s tinged with many concerns over getting the tech right.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. And at this stage, they’re still working on this in the lab. It’s not close to testing in humans yet. But there’s some really cool advances with printing, using cell– with printing organs that can actually exchange oxygen between cells, for example.

DAVE: Joshua writes on Twitter, “I think a great idea for the future of entertainment would be the growth of VR.” I guess virtual reality. Image, not just watch– oh, “Imagine not just watching a horror movie but rather being surrounded.”

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: See, to me, that sounds terrible.


IRA FLATOW: I know. Yeah, I’m thinking of Alien, that spaceship what it jumps out, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I’m sure that there are horror fans who would love that. I am not one of them. But I’m excited on their behalf.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me go to another listener, to Jake in Reno, who has something sort of similar, right, Jake?

JAKE: Yeah, well, it’s actually not VR but augmented reality. So VR is the placement of the person within the environment. We create the environment around them. Augmented reality is the environment remains the same, but you’re able to get kind of a heads up display. And the idea is that we’d use this in a surgical setting where there would be an overlay of the person before they cut in where you could see where the incision points where and where the actual surgery was taking place.

So the surgeon to be sitting there, wearing a pair of glasses and, before they even place the first cut, know what’s happening internally. And I think this is kind of a really cool emerging technology that could really have a lot of applications for medical science moving forward.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that sounds cool.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I agree. I mean, a surgeon can’t do a practice run on the patient, right? But if they could do a practice run on a digital version of the patient, it could maybe help.

IRA FLATOW: Or if you’re in VR, and you see exactly on the patient where you have to make the cut.


IRA FLATOW: You know? And it moves with you as you’re making the cut and you’re going in, that could be really cool. A lot of other cool things we’re going to talk about. We’re going to take a break. Our number, 844-724-8255 our number. If you’d like to chime in and tell us what you see coming down the pike.

We’ve got all kinds of people tweeting us. Zeke says he wants drone delivery. It’s going to be huge.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s on its way.

IRA FLATOW: In the next five to 10 years?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely, there’s drone delivery and robots that roll. Delivery robots that roll are also in development.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve seen a few of those already, yeah. We’ll be right back after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about technologies that might transform the world in the not so distant future with my guest Sophie Bushman, technology editor at Scientific American. And we have a link to Sci Am’s is terrific collection of predictions upon our website at ScienceFriday.com/emergingtech.

I’d like to bring on another guest now to talk about an innovation that could transform the transform the energy market, one of my favorite topics, batteries, battery farms, the energy storage technologies of the future. Daniel Schwartz is professor of chemical engineering, University of Washington, director of the Clean Energy Institute. Welcome, Dr. Schwartz.

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Hi, guys. Happy holidays.

IRA FLATOW: Happy holidays. Now, this is really important, is it not, getting new technology with batteries that could help us create this grid of the future?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Absolutely. Really, we don’t have a decarbonised world, I think, without better energy storage.

IRA FLATOW: So paint this picture for us of the power plant of the future. Where are we now? And what do we need to get to where you’d like to be.

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Well, the power plant of the future is clean. It’s not emitting carbon or other products. And it’s adaptable, both the loads that people use and the generation are adaptable. And that’s where batteries and energy storage in general fit between what people want for their load, their energy demands, and what a power plant can deliver.

So solar is variable, and wind is variable. And we have to buffer between the demand and the supply. And that’s, again, where storage comes into play.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And how cost-competitive are renewables plus storage versus natural gas or coal?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Sure, the levelized cost of electricity which takes into account all of the costs of buying the stuff, operating it, and whatnot, are really cost-competitive. Los Angeles Power and Water just put out a power purchase agreement with solar and storage. And they were in the $0.02-some per kilowatt hour for that power purchase agreement for both the storage and for the electricity generation. And so that is cheap.

IRA FLATOW: Do we need a next generation of batteries? Or is the kind of batteries we have running our cars, can we just stack them all together, put them together, and make a power plant out of it? Or do we need something new, Dr. Schwartz?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Yeah, I think we’re on the trend of leveraging the massive, massive investment going to electric vehicle batteries. And so the grid side, we’ll leverage that, I think, for the five to 10 years that we’re looking at, because there’s something like $250 billion that are being invested in the batteries and infrastructure for electric vehicles over the next few years.

And so energy storage is really about getting to scale. And that level of investment is how we’re going to get the scale. And the grid will leverage that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And there’s also sort of a lifecycle to the batteries, because you can take that car battery and then, when it’s done, plug it into a house, and then take that. And when it’s done its useful life in a house, plug it into a battery farm. So they’ve got a pretty long lifespan, right?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: It’s that is such a special and important point, Sophie. I think that combining information about what is the health of that battery and what’s its best value at any given time is critical. It happens to be one of the reasons why I companies that manufacture batteries have cars, have home energy storage, and have grid energy storage integrated together. That lets them do so much more, because they know the health of the battery at every stage. They can use it three times.

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. Let’s talk about it a little bit. We have lithium ion batteries. Now, that’s our main battery supply. What is past lithium ion? Is there is something else that we are working on?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Sure, there’s a bunch of technologies. And I would be afraid to say what I think is going to win. But what I will say is that there are technologies coming out with things like sulfur. What happens beyond sulfur is kind of one of those chemicals that are going from naughty to nice in 2019.

Sulfur, we used to work so hard to get sulfur out of fossil fuels, low-sulfur coal, ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel. Sulfur is a super light element, super abundant and cheap. And there’s so many ways you can add electrons to it or take them out. And that’s the basis of future energy storage technologies is cheap, lightweight, energetic. And so I’m pretty bullish about sulfur batteries.

IRA FLATOW: The price of solar power has come down so much. It’s cheaper now than fossil fuels. Are the batteries then what’s holding us back from this electric future?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: So I would say it’s integrative thinking that is holding us back. We’re used to our energy being supplied for transportation by Chevron, our power being supplied by our local utility. The lights turn on when we need them. And sort of this integrated view that how we demand power and how we deliver it, it’s going to be an unbelievably sophisticated machine of storage, generation, and use that’s all connected by information.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And I know that batteries are probably the practical solution we’re going to see moving forward. But if we could think out of the box a second, can you tell us a little bit about some other energy storage technologies that researchers are looking at?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Sure. There’s things like gravity storage, where you have big cranes that lift big, heavy 35-ton blocks up and stack them up into the height of a skyscraper. And then when you need power, you drop the blocks down to the ground, running it through a motor that generates electricity or a generator. And so these are things that can really cheaply store energy. And the question will be, does society accept having skyscrapers of concrete bricks storing their energy. That would be an example.

IRA FLATOW: We call them buildings here in New York.


Not to make light of that. Something that was coming of age, I remember, back in the ’60s. I remember, Sophie, Scientific American doing a big take on this. And they were flywheels. People were talking about– do you remember that, Dr. Schwartz at all?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: I am old enough. And it hasn’t gone away. Flywheels are one of those technologies that you can store quickly, bring it up to speed, quickly discharge it. It can potentially have a role. I’m not a person that ever says no to anything that can be inexpensive and adaptable.

IRA FLATOW: One of the problems with it, they were– I remember going to see out in California, some people were experimenting with flywheels in cars. And it was spinning them up and running the cars on them. But the problem with the flywheel is that it creates a great torque as it’s spinning. And it creates a force in one direction, as we know from the laws of physics. And so it’s very hard to steer the car once you have this flywheel spinning.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: There’s a lot of these energy storage solutions that I imagine would cause big problems for cars. I can’t really picture a tower of bricks on the hood of your car storing some energy in that.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll look forward to it. Dr. Schwartz, how far into the future do you think we have to look for this?

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Well, I think that it’s happening now. It’s a quiet revolution that’s taking place. And we’re going to see more and more come in every year, more electrification of vehicles, more ways that you can work with your utility on how your energy is used and priced.

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank both of you for taking the time to be with us today, certainly you, Sophie Bushwick, who’s–


IRA FLATOW: –been with us many, many times. She’s the technology editor at Scientific American. And we have a link to the special report, great report, ScienceFriday.com/emergingtechnology. Also Dr. Daniel Schwartz, professor of chemical engineering at University of Washington and director of the Clean Energy Institute there. Thank you again, Daniel, for coming.

DANIEL SCHWARTZ: Super, thanks.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome.

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