From medicine to transport, UK firms are creating transformative technologies that will define the future
Technologies define a generation. Those growing up in the shadow of the Second World War and the Cold War were the nuclear generation, while those coming of age in the 2000s will always be the internet generation. But what technology will represent today's young people? What role might sustainability and the climate play? Will new forms of transport and energy be defining? Or will we see new types of computing, pan-global networks and online communities as technology that shapes our future?
Advances in science and technology mean we know more now about the future than ever. But as Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are still many things we don't know we don't know. Luckily, lots of clever people are working to mould our future and make sure coming decades look better. Here we present our A to Z of technologies that are transforming our world...
Artificial intelligence It is tempting to see artificial intelligence (AI) as science fiction, something belonging to a future that may never happen. But AI is already being applied in small ways on factory floors and in organisations across the world. It even plays a part in automating some knowledge-intensive back-office systems that until now have demanded human interventions. Carkean Solutions offers a product called Aquima that was developed in the Netherlands by AI experts.
Annely Kurg at Carkean describes it as an "intelligent, dynamic business process management solution". The system is effectively able to think for itself and once set up doesn't require much IT support, as it has a user interface based on Microsoft Office. Elsewhere, AI is producing smarter factories, where assembly lines are able to automatically identify and correct faults in production.
Biotechnology RegenTec is a spin-off from Professor Kevin Shakesheff's research team at the University of Nottingham. The company, based at BioCity Nottingham, has invented a material that works with stem cells and biopharmaceuticals to stimulate the regeneration of tissue in patients whose repair processes fail. When injected, the material forms a highly porous "scaffold" structure, which encourages new tissues to form. It also assists the delivery of stem cells and drugs without compromising their effectiveness, helping patients with bone, liver, heart or nerve-tissue defects. This field has the potential to revolutionise healthcare by providing permanent replacements for damaged or diseased tissues. The ability to inject scaffold materials could also reduce the need for invasive surgery.
Dr Robin Quirk, managing director, adds: "Regenerative medicine is an exciting industry that promises to radically improve many aspects of clinical practice."
Cloud The world has already been transformed by computers. The PC revolution and then the internet have changed our lives. Now both are combining to bring us cloud computing. This ability to store and share data, and run software and applications over the internet, is altering the way we work and collaborate.
The move away from large, powerful machines and the boom in low-cost "netbook" computers, with low storage and memory capacity, has been fuelled by a growth in cloud computing. Working across multiple locations is easier with the cloud and it will lead to more home working, giving greater flexibility. Also, these ultra-compact machines can be cheaply circulated to previously digitally disenfranchised communities. In rural Africa, for example, new possibilities are opened up by the arrival of affordable mass computing.
Desalination Global demand for water has doubled since the Second World War. Some estimates show that by 2025 more than a third of us will no longer have enough clean water. The International Water Management Institute defines water scarcity as access to less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year. At 1,300 cubic metres, the UK is on the borderline, says David Symons of environmental consultancy WSP. And the south, with its lower rainfall and higher population, is officially water scarce.
Businesses are developing water strategies for the same reasons they made low-carbon strategies. "It's a business continuity issue," says Symons. If anything, water is "arguably the more significant issue".
Desalination technologies are gaining acceptance, too. That's because UK firms such as Modern Water are looking at more energy-efficient plants that rely on non-fuel membrane technologies to convert quantities of seawater into potable (safe drinking) water.
Electric Carmakers have decided that electric vehicles are the way forward. Riversimple, run by Hugo Spowers, plans to build and market an environmentally friendly car, but also to release the vehicle's intellectual property under an open-source licence, so that improvements can be made by rival manufacturers.
The business will share the design blueprint of its cars via the 40 Fires Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation. "The standards we are adopting are different to the industry's standards," says Spowers, citing in particular his company's fuel cell, which is about "300 times cheaper". But he adds: "If we try and hang on to the technology all ourselves and capture the profits we will lose."
Riversimple's car can reach 50mph with a range of about 200 miles. Made from carbon fibre, its four motors are powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which the maker claims is more efficient than others because the car's acceleration is powered by ultracapacitors, which harness braking energy.
Spowers says Riversimple will have 60 cars ready for a pilot test in two UK cities by the end of 2010. Consumers will be persuaded to lease the vehicles for around £200 a month.
Family Abigail Sellen, principal researcher at Microsoft Research, is focusing on computer-mediated living. She has been looking at technologies we'll use in our homes. A key area is how families communicate. "For years videoconferencing hasn't taken off at work, but it's catching on at home as people use Skype and other video messaging software to connect with friends and family in remote areas," she says.
Health technology is another big area. As hospitals develop electronic patient records, Sellen thinks we'll have direct links to our own information and more devices to allow us to monitor our health. Mobile apps will allow us to measure heart rate or blood sugar levels.
We'll also see more appliances that give us control over what's happening in the home, such as Microsoft's Whereabouts Clock, which displays the general location of family members using mobile phone data. There will be devices such as digital picture frames and displays that show Twitter feeds and Facebook postings. "They will be slate technologies that you may prop up on the mantelpiece or hang on a wall," says Sellen. "You might use a device for messaging from the kitchen and another by the front door to tell you about the weather."
Genetics Expanding populations will place ever greater pressures on our ability to feed ourselves. With limits on the amount of land available and the food this land can produce, technology will be needed. Awkwardly for some, this might mean more so-called "Frankenstein foods", as careful use of genetically modified (GM) crops could boost yields. More interestingly, rooftop hydroponics will allow the possible development of rooftop farms in cities. Again, special GM crops could be designed to grow more effectively in these new environments. So far, the best example is New York's Eagle Street Rooftop Farm. Based on top of a Brooklyn warehouse, Eagle Street is a 6,000 sq ft organic vegetable farm, so there's no place for GM crops. Either way, city skylines may never be the same. With insulation benefits and advantages in the use of rainwater, companies housed below will enjoy lower fuel bills and may even get to eat their own produce in the staff canteen.
Holograms Thanks to developments in screen and projection technology, it is now possible to create life-size holograms that can interact with an audience. Musion Systems, a leading provider of the technology, famously used a life-size David Beckham hologram for an adidas product launch. Should your chief executive be keen to communicate simultaneously with employees or customers in several locations across the world at once, he or she can do it. Who said directors weren't omnipotent?
IPad The biggest gadget story of this year has been the success of Apple's iPad. The lovely-to-use tablet has flown off shelves in the US and by the time Director is published will be on sale in the UK. In terms of a transformational effect, it has been billed as a saviour of publishing and looks set to make ebooks sexy in a way the Kindle hasn't.
Abigail Sellen at Microsoft Research says digital reading devices are about to take off. "The death of the book has been talked about for years but it never happens," she says. With the iPad and other slate devices, as well as the dedicated ebooks, people are becoming more interested. "The breakthrough will be multi-screen devices that allow users to write on one surface while reading on another," she says.
Japan The country is synonymous with innovation. So what's next? One area where it leads the world is robotics. Honda has made much of the abilities of its robot Asimo and last year impressed the world with talk of being able to control and direct its actions through thought control. The possible applications of being able to get something done merely by thinking it are immense, although at the time of the initial trial boffins stressed real-world developments were a long way off. "I'm talking about dreams today," said Yasuhisa Arai, executive at Honda Research Institute Japan. "Practical uses are still way into the future." Still, it makes you think.
Kinetic energy London-based Pavegen Systems plans to light up the capital in time for 2012 with green pavement slabs. Engineering graduate Laurence Kemball-Cook explains: "I wanted to create a way for people to save energy without realising." He studied how people behaved in urban areas and looked at the best way to benefit from their movements. "I realised the ground was an untapped resource," he says.
He has developed a concrete slab that converts kinetic energy from footsteps into electricity stored in a battery within the slab. The slabs, made from recycled lorry tyres, aluminium and stainless steel, can be positioned in busy areas in place of regular slabs. They glow when walked over, indicating that they have generated electricity. Only five per cent of the energy is used on the glow, with the rest stored and used to power applications such as street lighting or information displays. Five hours of high footfall will power street lighting for 12 hours. A trial in east London was a success and Kemball-Cook is starting a second stage of funding for commercial pilot trials to take place this summer, including a test installation at a Tube station.
Leds LED lights are not big, but they can be clever. Light-emitting diodes (LED) are basically semi-conductors that glow. As all the light comes out of the front, they offer a focused, targeted light. This makes them appealing in specific settings, such as a walkway on an oil rig. Roy Burton, group chief executive at specialist manufacturer Dialight, explains: "Because they come on instantly and don't take time to warm up, when combined with motion sensors they can provide specific light when it's needed. There is no spillage and because they are only on when required, they save energy and cost."
LED lights also offer potential for local councils to save money and reduce energy use if they replace the more common high-pressure sodium lights used in street lights. Greater control allows for lights to be dimmed when traffic is low.
The ability for power to come on instantly only where needed is preferable to the approach used by some councils of turning off all street lights at certain times. This may not sound transformational, but it can and will have a huge impact on lives.
Mars Dr Mark Sims is the principal investigator in the UK-led international consortium working on a device that will detect signs of life on Mars using molecular receptors. The next-generation technology exploits the fact that molecules only bind with other molecules of a particular shape. If one of the target molecules is present, it will latch on to a prepared receptor in the test channel. Put simply, the Life Marker Chip uses biology to look for biology. What's special is that the kit fits in the palm of a hand but has the capability of an entire lab.
The team has to reduce technical risks from 125 to zero by April 2013. It will then build the flight model for May 2014. The LMC is transformative because it's the only test kit that will go on the European Space Agency's ExoMars mission. "It will bring a new way of measuring organic molecules," says Sims.
The paybacks are threefold. Some of the receptors have applications in monitoring the environment and climate change. The solvent technology, led by Imperial College London and Cranfield University, has applications in the green economy, and the miniature sample processing system has various uses. "It might be pharmaceuticals, forensics or health in developing countries," Sims adds.
Neural networks Sometimes it's not obvious how clinical or laboratory research will impact on the real world. In the case of neural networks, which refer to more complex computational tools for handling multiple streams of data simultaneously, the potential applications are huge. A better idea of how our brains process and transmit data would result in a new kind of computing. It could deliver the sort of intuitive, more intelligent computers that would realise the dreams of AI geeks the world over. With all the brainpower currently going into this area of research, it would be foolish to bet against major breakthroughs in the next decade.
Oxtox As managing director of Oxtox, serial entrepreneur John Parselle is responsible for commercialising an electrochemical sensor technology developed in 2006 by the research group of Professor Richard Compton at Oxford University's department of chemistry. The Drugsensor product will be on the market this summer. Aimed at the police and roadside testing markets, what's different about the Drugsensor is the technology: "There are other devices [for testing drug use] based on a technology called immunoassay," says Parselle. "These tests take between three and 10 minutes. But the Drugsensor is based on electrochemistry and is very quick. Our test only takes between 10 and 15 seconds. There's a huge demand for a quick product. We're hoping ours will cause a great uptake in roadside testing and have a workable deterrent that will reduce road deaths."
The business is now at the end of internal trials for testing use of cannabis, amphetamines and methamphetamines. If every government across the planet agrees to test drivers for drugs once a year the market for Drugsensor would be "mind-bogglingly huge", says Parselle.
Personal transport CityMobil is a research project hoping to prove that the concept of Personal Rapid Transport (PRT) systems is more than just a dream. Next month, driverless pods will ferry business passengers from their cars to Heathrow Terminal 5 in an experiment designed to test viability and demand for automated transport.
Charlotte Kelly, research fellow for the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, says it will be at least two decades before driverless vehicles are seen on the roads. "The pods at Heathrow will transport passengers on a dedicated track," she says. "Safety is the main issue."
The concept was developed by ULTra PRT, a former spin-out from the University of Bristol, with the pods designed by Essex engineering firm ARRK R&D. Without drivers to pay, the operating cost is low, while the environmental benefits are significant, with low emissions from the battery-powered vehicles.
Quantum physics Since its arrival as a subject in the 1920s (partly on the back of Einstein's revelations), quantum physics and quantum mechanics have arguably had more impact than any other subject. At least, that's what the physicists themselves like to claim. As no one else really understands what they're talking about, who can disagree?
Rich applications Aleks Tomczyk, former director of Scotland's largest dotcom start-up admits that particular business didn't end well. Globalfarmers.com was an eBay for agricultural products. But he met developer Stephen Webster there and the pair shared office space when the latter developed a toolkit for website developers in Flash. The toolkit, called Flex, transformed Flash. As well as improving user experiences on the Net, it allowed for faster creation of tools known as Rich Internet Applications that make the Web more intuitive, powerful and dynamic.
Webster's firm ended up owned by Adobe and he now works for the company in California. Tomczyk built up Arum, a business using Flex to develop applications for organisations such as Nato, the Irish Revenue and the Danish Lottery. "Anyone using the internet to convey complex business propositions can use this sort of application to make it easier," says Tomczyk.
From credit calculations in banks to internal accounting systems that show a company's financial status in real time, he believes such applications will transform our lives.
SciSys When the ExoMars rover is launched in 2013 to look for traces of past and present life, SciSys will be central. The firm has been involved in the rover's concept and is working on how it will operate millions of miles away. As Chris Lee, sales director, explains: "When you have a time delay between what you send out as a request and what you receive back as information, it's like driving a car blind."
To combat this, SciSys has developed transformative software to allow the lander to make maximum use of advanced autonomy concepts. In layman's terms it can think for itself. Lee says: "When you're working on something on Mars you have to get the thing to think for itself. If a decision is needed the vehicle should take it. One area of technology that no one is pushing is using embedded software systems to get these vehicles to behave autonomously."
Why care about Mars? Its remoteness encourages innovation, says Lee. Once an object is in space, you can't get it back, so engineers are forced to develop software solutions to ensure it does its job. The challenge of the environment is another. "If you can devise technologies that can survive on Mars, the chances are you can devise technologies that will work under water, in nuclear facilities, or hostile environments."
Telephones In recent years, telephone systems have advanced rapidly. The watchword is convergence, as mobile and office systems integrate, and facilities such as email, videoconferencing and Skype go mobile. It means you can join important meetings wherever you are. The bad news is that geotagging means your employer could trace your location, so there's no point fibbing.
Universities More than ever they need to develop the graduates and the ideas that will guarantee the UK fulfils its potential as a high-value-added, hi-tech manufacturing economy. Here's hoping our universities can inspire tomorrow's inventors.
Voice activation After leaving a screening of hi-tech action film Iron Man 2, a friend mentioned that he'd be shouting "mute" at his TV for a while. For the moment, the sort of voice-activated controls seen in that film remain fictional, but they're getting closer by the day. Voice recognition software is improving and many cars now allow drivers to perform functions by voice command. Microsoft and Apple are both planning gadgets that offer voice control. Microsoft has a project known as Manual Deskerity that uses multiple ways to input and play with data on a Microsoft Surface device, including pens, touchscreen and motion sensing and voice input, while seasoned Apple watchers expect the next-generation iPhone and iPad to include voice activation.
Windpower Maria McCaffery, chief executive of RenewableUK, the trade body for the UK wind and marine renewable industries, is excited by offshore wind energy. "We're on the cusp of the biggest single initiative that gets close to, but which will exceed, what happened when we discovered North Sea oil."
Over the past 30 years most UK wind energy development has been onshore. Now the offshore sector is maturing. In April, it reached one gigawatt (GW) of installed wind farms, providing energy for 700,000 homes. "Offshore, the wind quality is better. The potential is enormous but you need bigger machines and these are still in development," says McCaffery.
The first quarter of 2010 has seen £500m of private investment committed to UK offshore wind energy. Most offshore turbines are 3.6 megawatt machines. Prototypes are in development for five, six and 10 megawatt machines. "We won't see these going into the water until at least 2015, but then they will be deployed quickly with up to 7,000 turbines erected around 100 miles of the coast," says McCaffery. By 2020 at least a quarter of UK electricity will be wind-powered.
Xeros This Leeds University spin-out hopes its technology will allow consumers to save 90 per cent of the water they use to wash clothing. Chief executive Bill Westwater says the company's machines use a blend of humidity, detergent and special nylon beads to draw out stains. "I would hope that we can be regarded as a replacement technology," says Westwater. "The fact that people are trying to reduce water usage is getting more urgent. We hope this will become a very, very big idea."
Xeros plans to license its technology to a manufacturer and has found a US partner in eco dry-cleaning firm GreenEarth to help it roll out the technology. Westwater says the partnership will enable GreenEarth to offer Xeros "dry" cleaning to its customers, and allow testing of the remaining "mechanical challenges", such as ensuring machines can "handle" the beads moving around the drum.
Yesterday Nostalgia and memorabilia are big business. And as well as buying all sorts of retro toys and sweets, we're also keen to keep our memories alive. Home archiving and the tools we use to store and manage personal digital information, from pictures to videos to music, is a growing area. Such memorabilia is valuable to us, so how we keep it, manage it, create with it and share it is also important. Abigail Sellen at Microsoft says: "It's going to be a huge challenge but we will see interesting new tools in this area."
Zeropex When water is discussed as a source of renewable energy it is often in the context of tidal power. Several projects to look at the use of tidal barriers are already underway in the UK. But water can be used to generate electricity in other ways. Zeropex has spent years developing Difgen, a replacement for pressure chokes anywhere where pressure control is vital, including mains water pipes. It combines the control from the chokes with electricity generation from hydroturbines to generate power at no extra operating cost.
Director of global marketing Ash Gupta explains that the advantages for water companies are huge, including the possibility of meeting carbon reduction commitments as well as cutting costs. Scottish Water is exploring a trial in Fife later this year, and hopes to produce enough energy to power 50 homes by harnessing the power of water flowing at high pressure underground.