In 1958, Ford’s vice-president Andrew A. Kucher laid out his vision for the ‘Glideair’ hovercar. Soon, he promised – by the 1970s at the latest – we would be efficiently speeding along at over 200 miles per hour. We would be freed from the tyres and friction that slowed us down.
While that particular vision has not yet come to pass, we can be confident that several technologies will provide novel solutions to some of today’s toughest environmental problems within a relatively short time.
In some cases, these will harness existing infrastructures and technologies in clever new ways. In other instances, they provide new approaches to meeting everyday needs.
Here are five innovations from around the world and from IBM research labs that are already well developed and approaching commercial adoption. They may well transform our lives before flying cars do.
1. People won’t need to be scientists to save the planet
Not everyone is a scientist, but every individual is a walking sensor. In five years, sensors in phones, cars, wallets and even tweets will collect data, which scientists can use to paint a real-time picture of the world. A sensor-web of cheap RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and other sensors will report back a variety of measurements.
Making simple observations available, such as when the first spring thaw occurs in different places in the Northern Hemisphere, will give scientists data to make sense of events on a wider scale than ever before. In New Zealand people will be able to report invasive plants, algal blooms or passively monitor noise pollution and weather data at a suburb not city level.
2. Batteries will breathe air to power devices
In the next five years, scientific advances in transistors and battery technology will allow devices to last about 10 times longer than they do today. Instead of today’s heavy lithium-ion, scientists are working on batteries that use air to react with energy-dense metal. If successful, the result will be a lightweight, powerful and rechargeable battery capable of powering everything from electric cars to consumer devices.
Better yet, batteries may disappear altogether in some smaller devices. By rethinking the transistor, the building block of electronic devices, IBM is aiming to reduce the amount of energy per transistor to less than 0.5 volts. With energy demands this low, devices such as mobile phones or eBook readers could be charged using energy scavenging, a technique that could make it possible to charge a phone simply by shaking it.
While batteries comprise a relatively small amount of New Zealand’s solid waste, they are a concentrated source of toxic heavy metals such as mercury, lead and cadmium, so the impact on landfill and the environment from creating battery-free electronics would be significant.
3. Commutes will be personalised
Advanced analytic technologies will provide personalised recommendations that get commuters where they need to go in the fastest time. Adaptive traffic systems will intuitively learn the travel patterns and behaviour of every individual, providing more customised travel safety and route information than is possible today.
IBM New Zealand’s 2010 Commuter Pain study showed that New Zealand’s reliance on private cars for commuting severely affects the nation’s health and stress levels, with 80 percent of drivers finding aspects of their commute frustrating. The findings revealed that commuter stress is harming the health and productivity of New Zealanders at work.
Soon, by combining predictive analytics with real-time information about travel congestion from sensors and other data, we’ll see traffic systems that can recommend better ways to a destination, such as how to best travel to the motorway or train station, whether a train is predicted to be on time, and if parking is available at the train station. New systems can learn from regular travel patterns where each individual is likely to go and then integrate all the available data and prediction models to pinpoint the best personalised routes.
4. Computers will help energise cities
What if the energy poured into the world's data centres could be recycled for a city's use?
Our own data centre incorporates many energy-saving features, including using recycled rain water for cooling and a building designed to reduce heat loss. However, even more can be done with the heat left over from cooling.
Using new technologies, such as novel on-chip water-cooling systems, the thermal energy from a cluster of computer processors can be efficiently recycled to provide hot water for an office or houses.
For instance, a pilot project in Switzerland involving a computer system fitted with this technology is expected to save up to 30 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, an 85 percent carbon footprint reduction.
Another well-publicised Swiss example involves redirecting excessive energy to heat a swimming pool! Applying these lessons locally could help New Zealand reach its long-term target of reducing emissions by 50 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 ("50 by 50”).
5. People will phone in 3D
Improved access to video conferencing combined with progressive teleworking policies already provide an alternative to business air travel and commuting, but people still want the ‘human touch’.
In the next five years, 3D interfaces – like in Avatar – will let people see and talk with 3D holograms of the person on the other end of the phone. Movies, TVs and games are already embracing 3D, and 3D and holographic cameras are being miniaturised to fit into mobile phones. People will be able to interact with photos, browse the Web, and chat with international colleagues, customers and suppliers in entirely new ways –a positive move for New Zealand companies breaking into offshore markets as well as employers wanting to retain employees not living locally.
Scientists are working to improve video chat so it can include holographic chat – or "3D telepresence". The technique uses light beams scattered from objects and reconstructs a picture of that object, a similar technique to the one the human eye uses to visualise its surroundings.
But the new opportunities go beyond just talking over the phone. New techniques for visualising 3D data will let people step inside designs of everything from buildings to software programs or run simulations of how diseases spread across interactive 3D globes.
New Zealand’s technology-based businesses have a particular opportunity to address the challenge of sustainability. We can often change our own internal processes relatively easily to improve the efficiency of resource use, and lead by example. We can also create products, services and even markets that improve sustainability for customers and society in general.