Energy Futures

From children’s books and streets of the future (see yesterday’s post) to the distant future of energy. especially zero-point energy and metalic hydrogen energy storage and transmission. Both feature on my table of distruptive technologies (17 out of 100 entries are energy related). If you don’t know about these they are very much set in the sci-fi fringe of current physics, but both could be possible one day. Zero point energy is essentially the idea that the universe is not made of static particles, but is, in fact, a sea of constantly moving waves or fluctuating matter. Metallic hydrogen is when the gas is made to change to a metallic state (physical form). This state has never naturally existed on Earth before, but it has the potential to become a superconductor enabling zero-disipation energy transmission. It could also allow storage using persistent currents in superconducting coils.

Thoughts for the day

In Cambridge, again, yesterday for a workshop on autonomous flight. We somehow got onto autonomous vehicles on the ground and there was a comment from one participant that I think is worth sharing.

Essentially, it would be OK to hail an autonomous (self-driving) taxi/pod/whatever (with or without a driver/ attendant), but NOT OK if this were to contain another passenger in the back (someone they didn’t know). So, trust in an autonomous vehicle was 100%, but trust in an anonymous person was 0%. This was said by someone in their twenties and might be representative of generational attitudes towards trust. It could also be related to the various scandals surrounding Uber quite recently.

Reminds me of a comment by an elderly man who lived in a huge house in the middle of a vast estate He didn’t like walking in his own grounds, which were open to the public, because he might bump into someone that he hadn’t been introduced to.

The other thing that caught my attention yesterday, was a sign in the ‘window’ of Microsoft Research that said simply “Creating new realities”. Can you have more than one reality?
Is reality fixed? A mountain, for example, is there whether you want it to be or not. Or can you create new realities by overlaying virtual data, for instance?

My initial reaction was that there is only one authentic reality, but then I realised this was nonsense in a sense. How I perceive things will be different to how you perceive things but, more fundamentally, how a dog, or a bee, sees things is different to how humans see things. Butterflies, for instance, see using the ultra-violet wavelength. Humans see using the visible light spectrum (I think that’s correct, correct me if it’s not!).

Just because we see a flower as yellow, doesn’t necessarily mean the flower is yellow for other animals. And there’s smell of course, which can vary significantly between animals.

And this all relates to AI ethics…because what I think is ethical isn’t necessarily the same as what you think is ethical and differences can be magnified when you start dealing with countries and cultures. For instance, what China sees as ethical behaviour, for a drone or autonomous passenger vehicle, will be different to how the US sees it. And you thought Brexit was complicated.

100 Radical Technologies

A nice companion to the table of disruptive technologies that I created with Imperial Tech Foresight a while back. Thanks to Chris at Nesta (was at Imperial) for alerting me to this.

PDF of 100 Radical Innovation Breakthroughs for the Future

And just in case you missed it….

Digital Disruption

A nice chart to, perhaps, use alongside my Table of Disruptive Technologies. I do like the point about looking at the fundamentals of supply and demand. In my view, not enough airplay is being given to what is NOT changing.

Couple of standout quotes from the McKinsey report…

“Don’t we need to focus more on the nature of the disruption we expect to occur in our industry rather than on who the disruptors are today? I’m pretty sure most of those on our list won’t be around in a decade, yet by then we will have been fundamentally disrupted. And how do we get ahead of these trends so we can be the disruptors, too?”

In helping executives to answer this question, we have—paradoxically, perhaps, since digital “makes everything new”—returned to the fundamentals of supply, demand, and market dynamics to clarify the sources of digital disruption and the conditions in which it occurs. We explore supply and demand across a continuum: the extent to which their underlying elements change.

Source: McKinsey & Company (article link).

The Seven Cs of Education

I’m in Oman speaking at a technology conference organised by Bank Muscat. But here’s the thing. I was doing some background homework on Oman, especially on the future of Oman. This got me looking at a project called Oman 2040 (also mentioned at the conference). Looking into this further I got into future skills and education (a subject very close to my heart – my mother was a teacher). Anyway, quite separately I’m supposed to be writing something on the future of universities for publication in Australia (I get around!). I’ve been stuck on this for weeks to the point where I was about to say that I couldn’t do it. But then two things happened (and I think this is how ideas hatch generally, which links to innovation and, serendipitously, another conference in Oman called the Global Innovation Summit. (Stay with me here it’s going somewhere).

Last week I was at another conference on AI at Cambridge (like I said, I get around). By total fluke I sat next to a film maker at dinner. (I tried to sit next to a few other people, but they told me to move!). Anyway, the film maker and I got talking about education and he mentioned the 4-Cs of education (Critical thinking, Communication, Collaboration and Creativity). So that idea got stuck in my subconscious.

Then today I was having dinner by myself in Muscat and after eating I had a cigar (known as a ‘thinking stick’ to a salesman from IBM that I once met). Then out of nowhere I had an idea. The 4C’s are all wrong*. It should be the Seven Cs. They should be: Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Communication, Curiosity, Compassion (EQ) and (Moral) Character.

So, there you have it folks. That’s how ideas get born. My essay on the future of universities is now flowing like there’s no tomorrow…

  • The point here, I think, is that you need to stop thinking before you can start thinking (i.e. to have an idea you have to first stop trying to have an idea). The cigar prompted a short period of reflection. I wasn’t thinking about anything, just drifting and dreaming, and this somehow sparked a idea that rose, I’m supposing, from my subconscious.


Disruptive Technologies

Having just attendeed an AI conference at Cambridge, I’m fairly certain that machine consciousness isn’t very likely and therefore the positioning of it (or, at least, artificial consciousness – number 99) on my Table of Disruptive Technologies is about right. It’s not impossible, but it’s very very unlikely.

The only proviso here is, of course, what one means by consciousness. We are still struggling to describe it, let alonge create it, although I personally belive that it could be a spectrum. We tend to think of things as either being conscious or not. But what if every living thing from grass and trees and cats to humans have it in varying degrees? How you then jump to replicating consciousness in a machine if still another thing altogether, although since the AI conference was about AI in Sci-Fi and fantasy film and literature perhaps I can suggest that maybe every physical object is also on this spectrum?

BTW, on the subject of narrow AI versus general AI (AGI), I’m similarly skeptical. I have no doubt whatsover that narrow AI will broaden and that task specific algorithms and robots will expand their capabilities and skills, but coding ‘the world’ or all of human capabilities and experience seems, shall we say, ambitious. Even if you could code intuition and common sense, humans are emotional and irrational and do not always follow if/then rules. This is surely what makes us uniquely human and, dare I, say interesting.

Table of Disruptive Technologies & Innovation

Here, after what to me feels like an eternity, is my table of disruptive technologies, which is designed to make people think, at least periodically. If nothing else I’m sure it will be a catalyst for a few debates, not least some good arguments about what is and isn’t included and where things are positioned in terms of impact and time.

The idea for the table initially came from me stumbling upon a list of emerging technologies on Wikipedia. This felt fairly accurate, but also rather lifeless. It wasn’t especially contextual either. Other lists from MIT Tech Review and McKinsey were better, but somehow these weren’t showing the bigger picture either. 

Using all this as a good starting point I did some further research to identify candidate technologies and then spoke with Anna and academics at Imperial College to validate the thinking. This was the easy bit. 

The tricky part was then deciding which technologies to leave out and how to rank both the disruptive potential of each technology and time (both near impossible, but we had a good go using small post-it notes that could be moved around easily). What results is far from perfect, but it’s better than anything else I’ve seen and it’s hopefully a foundation for people being wrong in really useful and interesting ways.

Here’s how it works.

The table consists of 100 potentially disruptive technologies, which we have defined as new technologies capable of significant social, economic or political upheaval.
One axis (Y Axis) ranks potential for disruption from high to low, while the other (X Axis) is time ranked from sooner to later. Importantly, time relates to common usage or ubiquity, not initial invention. All very subjective, I know, but it has been thought about quite a bit.

The 100 technologies (99 really) are then divided into four groups. Horizon one technologies (green on the table) are new technologies that are happening right now. Companies should be integrating and executing these technologies right now if they are appropriate.

Horizon two technologies (yellow) are probable near future technologies (10-20 years hence). Companies should be experimenting and discussing these technologies now.

Horizon three technologies (red) are things that are likely to emerge in the more distant future (20 years plus). Companies should keep an eye on developments in these areas and explore when appropriate.

The outer edge of the table (grey) contains what we’ve termed Ghost Technologies. This is the really good bit! This is fringe thinking territory with some ideas bordering on complete lunacy. However, while each example is highly improbable, very few, if any, are totally impossible.

Each of the 100 technologies has then been given an abbreviation, followed by a very brief and hopefully self-explanatory description. Each technology is then categorized according to one of five subjective themes (Data Ecosystems, Smart Planet, Extreme Automation, Human Augmentation and Human-Machine interactions). 

On the far right of the table are examples of companies active in each of the technology areas. (Thanks to Roddy for thinking of this and to Gaby for researching it).These examples are not comprehensive and if I’ve missed anything significant (or put something in the wrong place, which is quite possible) then apologies. BTW, note the number of US companies on this list and also the strength of Apple, Google and Musk. 

A couple of things worth pointing out are what’s missing from the table, especially the impact of human psychology (users) and the way in which two or more technology elements might interact (see the small print at the bottom of the chart).

A high resolution Pdf suitable for printing is here. I’d recommend A2 full colour minimum. Ask if you need another file type or hard paper copies.

The list of 100.

Smart nappies
Deep ocean wind farms
Vertical agriculture
Wireless energy transfer
Concentrated solar power
Predictive policing
Micro-scale ambient energy harvesting
Robotic care companions
Smart control of appliances
Cultured meat
Delivery robots and passenger drones
Distributed ledgers
Precision agriculture
Autonomous vehicles
Intention decoding algorithms
Balloon-powered internet
Powered exoskeletons
Computerised shoes and clothing
Airborne wind turbines (high altitude)
Avatar companions
Metallic hydrogen energy storage
Autonomous ships and submarines
Resource gamification
Water harvesting from air
Drone freight delivery
Autonomous passenger aircraft
3D-printing of food and pharmaceuticals
Medical tricorders
Smart flooring and carpets
Diagnostic toilets
Smart energy grids
Algal bio-fuels
Human organ printing
Artificial human blood substitute
Mega-scale desalination
Self-writing software
Public mood monitoring machines
Programmable bacteria
Peer-to-peer energy trading and transmission
Lifelong personal avatar assistants
Smart dust
Predictive gene-based healthcare
Automated knowledge discovery
Autonomous robotic surgery
Emotionally aware machines
Humanoid sex-robots
Human bio hacking
Internet of DNA
Vacuum-tube transport
Scram jets
Smart glasses and contact lenses
Pollution-eating buildings
Broadcasting of electricity
Swarm robotics
4-dimenional materials (and printing)
New (Nano) materials
Fusion power
Low-cost space travel
Colonisation of another planet
Thought control machine interfaces
Dream reading and recording
Planetary-scale spectroscopy
Implantable phones
e-tagging of new-borns
Male pregnancy and artificial wombs
DNA data storage
Genomic vaccines
Quantum safe cryptography
Cognitive prosthetics
Data uploading to the brain
Conversational machine interfaces
Life-expectancy algorithms
Stratospheric aerosols
Battlefield robots
AI advisors and decision-making machines
AI board members and politicians
Invisibility shields
Factory photosynthesis
Trans human technologies
Digital footprint eraser
Personal digital shields
Human head transplants
Human cloning and de-extinction
Distributed autonomous corporations
Space solar power
Space elevators
Fully immersive VR
Artificial consciousness
Reactionless drive
Whole Earth virtualisation
Shape shifting matter
Self-reconfiguring robots
Zero-point energy
Beam-powered propulsion
Force fields
Asteroid mining
I can’t talk about the last one 😉

Further reading links

McKinsey & Company article of disruptive technologies

Accenture 5 disruptive technologies

EY 4 disruptive themes$FILE/EY-four-themes-describe-historic-change-in-the-technology-sector.pdf

List of emerging technologies – Wikipedia

Disruptive Technologies by Paul Armstrong

Disruption hub


MIT Tech Review

PS – Big thanks to Anna, Gabby, Nik and Lawrence who helped with this. Images of table development below.