As the world emerges from lockdown, we’re going to be looking at a lot of things in new ways. Aspects of the world we knew are likely to change forever. Warren Buffett has divested himself of all his airline shares for a reason and Zoom stocks are going through the roof. Many people see a need for economic stimulus that could be perfectly synchronized with a transition to a new, greener way of living and doing business. This is a time for big ideas, and with investors primed to engage, there has never been a better time for tech companies to embark on bold new ventures. These are just some of the areas where things are looking interesting.
We all know by now that plastic is a problem. We made it to last and that’s exactly what it’s done – but in all sorts of contexts where it’s wreaking environmental destruction. The trouble is, we use it for a million different things – we can’t just stop using them all. We need an alternative. That alternative could emerge in the form of cellulose nanocrystals (CNCs), which can be used to create highly flexible materials suitable for use in everything from dry food packaging to electronics. When finished with, they can simply be dissolved in water, producing no harmful by-products.
From the commonplace to the out of this world – vacations in space may sound like an impossible dream but to Dylan Taylor, they’re very much a possibility. In fact, he expects them to be taking place before the end of this decade. How? The secret is in the use of space planes to get people into orbit – they’re far cheaper, more comfortable and less environmentally damaging than rockets. They can carry not just passengers but also materials, leading to the construction of orbital hotels where holidaymakers can spend days at a time looking down at the Earth – and, Taylor thinks, coming to understand why we need to keep it safe.
Big dreams may seem out of reach if you’re informed enough to realize that the pandemic we’re living through now is unlikely to be the last. Dangerous pathogens are continually evolving and even the most dedicated scientific and medical teams can’t contain them all. But what if we could evolve too – artificially, that is? Nanomedicine isn’t exciting just because it can monitor our health and potentially help to perform non-invasive surgery, but also because it could give us a shortcut to generating antibodies that works even better – and faster – than vaccination, meaning that we need never face lockdown again.
There’s a moment in cult British political sitcom The Thick of It where Peter Capaldi’s character suggests we may be able to download rice in the future. That’s not actually as absurd as he intends it to sound. With 3D printing, there are all sorts of possibilities, and early experiments suggest that, given the right organic ingredients, such machines can indeed assemble all sorts of foodstuffs. At present, they’re particularly good for creating the kind of layered and sculpted foods that are a lot of hassle for humans to make well, but as they start to operate at smaller scales, all sorts of delicious possibilities are emerging.
The touchable internet
Time spent in lockdown has made a lot of us hungry for human touch, and not just of the sort that has traditionally driven emerging internet technologies. A simple hug from a loved one can make all the difference when you’re feeling down. What if you could share that hug through the ether, by way of haptic technologies? The emerging generation of haptics involves simple, lightweight wearable suits which can also be used when playing video games, enabling you to feel pressure that simulates physical contact. Using them, you can hold hands with a friend even when the two of you are on different continents.
For a long time, elderly and disabled people have lived very limited lives, with little change in the equipment used to support them and nothing to take the place of human carers. Supporting a disabled person can be demanding physical work and often leaves loved ones exhausted. What if a robot could take the strain? Early Japanese experiments in this area focused on providing help with household tasks, but the new generation of smart AIs and much more flexible machines is ready to do a whole lot more. As the aging population sees demand increase, robots could not only fill the gap, they could give people back their independence.
With all these exciting opportunities opening up, there are lots of opportunities for savvy tech entrepreneurs to explore the ways that they intersect with market demand. We can solve a lot of problems with technology, and the better world that our parents’ generation dreamed of can still be within our grasp.