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Tech Experts Forecast the Next Waves of Innovation

September 6, 2006

A new survey by the Institute for the Future and IEEE Spectrum suggests the impact of science and technology in the next 50 years.


NEW YORK /PRNewswire/ -- Where will the next likely breakthroughs in science and technology come, and how will they impact our lives? What are some of the anticipated breakthroughs for which we may need to wait longer than originally thought? According to a survey of the world's leading technology professionals, conducted by the Institute for the Future and IEEE Spectrum magazine, here are some of the major advances we can expect to occur in the next 20 to 50 years:

  • Everyday objects that can "think" for themselves,
  • Miniscule-but-mighty robots tackling everything from internal medicine to outer space maintenance to house cleaning,
  • Increasingly early and accurate warning of major weather events, such as hurricanes,
  • Computer graphics so lifelike they are impossible to distinguish from the real thing

The survey was conducted in February and March 2006. It queried more than 700 IEEE Fellows—men and women from academia and industry recognized as some of the world's leading technological minds—asking them to weigh in on what developments in science and technology they expect to see over the next 50 years. Complete results and commentary appear in the September 2006 issue of IEEE Spectrum and suggest some of the key developments for which consumers, businesses, and tech investors should be on the watch.

"IEEE Fellows are an elite group representing the very best of their professions, and have a big hand in engineering state-of-the-art technology," said Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future and co- author of the IEEE Spectrum article analyzing the results. "Their forecasts are a good indicator of the direction we can anticipate science and technology to follow in the next several decades."

No Small Step For Mankind
"Although many of the most significant technological developments predicted by the IEEE Fellows will be virtually invisible to the naked eye, their potential impact on our lives will become increasingly evident with the passage of time," said Susan Hassler, editor of IEEE Spectrum.

For instance, according to the survey, the IEEE experts expect to see more "smart sensors" embedded in everyday objects and places, forming an increasingly strong infrastructure for the collection, storage, and use of information.

"With the proliferation of RFID-enabled devices, computing and processing are moving off the desktop and into everyday activities. Our experts predict that sensor networks will become more widespread. Every interaction online will become a piece of data to be communicated, stored, mined, and analyzed on countless levels," Hassler said.

Other intriguing predictions in the survey include:

  • Microscale robots handling mammoth tasks. Within the next 20 years, according to more than half of respondents (54%), we can expect to see swarms of ant-sized microrobots burrowing through the rubble of buildings in search of earthquake survivors or crawling into the hull of a spacecraft to repair damage during a flight.
  • Hacking biology. Medical patients can look forward to more individualized therapies, the experts predict, as tools for reading and rewriting the genetic code become more affordable. More than half (56%) of respondents believe that most people in developed countries will have a documented personal genetic profile within the next 20 years, while 42% believe that synthetic biologists will be able to sequence and synthesize DNA much more rapidly and inexpensively within the next decade.
  • Set your watch to the weather. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of respondents believe that the massive expansion of computer processing power will provide for more accurate models of the impact of solar weather on the Earth's climate. In fact, 40% of respondents say they expect terrestrial weather to be accurately forecasted to the hour. Advancements will also allow meteorologists to predict weather further in advance, providing a critical time advantage when faced with potentially devastating weather events, such as Hurricane Katrina.
  • Is it live, or is it ... ? Interactive computer graphics will become so life-like, the Fellows predict, that it will become virtually impossible to separate the real from the computer-generated. Eighty percent of respondents believe this will occur within the next 20 years. The advancements will give life to sophisticated simulations that allow users to see, hear, and even feel inputs and outputs more closely resembling those occurring in the real world.

"Predicting the future is a task best left to astrologers," said David Pescovitz, IFTF research affiliate and co-author of the IEEE Spectrum article. "Expert surveys like this one enable us to detect patterns and trends in disparate areas of science and technology and discuss their possible impact on our lives. Inviting the public into these conversations empowers everyone to actively create their own futures."

About IEEE Spectrum and The Institute for the Future
IEEE Spectrum is the flagship publication of the IEEE, the world's largest technical professional society. Through its 365,000 members in 150 countries, the not-for-profit association is a leading authority on a wide variety of areas, ranging from aerospace systems, computers, and telecommunications to biomedical engineering, electric power, and consumer electronics. Dedicated to the advancement of technology, the IEEE publishes 30% of the world's literature in the electrical and electronics engineering and computer science fields, and has developed more than 900 active industry standards. The organization also sponsors or cosponsors more than 300 international technical conferences each year. The IEEE Fellow membership grade is conferred by the Board of Directors upon a person with an extraordinary record of accomplishments in any of the IEEE fields of interest. The total number selected in any one year does not exceed one-tenth percent of the total voting IEEE membership.

The Institute for the Future is a Palo Alto, CA–based independent, nonprofit strategic research group, with over 35 years of forecasting experience. The foundation of the group's work is in identifying emerging trends and discontinuities that will transform the global marketplace and provide sponsors with insights into strategy, design processes, and new business development. IFTF research generates the foresight needed to create insights about the future that will lead to action. The results are customized winning strategies and successful new businesses and organizational plans. Primary IFTF research areas are consumers, technology, the workplace, social implications, and health and healthcare.


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