Just as nuclear power has changed the world forever, so has electronics technology. Unprecedented technological advances are poised to usher in the brave new world of the future with unparalleled comfort and entertainment. These advances will permeate and benefit every aspect of our lives, spanning healthcare, the home, the automobile, and personal security. The result will be nothing short of stunning.
Ultra-sophisticated healthcare will be first and foremost. Awaiting us are implantable—both in-vivo and subcutaneous—sensor-laden microchips that can communicate the wearer's location, pulse, body temperature, allergies, and other medical conditions. These devices will be a boon for healthcare professionals charged with caring for wandering Alzheimer's patients and senile individuals. Linked via the Global Positioning System (GPS), such a device would send out an alarm if its wearer wandered beyond a designated area or fell down, or if a vital medical condition reached a dangerous level.
Common cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators now worn by millions with heart problems will no longer work just for cardiac rhythm management. They will also help manage severe pain, brain and spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease, and cerebral palsy.
The disabled and paralyzed will find new hope. Implantable ligament strain sensors currently under development will aid in the monitoring and treatment of paralyzed limbs. Nano-fibers will provide a "bone-like" material that will allow fractured, broken, or otherwise damaged bones to self-heal more quickly.
Highly sophisticated lighting instruments will alleviate and even eliminate incapacitating side effects of conventional cancer treatments. Photodynamic therapy will allow the noninvasive targeting and destruction of cancer cells without damaging healthy cells. This same therapy is awaiting FDA approval for cosmetic resurfacing, like reducing wrinkles. It has also shown promise for dental curing and whitening of teeth. In the near future, implantable microgroove dental materials will improve the growth of bone and soft tissue.
Already, carbon nanotube-based cathodes are making an impact on handheld X-ray devices to sort out alloys and identify materials in industrial applications. Portable X-ray equipment that harnesses the same technology should be available for medical applications within two years. Expect to see cathode "bullet-shaped" carbon nanotube-based X-ray devices used "inside" the body for precise imaging of gastrological, gynecological, and urological conditions.
Microrobotic motors, grippers, and tweezers are under development for microsurgical operations. When used in catheters, these devices will enable surgeons to access any part of the human body, no matter how small.
Telemedicine, the ability to diagnose and treat patients remotely, will enjoy a revival since the concept was first unveiled three decades ago. In telemedicine, a healthcare "technician" examines a patient on-site, which could even be at home. Armed with video and data-communications equipment for transmitting vital-signs information, the technician communicates in real time with a physician located at an office, medical center, or hospital. The doctor then instructs the technician about what to do.
A "miracle worker" is coming for the blind thanks to micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology, in the form of a Braille keyboard display system that allows the blind to access information via computer. The keyboard's keys are formed from Braille characters that react to computer signals by popping in and out, so the blind person can "read" what's on the computer screen. Relying on MEMS microvalves, these upcoming systems would dramatically lower the cost of today's keyboard-like Braille display systems.
The home of the future is on course to become much smarter and a lot more comfortable. For example, the den or recreation room is certain to become a multimedia entertainment center. With the advance of miniature digital MEMS micromirrors that reflect light signals and power business presentations, theater-quality widescreen 3D movies and multimedia presentations will become the norm for an affordable price of around $2000. Couple that with the ongoing development of a home "digital hub" to control and distribute a wide variety of audio, video, and graphics information, and you could find yourself "going to the movies" without leaving your house. That same hub will act as a master panel to control home security systems as well as transmissions from satellite and cable TV, and radio and TV outlets.
Home appliances will also become smarter and more efficient. For example, a new generation of devices that are the size of compact disks will produce electricity to dramatically increase the energy efficiency of power-hungry appliances. They employ the Borealis principle, wherein heat from one side of the disk is converted to another form of energy, like a cold temperature, on the other side. These tiny, circular, sandwich-like devices with no moving parts can deliver up to 80% of the maximum (Carnot) theoretical efficiency. They generate electricity by using heat to move electrons from one side of the device, through a vacuum, to the other side. It's estimated that a single square-inch panel of these devices could produce enough electricity to power as much as 20% of a refrigerator's compressor needs.
Automation will be the key to ending the drudgery of many home chores like vacuuming, cleaning floors, and washing windows. Robotic household workers, comprising all kinds of sensors strung together, will perform all of these chores at the push of a button or the sound of a voice command.
The car of the future might be a lot smarter than the person driving it, yet provide a supremely safe and convenient ride. Advanced-safety vehicles have already been demonstrated in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. One example is a joint vehicle developed by Volvo and Ford that has more safety gadgets than a Swiss Army knife has blades. It can see, warn of impending collisions, avoid collisions, and automatically adjust the driver's seat and viewing mirrors according to driving conditions.
Airbags will be everywhere to envelop a car's occupants in a collision, serving as a safety "cocoon." A constellation of camera sensors will work in conjunction with a car's control system to activate the right airbags for maximum passenger/driver safety in the event of a collision.
Eventually, cars will practically drive themselves with minimal driver intervention. All it will take is the right forward- and backward-looking radar anti-collision systems, working together with a planned Government Intelligent Transportation System of fully instrumented roadways and signs. Cars will also be more efficient, with new engine designs that reduce fuel consumption significantly. In addition, Borealis cooling chips (as previously described) will recover lost heat from exhaust systems, engines, and other mechanically moving parts, converting it to electricity for greater energy efficiency.
True hands-free cell-phone use in cars will be pervasive thanks to Bluetooth wireless technology. Chrysler, for example, plans to use Bluetooth chips in cell phones that can be placed on the passenger's seat or any other convenient place. A windshield-mounted microphone lets the driver communicate with the dashboard while listening through the car's speaker system. Other envisioned automotive Bluetooth applications include remote hands-free communications with a car dealer's service department, remote dealer-maintenance monitoring and diagnostics, and downloading of music and movies from convenience stores and roadside kiosks.
The future also will bring a new era of personal security. Advanced sensor technology, linked with low-cost GPS chip sets, will provide the impetus to move GPS-based security from the military market, where it has been used for years, to the consumer side. Consider the problem of lost or stolen expensive and critical items like jewelry, laptop computers, and wallets. Expect to see GPS-linked sensor arrays on such items that will let us pinpoint where missing items are within minutes. In effect, the future holds a version of today's automotive "Lo Jack" system, only on a personal level. Already on the market is a card-type product, albeit a rudimentary one, equipped with an accelerometer that blares out a warning beep when someone tries to steal your laptop.
There's growing interest in this type of detection and locating system for personal security applications to counter kidnapping of both children and adults. Interest is especially high in those countries where the kidnapping of corporate executives for ransom has reached epidemic proportions. Some experts predict increased use by executives within a couple of years, growing to a $20 billion industry by 2006.
In personal security, kidnappings and lost or stolen valuable items represent just the tip of the iceberg. Such systems can also locate wandering individuals like patients with Alzheimer's disease. Further, "line-of-sight" limitations to a GPS will no longer apply. Software and triangulation techniques will be developed to make such systems useful anywhere, whether inside a concrete building, underground, or underwater.
RF ID tags will also have an impact on our daily routines. Having one's wallet lost or stolen is quite common, and resulting identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes facing us. But embedded RF ID tags in everything from your driver's license, bank checks, and credit cards to birth certificates and Social Security cards will go a long way to combat this. For example, RF ID chips that are thinner than a human hair are under development. They can be embedded in paper currency for positive identification of the check's signer and casher.
Perhaps a prototype wristwatch is the ultimate gadget that's a sign of things to come. Besides telling time, the watch employs Bluetooth technology to function as a security device for personal identification in automated hotel check-ins, airport screenings, and so forth. Moreover, it doubles as a PDA and a remote-control device for home entertainment devices.
The bounty of electronics technology to benefit people seems boundless. So far, its notable benefits far outweigh any disadvantages. But some argue that we still don't know the long-term effects of technology on the environment and our well being. After all, technology can be a double-edged sword, leading to a possible "Big Brother" scenario where the same command, control, and communications systems that help us are also implemented by the government to track us and violate our privacy and individual rights. But it's too late to turn back now. Electronics technology must inexorably move forward to the future and the wonders that await us there.