Thinking Tech

Top 10 emerging technologies, as chosen by MIT Technology Review

Posting in Energy

MIT Technology Review picks its 10 most important emerging technologies. Yours truly assesses the list, and bids farewell to SmartPlanet.

Author's Note: With this post comes a goodbye. After almost a year and 189 posts (!) at the Thinking Tech blog, I am leaving SmartPlanet to work on other freelance writing projects. Among other endeavors, I will be reporting on the financial industry at Securities Industry News -- an interesting time to do so, with consideration to high frequency trading, pending financial reform and Wall Street executives sweating bullets.

I'd like to thank SmartPlanet editor-in-chief Larry Dignan for this marvelous opportunity. I've learned a lot here at SmartPlanet -- and in the process, I've become smarter! SmartPlanet has established itself in less than a year as THE place to learn about how people and technology are creating a cleaner, healthier, safer and more fulfilling world. I will continue blogging more broadly at my personal blog, The Dodge Retort, and as always, please follow me on Twitter. Stay smart!

What emerging technologies are most likely to change the world?

That's the question editors at MIT Technology Review (and editors at SmartPlanet!) ask each day.

Today, TR's editors announced their top 10 picks.

Here's the list, in no particular order:

  1. Real-time search
  2. Mobile 3-D
  3. Engineered stem cells
  4. Solar fuel
  5. Light-trapping photovoltaics
  6. Social TV
  7. Implantable electronics
  8. Dual-action antibodies
  9. Cloud programming
  10. Green concrete (which I blogged about on Oct. 26)

Agree? Disagree? Which ones?

As a tech editor and journalist for three decades, I, too, have pulled together such lists and know how subjective and highly speculative they can be. So let's take a look at TR's choices and see how reasonable they are.

First, TR makes no bones about its biases. Here's TR editor-in-chief Jason Pontin in his introduction to the feature:

"The TR10 are the 10 emerging technologies of the year because we say so. They are fruit of the previous year's reporting by the editors, and they inevitably reflect our emphases and biases. More than anything we valued elegant solutions to persistent problems."

Green concrete: Inasmuch as green concrete made from processes with dramatically reduced CO2 emissions is a good and noble pursuit, I probably would not list it in my top 10: sustainable concrete is a pet project of a research team at MIT, which publishes Technology Review.

Light-trapping photovoltaics, a la plasmons: Sounds promising in raising solar cell efficiency, but there are dozens if not hundreds of other innovative solar technologies.

Just yesterday, SmartPlanet blogger Boonsri Dickinson ticked off 10 of them. In early March, I wrote about a nascent development at Caltech that promises to double solar cell efficiency.

I might have more broadly chosen solar photovoltaics, which are changing the world with many, many new and established sub-technologies. Innovations in solar photovoltaics could keep SmartPlanet's nine-strong blogging team busy every day for years to come. By the way, photovoltaics by definition are light-trapping.

Social TV: Another curious pick. Yeah, that's where we get social on TV, using smart phones, netbooks or whatever's handy to converse and share while we watch the tube. Or should I say interact with the tube?

But change the world!? That's a grandiose characterization for a technology about how we spend down time. And it doesn't exist yet. (My bias? I still have a hard time admitting that TV itself changed the world. Psst...it did.)

In fact, eight of the top 10 emerging technologies on this list focus on digital and bio technologies. Green concrete and solar technology seem randomly thrown in as ringers.

I ask: what about composites for jetliners, hybrid cars, batteries, smart grids, $100 personal genomes, nano materials and bio fuels? It would seem this list left out entire emergent categories that are flush with innovation. (Social TV!?)

That said, I'm okay with cloud programming, real-time search and implantable electronics -- all topics which SmartPlanet has covered on several occasions. In fact, some states are trying to ban unvoluntary chip implantation (on thinly-veiled religious grounds), so the technology must be important -- or at least threatening the status quo.

The biggest pitfall of this list is essentially labeling these topics -- some of which are huge and others quite narrow -- as the "most important."

Take cloud programming, for example -- that's very broad. Light-trapping plasmons, however, are exceedingly narrow -- a needle in the proverbial solar haystack. Mixing the wide and the narrow on this list seems inappropriate.

But that's a Top 10 list for you: it's risky to use superlatives such as "first," "most" or "best."

John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure