By Nick O’Connor – Capital & Conflict (GBR) –
I write to you from the departure lounge of Boston’s Logan Airport – I’ve been here in Boston all week at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference. It’s been a great opportunity to hear about some of the most exciting technology, from the people who’re making it happen.
With that in mind I thought I’d share a few insights on what I think are the most interesting and exciting new breakthroughs with you – the technologies you’ll be hearing more about in the next year.
Let’s get stuck straight in…
Hijack your TV signal to generate power from the air
Imagine a world where your computer, mobile phone or other electrical device operates entirely without a power supply. No plugging it into the mains. No rechargeable battery. No battery whatsoever.
That could one day be a reality, thanks to something called “ambient backscatter”. It involves harvesting power from existing radio waves in the air all around us. By piggybacking on those waves – and remember they already exist for radio, for analogue TV and a thousand other things – it’s possible to power devices entirely without batteries.
The implications of this are enormous. It means that thousands of electrical devices can be powered without needing to be plugged in. For the Internet of Things, the thousands of devices and sensors that talk to one another but are impractical to supply with power, it means big things.
It’s even possible to design contact lenses that measure your blood sugar – not something you’d want to have plugged into a power supply or a battery, but with major benefits that are only possible because of ambient power.
Meanwhile the fight for the next generation of batteries goes on
Ambient backscatter may lead to thousands of devices running without power. But it won’t power your home or your car. Yet.
In the meantime, batteries are the key to everything. For solar, wind and other renewables to work, and for electric and driverless cars to become a genuine force, we need batteries. It’s not clear exactly what kind of battery will win out. I heard from researchers developing next generation batteries using everything from traditional lithium-ion to aluminium and zinc powered batteries. They all have their benefits and downsides.
My gut feeling is there won’t be one winner. We’ll see a fracturing of the market – even more so than now – where different kinds of battery serve different and highly specialised functions.
Aluminium batteries, for instance, could ultimately become cheaper and more efficient than lithium-ion ones. But they’re incredibly heavy: you sacrifice mobility for efficiency. You couldn’t put one in a car. But as storage capability for the grid, storing and distributing energy when needed, they could be the answer.
If you’re interested, take a look at what a company called Ambri is doing. I’m told Bill Gates helped fund the launch of the company, if that means anything to you.
“One-shot” learning is the next big thing for AI
Machine learning – a kind of narrow, specialised artificial intelligence – has been everywhere in recent years.
And to be perfectly frank it’s becoming a bit of a cliché. I heard one person claim his firm was “using machine learning to understand when we’re being overcharged for services”. Great. Spend millions and use machine learning. Or use your brain for free instead.
Machine learning involves giving a computer a huge amount of data and allowing it to spot and understand patterns. When I say huge, I mean it. Ray Kurzweil says that “life begins at a billion”: give a machine a billion images of a cat and it’ll learn to recognise cats in other images or contexts.
But that’s not how intelligence works. You don’t need to show a child a billion images of something before they pick it up: they get it in “one-shot” (or a couple).
That’s what researchers are trying to achieve now. They want to train machines to extract information and meaning from much, much smaller data sets – and then use that information in a much broader way. No one knows if it is even possible. But those are the kind of breakthroughs that really change things. And some very smart programmers believe they can turn the idea into reality. Watch this space!
The last mile is where it starts for driverless cars
One of the most impressive presentations I saw came from the CEO of a company called NuTonomy. You may have heard of it before – it’s the firm that began testing driverless cars on the streets of Singapore, beating many bigger rivals to the punch.
You’ll be familiar with the idea of driverless cars themselves by now. The technology seems more or less there. It’s just a case of testing, refining and most importantly proving to the general public that they’re safe.
The world won’t suddenly go driverless overnight. So where will the process start?
According to Karl Iagnemma, it’ll be with “the last mile” of journeys. Let’s say someone gets the last tube home at night. It’s 1am. The streets are quiet. It’s a two-mile walk home. A driverless car solves that problem, if it’s cheaper and more efficient than a taxi. So the barrier to entry, so to speak, is much lower. People would be more willing to accept a driverless car on the road when the roads are deserted in the dead of night.
The car is an incredibly inefficient method of transportation. It is stationary something like 97% of the time – sat on your drive, or at the train station, or in the garage or car park.
If there’s one thing we know it’s that technology disrupts highly inefficient markets and makes them much, much more efficient. To that end, Iagnemma made quite a shocking point. NuTonomy research suggests that there is something like 900,000 daily journeys in Singapore. But those journeys could be completed by 300,000 cars, if the cars operated more efficiently – which is what driverless cars would allow us to do.
Introducing: the energy water nexus
Water and energy are two of the most basic requirements we all have. But until this week I hadn’t quite realised just how symbiotic the relationship is. Or to put it another way, energy is vital to supplying the world with water.
For instance, 13% of US energy use is directly related to delivering clean water: pumping, processing and desalinating. That’s a huge amount.
At the same time, huge amounts of water are needed to generate power – mostly through hydropower and in the cooling of traditional power plants.
It’s often said that the world has a water supply problem. Growing populations mean we need to figure out new ways of pumping water to where it needs to be. But this is really an energy story.
Frontier Tech Investor investment director Eoin Treacy and I were talking about this, and to us it all leads inexorably to solar. Solar power is the key that could solve the water supply issue, by enabling us to perform desalination of seawater on a large scale.
More on that story – and how to profit from it – in a future issue.