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10 technologies that will change the world in the next 10 years

3D printers, sensor networks, virtual humans and other technologies under development now will drastically change our world in the decade to come, according to Cisco chief futurist Dave Evans

By , Network World
July 15, 2011 12:29 PM ET
working bicycle created via a 3D printer

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The capture, dissemination and consumption of events are going from "near time" to "real time." This in turn will drive more rapid influence among cultures.

No. 6: The power of power

The human population also continues to grow, and Evans estimates that a city with 1 million inhabitants will be built every month over the next two decades. More efficient methods to power those cities are becoming a necessity, particularly solar energy.

"Solar alone can meet our energy needs. In fact, to address today's global demand for energy, 25 solar super sites -- each consisting of 36 square miles -- could be erected. Compare this to the 170,000 square kilometers of forest area destroyed each year," says Evans. Such a solar farm could be completed in just three years.

TRYING: Energy Dept. spends $2B to double US concentrated solar power capacity

Technologies to make this more economically pragmatic are on their way. In June, Oregon State University researchers showed off a novel, relatively affordable, low-impact method to "print" solar cells using an inkjet printer.

No. 7: Tea. Earl Grey. Hot

More items will move from physical to virtual. Today, we download e-books and movies, rather than bound books and DVDs. A technology called 3D printing will allow us to instantly manufacture any physical item, from food to bicycles, using printer technology. This is strikingly like the replicator concept from "Star Trek."

"3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer," says Evans.

Already, things ranging from toys to cars to living structures are being printed and because the process is done by adding layers of materials on top of one another, they are printed fully assembled and decorated, too. The bicycle pictured with this story is an actual working bicycle created by a 3D printer.

LEGAL? 3D printing may bring legal challenges, group says

In the not-too-distant future, we will be able to print human organs," says Evans. In March, Dr. Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine printed a proof-of-concept kidney mold onstage at TED. It was not living tissue, but the point was well made even so.

Trend 8: Another family tree

Virtual humans, both physical (robots) and online avatars will be added to the workforce. "Already, animated characters can recognize speech, convert text to speech, and have knowledge of previous encounters," says Evans.

By 2020, robots will be physically superior to humans. IBM's Blue Brain project, for instance, is a 10-year mission to create a human brain using hardware and software. "They believe that within a decade they'll start to see consciousness emerge with this brain," Evans says.

By 2025, the robot population will surpass the number of humans in the developed world. By 2032, robots will be mentally superior to humans. And by 2035, robots could completely replace humans in the workforce.

Beyond that, we'll see the creation of sophisticated avatars. Evans points to IBM's Watson as a template for the virtual human. Watson was able to answer a question by returning a single, accurate result. A patient may use a virtual machine instead of a WebMD search. Or hospitals can augment patient care with virtual machines.

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