A Futurist’s Look At Innovations

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - June 16, 2010
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One of the hallmarks of our free enterprise system is the encouragement of unconventional thinking, creativity, experimentation and risk-taking.

We are encouraged to do these things for various reasons. In the field of health care or pharmaceuticals, for example, the incentive would be to save lives or to raise the quality of life. The near eradication of polio through the development of an effective vaccine is an example. In manufacturing or services, it might mean higher efficiencies, labor-saving techniques or technological innovation resulting in more, higher-quality products. The concept of the assembly line achieved this. Or perhaps, in the field of education, it could mean new applications of technology or media materials for faster and more-thorough learning. And, no matter how altruistic the motives, there’s always the promise of profit.

One of my colleagues on the speaking circuit, Dan Burris, is a “Futurist” lecturing to a wide gamut of corporations about new technology, and how it is likely to affect the future of their company and those of their clients. His monthly newsletter is rich with innovative, mind-bending, “out of the box” products and solutions.

Here are a few examples:

* “Reliable Speech Recognition. A new speech recognition algorithm has been developed that boasts 99 percent accuracy. The program encodes speech patterns and transmits them to a server, where they are compared to a data base of nearly a million words, 30 times larger than now existing. The developers created a hierarchy of most frequently used words to speed the search, and it’s all contained on a chip suitable for cell phones, navigation systems and remote controls.”

* “Smart Underwear. A recent application of electro-chemical sensors to monitor a person’s vital signs has been printed directly onto the waistband of underwear to track blood pressure and heart rate. Various uses of this technology could include monitoring activity levels in military, health care and sports environments.”

* “Plastic Eating Microbes.

Tons of plastic waste released into the marine environment each year has become a global problem. Tiny fragments absorb toxic chemicals which are ingested by animals, endangering sea life. But researchers recently found a certain species of bacteria rapidly colonized polyethylene forming a biofilm on the surface, enabling the microbes to degrade the plastic and associated pollutants. Releasing the microbes into areas of sea litter may be the answer to protecting marine life.”

* “Seaweed Fights Fat. In recent laboratory tests using an artificial gut, researchers have found that a dietary fiber found in sea kelp may be highly effective in treating obesity. The alginate reduced the amount of fat digested and absorbed by 75 percent, making it more effective than most over-the-counter treatments available today.”

* “Gooey Robot: The DoD is currently testing a prototype ‘morphing’robot. The palm-sized soft robot resembles a volleyball and uses ‘jamming skin-enabled locomotion’ to squeeze through small cracks and holes. The goal is to develop a device that can ‘ooze’ through small openings for discreet reconnaissance.”

As weird or improbable as they may seem, these are examples of the kind of research and development that enabled free-world countries to reach the moon and beyond, while sustaining the high standards of living to which most non-free world countries aspire. We must guard against governmental policies (higher taxes, restrictive regulation, redistribution of profits, profit dis-incentives) that discourage such innovation and risk-taking.

It doesn’t take a Futurist like my friend Dan to tell us where that road would lead: to mediocrity!

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