by Rod D. Martin
March 29, 2007

Washington ExaminerTechnological change is accelerating at an accelerating rate. It’s hard for even the greatest technologists to keep up, much less analyze the societal implications of their work.

So where are we headed? Here are four of the trends you most need to watch.

» Adult stem cells: While all media and political attention seems focused on the ethically challenged field of destructive embryonic stem cell research (“destructive” because human embryos must be created and then killed to get the cells), a scientific revolution is quietly going forward in the area of adult stem cells, which, ironically enough, offends no one.

Already, adult stem cells cure or treat more than 70 diseases and are involved in almost 1,300 human clinical trials (none for embryonic cells). Competing for funding, embryonic advocates cite all sorts of objections, but these are quickly falling away, so much so The Washington Post recently reported that “the new [sic] cells are adding credence to an emerging consensus among experts that the popular distinction between embryonic and ‘adult’ stem cells — those isolated from adult bone marrow and other organs — is artificial.”

This is the stuff of dreams. Vastly more plentiful, ethically inoffensive adult stem cells could, will, and already are getting us to a new world in medicine. We are having our cake and eating it, too.

» Hydrogen fuel cells: The surprise hit Toyota Prius spawned a whole industry of hybrid cars — 50 different models are expected by 2015 — using both gasoline and rechargeable batteries. But what if you could get rid of the gasoline?

Hydrogen fuel cells offer the way. Long the power source used by the Space Shuttle, fuel cells are actually fancy batteries. Intel is developing fuel cells for all-day laptop computers power. Other breakthroughs like the University of Rochester’s new 15-nanometer membrane are propelling the field forward.

But the real action is in autos. Virtually every major carmaker is spending serious money on the technology, with Honda planning to market its first fuel cell-based car next year. Last year, former Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Yamani said hydrogen will shortly bring about “the end of the oil era.” He’s right.

» Reintegration of American politics: Junk mail was once a revolutionary technology, thanks to pioneers like Richard Viguerie who used it to fund an entire generation of political organizations. But direct mail works best for very narrow causes. The result was a plethora of tightly focused special interests, well-funded and empowered to tear the nation apart.

By contrast, the Internet encourages broad-interest communities unbounded by geography. People gather on MySpace, or based on their worldview, not single issues. Personal relationships — rapidly formed and widely dispersed — drive everything.

It’s more effective and it’s much more satisfying. Over the next decade, it will change much of what we’re accustomed to in politics.

» The Orient Express — Scramjets: Ever wonder why airplanes can’t fly into space? Most supersonic jets must slow air entering their engines to subsonic speeds to combust their fuel, which limits their top speed. The new F-22 cruises at Mach 1.7 (less than twice the speed of sound); the SR-71 is said to reach Mach 3.2. You need about Mach 26 to reach orbit.

The supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, changes all of this. Utterly new — the first scramjet flew in 2002, 99 years after the Wright Brothers — it makes true hypersonic flight a reality. That makes any point on Earth as little as two hours away and makes orbit possible, too. The world will get smaller. And the real space age will begin.

America is in the lead, but nine other countries are known to have programs. Russia has already announced a scramjet-based ICBM upper stage, designed to frustrate missile defenses; the U.S. hopes to have a scramjet-based cruise missile flying in 2009.

Will you be flying to the space Hilton by then? Not without buying tickets from Richard Branson. But Branson’s Virgin Galactic underlines the point: A mere 50 years elapsed between Kitty Hawk and jetliners. On these four fronts and others as well — from true broadband to nanotech — the world is about to be remade, again.


Editor’s Note: This op-ed from Rod D. Martin originally appeared in the Examiner newspapers as part of a series on the future, which also included articles by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and other leading figures.