Forget devices; the future of technology is seeded in biology

The future of technology lies in the biological and material sciences

A lot of you, dear readers, may remember a time when mobile phones didn't exist, let alone smartphones with touchscreens, apps and pro-grade cameras. Some may even recall a childhood completely devoid of TV, when the phrase "playing in a sandbox" meant literally that. Not content with books that glow in the dark, among other electronic conveniences, we're now strapping computers to our heads and a second smartphone screen to our wrists. io9's Annalee Newitz and Joichi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, took to our Expand stage to talk about what technology of the future might look like, and both agreed we'll see much less built from circuits, and much more from (somewhat) natural ingredients.

Why discuss something as mainstream as Google Glass when you can brainstorm a prologue for the next sci-fi classic? Our "Thinking Ahead" panelists argued that currently, we're very aware of the gadgets we use: Take a picture with this; check an email with that. If the tech of today uses physical interfaces, the tech of tomorrow will be based on biological interfaces, perhaps even operating without our conscious input. They discussed how the concept of devices will be defunct, and your body will become plugged into a global network, as will everyone else's. "I like the idea of injecting a phone," joked Newitz, but what happens when an OTA update introduces a bug, and how do you get rid of something when it's part of you?

Such embedded technology could completely change how we communicate -- we could simply exchange memories instead of telling a story, for instance. Using technology could become so interactive that you no longer have to interact; it's like a sense. While a Borg-esque future where systems are plugged in your brain may be a lifetime away, Ito pointed out that certain types of body augmentation already takes place. For example, some people have opted to have limbs amputated in favor of more functional prosthetics. Not too far-fetched is the idea that fairly soon, completely healthy people could start modifying their bodies to make themselves harder, better, faster, stronger.

In the near-term future, and something that's relevant to our generation, Ito highlighted that how we are consuming technology is changing. Companies are starting to sell products that make things, rather than just selling things themselves. 3D printers are becoming increasingly accessible, and there are so many beginner-friendly tools that mean you don't need a degree in electronics or programming to create something. Ito believes people will soon make their own products, and you only have to look at what's being done with the Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards to buy into the notion.

Newitz and Ito also talked extensively on how our environment will change with time, too. They consider the mid-20th century view of futuristic design, one that pervades most sci-fi films, far from prophetic. As synthetic biology and material sciences become the new technologies, our civilization will integrate more with nature -- imagine a building that repairs itself thanks to bioengineered bacteria, or bioluminescent algae replacing traditional lightbulbs. We'll grow our own energy, and the science of biological programming will no longer be performed in labs, but in hobbyists' garages. As Newitz quipped: "Soon, we'll all be living in giant bioengineered bubbles."

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