Throughout the 20th century, incredible technological innovations catapulted the human race forward. Just before the turn of the century, the camera and photo-realistic images changed the way we saw the world, especially the parts beyond our immediate horizon. Soon after, radio and television changed communication forever, breaking down the geographic barriers between us. Near the end of the century, the internet changed, well, everything – opening up almost the entire globe to humankind’s accumulated knowledge and experience.
It has come to a point where today, barely a few years into the 21st century, most of us will never be lost again thanks to miniaturized GPS technology. If we want to grab a meal, we can instantly figure out which restaurant is best, browsing user-generated reviews. Instant translation of more than 100 languages is available. And all of this is accessible through devices that fit in our pockets, devices more powerful than the supercomputers from just three decades ago. So what’s next? What will be the next tech leap to compel the world forward, to open up new and previously unattainable possibilities? I believe the answer is a wave of new, miniaturized, smart sensors.
Currently, there are a number of industries using highly advanced molecular scanners to do amazing things. Drug companies are ensuring the quality and consistency of massive amounts of their pharmaceutical products, such as pills, with sensor technology. Energy companies are using sensors to ensure oil and gas meet certain purity standards. Agricultural industries are using them to measure the quality of plants, fruits, soils and fresh produce. But these are all industrial applications, and the industrial sensors are very large and very expensive. For instance, a lab-grade molecular sensor can range anywhere from the size of a refrigerator to the size of a briefcase or a large drill – and cost thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on its purpose.
The next step is miniaturizing and consumerizing this technology, reducing the sensors down to a size and a price that anyone can use. This would make for an incredible range of consumer use cases. Imagine home gardeners in California, under an extreme drought right now and facing water usage regulations, with a handheld sensor that can quickly tell them the hydration level of their plants and their soil. This can avoid overwatering and putting a strain on the local community’s water supply. Or imagine a coffee lover obsessed with finding the perfect roast for his or her favorite arabica and robusta beans – a handheld sensor could help get to a level of quality and consistency previously afforded only to high-end industrial enterprises.
Back in California, imagine a small, independent vineyard and winery on a tight budget. With one consumerized molecular sensor, the winegrower could measure the alcohol content of his or her latest production of pinot noir in seconds. Or, think of the careful eater you know, the calorie-counter who tracks every ounce of sugar, fat and protein they put into their bodies. While a food label is only required to be accurate within 20% of reality in the United States, a handheld molecular scanner could tell them the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrates in the apple or piece of cheese they are about to snack on.
These are just examples of the many simple micro-decisions (guesses really until now) that we all do every day – specific moments that everyone has had to work around before, now suddenly streamlined and realized.
Looking at the big picture, the things made possible by miniaturized sensors are tremendous. With the capability to scan the molecular makeup of any object nearby, especially with a device that fits in the palm of the hand and can be taken anywhere, we have a window into what exactly makes up our surroundings to an unprecedented level of specificity.
It’s very early days for this technology, with the first advanced sensors just starting to hit the consumer market. I hope to see a vibrant ecosystem of enthusiasts, futurists and developers spring up around this technology, because that’s what is required for this movement to succeed.
Full details on all of the Technology Pioneers 2015 can be found here.
Author: Dror Sharon is Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Consumer Physics, a World Economic Forum Technology Pioneer.
Image: A scientist prepares to install a high resolution remote sensor used for crop mapping in a wheat field in New Delhi, March 20, 2015. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee