I’ve often heard people laugh about the American space agency, NASA, and its million-dollar development of a pen that could write in zero-gravity. “The Russians used a pencil,” they would say, blissfully unaware of the fact that the microscopic graphite particles which a pencil leaves floating in a zero-gravity environment were clogging the CO2 scrubbers used on board both countries’ spacecraft… not to mention that, in the pure oxygen environment of NASA’s early days, their tendency to contribute to stray, microscopic sparks made them an enormous fire hazard.
The point of this story? It actually has nothing to do with the viability of the pen itself.
The technology which went into that million-dollar pen—which was, incidentally, personally funded by the researcher who designed it—has since contributed to lifesaving technology in the medical field. It has a presence, today, in some of the models of pumps used in surgery, and in the design of intravenous systems. Unexpected marriages of technological innovation fill the annals of modern society’s accomplishments, improving lives and bettering the world we live in. In no area is this more exemplified than in the business world, where advancing virtual technologies are helping traditional, brick-and-mortar businesses to thrive.
3D Printing: Now You See It… Really
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, reverses the typical subtractive manufacturing processes, which work mostly by methods such as cutting or drilling: they remove material from an object to shape it (or a component part). 3D printing works by laying down successive layers of material (hence “additive”) under the control of a computer, producing finished objects which were pre-designed digitally. 3D printing has been making headlines in recent years as a revolutionary means of manufacturing everything from jewelry, to clothing, to pre-fabricated buildings; even the culinary arts have seen the advent of 3D printing, with edible materials allowing for a never-before-seen range of edible creations. What isn’t so widely known is that the first 3D printer was actually made as far back as 1984, by 3D Systems Corp, a company dedicated to innovative three-dimensional production methods. 3D printing has been used for years as a quick and convenient means of producing prototypes in nearly every field of manufacture or design, and with the reduction in price of 3D printers since the turn of the decade, the technology is only going to continue improving the efficiency of traditional business models.
Genetically Modified Crops (and the People Who Eat Them)
Several large corporations, with Monsanto being the most infamous, have been actively introducing genetically modified crops for years, applying new discoveries from modern genetics research to the age-old problem of food production. Many parts of the world still don’t have enough food to go around, or else they lack the infrastructure to distribute it while it is fresh. As far back as 1992, a type of corn was developed, which was genetically altered to be more resistant to certain types of pests common in European farmlands. Monsanto has since created a soy plant which is immune to the effects of a major ingredient in such herbicides as Roundup, which kills nearly every form of vegetation to which it is applied.
Genetically modified foodstuffs have endured a prolonged period of distrust from the public, but this is generally without any serious scientific basis; people are simply concerned about that which sounds entirely too new and unfamiliar, and even the study of genetics itself is still a murky and mysterious thing to most. The fact is, however, that we’ve been directing the evolution of plants and animals for thousands of years; its original, natural form is barely larger than a stalk of grass, and entirely incapable of nourishing today’s growing population if farmed as it would still appear (were it not for our interference). The advancing human understanding of genetics allows us to producer larger, more fruitful crops, which are resistant to the effects and the absorption of pesticides—or, quite simply, resistant to the pests which used to make such chemicals a necessity.
There is, to date, no accredited, reproducible study which demonstrates that there is any inherent harm in the simple notion of genetically modifying foods, and such items offer a promising future in the continuing effort to provide plentiful and affordable provisions for our planet’s growing population.
When we discuss AI (artificial intelligence) the first thing that pops into most people’s minds is a scene from Terminator. Steel skeleton robots standing atop the bones of humans as they destroy civilization and look to enslave mankind. In a recent article on Yahoo, a colleague of mine was lambasted for his take on innovation. Most of the commenters described doomsday scenarios if innovation continued to develop AI. In my opinion, this couldn’t be further from the truth. AI isn’t truly a self-aware creation. It is simply a series of rules and laws put into a system that are so advanced that they give the appearance of intelligence. While there are sometimes “ghosts in the machine”, or unintended interactions with those rules and laws that are programed into the software, those are not true flashes of intelligence, but rather very peculiar interactions of rules that give unintended results.
With the advancements in software and computing, we are seeing “thinking” machines becoming more and more common. But, again, these aren’t self-aware pieces of metal. They are incredibly well programmed pieces of software. How are these pieces of software achieving such unprecedented levels of sophistication? The answer is two-fold; workflow software and rules engines are driving the thinking of the machines while processing power is making the machine fast enough to enable it to think incredibly fast. The speed of processing makes the machine appear to think as a human does; giving answers almost as soon as they’re asked.
To enable machines to continue “talking to each other” and “thinking for themselves”, a new age of software will need to be introduced. Companies like Decisions are leading the way with their workflow and business rules engines that allow software to speak to each other and have almost AI levels of intelligence.
As these thinking machines continue to advance, they will discover connections and synergies between technologies that we, as humans, have missed. Giving us insights into advancements in medicine, technology, food production and more. The benefits that this will provide to society will be striking.
The pace at which modern technology is advancing is oftentimes alarming to many people, myself included. However, I believe that the motives and the methods behind our progress remain pure, having avoided the warnings of classic science fiction and horror media—which long since warned us of the dangers of meddling with the laws of nature. When handled responsibility, our scientific curiosity and our tendency to creatively apply what we know can be seen as one of our greatest embraces of symbiosis in itself. It compels us to advance, to explore, and to refine, in a way that cannot help but work toward the betterment of the modern world as a whole.