10 technologies that really could change the world

Phone tracking, biohacking and alternatives to fracking

10 technologies that really could change the world

We're told that all kinds of technologies changed the world - Popular Mechanics' list includes the stapler - but today's researchers are working on ideas even more ambitious than joining several bits of paper together.

New technologies could replace fossil fuels, turn your house into a power station, save thousands of lives - and maybe even create new lifeforms.

Here are 10 technologies that have the potential to change the world all over again.

1. Phones

In developing countries the phone is more important than the PC: mobiles are used for banking, and for forecasting the weather (a critical business when a farmer has to pick the best time to sow or reap a precious crop). But phones can do even more.

For example, in Africa cell phone tower data is used to map people's movements - and that mapping can help track diseases such as malaria and identify patterns of transmission.

Phone location data might also be useful in dealing with natural disasters, improving public transport or just helping retailers make shopping malls more profitable.

10 technologies that really could change the world
Phone tracking data is already fighting infectious diseases, and might help with disasters too

2. Digital imaging

As imaging technology improves we'll see our world like never before, both outside and inside. DARPA recently showed off a 1.8 gigapixel surveillance drone that can watch 25 square kilometres at a time, while advances in medical imaging tech enable doctors to look inside patients with unprecedented levels of detail.

10 technologies that could change the world
New camera tech enables incredibly detailed images, such as BT's 320-gigapixel London panorama

3. Better fibre-optic cables

Fibre-optic cabling has been around since the 19th century, but it wasn't until 1970 that the problem of attenuation - signals degrading over distance - was solved.

Since then fibre-optic has become part of the fabric of the internet, but it's a fabric that, for most people, stops long before it gets to their house.

When fibre broadband finally makes it into every home - which it will, albeit not until some of us are really, really old - it promises to revolutionise the way people use the internet all over again.

10 technologies that could change the world
Fibre everywhere means internet-connected services we can't even imagine

4. Mind-controlled prosthetics

DARPA calls it Targeted Muscle Re-innervation, or TMR for short. We call it astonishing: TMR makes brain-controlled prosthetic limbs almost as responsive as real ones, providing sensory feedback that enables prosthetic users to riffle through a bag or grab an object without having to look at it.

From electronic eyes to entire exoskeletons, the combination of serious technical talent and enormous piles of cash is bringing us ever closer to a cybernetic future.

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5. 3D printing

3D-printed guns and drugs may get the headlines, but the real effect of 3D printing is likely to be less sensational and much more useful.

It's already helping to revolutionise manufacturing by slashing research and development costs, and in the longer term it might mean that instead of ordering online and waiting for couriers to deliver, we'll just print products at home - maybe even food.

That's good for the environment but could have disastrous consequences for many people's jobs.

10 tecyhnologies that could change the world
You can download a dress, but you can't download Dita. Yet (credit: Dezeen)

6. Small, smart sensors

Research firm ON World reckons that in 2017, firms will ship some 515 million sensors for wearable, implantable or mobile health and fitness devices, and that's just the tip of an electronic iceberg.

Networks of small, smart sensors could change health care, finally make home automation something people actually use, help you find a parking space or look for aliens on Mars.

10 technologies that could really change the world
Never mind smart watches: in the future we could have smart dust

7. Predictive policing

The row over the Prism surveillance system rumbles on, but there's no doubt that the technology to watch people's every move exists: one version, dubbed RIOT, mines public websites such as social networks to build up a surprisingly detailed picture of individuals and their likely future behaviour.