Future Watch: Reasons for Optimism

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted April 10, 2007

The future is going to be a very scary place. It’ll be dark, grim and even foreboding. At least that’s the story in a piece published in The Guardian yesterday.

There will be information chips implanted in our brains, the middle class will finally revolt, and neutron bombs will make the ultimate comeback.

We will even be threatened by something ominously called "Flashmobs," which is enough to have me staring at the ceiling all night.

I hate crowds.

But thankfully, the gloomy warnings in these and other stories turn out to be wildly overstated. They may be great for headlines, but they’re pretty poor when it comes to predicting the real future.

In fact, every time I read one of them I can’t help but think about the scary stories of my youth growing up in the 70s. Judging by the headlines of the day back then, the world should now be buried in a new ice age by now and we should all be sucking air out of gas masks.

It was all enough to make an Indian cry, and none of it turned out to be true.

Instead, the exhaust from my car can now barely be seen, and it’s global warming–not cooling–that has one "celebrity expert" after another predicting a new round of global gloom and doom.

But doom and gloom aside, the future is always upon us, looming in the distance.

The truth is, though, that it’s never as bad as the scaremongers would have you believe. In fact, it’s usually just the opposite, thanks to invisible hand of the free market.

That’s the part, of course, that these "experts" never seem to be able to account for. It’s like they never even heard of Adam Smith.

They grandstand and scare-monger instead, while Smith’s entrepreneurs quietly go about their business, wrecking one dire long-range prediction after another in pursuit of their profits.

In fact, if you really want to know what your future may look like, it’s simple: keep your eye on those same entrepreneurs–they’re the people that will be shaping it.

Just check out some of these wide-ranging advancements recently brought about by that magical and creative class:

  • European researchers have integrated thin-film organic solar cells with a flexible polymer battery to produce a lightweight and ultra-thin solar battery for low-wattage electronic devices such as smart cards and mobile phones. The battery can recharge itself when exposed to natural or indoor light, meaning that some electronic gadgets would never need a separate charger. Researchers predict that such a device could be commercially available in some products next year.

  • There’s new hope for those who have lost their eyesight to retinitis pigmentosa or macular degeneration. Patients are beginning to get some vision back after receiving a retinal implant called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System from the Doheny Eye Institute. Patients who have damaged photoreceptor cells in their retinas received 16 electrodes inserted into their eye. Six patients who were blind were able to see light, detect movement, and identify some shapes and objects. The next step is to offer patients 60 electrodes, providing them with even better eyesight.

  • Fuel-cell technology that is currently in development boasts the ability to extract energy from virtually any sugar source to power portable electronics like mobile phones, laptops and sensors. The new technology is expected to be biodegradable, environmentally friendly and more energy efficient than current options, providing a green alternative to lithium-ion batteries. The cell operates at room temperature and uses enzymes to oxidize sugars and generate electricity. So far, researchers have run the batteries on glucose, flat soft drinks, sweetened drink mixes and tree sap.

  • Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have successfully directed adult stem cells from mice to develop into bone and muscle cells with the aid of a custom-designed ink-jet printer. They say it’s a first step toward better understanding tissue regeneration, which may one day lead to therapies for repairing damaged tissues.

  • Dichloroacetate (DCA) may soon be used as an effective treatment for many forms of cancer, according to University of Alberta researchers. They found that DCA normalized the mitochondrial function in many cancers, resulting in a significant decrease in tumor growth in lung, breast, and brain cancer. DCA is easily absorbed in the body, and, after oral intake, can reach areas that other drugs cannot, making it possible to treat brain cancers, for example.

These, of course, are but a few of the literally tens of thousands of recent advances made by researchers and entrepreneurs all over the world. Reading just a few of them is a cause enough for optimism.

So sleep tight tonight, because flashmobs or not, he ascent of man continues.


Wishing you happiness, health, and wealth,


Steve Christ, Editor

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