Three technological miracles to keep us believing in the future’s promise

AS SAMSUNG unveils its latest refinement on the smartphone, it is worth stepping back to celebrate not just this marginal evolution on a marvellously useful gadget, but the breakthroughs that will transform our lives for the better tomorrow. With the UK economy looking dismal, and with little hope of supply-side reforms to kickstart growth in George Osborne’s budget next week, here are three reasons to keep believing in the future.

Methane hydrates have long been the stuff of green-tinged nightmares. The prospect of gas locked up in an ice-like state below the ocean floor releasing itself in a cataclysmic global fart, brought on by rising temperatures, has been one of the scenarios held up to justify onerous regulation of carbon emissions. Now it seems the monster beneath the seabed may be an energy saviour instead.

For the first time, a Japanese firm has successfully extracted the exotic substance, once thought to only exist on the edges of the solar system, by drilling offshore. It is thought that the deposit under investigation alone contains 1.1 trillion cubic metres of natural gas. The global methane hydrate carbon reservoir is twice that of all other fossil fuels combined.

Following the incredible success of shale gas exploitation in the US, the potential of so-called ice gas shows that technological innovation is ready to answer our need for new energy. Even if we ran out of oil, it wouldn’t be the disaster it is often painted, so long as we don’t run out of the ingenuity to identify replacements.

The world of smartphones and tablets doesn’t have much texture. We can explore the world at a touch of the finger, but the surfaces underneath our fingers have become bland: brushed aluminium and gorilla glass. But perhaps not for much longer. Last week, Oliver Bau of Disney Labs demonstrated Revel, a miraculous technology that allows different sensations to be programmed into surfaces. Much as you would change the wallpaper on your phone today, in the future you might be able to make a handset’s surface feel like crocodile-skin leather or have the screen brush like velvet against your fingers.

Technological advances create problems as well as solve them, like the dull feel of our new slates. But technology can offer extraordinary, near-unimaginable solutions to even the smallest problems as well, so long as we remain committed to open experimentation and the self-correcting power of the market.

The Higgs boson’s discovery was officially confirmed yesterday. This is a watershed moment in physics. The keystone missing from the standard model has been found. As its exact properties become better understood, our knowledge of the universe will expand. Such blue-sky research into the building blocks of reality lays the foundation for the technological achievements that make our world a better place. Britain’s future may not contain a AAA rating, but the human imagination is still wider than the sky.

First published: City A.M., 15/3/13

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