The best innovations of 2013

At times, 2013 seemed like a science fiction movie come to life. The new DARPA Atlas bots seemed to be inspired from the “Terminator” film franchise, Stewart Brand’s concept of “de-extinction” seemed to be lifted directly from the storyline of “Jurassic Park,” Motorola’s new “password pill” reminded some of “The Matrix,” and new test-tube food concepts brought to mind earlier “Soylent Green” visions of the future. And, of course, there were the many other nifty gadgets and gizmos that continued to deliver on the promise of a “Jetsons” future. We’ve picked out the trends and concepts of 2013 that seemed to have the most staying power for the year ahead.

Here, in no particular order, are 10 innovations from 2013:


(Bryan Versteeg/ Mars One)

 1. The crowd got involved in space exploration.

While NASA is still at the forefront of space innovation, this year marked the first year that the crowd became actively involved in the future of deep space exploration. After launching in April, the MarsOne project quickly signed up over 100,000 people worldwide for the chance to take a one-way mission to Mars. According to the MarsOne organizers, the crowd would also play a role by selecting the four people chosen to become Mars astronauts in 2022 via a reality TV show, and part of those application fees ($38 a pop) would go towards funding the audacious mission to Mars. In other words, you no longer have to be a professional astronaut to go to outer space.

And that’s not all. In order to put the new ARKYD deep space telescope into operation, asteroid-mining firm Planetary Resources created a $1 million crowdfunding project on Kickstarter, with one perk at the $25 funding level being the ability to send a “space selfie” into outer space. The project, touted as “a space telescope for everyone,” ended up being wildly over-subscribed, raising just over $1.5 million. Based on the success of this crowdfunding venture, NASA recently unveiled a new asteroid-detection project in partnership with Planetary Resources that would rely on the crowd for the detection of potential asteroid threats.


A sketch from Elon Musk’s “Hyperloop Alpha” paper. (Elon Musk)

2. Global warming finally forced us to take futuristic new forms of transportation seriously.

After months of hype, Elon Musk finally unveiled a wildly futuristic form of transportation known as the Hyperloop that promised to send visitors between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 30 minutes or less. The whole multi-billion-dollar transportation system would be solar-powered, earthquake-resistant and pod-based, giving travelers a welcome alternative to traditional forms of transportation. That is, if the Hyperloop ever gets built.

And Elon Musk wasn’t done with the Hyperloop. His Tesla Motors electric-powered cars continued to make headlines throughout the year, earning him rave reviews around the world. Buoyed by Musk’s success in championing futuristic new forms of transportation, a group of auto manufacturers led by Toyota recently unveiled the latest form of carbon-free transportation — hydrogen-powered cars — at auto shows in Los Angeles and Tokyo. These hydrogen-powered cars that could make their way to market as soon as 2015.


A X47-B lands on an aircraft carrier. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

3. The military outsourced war to the machines.

As part of a long-term military strategy to extend its war-fighting capabilities to anywhere on the globe without the need for the involvement of its soldiers, the Pentagon showcased two big projects in 2013: the X47B stealth fighter drone and the new DARPA Atlas robots. The military already had its drones, of course, but the X47B moved the bar even higher when it became the first-ever fighter jet capable of taking off and landing from aircraft carriers on its own. Oh, and the X47B is also capable of carrying lethal payloads and dropping them on enemy positions, all without the need for a human operator even to manipulate a joystick.

The Atlas robots, meanwhile, were virtually indestructible giant metallic Terminator bots capable of carrying out search-and-rescue missions in disaster zones or, alternatively, going door-to-door in urban warfare environments with absolutely no risk to U.S. soldiers. Combined with the Big Dog and the Pentagon’s other futuristic-looking robotic animals, the military seems well on its way to creating a next-generation fighting force for the world’s riskiest combat zones.


Maastricht University professor Mark Post holds the world’s first lab-grown beef burger. (David ParryAFP photo/Press Association)

4. Scientists got serious about solving the world’s future food problems.

A team of scientists, backed by $330,000 in funding from Google’s Sergey Brin, successfully grew a five-ounce burger patty solely from cow stem cells, hinting at a future where all of our food could be grown inside a laboratory. According to a panel of taste tasters assembled in London, the burger may have been a bit on the dry and chewy side, but that’s nothing that a little mustard and ketchup couldn’t solve. Especially considering the beneficial effect that these lab-grown burgers might have on our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water use in the future.

And, if lab-grown beef isn’t your thing, what about 3D-printed beef? Billionaire Peter Thiel is backing a venture, Modern Meadow, to 3D-print beef using narrow sheets of cells. One day, you might be able to feed these sheets of cells into a printer the way you would a sheaf of paper, and out pops a tasty burger! The race to 3D-print food took another step forward toward reality this year with NASA’s announcement that it would consider 3D-printing food for deep space exploration missions to Mars and beyond.


(YouTube)

5. We went from 3D-printing doodads and gadgets to 3D-printing well, just about everything.

After President Barack Obama mentioned 3D printing in his February State of the Union address, 3D printing technology unofficially hit the tech mainstream. Suddenly, 3D printers were everywhere, almost to the point where they became over-hyped. This was the year that people seemed to print just about anything using 3D-printers, including houses and Smithsonian artifacts. Companies like Amazon suddenly began taking 3D printing seriously and NASA began considering ways to 3D print in outer space.

The most-discussed 3D printer story of the year, however, involved 3D-printed guns. In May, Defense Distributed gave us the first live demonstration of a 3D-printed gun, which was made and assembled from plastic parts. Not only that, but Defense Distributed also released blueprints for the gun online, meaning that just about anyone in the world — and that includes both good guys and bad guys – would theoretically be able to carry around guns and avoid detection. Not surprisingly, 3D printed guns quickly became one of the most controversial political issues of the year.


(Green Renaissance/WWF)

6. Scientists attempted to bring extinct species back to life.

Stewart Brand’s “Revive & Restore” de-extinction project, which gained public attention at the beginning of the year, aims to bring back previously extinct species, starting with the humble passenger pigeon. Brand even organized a full-day TEDx “De-Extinction” event in Washington in March, which led to a round of hype and hyperbole about what other species we might be able to bring back from extinction – including the saber-toothed tiger and the wooly mammoth. And, in Australia, the Lazarus Project plans to bring back extinct frogs and quite possibly even a tasmanian tiger.

There are a whole number of ethical and scientific challenges to overcome before we start to see the appearance of these extinct species, but the science now exists to make it a reality. De-extinction even landed on the cover of National Geographic magazine, as top-level scientists signed on to support the “Revive & Restore” de-extinction project.  In 2014, look for new ways that scientists plan to push their knowledge of DNA and genome technology to reverse-engineer endangered or extinct species.


(Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

7. Silicon Valley invented new ways to bring the Internet to the entire world.

Both Google and Facebook unveiled new initiatives to bring Internet and smartphone access to the world’s “next five billion.” Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org hinted at a future of cheaper phones, better data plans and more efficient smartphone apps for the developing world, while Google’s Project Loon proposed a system of giant helium balloons to bring WiFi connectivity to hard-to-reach areas of the world, including those in emerging markets.

As Silicon Valley looks for new sources of revenue and profitability, the developing world is shaping up to be a future battleground. While many of the early initiatives from tech leaders were cloaked in the mantle of global philanthropy, many of the new initiatives in 2014 and beyond are likely to be based on the need to meet Wall Street analyst targets for revenue and profitability. Not surprisingly, then, that when speculation began about Apple’s new iPhone 5c, analysts rushed to see it as a way for Apple to hook China and other markets on lower-cost Apple products.


(Amazon/Reuters photo)

8. Drones went from scary to cool.

In a “60 Minutes” feature, Jeff Bezos unveiled one of the most talked-about concepts of the year: a drone-powered fleet capable of dropping off packages to customers in 30 minutes or less from Amazon distribution centers across the nation. At a time when many people associate drones with U.S. military adventures abroad or law enforcement initiatives here in the U.S., the drone concept for Amazon Prime Air opened the discussion about the practical business case for new forms of commercial drones.

Once the FAA offers a final ruling on commercial drones sometime in 2015, look for commercial drones to become a mainstay of our everyday lives. There are now 25,000+ DIY drone enthusiasts in the United States, and plans are already afoot elsewhere in the world to bring commercial drones to market sooner than in the United States.


The Samsung Galaxy Gear. (Michael Sohn/Associated Press)

9. Wearable technology finally went mainstream with smart watches.

The concept of the smart watch had been percolating for years, but 2013 was the first year that commercial products actually hit the mainstream. The Pebble smart watch, which raised $10 million on Kickstarter in 2012, finally debuted in Best Buy stores over the summer. At about the same time, Apple began floating rumors of an iWatch. In September, Samsung beat all the big tech names to market with the Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch. In just over two months, Samsung reportedly sold over 800,000 units of its new smart watch.

Meanwhile, the wearable tech market continues to wait  for the commercially-available Google Glass product in 2014. Throughout the year, we had hints about what to expect, as early adopters began posting Google Glass videos on YouTube, developers leaked news of new apps for Google Glass, and Google Glass continued to show up in unlikely places — like the fashion runway and SNL.


(Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images)

10. Tech companies finally came up with something innovative to replace the humble password.

With stories of hackers breaking into e-mail and social media accounts becoming routine, there’s been a push to develop a password alternative. In 2013, Motorola led the way with two new password concepts – digital tattoos and password pills. The digital tattoos would be implanted under your skin, freeing you from the need to actually remember computer passwords. The tattoos would come with all kinds of embedded sensors and gauges, and might even become fashion statements in their own right. The password pills, which could be ingested daily, would interact with gastric juices in your stomach to “activate” your internal password. Not to be outdone, Apple made fingerprint scanning technology a new feature for user identification on its new iPhone 5S.

All of these developments — especially the concept of implanted passwords — point to a radically new future for personal identity. Tech companies now know more about you than ever before. Apple’s fingerprint scanning technology, for example, has already raised questions about the types of information that might be stored by big tech companies on their servers or what information about your identity might be shared with third parties.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read National
Next Story
Matt McFarland · December 10, 2013