Technology: the hunt for the next big idea?
Category: Thought for the day
Technology, as it were, is the future. But what can current news tell us about what will be the next big idea?
I have a theory about what the big technology story of 2013 will be. But I am going to leave you hanging for few paragraphs, and first tell you about some other developments that I think are truly exciting.
The way to look at today’s piece is that I am telling you about the stories that I think are most interesting in a kind of ascending order of importance.
First there are vertical farms. We are used to people living on top of each other. If we go upwards, we can crowd more people into a limited area. So why can’t we go upwards in our farming too. The man to watch in this field is Dickson Despommier, who is a professor of public and environmental health at Columbia University in New York. Professor Despommier’s key point is that throughout the world over 80 per cent of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use. So as the population grows, and demand for meat grows with it, how can supply be increased, when land is so limited? Vertical farms are the obvious solution. The advantages are many, including the way in which they make very efficient use of water. They can also offer the theoretical advantage that the farms can be erected close to the point of consumption. The big snag is surprisingly obvious: light. Crops need light, and how do you get sufficient light to crops stuck in the middle of a high rise farm? In this article from the ‘Economist’ back in 2010, one expert is quoted as saying: “Generating enough electricity using solar panels requires an area about 20 times larger than the area being illuminated.” So if that is right, and you need all that land to generate solar energy for vertical farms, the land saving benefit is rather lost. See: Vertical farming: Does it really stack up?
But Professor Despommier continues to fight the good fight. He says vertical farms are a no brainer in areas where there is an abundant natural source of energy, such as Iceland and New Zealand, where there is geothermal energy, but speculates that the ultimate solution will lie with more efficient means of lighting, such as LED lights. Here is a link to Despommier’s own web site. As an investor, you need to watch this closely. Personally, I think that the technology will be interesting but no world changer until the problem of light is fixed. Once that problem is sorted out, this technology will became massively important.
Another idea which piqued my interest recently was one developed by scientists at Stanford University, who have developed a rechargeable battery using fresh water and seawater. The technology uses the difference in salinity between the two water types to generate a current. For a detailed explanation, see: Stanford researchers use river water and salty ocean water to generate electricity
The limitation of this technology is the availability of fresh water. And the most likely locations for power stations based on this technology will be river mouths. Apparently, and here I quote: “a power plant operating with 50 cubic meters of freshwater per second could produce up to 100 megawatts of power. That would be enough to provide electricity for about 100,000 households.” I’m not sure what happens to the fresh water afterwards. And that may prove to be the key to how viable this technology is. Then again, the fresh water used does not have to be especially clean, meaning there is a potential use for treated sewage water. One to watch methinks.
Then there are prosthetics. I really can’t get over Oscar Pistorius. That a man with no legs can run the 400 metres in 45.07 seconds staggers me. But this one really is extraordinary. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine managed to apply a brain interface to a 52 year old women with tetraplegia, who was then able to control a prosthetic limb. After 13 weeks of training the participant was also able to use the prosthetic limb to do skilful and coordinated reach and grasp movements that resulted in clinically significant gains in tests of upper limb function. See: High-performance neuroprosthetic control by an individual with tetraplegia.
Then there is 3D printing. Clearly this is going to be a big, big market. I worry sometimes about the hype. When an investment opportunity is so well known, is there not a danger that the long run potential is already factored into valuations? I suspect, too, that we will also see a bubble in this market. I’m not sure if this bubble has begun yet. I have been raving about 3D printing for a couple of years now, and maybe the time to have invested was in 2010. Nonetheless, in a few years’ time there will be companies in the 3D printing arena, which will have seen their share prices increase many times over from their current price. This might be quite a good source for ideas on companies to watch: Behind the rise of the 3D printing revolution
But for me, 2013 will be marked as the year of Internet TV. Both Samsung and Apple are at it. If they have any sense, the other obvious players, Microsoft, Nokia, Google, Amazon, and – who knows -maybe even the likes of Sony have products lined up. My own view is that by the year’s end both Apple and Samsung will have Internet T V products that will look like being as significant to their turnover as their smart phones. I don’t think the markets have fully factored in this opportunity yet.
These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees.