Inside the Technology Time Machine

IEEE conference predicts innovations beyond 2035

8 August 2014

While many conferences focus on present-day research and technologies, the IEEE Future Directions Committee (FDC)—the organization’s R&D arm—has something else in mind. It wants to explore how today’s developments will influence the direction of technology, and the world we live in, a generation out—into the year 2035 and beyond.

To be held 21 to 22 October in San Jose, Calif., the third IEEE Technology Time Machine conference will have a novel format in which speakers can brainstorm their visions of the future and, when confronted, engage in healthy, if not sometimes heated, debate. “A visionary might talk about the future of energy, for example, and then another might disagree or point out the inconsistencies of that vision,” explains IEEE Senior Member Clinton Andrews, an FDC member and the committee’s liaison with the Future-of-Energy track. “Everyone in the room will be helping to shape, and even invent, the future.”

The discussions will cover the drawbacks of technologies as well, points out IEEE Senior Member Roberto Saracco, chair of FDC. “I cannot imagine a single technology that only has upsides,” he says. “The inventor of the ship also indirectly invented the shipwreck and its castaways without realizing it.”

About 200 participants are expected to attend, including industry leaders, scientists and engineers, politicians, sociologists, regulators, and economists.


“Technology Time Machine is a chance to sit back and think through what the world might be like for the next generation,” says Andrews. “There will be implications for every technology, and IEEE works in quite a few of them. We will look beyond the obvious current trends—not whatever Apple or Google are working on, but rather what they might work on for the generation being born today.

“We’re trying to engage in a discussion—not telling you what the future is but, instead, encouraging a spirited debate about future directions.”

The conference will also help steer the FDC toward what IEEE should be covering, adds IEEE Fellow William R. Tonti, the committee’s director. “As a result of the first two Technology Time Machine conferences, IEEE now has a new initiative on the Internet of Things,” he says. “We may also begin incubating some of the topics covered at this year’s event as well.”


The conference presenters will look at six areas likely to undergo significant change in the next two decades. The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology is leading the session on “The Future of Humans,” and the “Future of Health Care” will be led by the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Other sessions will cover the future of energy, computers, nanotechnology, and networks.

Predicting the questions that will arise is impossible, notes Saracco, but he is preparing by anticipating a few ahead of time. For the session on the future of humans, he believes attendees will question whether the merger of devices that augment the brain and physical capabilities could generate a new species, or create an even larger digital divide among humans.

For health care, he foresees questions about personalized medication based on each patient’s genome, and what that will mean for medical research when it comes to designing mass clinical trials. “A simple pill will no longer be a product but a service that involves remote monitoring, essential if you’re the first to take that pill.”

In the area of networks, Saracco expects questions about whether future networks will be created by cellphones or a patchwork of independently deployed networks. He sees signs of the latter based on what’s being done with 5G wireless systems. 

Other debates might include whether manufacturing will become more decentralized, with robots communicating with one another remotely, or whether robots will be used in the home to produce small custom parts. “We’re going to see massive adoption of customizable systems and smart materials,” Saracco says. “Nanotechnology will change the rules of the game in several sectors.”

He also predicts a mix of locally and centrally produced energy sources could radically change the economics of the industry. “Do we need to invest to have more energy available, or consume less? Do we need to make people more aware of their consumption?”

And what will be the future of data processing? “Can we make supercomputers, which draw megawatts, as powerful and efficient as the 30-watt human brain? What changes could such processors bring?”

These and many other questions are waiting to be asked, and explored.

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