“Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.”
So said Archimedes.
For me, Archimedes’ lever is a statement about technology as much as it is about this specific principle of physics. When humans want to change the world, we apply our understanding in a systematic fashion. We make tools, like levers, or language, or law. We codify our understanding into implements that enhance our powers, that give us leverage.
This, for me, is another reason why examining technology is such a good starting point when looking to the future. Understand the newest levers at our disposal, and you can extrapolate how we might choose to use them to change the world.
One of the areas of technology that excites me the most right now is materials science, and particularly the breadth of applications of 2D materials. This is why I was so delighted to become the resident futurist at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester.
2D materials — sheets just a single atom thick — have the most incredible properties, both on their own and when combined into layers. Thermally, mechanically, and electrically, they allow us to do things we haven’t before. Maybe even to make a lever strong enough to move the Earth.
2D materials will touch all our lives and businesses in the same ways that other technologies do, increasing choice, accelerating speed, amplifying our power and changing the shape of our organisations.
Right now the application of graphene is still in its early days, but already its structural use is offering marked improvements in the performance of racing bikes and cars. Simply by stiffening the frame of a vehicle, graphene allows more motive power — whether from an athlete’s legs or a motor — to reach the ground.
As the technology becomes more accessible, and more widely used, and we solve some of the key manufacturing challenges, we can expect to see increasingly rapid improvements in these material properties. A wide range of composites will increasingly challenge established metals and plastics in a wider array of applications, making vehicles safer, faster, and more efficient.
Graphene is also being widely investigated as a means to boost energy storage. Here, an alternative material is supporting the use of alternative forms of motive power — particularly the shift from fossil fuels, always unbeatable for the density of their energy storage — to electricity.
Time increasingly seems to be the commodity about which we’re most precious. Technology gives us the leverage to do more in less time, but it also raises our expectations for what is possible.
In computing we are starting to hit the point where current technology can’t take us beyond our current expectations. There are hard physical limits on how small we can make microprocessors based on silicon. Here too though, 2D materials will bring change. Silicene, the two dimensional allotrope of silicon, may allow us to produce more efficient and smaller transistors. Stanene, tin’s two dimensional cousin, offers the properties to make supersmall wiring to connect these transistors together with minimal losses.
Like Archimedes’ lever, technology allows us to do more with less. 2D materials have the potential to further augment human capability, physical or cognitive.
Commercial exoskeletons are already on the market, allowing human wearers to lift more, more safely. The military will be adopting similar technology in the near future, but unlike their fictional counterpart, these will not be men of iron. Composites, likely featuring 2D materials, will make up the stiff, light frame. Graphene is being explored as a material for armour plating, with great abilities to absorb energy at much lower weight than the ceramic plates currently used. The motors, batteries and electronics may all rely on 2D technologies.
More practically for most of us is the prospect of cognitive automation, via full-time augmented reality. It’s increasingly clear this is the direction of travel for user interfaces, but right now the technology is a long way off. 2D materials could allow us to build thinner, lighter, more stylish augmented reality glasses that are near-indistinguishable from their analogue counterparts. And to drive them with greater processing power and long life batteries.
What it will take to deliver on this promise is a great deal of collaboration. One of the defining characteristics of business in the 21st century is its increasingly networked nature. Even today’s behemoths, the Apples, Facebooks and Googles of the world, are deeply reliant on a hyperconnected web of partners and suppliers, often in two-way relationships. The mix of scientific skill, engineering knowledge, manufacturing scale, application nous and frankly, marketing smarts, to bring this new world together no longer exists in any single organisation, if it ever did.