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The ‘impossibility’ of Emerging Technologies

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"Alice laughed: "There's no use trying," she said; "one can't believe impossible things."  "I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Alice isn’t alone

Most of us have trouble thinking of a future which differs much from the here and now.  But, being open to different ways of doing things is critical to supporting the new technologies which will come to dominate our lives in the future.
Emerging Technologies 1

Paul Mason described in a previous blog why Innovate UK supports emerging, disruptive technologies and here we provide an example of an industry, unknown to most of us, but which impacts our lives everyday through LEDs, flat screen displays in phones and televisions, namely: photonics.

Emerging Technologies 2

Thirty years ago the photonics industry did not exist

Today it is worth £10.5 billion to the UK economy, supports more than 1,500 small and medium sized companies (SMEs) and employs over 70,000 people.  Although photonics technology is not well known, most people are familiar with one of its key outputs: the Laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation).  For years, lasers were confined to the realms of high-tech applications and science fiction but now they are used in products such as tape measures.

Emerging Technologies 4

It was no less a scientist than Einstein who laid the foundation for the laser when, in 1917,  he introduced the concept of stimulated emission; where a photon interacts with an excited molecule or atom and causes the emission of a second photon having the same frequency, phase, polarization and direction.  But it was not until 1960 that Theodore Maiman developed the first working laser at Hughes Research Lab and, since then, more than 55,000 patents involving the laser have been granted in the United States alone.

This breakthrough was followed by the laser diode in the 1970s and optical fibres for transmitting information, leading to the game-changing and dramatic growth of telecommunications. UK academics were right at the forefront of this disruptive technology development and have helped companies to retain value from it for the UK.

Emerging Technologies 3

The UK photonics industry now produces lasers for manufacturing, entertainment, computer chips, transmitting information, 3D printing, measurement, sensors and healthcare.  So, every time someone uses an EPOS machine to scan their shopping, photonics comes into play and one of yesterday’s emerging technologies is taken for granted today.

Dan Dare and emerging technology

Of course, there have always been individuals who seemed to be rather good at predicting the future.  Frank Hampson was one, who through the medium of a comic book hero, Dan Dare, came up with a tunnel under the Channel, satellite TV, space shuttles and swing wing aircraft to name but a few.  So accurate were his predictions that the Ministry of Defence had a regular weekly order of the "Eagle" to see what he would come up with next.

Eagle comic

A need for imagination and faith

The process used by Innovate UK is rather more robust but there is still a need for imagination and faith to identify and accelerate to market the technologies that are still emerging and which will change our world for the better in 10, 20 or 50 years.

Follow me on Twitter: @NeilNjinnov

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