What technology exists that most people probably don’t know about & would totally blow their minds?

That is the title of a new Reddit thread, reproduced here.  Overall I am not blown away by the nominations and I find few of them in my own everyday life.  Here is one example:

ALON – transparent aluminium, you can have a window that don’t break!!!


Here is further information, with photos.  Cool enough, but not as good as cheap quality education and health care.  And it costs 20k per square meter, at least according to that article.

I’m ready to call the great stagnation over when driverless cars are in the hands of the middle class, but that’s still a while away.  Steady deflation for education and health care expenditures would do it too, and I can see this will come for education but not for health care.  As for Google Glass, I will review it once they sell me one.  I’d also claim the end of stagnation if we saw a 2% yearly rise in the median real wage on a sustained basis, say most of the years out of a ten-year period.

In the meantime, here is a robot which pours you a beer.

For the pointer I thank Max Roser.


Isn't the transparent aluminum thing only a big deal because of Star Trek IV?

The amusing thing is the Wikipedia edit battle to get the Star Trek IV reference into that entry.

Of course! They came up with a lightweight, transparent, bulletproof material, all to say "herp derp Star Trek was right lol"

ALON actually existed before Star Trek 4 came out. There is nothing really outstanding about it. Sapphire (aluminum oxide) is substantially stronger and it costs about the same. Sapphire is already widely used for military blast-proof and bulletproof glass, and it may be used in smart phone screens soon.

Now people in glass houses can throw stones!

I think the fact that the SIM card in your phone contains a CPU inside that runs at the same clock speed (~5 MHz) as early 1980s computers was pretty amazing, especially since SIM cards are rather old technology at this point.

That's actually a scale issue - and I think I got someone to understand how NOT simple their smart phone is with the following point (no stagnation in computing power over the last 35 years..)

In 1978 the fastest commercial computer in the world was the Cray-1, it cost about $8 million and people often built a building for the machine. A Cray-1 could reportedly do 80 million operations x 5 parallel pipes for a nominal 400 mega flops.

And it would literally not be fast enough to power a current smartphone.

re Medical Costs - a hopeful line of thought is that a Watson derivative is made which can run on Very Cheap computing resources (imagine Watson running on a raspberry-pi) but totally focused on medicine/health, and attached to cheap diagnostic sensors.

It's not necessarily your Dr., but it does very consistent 1st order triage - and so does a good job of saying "don't bother going to the Dr. - take an NSAID and drink lots of water" or "that's not normal, I've called your Dr., your appointment is for 10am, she'll already have my notes"

Combine this with the ever growing set of good and cheap medical sensors (blood pressure monitors seem to be leading the way.)

This won't make treatment for nasty diseases at the frontiers of medicine necessarily cheaper. But the cost and morbidity associated with out of control BP, people not realizing they have pneumonia, etc., could be reduced. And Drs. would be doing somewhat less guessing.

Of course, one result of the Oregon study was that even with care, people don't control BP or blood sugar. And I suppose we might find that even with MedicalWatson people don't control things. Sigh.

I nominate aerogel (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aerogel). It has been used for micrometeor capture. If it were cheaper to produce, it would make incredible home insulation. And it really is cool to hold and look it -- basically a cube of smoke.

Does a free market in healthcare count? Everyone thinks the market is determining healthcare because of insurance companies, but actually the system has been anti-free market at least since the 1960s. If the Surgery Center of Oklahoma is any guide, healthcare costs would collapse if the free market were returned.

This. More healthcare providers are moving to the cash-only model, with transparent pricing. And Medicare recently made pricing transparent across a wide range of medical providers.

The only piece we are really missing to have a functioning market in healthcare is outcome statistics. We need to measure outcomes to know which hospitals actually fix people at the lowest cost. Once we have that, we should have a revolution in healthcare cost and quality.

Also, there are a few "politically hard but conceptually simple" regulatory fixes, which if pushed through, would be game-changers. For instance, if Congress forced the FDA to reciprocate regulatory approvals from Canada, Germany, Japan, Singapore, etc., then we would see a flood of new drugs and devices hit the market.

Brock, I welcome transparent pricing, but I'm skeptical that we are moving toward it. My own personal experience has been that ascertaining what procedure's cost is nearly impossible. Two years ago my wife needed a relatively routine cardiac ablation to correct an arrythmia that wasn't life-threating, but had large lifestyle consequences. This procedure was precluded from my HSA/High Deductible insurance due to an exclusion (pre-existing condition). For several months we attempted to pay out of pocket, only to be ignored repeatedly. We had the doctor and his admin arm intervene. The hospital (a large one in Virginia) wouldn't talk to us directly, only through the doctor's staff. Eventually, they priced it at nearly $60k, and told us that if we paid up front, it would cost us $30k. They apparently based the price on a single case involving a 60-year old man; my wife was an otherwise perfectly healthy 35-year old woman. We were told that one reason (of many) the cost was high was due to the large number of catheters they went through during the procedure (in the case). When we asked the doctor's staff if that was typical, they said no, typically the procedure used fewer. We were also told this estimate priced in an abnormal amount of anesthesia. When we asked if the cost would go down if the procudure used less of any these inputs, well you can guess what the answer was. Here's the best part - I couldn't get any of this in writing (nor would a single hospital administrator talk to us). We were told (indirectly via the doctor's staff) to show up the day of with our checkbook. Frustrated, we ended up via various family-friend connections, getting a hospital in another state to perform the procedure at the Medicaid reimbursement rate of $8k. We were incredibly fortunate.

The theme of the thread is "Mindblowing" technologies, which are different from TGS-ending technologies. Think Tesla, rather than Edison.
We may not re-stimulate the economy with the LHC, ion drives, and telepathically controlled robots, but if those don't blow you away, then you've just gotten bored with engineering as a discipline.

Fracking, nuclear fracking. Of course it was a huge flop: http://aoghs.org/technology/project-gasbuggy/

A variant of that will probably work - http://nextbigfuture.com/2013/04/terrestrial-energy-will-make-integral.html

Last one was a stupid joke sorry, I would say GMOs. It exists, most people don't know about it and if you care to read it blows your mind. For example: http://www.biofortified.org/2013/06/scoop-on-ge-wheat-in-oregon/

Crop biotechnology probably is the one thing that has the greatest potential to improve human welfare the most for the largest number of people wordwide. It's sad that progressive nincompoops have latched onto it as their favorite boogeyman. Can you imagine what a revolution there would be in Africa if the farmers there had access to drought and disease resistant crops?
But NOOOO..... a starving man spreading water buffallo poop is more "natural".

No, no - The last one made this one of TC's most artful posts. TGS still underway, meanwhile, have a beer, poured by a minimally helpful, very expensive robot. Or, just have beer.
And glyphosate tolerant plants may very well be a flash in the pan, unless I'm missing something.

The BehaviorScan test market system that was started in 1980 that let consumer packaged goods corporations to pinpoint different ads to perfectly matched panels of consumers, then track their every real world purchase still sounds like science fiction. Here's a 1985 Inc magazine profile:


It was a big money maker for a number of years, then CPG firms got bored when it turned out that an alternative ad or doubling the ad budget seldom does all that much good for sales.

"cheap quality" is a pretty good description of much of the stuff passed off as education. Well done.

Memristor-based neural networks (using memristors--logic chips with variable resistance--as artificial synapses). Kurzweil "Singularity" (Strong AI) might not be as far away as people think.


Interesting, but at this point it is all still just hype. I am quite skeptical that this will be the AI breakthrough they are claiming it will be--I would bet on it being a complex new architecture that is even harder to program intelligence into than traditional hardware.

Do these chips allow for learning based on environmental feedback?

Tyler you said "I’m ready to call the great stagnation over when driverless cars are in the hands of the middle class, but that’s still a while away"

If anything, wouldn't that be the *start* of a great stagnation (provided everything else you argue holds true). Or do you foresee the advent of driverless cars inducing a whole era of innovation and median income growth?

This is an interesting observation. What innovation or income growth could driverless cars induce? I can't see much.

Well, at a minimum. it would put millions of taxi drivers and long-haul truckers on the job market. Just like the automation of farming sent people from the the farms to the factories. I'm sure there's some income growth to be found there.

That was a very different situation. Mass production was just coming online. Putting people out of work is no guarantee of wage growth.

Assuming a nearly complete driverless environment, cities with no need for parking lots could lead to a complete change in urban design and density. Plus personal vehicle commutes being much easier/efficient/faster due to much increased capacity of existing roads, much higher vehicle speeds, and working/playing from inside the vehicle. So you might get a boom in cities, or a boom in sprawl, or both.

Besides parking or being hired out when not needed, driverless cars can take care of their own charging, so electric cars become much more viable for the average user. The ease of car sharing might put a crimp on auto industries from a lower number of total cars on the road, though.

"not as good as cheap quality education and health care."

One could dismiss pretty much anything with a line like that. I suggest you also make it your stock movie, book, and TV review.

A lot of people don't seem to be aware of how cheap solar PV has become. A lot of Americans seem unaware that they on the verge of declining demand for grid electricity similar to what has been happening in Australia over the past couple of years. I guess the fact that US and Mexican retail electricity prices are very low by world standards and that installation costs are in general still quite high in the US compared to places like Europe, India, and Australia means that a lot of Americans have been able to ignore the PV revolution so far.

My impression was that the adoption of solar has largely been driven by government incentives rather than the true cost of technology.

While I am not an expert, the Wikipedia page comparing costs of power generation seems to support that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source. In all estimates that they show, solar PV is among the most expensive methods of power generation.

A five kilowatt system is now the median size of new rooftop solar in Australia and costs an average of about $2.50 US a watt without subsidy. Using a discount rate equal to the interest rate of a home equity loan, it will produce electricity at around or below half the cost of retail electricity. Solar PV has been installed for about a pound a watt in Britain and about a Euro a watt in Germany. At a Euro a watt rooftop solar is competitive with retail electricity just about everywhere and is competitive with wholesale electricity in most of the world's sunnier regions. The fall in the cost of solar electricity has been amazing.

If the price of PV goes too low, the government will slap a tariff on it. That happened in the U.S. and just today in the EU.

Sounds good for countries without any PV manufacturing industry. And solar panels themselves are now only a small part of the cost of solar power, so it's not as though a lack of cheap Chinese panels will have much effect on European or US installation rates. While it doesn't help, it's not too much of a hinderance.

Aluminium oxynitride is not transparent aluminium. That's like saying salt is a tasty form of chlorine. Ask a high school chemistry student.

When economists and STEMs understand each other to the level of, say, first year college, we will have taken a large step to a much better world. I am not holding my breath.

The name "transparent aluminum" is only being thrown around because it is an amusing Star Trek reference. I think "salt is a tasty form of chlorine" is a pretty funny thing to say, too.

Also, you may be overestimating the average high school chemistry student. I had a high school chemistry TEACHER who claimed that ice is denser than liquid water.

The "transparent alluminum" ALON is just an incremental improvement on existing transparent alumina (not a typo), which is the industrial term for factory-made sapphire. It's a big improvemnt, but in alumina we already had a mostly-transparent ceramic that uses aluminum.

Table salt is a tasty form of chlorine. All those tasty sodium ions nicely packed and well behaved among the Cl(-)s. Potassium chloride is a less tasty form of chlorine.

I agree. No one hopefully calls sapphire (aluminum oxide) pretty aluminum.

"Overall I am not blown away by the nominations and I find few of them in my own everyday life."

Reading fail ... the title said "most people." Most economists (already a non-representative set) think singularity is a noninvertible matrix problem, not an intelligent tech revolution. Your 'blown away' bar probably does not generalize. I do agree that material progress needs to show up in median real wages before we declare victory (and yet there's probably no new tech toy to get us that result).

For more measured tech optimism, here's a new working paper by some productivity experts: http://www.federalreserve.gov/pubs/feds/2013/201336/201336pap.pdf

3-D printing? A decent number of people are vaguely aware of some such thing as 3-D printing, but don't know enough about it for it to blow their minds.

Is there any reason to believe health care costs should ever diminish? I keep hearing all this yammering about how health care costs should come down, but I can't think of any reason why it should. Granted, there are certain things that prop up costs, like the pharmaceutical patent and regulation systems and the entrenchment of the insurance industry. But even clearing those hurdles represents a one-time cost reduction. Unless an entire generation of Americans become doctors at the expense of every other profession, I really don't see how or why health care costs would ever decrease significantly.

I also don't see this as an innovation/stagnation issue. What is it about health care that makes you think innovation is the main reason costs aren't decreasing?

Ryan, there are a couple of reasons heath care affects overall costs but they work somewhat differently, depending on whether they are separate (physical) product or product connected to human time. First is the mandated environment health care operates in: an environment of high overhead caused by highly regulated, high maintenance construction, whereby technology is locked out through multiple potential doors of environment innovation. The other technology "lock" is that of entry through the single door of physician/administrative access for all other health care activity. That allows all technological gain in healthcare to be captured at single instead of multiple points. If this were not enough, the lock on health care knowledge access multiples in such a way, that it decreases the value of all other knowledge in the present.

All of these are totally valid points. But again, it seems to suggest that it's not actually an innovation issue so much as a regulatory one. Clearing all regulatory obstacles should result in a big, one-time gain (in my view), after which we can expect the health care industry to slowly trend toward infinite costs. How much would you pay for a pill that guaranteed another 5 years of lifespan? (Or QALYs, if you prefer.) The closer you get to the end of your lifetime, the more you'll be willing to pay. Think of the character of Hippolite Terentyev from The Idiot.

I'm impressed by how many of the examples come out of material sciences. Materials with totally novel properties are incredibly cool.

Materials engineering is the biggest driver of innovation, IMO.

Dead right! Stuff first, things second. To translate for the non-STEMs, everything you use needed raw materials. There would be no biros without ink of the correct viscosity and no computers without high purity silicon.

Cathodic protection? Uses electric current to prevent pipelines and offshore oil platforms from corroding. A small, replacable piece of a more active metal "absorbs" all the corrosion.


This is pretty commonly used technology. This technology blew my mind when I learned about it as a child. It is a simple use of basic chemistry.

Are bloggers quoting reddit the moral equivalent of Friedman's taxi talks?

The ability to build things at the atomic level. Maybe it isnt going to change everything, but its pretty damn mind blowing if you ask me.

"I’d also claim the end of stagnation if we saw a 2% yearly rise in the median real wage on a sustained basis, say most of the years out of a ten-year period."

Does this strange definition go in reverse too? Because I suppose that means France entered stagnation later, and has stagnated less severely, than we have.

Maybe it's because I was too cheap to buy the e-book, but I do not understand why a sustained 2% yearly rise in the median real wage is more of an indication of no Great Stagnation than a sustained 2% yearly rise in the real GDP or GNI per capita.

The Reddit thread mentions advancements in prosthetic limbs and I am inclined to include them in the category of "mind blowing." I read about, and saw a video of, one recently that permits sensory feedback to the user. So, the user can actually feel (though to a somewhat limited extent at the moment) what he/she is touching or trying to pick up. To me at least, this is truly amazing advancement that has real practical uses in the near future as the technology develops; especially, given the amount of those types of injuries that have been sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

> given the amount of those types of injuries that have been sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And Boston.

My godson works at a company that makes prosthetic limbs. I said business must be pretty good with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that's not it -- most of the business is from diabetes.

I doubt healthcare inflation will ever stop (for reasonable definitions of "ever"). Every marginal dollar of income generated by the economy is likely to be disproportionately allocated to improving the length and quality of life, because, well, "you can't take it with you." So the only way for health care inflation to abate is for general deflation (from rapidly advancing technology in general, most likely), by enough to offset this marginal increasing allocation of resources towards health care.

And yes, I realize that the reductio ad absurdum of my argument is a society where a bunch of 500 year old Methuselahs are frolicking around due to the salubrious effects of allocating 99.999% of the productive capacity of a fantastically advanced civilization towards healthcare.

Health care inflation never stopping isn't the thing to worry about per se. The thing to worry about is wanting to spend more on health care, but having nothing new to buy. Buying ever more expensive and ever more miraculous treatments would be great.

Exactly. +1

1000x this. I'm stunned that TC hasn't considered this. What else would you possibly want to invest in in a post-material society??? Would you really prefer a better economic gadget to improving your health? Health care expenditure growth is not a mark against or in favor of TGS.

"Health care inflation never stopping isn't the thing to worry about per se. The thing to worry about is wanting to spend more on health care, but having nothing new to buy. Buying ever more expensive and ever more miraculous treatments would be great."

You clearly have no idea what inflation is. Inflation takes quality improvements into consideration. Health care inflation has averaged about 7.5% per year since the 1980s--that means the *same treatment* costs about 7.5 percent more each year.

That is not right. Here's some data:
This table nicely summarizes the sources of health care inflation over the decades. The first line, from 1960-2009, indicates that there has been 9.6% annual medical inflation, which is pretty similar to the 7.5% since the 1980s that you mention. So let's use that.

The biggest contributor to medical cost increases has been general, economy-wide inflation (39% of the 9.6% annual inflation rate). Since this is exogenous to medical inflation, I don't think anybody is worried about that, specific to health care inflation. What people are worried about when they express concern about health care inflation is the other three. Of those, the next biggest is "Intensity," (36% of the 9.6%) which reflects the increase in the amount and change in the mix of services performed. That is when there are new treatments, as well as when an old treatment is performed more often. So this can go up, even when the old procedure doesn't change in price at all.

The third component, "excess medical price information," is the thing that you are talking about, where the same old procedure has increased in price at a rate greater than inflation. But note that it is only 13% of 9.6%, or about 1.2% annualized inflation. So the part of excess health care inflation that is due to the "same treatment" simply costing more is not the 4 or 5% that you believe it to be (7.5% - 3% overall inflation since the 80's); rather, it is only 1.2% (13% * 9.6). The rest of the cost increase is due to intensity/mix changes, population growth, and overall inflation.

It has the details so you could re-create the results since 1985 and if you do that you get pretty much the same results. Of the 7.4% annual health care inflation since then, 2.5% has come from general inflation, and only 1.1% has come from excess medical inflation. 3.8% has come from population changes and changes in intensity/mix.

Although I normally would let my analysis speak for itself, I feel like your comment "You clearly have no idea what inflation is." is a bit of a personal swipe. So let me explain why I believe that I have a pretty good idea about what health care inflation is. I am a fully credentialed actuary who specialized in health care for over a decade, where my main job was to analyze claims information to determine average costs and calculate health care cost increases. So while my opinion is supported by the CDC report that I linked to, it was formed as a result of hundreds of analyses that show that intensity/mix is a huge contributor to health care costs. I am curious as to where you could have gotten the idea that since the 1980's, the same treatments have, on average, gone up by 7.5%.

Brain-computer interfaces come to mind.

@tyler there may be some low-hanging fruit still ripe for the picking!
One of the main problems with education at the high school level is inadequate teachers, but there are plenty of excellent teachers out there too, but most students aren't fortunate enough to have them.

Here's a new platform where phenomenal teachers can post video lessons online. The lessons will match the high school curriculum, and judging by the comments, it's definitely an effective way for students to learn.

Coursera and the like are great, but if we want more youth in STEM, we have to address the issue early in life.


#no-cost quality education
#meaningful innovation

Full path:

I found this most mind-blowing:


5-axis CNC machines.

Most people don't know about them because metal fabrication is no longer a common career path and modern Americans generally have little clue how physical goods are made.

Mind blowing? Just watch one of the many YouTube videos of 5-axis machines and tell me you are not amazed.

Gene therapy. It is routine in lab animals and has been done in a handful of cases in humans. In these cases people with incurable genetic disorders (even adults) are infected with a bioengineered virus that literally rewrites their DNA so that the post-viral infection DNA doesn't include the disease causing gene (and this modification is also passed down to any children of the person receiving the treatment).

For example, imagine a world where the hemophilia that afflicted the entire extended family of European royalty could be cured in every member of that extended family for all time in a month with suffering no greater than a case of the flu.

This is something that will be technologically possible in our lifetimes for simple single locus genetic conditions (alas, some genetic conditions like autism and schizophrenia have a genetic architecture too complex to treat this way any time soon).

Hm, what about all the stuff that you can do today with cryptography that most people think is impossible? Examples:

-Bit commitment: Hash functions let you give out proof that you knew a secret while not revealing that secret. The hashed version of the data doesn't allow the original to be recovered, but proves you musthave started with it.

-Zero knowledge proofs: More generally, there are protocols for proving that, e.g., a map can be colored with three colors without revealing the coloring.

-public key encryption: it's possible to tell people how to encrypt messages to you without telling them how to decrypt them

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