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The next big invention

Published: 10th November, 2010 at 14:00
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Discover what determines whether your invention will make millions or just sit in your garden gathering dust.

Predicting the technologies of the future is notoriously tough. Businesses either thrive or go to the wall, depending on whether they get their predictions right or wrong.


And plenty of people have got it spectacularly wrong. “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” proclaimed British scientist Lord Kelvin at the end of the 19th century, just a few short years before the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” asked Harry Warner, of Warner Brothers, in 1927. While even the great Albert Einstein asserted in 1932 that: “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.”

But get it right, and riches can be yours. James Dyson (above), inventor of the dual cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, and a string of other innovations, is now sitting on an estimated fortune of £1.1bn. While Pierre Omidyar, the French computer programmer who in 1995 had the brainwave of linking buyers and sellers over the internet – leading to the online auction site eBay – is now worth in the region of £5bn.

Former Acorn Computers founder Chris Curry believes some of the biggest innovations of the next few years will be in the home. He thinks our increasingly time-poor society plus growing environmental concerns will widen the niche for home automation technologies, to make people’s lives easier and to implement energy conservation measures. “Everything that happens in the home will be semi-automated and controlled for the convenience of the occupiers,” he says.

Futurologist Jonathan Mitchener agrees environmentalism will open new niches. He envisages a wave of hardware becoming available for home electricity generation – such as back-garden wind turbines and solar power. “You can imagine solar panel roof tiles that clip together from B&Q,” he says. Mitchener also puts his money on wireless internet TV – beaming a signal from online sources such as iPlayer to your telly, as well as mobile devices – as internet bandwidth continues to grow. He also thinks new kinds of materials will arise from nanotechnology, the art of manipulating matter at the scale of atoms.

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, has his eye on biotech. “I suspect the genome will be to the first few decades of this century what the internet was to the last few decades of the last century,” he says. “It’s a rich, mostly open platform of information that enables tremendous innovation from both the public and private sector.”

The truth is though that nobody really knows for sure. “If I did, I’d be worth my weight in gold,” says Curry.


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Dr Paul Parsons is a science writer and analyst based in Aylesbury, England. He is a lapsed cosmologist, a former managing editor of BBC Sky at Night magazine, and once spent a summer working in a toilet roll factory. His books include 'The Beginning and the End of Everything', 'The Science of Doctor Who' and, most recently, '10 Short Lessons in Space Travel'.


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