Science & Technology

The Periodic Table of Technology Lays Out Which Advances Are Coming Next

Pretty much everybody learns the periodic table of the elements in school (or, in the case of this writer, tries and fails to learn the periodic table of the elements). It's fundamental in so many ways — it literally catalogs the fundamental units of the universe, making it key to understanding chemistry, physics, and other scientific fields. Every once in a while scientists find a few new heavy elements to add the chart, but for all intents and purposes, it's basically complete. You know what's not complete — what will never be complete? A periodic table of technology.

Atomic-Scale Technologies

Here's the thing about the periodic table of disruptive technology: Technology is inherently a creative invention, so the table isn't necessarily bound by any unbreakable laws of the physical world. Still, the table created by Richard Watson and Anna Cupani from Imperial Tech Foresight modeled their chart on the periodic table in order to place an incredibly diverse array of bleeding-edge and near-future technologies in a comprehensible order.

While the periodic table of the elements starts in the upper left-hand corner and generally reads from left to right, the most basic "elements" of the table of disruptive technology are found in the lower left-hand corner, and they can be read along two axes. The farther you go to the right, the farther off in time the technology is predicted to be developed. The higher up you go, the greater each technology's potential to transform society. Along these two axes, the chart's developers have included 100 technologies that could be coming very soon — or not at all.

Reading the Table

The other element of the table that's immediately evident is that it's color-coded. The green square in the lower left corner represents those technologies that already exist, regardless of how widespread they have become. In green, you'll find tech that you might already be familiar with like smart diapers and cryptocurrency. The latter has a greater potential for disruption than the former, in the estimation of the creators, and we'll go ahead and say they're probably right. It might be helpful to know if a diaper is full of number one or number two before you open it, but it's not going to change the global economic system.

The next tier, yellow, are all imagined to be possible within a couple of years or so. These are items that we are one or two technological development away from encountering, that many of us can already easily imagine incorporated into our lives. Things like diagnostic "tricorders" and high-tech computerized clothing fall under this category. Red-level technologies aren't likely to be around for a few decades — perhaps 20 years or more. That might be enough time for us to perfect pollution-eating architecture or even advanced battlefield robots.

Except for the green items, no technology on the chart is a guarantee. But those at the gray level are the least likely to happen. Technologies like widespread, reliable de-extinction, lightning-fast space elevators, and economically efficient asteroid mining could transform how we live our lives, but they'll also require developments that are currently far beyond our capabilities and might not be possible at all. Still, the chart gives us a handy metric to judge the significance of any particular technological development — not to mention inspiring a whole new generation of sci-fi writers to come up with the chart's next stars.

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Who else knows the future of technology? Innovation expert Alec Ross does. In "The Industries of the Future," he explores the digital landscape of tomorrow's business. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas August 28, 2018

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