Briefly Explained


Technology for the future

Self-propelled cars, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and designer genes: what researchers and scientists are working on today will shape and change our lives tomorrow. But if something goes wrong, it can have unexpected consequences for everyone. Seven future technologies that we should only introduce with transparency and the greatest possible security.

Researchers and scientists are convinced that current developments in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) open up completely new possibilities and opportunities: Algorithms recognise Parkinson's disease, cancer or depression better than a doctor. Intelligent software autonomously controls driving cars and chatbots become personal assistants who relieve us of many duties in everyday life. This is no longer science fiction, but part of current basic research. The mathematician and computer specialist Max Little from Aston University in Birmingham, for example, develops algorithms that recognize from a person's language whether he or she may have Parkinson's disease. He is now using movement data and sensors from smartphones to identify Parkinson's disease at an early stage while walking.

AI therefore offers many opportunities, but like every innovation, it also harbours dangers. For example, audio and video recordings can be perfectly faked and fake news can be effectively distributed. AI will make the world of work more efficient in the future, but some professions may become superfluous. Algorithms decide independently on loans, insurance risks and the evaluation of employees. In the Chinese city of Rongcheng, an AI-supported "Social Credit System" is already being used for the moral assessment of citizens. The crucial question is: Who may collect this data, to whom may it be disclosed and for what purpose? And are the autonomous decisions of the systems error-free at all? The problem: How the algorithm comes to its decision is hardly comprehensible to people, but the consequences of an error are dramatic. The Swedish-American physicist Max Tegmark is already warning against a totalitarian AI surveillance state and the philosopher Thomas Metzinger against a deadly military arms race of autonomous systems. To be truly safe, AI decisions must become transparent and comprehensible to humans.


The blockchain is considered a miracle cure for the secure digital exchange of data. It was mainly developed as a web-based accounting system for the crypto currency Bitcoin. Theoretically, it is a perfect and fraud-proof system because it stores and updates the complete history of information that has ever occurred within the system. The special thing about it: This history is not stored centrally, but with many individual participants. In order to manipulate the system, each individual block chain would have to be manipulated simultaneously with countless participants, which is virtually impossible. This does not rule out manipulation in principle, but makes it very time-consuming and easy to recognize.


However, the decentralized data management creates new attack surfaces, for example on network communication and on the network nodes among each other. The blockchain thus has similarly critical points as any Internet or network connection. In order to minimize the residual risks, companies should install their business applications as a kind of private block chain with a limited number of subscribers. This model makes it easier to implement, implement and control technically and organizationally comprehensive security measures. Then the blockchain is as secure as Fort Knox.

From a purely technical point of view, vehicle drivers will soon be superfluous: whether on water, on land or on the road - innovative assistance systems will revolutionise traffic and our way of travelling. Researchers promise that autonomous cars with their numerous sensors and measuring systems will in future be safer than conventional cars, consume less fuel, cause less congestion and buy us more time as travellers. Today, self-propelled cars have already covered hundreds of thousands of kilometers in field trials. Cars with sophisticated assistance systems can perform certain tasks without human intervention, but only for a certain period of time. They overtake, brake, accelerate - depending on the traffic situation. Nevertheless, they are not yet suitable for everyday use because the systems have not yet functioned without errors. Sometimes the sensors detect light and shade as obstacles and brake abruptly, sometimes a car shearing out in the side lane is not registered in time.

And what criteria should the software use to make a decision in the event of an imminent accident? Although computers can evaluate dangerous situations millions of times faster than humans, what ethical principles should the machine follow? Who should die, who should survive? Men or women, children or seniors? Drivers or pedestrians? Scientists like Professor Iyad Rahwan from the MIT Media Lab in Boston are therefore developing a so-called Moral Machine, a software that is supposed to provide ethical guidelines for programmers. So it's not just a question of technology, it's also a question of trust. "If we give up control while driving, we need enormous confidence in the safety of the systems," explains Houssem Abdellatif, Global Head Autonomous Driving at TÜV SÜD. "Together with the manufacturers, we must therefore prove that technology can guarantee this safety."

It works like a small miracle: layer by layer, a large machine applies a grey powder to each other in a large basin for several hours. Slowly, the contours of complex structures become visible.  Later, they will be used, for example, in aircraft, medical technology or rail traffic. What's special: The workpieces are not cast, but printed. The technical term is additive manufacturing–unlike subtractive techniques such as milling, sawing or waterjet cutting.

The big advantage of 3D production is that it takes place without tools or moulds. Brackets or chassis parts can be produced directly from the design software data without having to rebuild special tools or entire machines for production beforehand. Companies can easily produce prototypes, fastening parts and also important functional models in small series using 3D printing.

Car manufacturers, medical device manufacturers and aircraft manufacturers in particular use this process. Boeing relies on fuel nozzles, turbine blades and sensors from the printer for its giant 777 jet. Competitor Airbus already has around a thousand 3D parts printed for the A350. Depending on the component, material and weight advantages of up to 55 percent are possible. In turn, weight reduction can be converted one-to-one into fuel savings.

However, all components that are subsequently used have to withstand all loads. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, for example, warn against too much 3D euphoria: Titanium components from the 3D printer can be much more porous than conventionally produced ones - and thus less stable.  This makes it all the more important to establish uniform industry standards for 3D printing. "A certification program clearly defines binding standards in an industrial context," emphasizes Christophe Blanc, an expert in additive manufacturing at TÜV SÜD.

They are already established in the construction and architectural sectors, and more and more industrial sectors are now taking advantage of Digital Twins. Using digital copies, architects and construction companies simulate complex construction and infrastructure projects in order to check and optimize everything in advance, even before the high-rise has actually been built. Companies that build machines or wind turbines also create a virtual image at the same time. Real and digital twins exchange data and information that is captured by sensors. This enables companies to detect product defects as early as the development phase and to check their systems and components even after delivery.

The advantages are manifold: Digital Twins can be used to run through scenarios, develop solution strategies, sound out improvements and implement them. In the virtual twin model, data from wind turbines, drilling platforms or aircraft can be evaluated. If a possible impairment of the digital twin can be detected, the maintenance personnel can be ready with the appropriate spare part, for example if the real aircraft lands at the destination airport.

The virtual copies even allow much more accurate predictions. For example, the computer can simulate several thousand more operating hours or change the climatic conditions of the location. In this way, it is possible to discuss quite precisely when a part will wear out. However, the virtual twins must be protected against malware and hacker attacks just as comprehensively as their physical counterparts. If the twin data there is no longer correct, things won't be going well in the real engine or elevator of the skyscraper for long.

Already in the novels of Aldous Huxley, who in the 1930s described a dystopic future world in the year 2540, researchers were able to determine the appearance and intelligence of a human being before birth. And indeed, scientists and geneticists are no longer so far removed from this vision.

Because a new tool is revolutionizing genetic engineering: CRISPR/Cas9 technology enables scientists to make a precise cut at the desired location on the DNA. The abbreviation stands for "clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats". In short, if the repair enzymes of the cell are provided with a suitable new section, they prefer to insert this genome section at the interface. The CRISPR/Cas9 gene scissors can be used to manipulate the genome relatively easily and precisely. Scientists hope to be able to directly eliminate disease-causing mutations. And so we can intervene in the developmental process of a living being; this is already being practiced in laboratories around the world on animal stem cells.

This in turn leads to radically new possibilities: Diseases could be treated better in the future, people could be optimized. The vision ranges from adapting the body structure and intelligence to stopping the aging process. But there is still a long way to go. Critics are already warning, however, that such methods are constantly shifting the definition of a genetic defect. The tailor-made designer baby would be the next logical step; anything else would be "defective".

Genetic engineering is also used for plants and food. However, many people at least want to know where the genetic material has been altered. But exactly this will no longer be possible with today's system. The boundaries between "natural" and "modified" are becoming increasingly blurred.

New York artist and activist Neil Harbisson has heard a lot: Whether he had a microphone on his head, a selfie stick or a GoPro camera. In fact, Harbisson looks unusual: From the back of his head, an antenna protrudes forward, which he had implanted with a chip in 2004. A sensor in the antenna registers the frequency of colors and forwards them to the chip in the back of his head. The cyborg has memorized a color for each pitch before the implantation.

Because of the technical components that are connected to his body, Harbisson can be described as a cyborg. The English term means as much as cybernetic organism. It refers to a living being whose body is fused with technology. A computer-controlled exoskeleton is also an example of the fusion of man and machine. At the opening ceremony of the 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil, a paraplegic Brazilian in a robot suit was able to symbolically toast the ball.

Researchers are working on robot-controlled arm or foot prostheses. Cochlear implants enable deaf people to hear again. And brain pacemakers help people suffering from Parkinson's to alleviate their symptoms. So-called myoelectric prostheses are in demand: Here, the control functions via the muscles of the residual limb remaining after the amputation, which is embedded in silicone. Researchers at the University Hospital in Heidelberg have developed electrodes that record muscle activity in the arm, for example. These electrodes are used to control electric motors that can control the gripping and turning movements of the hand and the functions of the elbow. Scientists are already working on controlling prostheses with thought impulses. Meanwhile, the American futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that the technical possibilities will accelerate exponentially. Then there will be nano-robots in our bloodstream, programmable genes against diseases or software copies for the human brain.