Next Generation Technology

My December column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Here’s what you need to know about me. I’m not a tall man. I’ve never been one. I like basketball, but I knew from the very first time I held a basketball in my hands that I would not be joining the NBA. I’m not a good ball handler, or a shooter, and certainly, I’ve never even dreamt of soaring high into the air to dunk a ball into the net. I always lacked the essentials.

Oscar Pistorius is a 25-year-old world-class sprinter from South Africa who has a good chance at qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics. Like me, he too lacks the essentials for his sport. His legs end just below his knees.

Pistorius was born without a fibula in both legs and after consulting with specialists from around the world, his parents made the impossible decisions to amputate their son’s legs before he would learn to walk. Doctors advised the couple that this would be less traumatic for the youngster.

Pistorius has lived an active and athletic life, playing several sports competitively. Fitted with a pair of spring-like carbon-fiber prosthetic limbs, he has become a world-class sprinter, known as “the fastest man on no legs,” or simply as the “Blade Runner.”

As he was for the last Olympics, he is again on the cusp of qualifying for next year’s Olympics—not to be confused with the Paralympic Games, which are for athletes with disabilities.

The story of Oscar Pistorius has many angles. It is an inspirational story of one young man’s drive to beat incredible personal obstacles; it is a sports story; it is a technology story. Pistorius has also been entangled in ethical and legal issues from some who don’t think he should compete against other world-class athletes in the Olympics because of his use of prosthetics.

It’s too soon to tell if Pistorius is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, and if he embodies a new generation of professional athletes, but what is certain, as we turn the page on 2011, is that he represents the next generation of technology. (To learn more about this amazing athlete, visit www.oscarpistorius.com.)

What will come next, according to Juan Enriquez, a venture capitalist and founding director of the Life Sciences Project at the Harvard Business School, is the proliferation of three world-altering research trends involving engineering cells, tissues, and robots.

Taken together, they are “game changing,” he said at this year’s Emerging Technology Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In five to 10 years, those who are deaf today may be able to hear better than those of us who are not, and 10 years after that, blind people may be able to see with greater definition than those of us who are not blind. The day may come when only the deaf are permitted to join a symphony orchestra because of their outstanding sensitivity to musical tones, he said. As for advances in robotic dexterity and mobility, he noted Boston Dynamics and its Big Dog project as an example of how far we’ve come from fixed robots. (To see Big Dog, visit http://bit.ly/rZCDlP.)

Emerging technologies in robotics, computing, nanotechnology, and life sciences are transformative. We will keep tabs on them, and on the engineers and scientists who every day are challenging our notion of reality and designing a brave new world. Now if I could only develop a jump shot.

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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

February 2012

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