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Proof of the fourth industrial revolution?

I have written many times about the fact that we are living in the fourth industrial revolution – one that is changing the world we live in drastically every day.

Two recent technologies, amongst the many that we see every day, captured my imagination this week – and the impact of these will definitely revolutionise our lives.

The first – would you believe it – is tattoos and technology. We all know that tattoos involve the decoration of the human skin with a picture, legend or pattern by inserting pigments under the skin. This is usually a painful and permanent solution.

Well – would you believe that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – one of the leading colleges that advancing knowledge in the area of science and technology, has partnered with Microsoft Research – and we all know who they are (love, or loathe them), to product temporary tattoos that allow users to communicate and control mobile devices, display information, or even store data on their skin!

This improves communication between the user and the computer and adds more room for communication – especially with mobile devices getting smaller and smaller.

How does it work? The user designs a stencil and cuts the pattern out of tattoo paper. This is then layered with gold metal leaf, which is pretty inexpensive. This creates conductivity and allows the attachment of surface mount electronics.

Using wireless signals and near field communication (NFC), this can then communicate with other devices. Applied by the use of a wet cloth and removed very simply – this option enables a closer human-computer interaction.

NFC is currently available in many of the modern smart phones – including the Microsoft Lumia range – which allows the easy transfer of data by simply tapping one NFC enabled device with another.

Using this technology – experiments have included controlling music on a smartphone, allowing users to share their moods by changing the colour of their tattoo, and display medical data such as time, date, heart rate and body temperature. How soon before you are reading your messages off your forearm, or choose to respond by tapping out a response on a part of your body?

The mind boggles. Who needs flash drives if you can transfer data or pictures via your body to a friend? How soon before technology allows the streaming of videos or music onto your body? This is probably a solution looking for a problem – but I have no doubt that very soon a whole ream of clever ideas using this technology will change our lives forever. I always wanted a tattoo – I cannot wait.

The second technology that will soon be released on the open market is the use of new lithium metal batteries that will double the life of devices that they power.

An MIT spinoff company called SolidEnergy Systems are releasing these batteries for use in drones in November this year, and mobile phones next year. How do they do this? The new battery switches the common battery anode material (graphite) for very thin, high-energy lithium-metal foil.

The lithium holds more ions, and provides more energy capacity. They have also now curbed this sort of batteries normal volatility, and made them rechargeable. The new batteries are half as large as current batteries with double the power.

Don’t ask me how to describe this technology in more detail, but let me tell you why I am excited. Firstly – imagine your mobile phone lasting for 3-4 days before re-charging, compared to now. In our current power environment in Malawi – imagine the reduction in hassle in charging your phone or laptop during one of our frequent power cuts.

That is the small picture. Think about the bigger picture. Drones will now be able to travel further and carry more payload than ever before.

They are now being considered for use in delivering internet to remote areas and even providing video conferencing options in the office. More importantly, electric cars currently widely available in the west have an estimated maximum range of just over 300km. This will at least double the travel range of such vehicles.

Be very excited for the future. I am.

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