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Rage against the machine

Next year marks a bicentennial of sorts. Scholars point to 1817 as the end of the industrial sabotage carried out under the banner of the Luddite movement. It had all started in 1811, when English textile workers rebelled against factory owners who introduced technology which the laborers saw as a threat to their livelihoods.  During the peak of the violence, machinery was smashed, mill owners were assassinated and Luddites hanged in reprisal, and the regular British army was called in to crush the revolt.

The origins of the name Luddite are obscure, but may trace back some 30 years earlier to one Ned Ludd who, upon being provoked by a tiresome boss, took a hammer to a couple of knitting machines. Thus his name became forever linked with those ‘destroyers of machines.’  Today the name lives on, but might be more aptly characterized as ‘distrusters of machines.’  

Luddites were one of many labor movements that rose up in response to the Industrial Revolution. It’s doubtful whether the original Luddites were actually afraid of technology per se. In today’s parlance, however, the name has been appropriated to apply – derogatorily, and somewhat inaccurately – to anyone who rejects technology.  In other words, a technophobe.

Last spring, the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology issued its annual list of Ten Breakthrough Technologies of 2016, and some of these developments might cause even the most ardent Luddite to reconsider. Among the most interesting contenders; genetically engineered immune cells to combat cancers, reusable space rockets, and natural speech recognition software so we can talk to machines more intuitively.

Robotics that learn from one another are high on the list, as are self-driving cars. Power solutions run the gamut from the huge – a plant in Buffalo, NY, that’s meant to manufacture a gigawatt’s worth of solar panels every year – to the micro – a method of self-powering small Internet-connected devices just by harvesting energy from existing TV, radio or WiFi signals.

Slack is an interoffice messaging application. Unlike previous chat or collaboration tools, Slack channels messages into streams that allow everyone who works together to ‘overhear’ conversations about projects or initiatives, thereby keeping more of the team ‘in the loop.’  Messages on Slack tend to be short, more like mobile text messages so the application feels more immediate and effortless.

The most fascinating part of MIT’s list is that all these breakthroughs are either reality now or could be within the next year or two. Of course some will fall by the wayside, supplanted by as-yet-unimagined, but superior, technologies or unforeseen market demands. But others could be with us for a long time, fundamentally changing the way we live.

So the next time you’re tempted to chuck your ailing smartphone out the window, or, like Ned Ludd, take a hammer to your laptop, remember: The next big thing is always just around the corner.  

And it may be better than anything you can imagine.  

By Dan Booth