Robots vacuum your house and take care of your Alzheimer's-afflicted parents. Nanoparticles glom onto cancer cells and attack tumors without harming surrounding tissue. Medical researchers plug your genetic information into a database and pull out all sorts of information about ailments that might one day afflict you and your children. And a new kind of search engine scours the Web and pulls out unexpected information, such as a type of shampoo that also works really well as a garage-floor cleaner.
These disparate "gee-whiz!" possibilities are all actually very close to reality or already exist. They come from some of the hottest research fields in the sciences today.
Robotics, nanotech, genomics, and search and information retrieval are all rising stars that will play increasingly crucial roles in the way humans interact with technology. All hold the promise to improve human life in dramatic ways. In this Technology Special Report, BusinessWeek writers located leaders in each of these fields and talked with them. In these conversations, they trace their discoveries to date -- and offer ways to understand the vast potential their disciplines hold for the future.
A $200 robot
In some cases, such as robotics, the stories have a sense of déjà vu. After all, futurists have been predicting that households would have robotic butlers and dishwashers ever since the Jetsons hit the airwaves.
What's different now is that for the first time ever, a company has built and sold a highly profitable household robot. iRobot's Roomba is a robotic vacuum cleaner that has won rave reviews and sold thousands of units, thanks to its very affordable $200 price. Now, Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot, has his engineers working on helpers that can do many other mundane tasks.
Read more about Colin Angle and his robots .
Beyond the nanotech hype
Nanotech may still be looking for commercial successes, but researchers are getting closer. In fact, nanotech treatments that could help doctors find and attack malignant cells quickly are about to enter trials, says Kristen Kulinowksi, a Rice University expert in the field. Other nanotech miracles further out on the horizon include environmental remediation where nanoparticles can be used to break up toxic waste. But the biomedical applications alone could help nanotech at last live up to its hype.
Read more about Kristen Kulinowski and the development of nanotech .
Libraries of genes
Nothing has improved medicine's understanding of disease more than the rapid advances in unraveling the secrets of the human genome. And now, scientists can imagine the possibility of understanding complex ailments that could involve multiple gene combinations as well as environmental triggers. With the help of advanced gene mapping and unprecedented computational power that allows scientists to store and compare vast libraries of genetic information from thousands of individuals, researchers such as Richard Gibbs at Baylor University in Texas are gaining key insights into diseases, such as schizophrenia and epilepsy, that once were deemed inscrutable.
Read more about Richard Gibbs and genetic treatments on the way .
Answering the "whys" of search
The computer isn't only powering genomics advances and the manipulation of biological data, but also rapid advances in search technology that's used to sift through mountains of Web data. Companies call this technology "business intelligence software." Consumers have gotten a glimpse of it via the steady improvements in Google's search engine, among other similar tools. Scientists at IBM, though, are taking the process to another level.
Big Blue's WebFountain technology does much more than simply track down information -- which IBM's Dan Gruhl and Andrew Tomkins call the "what" of search. Instead, WebFountain searches for the "why" -- it can track trends, divine what consumers are saying about a product, or even spot security threats that might otherwise be overlooked in the massive haystack of information on the Web. It could be the ultimate in search -- a way to not only find data and information but to unlock its meaning.
Read more about Dan Gruhl and Andrew Tomkins and WebFountain .
What these tech gurus have in common is an ambition to change the tools of life -- and life itself -- for the better.