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Wed 6 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Top 15 innovations of last 50 years

Technology has taken great strides to simplify day-to-day life and advance mankind.

Technology has taken great strides to simplify day-to-day life and advance mankind.

Over the last fifty years there have been countless developments that have made the way we live easier and more productive. From the laborious processes of 1958, technology has taken great strides to simplify day-to-day life and advance mankind. Though the individual improvements are too extensive to list here, CEO Middle East has selected the 15 innovation categories that have had the greatest impacts.

Commercial air travel

• Although commercial flights were available as early as the 1920s, these flights were barely comparable to the modern manifestation of mass public air travel. At this early stage, the flights were expensively reserved for the wealthy elite and served only a very few routes.

It was with the introduction of jumbo jets that air travel was brought to the general public.

It is hard to believe in a world where the busiest airport sees an aircraft take-off or land every 90 seconds that the commercial airliner was only launched in 1969. Since then, international flights have become more and more accessible to the masses, now making tourism one of the world's leading industries.

• From a business perspective, the easy availability of international flights has expedited the spread of global trade links, increasing the ease of international operations and the growth of multi-national companies. Though fears surround the future of air travel in light of the limited oil reserves, the recent release of the Airbus A380 and naissance of space travel suggest that the success of air travel could continue for another 50 years yet.

• The structure of DNA was discovered over 50 years ago by James Watson and Francis Crick but so complicated are genetic make-ups that scientists have continued, and continue to this day, to make new discoveries. It was not until 1969 that the first individual gene was isolated which opened the floodgates for genetic research: The science has gone from strength to strength since.

The principle uses of the newfound knowledge have been for medicine and crime fighting. The manipulation of individual genes can now cure previously untreatable diseases: One of the earliest examples of this treatment was the manufacture of human insulin to treat diabetics.

Controversial research is ongoing into embryonic stem cells and the potential they harbour for curing inherited diseases. There are fears that the research could set a dangerous precedent for cloning and the preferential engineering of babies, but the possibilities for medical advancement are so strong that the field of genetics continues to retain its momentum.

• Equally, the knowledge that more or less every one of us has an individual genetic code has allowed huge leaps forward in criminal forensic science: In some instances this has even meant the reopening and solving of ‘cold' cases. The USA now has the largest DNA database in the world, containing nearly five million records.
Digital technology

• Echnology has gradually been digitalised as computers have become more commonplace. Digital information storage takes up far less room than the more traditional methods, making transporting and sharing files far easier. Two areas that have significantly benefited from developments are music and photography.

• Digital music was being developed as early as the 1960s, to transform hefty analogue music files into the more malleable digital format.

This digitalisation led to many significant developments in the delivery of music to customers: The introduction of compact-disc technology (using digital files) in the 1980s almost completely displaced long-play vinyl records. Nowadays, the MP3 format lends itself perfectly to the internet generation, being a quicker and cheaper way to transmit music anywhere in the world.

• By the same token, digital photography has transformed the sector for professional and home users. Initially, digital photography could not match the clarity of film; pixilation was a problem gradually overcome by megapixel advances after the release of the first digital camera in 1981.

In 1999, Nikon introduced the first digital SLR to the marketplace and many professional photographers have since made the switch to digital images which are easier to enhance and manipulate.
Financial management

• The Automated Teller Machine (ATM) and cashless payments are two of the principle examples of how personal financial management has progressed.

• First installed in the mid-1960s, the ATM has transformed banking systems internationally, allowing customers to access their money, make deposits and pay bills without having to interact with a human staff-member.

Not only has this meant reduced bank overheads, it has also increased ease for customers as the ubiquitous machines are more conveniently placed and eliminate queuing time in banks and reliance on branch opening hours.

• Equally, cashless payment has revolutionised the way we handle our money in the modern day. Developments have been effortlessly integrated in our day-to-day lives to make monetary transfers ever-easier. Beginning with debit and credit cards, these systems have expanded to use personal online banking services, allowing customers to automatically debit funds from their accounts without actually having to handle cash or deal with bank staff.

It is not likely to be long before the projected ‘smart card' becomes widespread, by which customers can simply swipe a chipped card over a reader to pay for items without even reaching a cashier. Many people have now come to rely on these methods of financial management as the days of lengthy bank procedures slip quietly into the annals of history.

• It was Russian who launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957: Shortly afterwards, in the climate of the international ‘space race', the Americans put the Explorer 1 into orbit.

There are now thousands of man-made satellites circling the earth, monitoring and providing data for countless different uses. The military rely on them for their navigational and observational activities but they have many civilian uses too.

Communications are often bounced into outer space before arriving at their final destination; navigational systems rely on calculations from mobile satellites; scientists use the information to make meteorological forecasts; the police can even use satellite technology to trace the growth of illegal crops.

• One of the most useful civilian applications of satellite technology is the global positioning system (GPS). GPS works by employing a network of at least 24 microwave-emitting satellites. These signals then enable a receiver to determine its location, speed, direction and time, rendering the paper map almost redundant.

It was developed by the American military in the 1960s but the technology was approved for free civilian use in 1983 by President Reagan, following the accidental Soviet shooting of a passenger aircraft. Many of us will be familiar with the navigation uses of the GPS technology in modern cars and for tracking mobile objects but it continues to be useful in other fields such as measuring tectonic activity.
Fibre optics

• Scientists had been experimenting with optical fibre technology for many years but it was not until 1965 that engineers suggested the possibility of using the fibres as a medium for communication, one of its principle uses today.

The technology works by using the principle of ‘total internal reflection' to channel waves efficiently from one location to another. Many contemporary communications make use of fibre optics as they are flexible and can carry messages over longer distances than electrical cables with minimal distortion. The amount of data each fibre can carry is also significantly higher than the old electric cables, reducing the amount of space required for installations.

Modern fibres are about the width of a human hair and are bundled together into cables to allow the transmission of huge amounts of data at a time. Cable television, the internet and phone systems all use the technology to facilitate the transfer of countless data files.Their small size and flexibility means that other applications have profited, from medical cameras to engineering sensors.
Green technologies

• This title encompasses a huge amount of environmental advances that have sprung up in recent years.

The broad idea is to combat the energy problems associated with depleting hydro-carbon resources and protect the natural environment whilst doing so. Harnessing the power of renewable natural resources is becoming more of a priority for governments, and scientists have pursued advanced devices for collecting solar, tidal, wave and wind energy.

• One of the most impressive of these inventions is the hybrid car. Though the hydrogen-cell model of vehicle is still in development (running only on hydrogen with a by-product mainly of water), the interim model of green transport is the hybrid car.

These use two or more distinct fuel sources for power, more usually an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. By employing two methods, the consumption of precious hydro-carbon resources is lessened and greater efficiencies can be gained by recapturing energy where it might normally be lost, in braking for example.
Industrial robots

• Revolutionising the way factories work, industrial robots have taken on labour-intensive roles in many manufacturing fields. They are programmed to do repetitive, mundane tasks and can drastically improve productivity by being able to function for 24-hours at the same pace. Although the first patent for robotics was granted in 1961, it was when the large Japanese companies joined the field in the 1970s that things really moved forward.

Nowadays, robots are used in factories for welding, painting, assembly, pick and place, packaging, inspection and testing. This has increased the speed at which plants can produce their products and also freed up manpower for economic expansion in other, less labour-intensive areas.

• Countries such as Taiwan, China and Brazil have capitalised on this technology and become prime locations for manufacture outsourcing as they can cheaply and quickly produce large quantities of a product.

The car industry in particular has been transformed by the technology, which allows the complex machines to be put together and finished throughout the day. The speed and consistency of production has in turn driven prices down, fuelling the consumer boom of the last half century.

• Communication networks between the stations of a certain network were available in the early 1950s and 1960s but in 1973 engineers worked out how to link all these computers and networks into one limitless web. The popularity of the resource grew in the 1980s and 1990s as people discovered widespread information and file-sharing through the medium.

As reputation and use grew, it became imperative to organise the plethora of files available online which saw the establishment of popular search engines, such as Yahoo!, Altavista and Google. These days, so much business and daily tasks are conducted via the internet that it is difficult to remember how we ever managed without it.

According to the Internet World Stats, by September 2007, 1.244 billion people were using the internet. In a hyper-mobile world where business and employment opportunities can take people to any number of different countries, tools such as the internet are invaluable for keeping in touch with friends and family back home, a concept that the expatriate environment of the Gulf will be very familiar with.

It also means that working hours and locations have become more and more flexible, facilitating international commerce worldwide.
Personal computers

• It was with the advent of the microprocessor that performed the circuitry tasks formerly requiring huge amounts of space that the personal computer became feasible. Before the advent of microprocessors, the circuitry for computing and calculations required rooms of dedicated space. The tiny silicon chip that carries out most of a computer's functions was released in 1971 and business and homes seized upon the idea, leading to a vast proliferation of the PC in the 1970s and 1980s.

Where primarily used for basic tasks like word-processing at the beginning, computers are now used for a wealth of activities in the home, including gaming, photo storage, accounting and research. They have now revolutionised the way that people interact with one another and perform home and office tasks.
Organ transplants and keyhole surgery

• Medical advancements have been possible thanks to a number of the innovations listed here. Of these, the most marked in recent years have been organ transplants and keyhole surgery.

• Attempts to transplant organs between humans have been documented as far back as the early 1900s but it was not until 1954 that the first successful major-organ (kidney) transplant was carried out. Problems with rejection were minimised as the patients were two identical twins so it was with the discovery of relevant immunosuppressive drugs that the medicine became a significant lifesaver.

As a result, the first successful heart and lung transplant took place in 1981. With the increase of success and survival rates, transplants are evermore commonplace, limited most by the availability of organs. Research is ongoing into the genetic manufacture of organs for use in transplants and has been one of the key reasons cited for continued investigation into cloning.

• Keyhole surgery uses fibre optics to carry out moderate complex operations without the trauma of opening the abdomen or chest. It is minimally invasive but still allows important traditional procedures to be carried out by transmitting pictures of the inside of the body to the surgeon, who uses specially designed instruments through an incision a mere 5-10mm in diameter.
Mobile telephones

• The now omnipresent mobile (or cell) phone took its initial inspiration from the two-way radios used by police and transport workers. The first mobile phones were installed in cars, powered by the engine but gradually grew in portability to produce the first recognisable mobile handset in 1973. Following the development of the handset technology, the first commercial cellular network was launched in Japan in 1979 but it wasn't until the mid-1980s that a real boom occurred.

Gradually, the products have miniaturised and grown in utility so that today, few people are without a mobile. Networks are even establishing and growing in popularity in developing countries, particularly in Africa. Navigating the business world effectively would be unthinkable in the absence of mobile communications.

Concerns have been raised about the effect of the radiation produced by mobiles on health as the waves employed are within the microwave range. Extensive research has been carried out however, and the current thinking is that the handsets and transmitters are unlikely to be causing serious health conditions, leaving the door open for continued growth in the telecommunications industry.
Space shuttle

• The shuttle allows manned space missions to safely re-enter the atmosphere, improving the scope of the scientific investigations that they carry out. Without the space shuttle, the development of the International Space Station (a research facility using the conditions available in space for experiments) would have been severely impeded.

Images of space shuttles hurtling past the atmosphere are no longer out-of-the-ordinary. Though the first reusable space rocket (Colombia) was only launched in 1981, we have become used to media pictures of various missions as they set off. Tragedy set in when the last ‘Challenger' mission in 1986 resulted in a deadly explosion, killing all seven crew members.

Undeterred, the team at NASA have continued to develop and improve the shuttle and they continue to forge ahead with scientific investigations today. The various space shuttles have now flown for a total of 1,138 hours over 718 million kilometres (up to August 2007).

• An established safety record has now paved the way for space tourism: In 2001, the first paying visitor went beyond the atmosphere and Virgin Galactic now sells tickets for such trips at the bargain price of US$200,000.
Nano technoloy

• Nanotechnology is a broad term for a field of science that engineers materials at a molecular level. Initially, the term was designed for machines built in miniscule; scientists envisaged machines with motors, robot arms and computers built on a micro-scale.The definition has since been expanded to include anything that is built with atomic precision.

It is used in sunscreens, cosmetics, food products, food packaging, clothing and household products (to name a few) but the future of the technology looks set to be enormous.

By microscopically manipulating materials, it is anticipated that products will become cleaner, stronger, lighter and more precise. Experts believe that the science will find the most useful applications in energy storage, agricultural enhancement, water treatments, disease diagnosis, food processing and construction.

Of the proposed developments, one of the most prodigious is the ‘lab-on-a-chip' product, which can complete a full, on the spot diagnosis of a small sample of a patient's blood, detecting malaria, hormonal imbalances and possibly cancer. The potential for such remarkable technology in developing countries is enormous.

• The term 'laser' stands for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation; and they have several applied uses in science, medicine and the military.

First demonstrated in 1960, lasers now form a multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. CD players, DVD players, laser printers and barcode scanners are everyday items that all use the technology to read microscopic information from optical storage devices. Lasers have found uses in medicine too; in bleedless surgery and kidney stone treatment, to name two examples.

So precise and pliant is the technology that it can be used for low-intensity data-reading right the way up to cutting steel in industry. One of the most precise and delicate operations that it is used in today is that of eye surgery; this uses a laser to carefully shave off miniscule layers of the cornea to restore full sight to patients in an incredible application of the science.

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