Forecasting the future is never easy. We were, of course, supposed to have flying cars by now—and yet here we all are, still stuck in traffic on the ground. But lack of personal aerial-transportation options aside, we are living in a world in which the pace of innovation and scientific discovery makes reality seem more and more like science fiction. In the next year, those lines will get even more blurred: Think electronic pills that beam your vitals to your doctor, a drone swooping from the sky to save lives in a disaster, or even a fundamental rethinking of how businesses relate to society. One thing that's certain: The world will look very different a year from now. We predict that these 12 ideas, currently being shaped in labs, skunk works, and boardrooms around the world, will be some of the most revolutionary, changing how we live, for the better, in 2014 and beyond. And if they fail to materialize in the next 12 months, just wait—they'll still happen before that flying car.
The malaria parasite still thrives in countries like Angola and Uganda, where treatment and prevention are tough to implement. But this year, the first-ever vaccine could come up for regulatory approval, giving hope that the world might someday end the disease. Read more here.
Police who responded to a Saskatchewan car accident last May had a dilemma—the victim was missing. They had no luck searching the area on the ground, but in this case, there was another tool: They sent an unmanned aerial vehicle to look for telltale infrared signatures. Read more here.
As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff puts it, "Code is literacy in the 21st century." Schools are starting to come around to that point of view, and 2014 will see a big jump in students who are studying computer programming. In 2013, Idaho and Tennessee passed legislation allowing computer science to fulfill math or science graduation requirements—a move that will lead to class sizes 50% larger than before—and organizations such as Code.org and the Association of Computing Machinery are working to spread the movement nationwide. This year, says ACM's director of public policy, Cameron Wilson, "we will unite behind the idea that every student should have access to K–12 computer science education as a fundamental new literacy for all, instead of knowledge for a privileged few."—Jillian Goodman
It wasn't long ago that everyone thought Siri would revolutionize the way we interact with our phones. That never quite happened, but new technology could fulfill the promise of a fully interactive AI personal assistant. The next step will come this year. Expect Labs will release an app that listens to your phone conversations and serves up information before you even ask for it. Read more here.
Access to the Internet has been expanding fast, with 35% of the global population now online, up from around 20% in 2008. In the next year, three projects will help it really take off. Mark Zuckerberg recently launched Internet.org, an initiative to make web access more affordable around the world. And Google is experimenting with a system of huge balloons outfitted with Wi-Fi transmitters. "Broadband is one of the most enabling technologies of our lifetime," says Steve Collar, CEO of O3b Networks, which is working to expand the Internet in developing countries. "But you can't run fiber through the Amazon or the mountains of Pakistan." Read more here.
Last fall, Apple captured the popular imagination by including a fingerprint reader in the iPhone 5s. But it's iris scanning that's more likely to affect how you interact with the electronic world. As a universal biometric ID, your iris will eventually replace passcodes and access cards. In 2014, the fast-growing biometrics industry is expected to reach $14 billion a year as eye scanning expands from international airports and border crossings to some U.S. corporate campuses, college buildings, and prisons. Read more.
3-D printers seem like they're everywhere—except few people have ever encountered one. That's about to change. With desktop machines like MakerBot's Replicator 2 selling for roughly the cost of a high-end laptop, they are finally getting accessible enough for home use. "Our biggest challenge is letting people know that they can be empowered to use this technology to make anything," says MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis. And the technology is making its way into everyday life in other ways. Read more.
Socially responsible for-profit companies try to do good without alienating shareholders. That's getting easier, thanks to the growing number of states that now allow benefit-corporation status. That legal designation helps protect social-minded companies from stock-price-is-everything investor lawsuits. Hundreds of private businesses have become benefit corporations. The next milestone? A public company adopting the status. Read more.
Wearable health sensors—products such as the Jawbone Up, the Fitbit Force, and the AliveCor Heart Monitor—have already racked up significant sales. Health-tracking tools, such as the data-crunching fertility app Glow, are quickly gathering both venture capital and devoted users. The next step? Big medical centers will have to pull data from these devices into electronic health records (EHRs), remove identifying information, and make it public. Read more.
Advertisers and third-party trackers have created a multibillion-dollar business by harvesting info from search engines and mobile apps, but none of that money goes to the owners of the identities being tracked. That could change in the wake of revelations about NSA surveillance and a growing awareness of data-privacy issues. Entrepreneurs are already capitalizing on the data-privacy trend. Read more.
It sounds like medical sci-fi: In the next year or so, biotech company Proteus Digital Health is planning to widely roll out a "smart pill" with a pinhead-size sensor that monitors the medications a patient takes and delivers data to a smartphone. Read more.
As computing and network capabilities have soared, home broadband has remained poky. Google's solution? Google Fiber, a technology that brings speeds to unheard-of levels, letting you download an entire HD movie in just under two minutes. In 2011, Google Fiber began a full-scale test in Kansas City, Kansas, and it's now rolling out in several other cities. "The original objective was, we want to move the web forward. How can we do that?" says Kevin Lo, who manages the business from day to day. "If you look at what slow Internet connections mean, 11% of business customers will walk away from a website if there's a one-second delay." One Goldman Sachs analyst recently posited that Google Fiber could reach 7.5 million homes by 2022—placing it among the top 10 Internet service providers in the U.S. — Jon Gertner
- A commercially available test-tube burger. Scientists have grown a patty in a lab. Replicating it for public consumption could make meat a truly guiltless pleasure.
- Car-free cities. Imagine a metropolis so well designed and public-transportation-rich that smog-spewing automobiles disappear entirely.
- Concussion-proof NFL helmets. Better head protection might save lives—and our most popular sport.
- Nuclear fusion. Atomic power that's safer and cleaner, with more-abundant fuel.
The only issue: It might be impossible to harness this reaction for energy.
- A shift to a happiness economy. Different economic thinking could reward companies and countries that create the best lives for people, not just the most wealth.
- A geoengineering climate solution. Can we stop climate change? Our fingers are crossed for some genius engineering idea—a shade to block the sun? A massive bloom of ocean algae?—that would provide a miracle fix.
- National high-speed rail. America is embarrassingly behind the rest of the world when it comes to the 300-mph trains that could connect our cities.
- A working tricorder. Blood work: expensive and painful. Scanning your body with a device that tells you your vitals and what's wrong with you: easy and painless.
A version of this article appeared in the February 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.