Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite. The shiny, beeping sphere effectively started the "space race" and ignited the public's imagination about the exciting (and alarming) possibilities of satellite surveillance and communications. Without such an impetus, it's possible that many of today's most common conveniences, from cell phones to Google Earth, wouldn't be nearly as advanced as they are.
Today, an even greater number of transformative technologies are emerging, in fields as varied as nanotechnology, robotics, synthetic biology, information technology, and the cognitive sciences. And they're likely to have just as big an impact as Sputnik did -- if not bigger -- on society, business and investing.
A smaller future
In last month's "Nanotech Is in the Genes," I discussed how new diagnostic technologies are employing genetic information to better treat individuals' illnesses.
For one potential play on the emerging opportunity in nanotechnology, consider Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation Harris & Harris (Nasdaq: TINY ) , a publicly traded venture capital firm specializing in nanotechnology. It's made strategic investments in more than two dozen of the most promising privately owned nanotech start-ups.
For a slightly less risky approach, look at major firms such as IBM (NYSE: IBM ) , 3M (NYSE: MMM ) , Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) , or BASF, which are investing millions in nanotechnology to make existing products better, faster, smaller, or cheaper.
Robotic cars, robotic surgeries
The advancements in the field of robotics are no less impressive. Oshkosh Truck Company recently launched a hulking new robotic truck, dubbed TerraMax, which drives itself. And early next month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring an event in which 15 teams will test their robo-cars' ability to drive themselves in an urban setting.
If the idea of allowing a robot to drive your car for you sounds a little farfetched, ask yourself this: How many people 50 years ago could have imagined zooming in on a satellite picture of their neighbor's house from an inexpensive, wirelessly connected laptop computer, all while speaking on a cell phone to a friend half a world away?
Of course, the advancements in robotics won't be limited to driverless cars and trucks. The Fool's extensively covered Rule Breakers pick iRobot's (Nasdaq: IRBT ) many advances, including the company's recent entry into both gutter cleaning and home monitoring. Meanwhile, fellow Rule Breakers pick Intuitive Surgical's (Nasdaq: ISRG ) Da Vinci robotic equipment is already performing 50% of all prostatectomy surgeries. The company's progress won't end there. It's already investigating applications for its robotic devices to perform heart surgeries as well as gynecological and infertility operations.
A new alien life form?
Finally, I would encourage investors to keep a close eye on the emerging field of synthetic biology. Craig Venter and others are increasingly confident that within the next few years, they will have successfully created new artificial life forms that could significantly affect the energy sector. "Designer bacteria" could do everything from "eating" the sulfur in heavy crude oil, thus transforming it into lighter crude, to efficiently breaking down corn and other agricultural feedstocks, creating ethanol or hydrogen in a single step. To position itself for just such a possibility, BP (NYSE: BP ) recently announced its investment in Venter's new company, Synthetic Genomics.
Toward a Foolish future
Sputnik led to radical advances in communications, creating entirely new industries in the process. Today's technological advances will do the same thing, but in a timeframe made exponentially faster by the past half-century's accelerating rate of technological progress. And like Sputnik, some of these advances will be out of this world.