Last week, news broke that NEC has developed a voice-translation system that can instantly translate approximately 50,000 Japanese words into English text on a mobile-phone display. It's easy to envision how this exciting development could increase business for those in the travel or hospitality industries, making Japanese natives who don't understand English more comfortable with the idea of traveling to an English-speaking destination.

Of course, voice translation technology isn't just limited to the Japanese or English languages. IBM (NYSE:IBM) and others are developing voice translation technology for scores of languages, including Arabic and Hindi.

Meet your new teacher
The real opportunity in voice-translation technology is much broader, and although it will be a few years before it's fully developed, investors are encouraged to think about the impact it could have on the $25 billion e-learning market.

This past week also witnessed the release of "Virtual Eve" -- a computerized avatar that can recognize whether a child is frustrated, confused, or angry, and then adjust its teaching techniques to soothe those emotions and better assist the child in learning.

The system is far from perfect, but I do know that it will only get better as computers, software, graphics, and now voice-translation technology continuously improve. I also know that the demand for long-distance learning and online tutoring is steadily increasing. If harnessed correctly, voice-translation technology represents a huge opportunity for online learners such as Apollo Group (NASDAQ:APOL) and Devry.

Don't get bent out of shape
If the idea of a virtual teacher is enough to cause you to crack up, I've got some good news for you from the world of material science. Researchers at the University of Illinois this past week announced that they've developed a far less expensive and more practical method for creating self-repairing materials. (The trick replaces a very expensive catalyst with microcapsules of chlorobenzene.)

BASF and DuPont (NYSE:DD), among others, have expressed interest in the field of self-healing materials in the past, but such materials were previously deemed impractical because of their expense.

According to the project's lead professor, however, "self-healing materials could become part of everyday life" thanks to the breakthrough. If so, two immediate applications that spring to mind are airplane fuselages and wind-farm propeller blades.

Further combining this development with the ample funds that companies such as Boeing (NYSE:BA), Ford (NYSE:F), and General Electric (NYSE:GE) are investing in nanotechnology to create next-generation materials, it's quite possible that the era of self-healing materials is closer to reality than most people realize.

More down to Earth
The final breakthrough announced this past week is a little more down to Earth. According to a report in the Dec. 4 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists at the University of California, Davis have created transgenic plants capable of surviving extreme drought.

With water levels running dangerously low in the Southwest, and a long-term drought afflicting the Southeastern portion of the United States, such plants are of more than a passing interest to America''s farmers. Their development could also prove a boon to large agricultural companies, including Archer Daniels Midland and Altria Group (NYSE:MO), which could improve its margins by employing transgenic corn crops or tobacco plants that either cost less to grow or could be grown in climates and locations closer to its customers.

Foolish bottom line
All three of this week's advances -- voice translation technology, self-healing material, and transgenic crops -- are still a few years from widespread commercial applicability. But for investors involved in the e-learning, chemicals, or agricultural sectors, it's not too soon to begin contemplating how this week's innovations could affect your portfolio.

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Fool contributor Jack Ulrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology. His latest book, Jump the Curve: 50 Strategies for Helping Companies Deal with Emerging Technologies, will be published in February 2008. He owns stock in IBM and GE. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.