The Future Is Now: A Photo Portfolio

Fast Company visits the front lines of innovation for a glimpse of tomorrow’s technology already in use.

The Future Is Now: A Photo Portfolio

From a steel plant in Kazakhstan where space-age helmets aid industrial output to a medical school in Texas revolutionizing health education, this photo essay shows futuristic technologies applied all over the world today.


China In India

Chickpet Market: Bangalore, India – October 9, 2015Photo: Vivek Singh

India is now officially the world’s fastest-growing economy. By 2017, it will surpass the U.S. to become the second-largest smartphone market. But the majority of Indians don’t yet have a ton to spend on phones. Beijing-based electronics maker Xiaomi—which sells high-end devices nearly at cost, generating profits from web services—is moving quickly to meet the country’s need. Since toppling Apple earlier this year to become the largest smartphone vendor in China, Xiaomi has bet big on India, partnering with Foxconn to assemble its first India-made phone, the $100 Redmi 2 Prime, thanks to recent tax laws that lower manufacturing costs. (The phone is now Xiaomi’s top seller in the country.) Meanwhile, the company is corralling superfans like 32-year-old IT–firm owner Guru Hangala (center), who helps moderate its bustling user forums, as beta testers for locally tailored features, such as a button that stanches data flow to prevent bill overages. To Hugo Barra, Xiaomi’s global VP, the opportunity is clear: “In India, a lot of [young people] won’t have a PC. They’re only going to experience the Internet through their mobile phone.” In other words, there’s a new generation of Xiaomi fans in the making. — J.J. McCorvey


IBM Security Operations Center: Dallas – October 7, 2015Photo: Melissa Golden

These computer experts are monitoring real-time global threat activity and possible attacks against IBM’s corporate clients: more than 12,000 businesses in 133 countries. The “Threat Globe” graphic, second from left, combines historical data—attack origin and method—with current intelligence to help pinpoint and evade perpetrators. Lately, security firms have been responding to a rise in ­waterholing—hacks by organized crime or foreign operatives into systems used by mobile business executives (such as free Wi-Fi at a coffee shop or a favorite news site). In the future, they’ll develop more and more ways to protect employees’ laptops, email, servers, and mobile devices that include software, subscription-based services—and even physical hardware. One company, Norse, has launched an appliance that plugs into a company’s network, tracks attempted intrusions, and can even create “honeypots” (fake servers that trap and profile potential infiltrators). Research firm Cybersecurity Ventures predicts that nearly $170 billion will be spent on cybersecurity worldwide in 2020. — Neal Ungerleider

Genetic Editing

[Photos: Andrew Tingle]

Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute

Blacksburg, Virginia — October 8, 2015


These little swimmers are mosquito pupae. But not just any mosquito pupae. They are transgenic mutants, created by researchers at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute using an extraordinary new gene-editing tool called CRISPR/Cas9. Developed contemporaneously in 2012 by separate teams at the University of California, Berkeley and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (and subject to an ongoing patent dispute), CRISPR/Cas9 allows researchers to cut and paste DNA with unprecedented accuracy and speed. And unlike earlier gene-editing tools, CRISPR/Cas9 is species-agnostic, working in insects, fish, mice, monkeys, and, most controversially, humans. CRISPR/Cas9 is already being applied toward cures for diseases ranging from cystic fibrosis to cancer; it could also open the door to the precision engineering of human embryos, prompting calls for regulation. Research on mosquitoes will affect human health more indirectly but with no less impact. Scientists hope to impart permanent genetic changes in wild mosquito populations, such as rendering them sterile or immune to pathogens like malaria—which killed more than half a million people in 2013. — Adam Bluestein

Connected Cities

Santander, Spain – October 10, 2015Photo: Luca Locatelli

Since the northern Spanish city of Santander installed more than 12,500 sensors downtown between 2010 and 2013, it has become a hotbed of smart-city experimentation. Now, officials know when streetlights aren’t working, when garbage cans are full, and when people face higher-than-normal levels of pollution. The European Union–funded project heralds a new era of urban responsiveness and cost efficiency. Santander is already spending 20% less to light its downtown parks, for instance, because lamps now come on only when people are actually present. The city’s high-tech infrastructure has attracted innovators from all over the world. Recently, it piloted an LED streetlight from Ericsson and Philips that doubles as a Wi-Fi and 4G antenna. This should allow residents to function as part of the city matrix so they become nodes of intelligence as well. — Ben Schiller

Feeding (and Fueling) the World

Cookhouse Test Kitchen

South San Francisco – October 7, 2015


In addition to sugar and eggs, this Meyer lemon cake contains a surprising ingredient: microalgae. As the world struggles to figure out how to feed 1.5 billion more people over the next 20 years, ­algae—which can be grown in the dark with relatively little land, energy, and ­water—is emerging as a viable, sustainable substitute for some fats in foods such as ice cream and salad dres­sing. (It can be found in Enjoy Life Foods’ brownie mix.) Solazyme, a leader in manufacturing algae for food, was founded as an algae-based fuel manufacturer (it’s currently a supplier to UPS). In 2011, it spun off a cosmetics company called Algenist, which had $24 million in revenue last year. Eating algae is the next frontier. — Adele Peters

Augmented Reality

KSP Steel Factory: Pavlodar, Kazakhstan – October 13, 2015Photos: Elyor Nematov

At a steel mill in ­Kazakhstan, a worker uses an augmented-reality “smart helmet” created by Los Angeles–based tech company Daqri to assess machinery by combining data projected before his eyes (prompted by his gazing at a black-and-white image) with his real-world observations. Daqri, which is developing hands-free tools so that factory workers, oil-rig employees, firefighters, and others can access real-time metrics without needing to fumble with tablets or laptops, is one of a swarm of nascent augmented-reality efforts targeting industry. APX Labs is developing ways for users to control factory equipment with eye motions, for example, and Google is updating Google Glass for the industrial crowd. Research firm Markets­AndMarkets predicts that augmented reality will be a $659 million business by 2018. Although smart helmets won’t be commonplace for another decade, they do, like any new data-driven technology, raise privacy concerns. After all, one thing they inevitably track is the employees who wear them. — Neal Ungerleider


Cannabis farm (name withheld)

Mendocino County, California — October 5, 2015


Until recently, scenes like this, of marijuana farmers harvesting their annual crop, would be shrouded in secrecy, but marijuana is slowly coming out of the shadows as laws criminalizing it topple one state at a time. The end of prohibition is opening up an industry that is expected to reach $8.2 billion by 2018, a figure that’s hardly surprising given that half of Americans already report consuming the substance. A raft of new startups have emerged to capitalize on this market, offering marijuana-infused food and skin-care products, pharmaceutical-grade concentrates, genetic testing and analysis for growers, and more, while farmers are developing high-quality strains of the leaf. (The New Age family farmers pictured here are the exclusive suppliers to Oakland medical-cannabis dispensary Harborside Health Center.) Still, the federal government has yet to legalize the plant. Until then, marijuana entrepreneurs must walk a tricky line between building their businesses and staying clear of federal drug officers. — Elizabeth Segran

Medical Training

The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin: October 9, 2015Photo: Tobias Hutzler

Treating sick people is hard. Curing today’s inflation-­ravaged health care system, in which legacy programs thrive by treating illness as opposed to fostering health, has proved to be even harder. The Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin—the first tier-one med school to be built from the ground up in more than half a century—is dedicated to reinventing medical education for a different future. The curriculum will train leaders to manage change and solve systemic problems and will be predominantly team-based (no more big lecture courses). An independent-study year in fields such as care delivery, population health and informatics, and more traditional research will also be included. A $295 million teaching hospital will serve the community’s neediest, and a collaboration with the university’s fine arts college, the Design Institute for Health (led by two Ideo veterans), will reimagine the entire health care process from a human-first perspective, questioning such things as the need for a waiting room. Dell, which was funded in part by a voter-approved tax increase, will welcome its first class of 50 students in June 2016. — Evie Nagy

[Light painting, Photo: Christopher Noelle]