From climate-change attribution to anti-aging drugs, the MIT Technology Review’s annual 10 Breakthrough Technologies list covers advances in technology that its editorial team believes might be on the cusp of integration into our daily lives, affecting people from both a global and personal perspective.
The Review unveiled its list Wednesday morning, featuring key tech companies like Microsoft, Google, IBM, the Red Cross, and Amazon, whose new technologies are anticipated to change our lives throughout 2020 and beyond.
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David Rotman, editor-at-large for the MIT Technology Review — which is owned by but editorially independent from the Cambridge university — said the magazine continues to put out its annual list because it spurs conversation around the new technologies.
“Before selecting the 10 Breakthrough Technologies each year, the MIT Technology Review editorial team gets together to discuss what we’ve been writing about for the past year,” he said, “and which stories and technologies have stood out to us as the ones that we expect will make the biggest impact in business and society.”
Normally, Rotman said, the list covers a wide array of subjects, focusing on ones the editorial team believes will have key roles in their fields down the line.
“We pick the technologies that are working to solve big problems in society today,” he said. “An additional part of our methodology behind the selection of the list is to not only scout the newest technologies that are currently in use, but to also identify the ones that will make the most significant difference in the years to come.”
Here’s a breakdown of what the list covers, including when the technologies are expected to become widely available, and, in some cases, what challenges they face to come to fruition.
Using quantum technology, a team of researchers at Delft University of Technology are building a network that will connect four Netherland cities and allow them to send unhackable messages through this network. Over the past few years, scientists have found a way to transmit pairs of photons — basic units of all light — across fiber-optic cables that are designed for long-distance, high-performance data networking so that the information sent through them is completely protected. The Delft university team aims to have a quantum link set up between Delft and The Hague, which are about 6.9 miles apart, by the end of 2020, with the technology becoming more widely available within five years.
Researchers have found a way to develop personalized drugs that are tailored to affect and treat a person’s genes. This means people experiencing rare diseases caused by repeated genes or other DNA mistakes now have a chance at treatment. The medicine might take the form of gene replacement, gene editing — which acts like a cut and paste tool by snipping errors in the gene — or antisense, which is a method that silences defective genes. Companies and organizations like Ionis Pharmaceuticals, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Boston Children’s Hospital are all key players in this medical development. It’s already available, but as the MIT Technology Review points out, it faces a significant challenge: “Who will pay for these drugs when they help one person, but still take large teams to design and manufacture?”
When Facebook unleashed its idea of Libra, a “global digital currency,” to the world, it faced outcry and backlash — but the People’s Bank of China took to action amid public contempt for the idea, implying that it would be speeding up the process of releasing its own digital currency. Because of this, China is in the lead to become, within this year, the first major economy with a digital version of its money, replacing physical cash.
While these drugs, called Senolytics, won’t allow you to live longer just yet, they are in the human testing phases with the goal of slowing or reversing the process of aging so as to treat diseases like cancer, heart disease, or dementia. Senolytics work by targeting and removing “senescent”cells, which gather as we age and create toxic environments for other cells. You can expect these drugs to be available in less than five years, according to the Technology Review.
Finding and creating a new drug to treat a particular disease costs around $2.5 billion, according to the MIT Review’s reporting, and one of the main factors in that cost is how long it takes to seek and test molecules with the right life-saving properties. But now, thanks to researchers in Toronto and Hong Kong, artificial intelligence algorithms are starting to speed up the process, allowing scientists to quickly hunt down new molecules. MIT says this technology should be fully available within three to five years.
Companies like Amazon, SpaceX and OneWeb have now configured systems that can envelop even the most remote areas of the globe with high speed internet using thousands of satellites, all working together. One problem: Some researchers are concerned there’s a chance they could collide into each other to create “millions of pieces of space debris, making satellite services and future space exploration next to impossible.” We’ll see how that goes.
Within five to 10 years, quantum computers are expected to be able to solve problems no classic machine can, through the work of key players like Google, IBM, Microsoft and Quantum Circuits, among others. The goal of future quantum computers is to solve extremely complex problems, like finding the right behavior of molecules to create new drugs, or breaking codes that the basic computer would take millennia to unlock. That could be decades off, though.
Google, IBM, Apple and Amazon have established specialized AI chips that condense more computational power into a smaller physical space, using less energy to train and run AI. Through this upgrade, services like Siri and autocorrect will be faster without having to reconnect to the cloud when they need to learn a new model. And companies like Google and Apple are already rolling it out in their devices.
The US Census Bureau will be using differential privacy in the 2020 US Census as it collects data on millions of residents. With the help of Apple and Facebook, this technology allows agencies a new way to keep the data they collect completely private so that information can’t lead back to individuals. To anonymize people and their information, the Census Bureau inserts inaccurate information, or “noise,” into their data, making some people younger, older, or changing their race, so that others can’t decode private information. But the more inaccuracies that are added, the harder it is for the bureau to keep track of what data is real and what is useless. Differential privacy comes into play as a mathematical system to make this process more precise, calculating how much privacy increases as inaccuracies are added.
Scientists are more and more able to say with certainty which dangerous weather anomalies and patterns are a result of climate change. The World Weather Attribution and Red Cross, among others, are working to make advances in technology, like higher-resolution simulations and virtual experiments, so as to know how to prepare for a climate-changed world with severe heat waves and flooding. Knowing this information allows people to adapt our infrastructure in preparation, too.