Ten inventive Technologies for 2017
These technologies all have staying power. They will affect the economy and our politics, improve medicine,
or influence our culture. Some are unfolding now; others will take a decade or more to develop. But you can know about all of them from below:
By experimenting, computers are figuring out how to do things that no programmer could teach them. Reinforcement learning works because researchers figured out how to get a computer to calculate the value that should be assigned to, say, each right or wrong turn that a rat might make on its way out of its maze. Each value is stored in a large table, and the computer updates all these values as it learns. For large and complicated tasks, this becomes computationally impractical.
In recent years, however, deep learning has proved an extremely efficient way to recognize patterns in data, whether the data refers to the turns in a maze, the positions on a Go board, or the pixels shown on screen during a computer game. In fact, it was in games that DeepMind made its name. In 2013 it published details of a program capable of learning to play various Atari video games at a superhuman level, leading Google to acquire the company for more than $500 million in 2014.
These and other feats have in turn inspired other researchers and companies to turn to reinforcement learning. A number of industrial-robot makers are testing the approach as a way to train their machines to perform new tasks without manual programming. And researchers at Google, also an Alphabet subsidiary, worked with DeepMind to use deep reinforcement learning to make its data centres more energy-efficient.
It is difficult to figure out how all the elements in a data centre will affect energy usage, but a reinforcement-learning algorithm can learn from collated data and experiment in simulation to suggest, say, how and when to operate the cooling systems. It is predicted to be available in 1 to 2 years.
Scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away. The French neuroscientist was watching a macaque monkey as it hunched aggressively at one end of a treadmill. His team had used a blade to slice halfway through the animal’s spinal cord, paralyzing its right leg.
Now Courtine wanted to prove he could get the monkey walking again. To do it, he and colleagues had installed a recording device beneath its skull, touching its motor cortex, and sutured a pad of flexible electrodes around the animal’s spinal cord, below the injury. A wireless connection joined the two electronic devices.
They were able to make the monkey walk again. These technologies could help thousands of people recover from paralyzing injuries each year. Projected availability is in 10 to 15 years.
Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon inundate the highways near you. What will this mean for global truck drivers? Continual developments are making long-haul trucks that drive themselves for extended stretches on highways more attainable. Significant challenges remain, including having sensors and code -match the situational awareness of a professional trucker.
In the short term, this technology may welcome truck drivers to complete routes more efficiently, but it could also erode their pay and eventually replace many of them altogether. Key companies to watch in this area include Daimler, Otto, Peterbilt, and Volvo. Availability is prediction to be in five to 10 years.
Paying with Your Face
Face-detecting systems in China now authorize payments, provide access to facilities, and track down criminals. Will other countries follow? Using facial recognition technology to define the many unique features of a person’s face, algorithms are proving to be reliable enough to define identities through geometric and spatial calculations.
Of the many applications for facial recognition, one of the potentially profitable is financial transactions. While these technologies are proving to be reliable, privacy concerns are being raised. Key companies in this area include Alibaba, Baidu, and Face++.
Practical Quantum Computers
Advances at Google, Intel, and several research groups indicate that computers with previously unimaginable power are finally within reach. This technology will revolutionize artificial intelligence and machine learning, specifically the area of constraint-based modeling. Solving complex simulations and scheduling problems inherent in complex supply chains and logistics systems is an area of research today.
MIT Tech Review’s team also believes this technology could create uncrackable encryption. Key companies to watch in this area include Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and QuTech. Projected availability is 4 to 5 years.
The 360-Degree Selfie
Inexpensive cameras that make spherical images are opening a new era in photography and changing the way people share stories. We experience the world in 360 degrees, surrounded by sights and sounds. Until recently, there were two main options for shooting photos and video that captured that context: use a rig to position multiple cameras at different angles with overlapping fields of view or pay at least $10,000 for a special camera.
The production process was just as cumbersome and generally took multiple days to complete. Once you shot your footage, you had to transfer the images to a computer; wrestle with complex, pricey software to fuse them into a seamless picture; and then convert the file into a format that other people could view easily.
Today, anyone can buy a decent 360° camera for less than $500, record a video within minutes, and upload it to Facebook or YouTube. Much of this amateur 360° content is blurry; some of it captures 360 degrees horizontally but not vertically, and most of it is mundane. Producing 360° images and videos is predicted to be the new standard for news coverage and vacation shots and video. Several companies have cameras that will do this today.
The leaders in this area include 360fly, Humaneyes Technologies, IC Real Tech, JK Imaging, Ricoh, and Samsung.
Hot Solar Cells
By converting heat to focused beams of light, a new solar device could create cheap and continuous power. Standard silicon solar cells mainly capture the visual light from violet to red. That and other factors mean that they can never turn more than around 32% of the energy in sunlight into electricity.
The MIT device is still a crude prototype, operating at just 6.8% efficiency—but with various enhancements, it could be rough twice as efficient as conventional photovoltaics. The key step in creating the device was the development of something called an absorber emitter. It essentially acts as a light funnel above the solar cells. The absorbing layer is built from solid black carbon nanotubes that capture all the energy in sunlight and convert most of it into heat.
As temperatures reach around 1,000 °C, the adjacent emitting layer radiates that energy back out as light, now mostly narrowed to bands that the photovoltaic cells can absorb. The emitter is made from a photonic crystal, a structure that can be designed at the nanoscale to control which wavelengths of light flow through it.
Another critical advance was the addition of a highly specialized optical filter that transmits the tailored light while reflecting nearly all the unusable photons back. This “photon recycling” produces more heat, which generates more of the light that the solar cell can absorb, improving the efficiency of the system. It shall be available from 10 to 15 years.
Gene Therapy 2.0
Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next, we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses. Fixing rare diseases, impressive in its own right, could be just the start.
Researchers are studying gene therapy in clinical trials for about 40 to 50 different diseases, says Maria-Grazia Roncarolo, a pediatrician and scientist at Stanford University who led early gene-therapy experiments in Italy that laid the foundation for Strimvelis. That’s up from just a few conditions 10 years ago. And in addition to treating disorders caused by malfunctions in single genes, researchers are looking to engineer these therapies for more common diseases, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart failure, and cancer.
Harvard geneticist George Church has said that someday, everyone may be able to take gene therapy to combat the effects of aging. Leading companies in this area include BioMarin, BlueBird Bio, GenSight Biologics, Spark Therapeutics, and UniQure.
The Cell Atlas
The centre of this innovation is the development of a master catalogue of every cell type in the human body. Having a precise taxonomy that can provide accurate models of human physiology will speed up the discovery and testing of new drugs.
It’s predicted this will be available in 5 years. Behind the cell, atlas is big science powerhouses including Britain’s Sanger Institute, the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and a new “Biohub” in California funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In September Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, made the cell atlas the inaugural target of a $3 billion donation to medical research.
The relentless push to add connectivity to home gadgets is creating dangerous side effects that figure to get even worse. Botnets have existed for at least a decade. As early as 2000, hackers were breaking into computers over the Internet and controlling them en masse from centralized systems.
Among other things, the hackers used the combined computing power of these botnets to launch distributed denial-of-service attacks, which flood websites with traffic to take them down. But now the problem is getting worse, thanks to a flood of cheap webcams, digital video recorders, and other gadgets in the “Internet of things.” Because these devices typically have little or no security, hackers can take them over with little effort. And that makes it easier than ever to build huge botnets that take down much more than one site at a time.
Botnets pose a security risk to large-scale areas of the Internet today. Predicated on the Mirai botnet software, this innovation underscores how essential security is for any Internet of Things device, system or platform.