For the first time in its 18-year history, MIT Tech Review’s 2019 breakthrough list has been picked by a contributing editor, Microsoft founder, and former CEO Bill Gates.
Gates correctly predicted the rise of the home computer, the graphical desktop operating system, and the internet, so he seems like a natural choice for the esteemed publication’s first guest editor.
MIT Technology Review creates the list every year, highlighting where it feels technological developments will most impact on human life, during the coming year.
The move towards using a guest editor represents another paradigm shift in this year’s list – rather than focusing on technologies that are likely to extend human life; greater emphasis is put on those that could also improve it.
Many of the breakthroughs chosen for the list are aimed at solving challenges in two fields that are particularly relevant to improving human quality (and duration) of life – healthcare and the environment. And as would be expected, artificial intelligence (AI) has a part to play in the majority of them.
One of the highlights for me was the inclusion of “robot dexterity.” Those who have been following the rise of robotics and automation often comment that, while great at operating in carefully controlled environments, today’s robots often struggle when expected to cope with the unexpected or unfamiliar.
The field of robot dexterity revolves around building mechanical devices – for example, robotic hands – that can use AI to learn about unfamiliar devices and environments as they encounter them, and adapt to become more proficient at exploring and handling them.
The “cow-free burger” is another exciting addition to the list, demonstrating how high-tech and low-tech solutions can both help solve the same challenges – in this case, the vast amount of carbon emissions caused by the meat industry, and the contribution they make to climate change.
This category explicitly includes both plant-based meat alternatives, and artificially-grown “cultured meat, ” which has been the subject of much scientific experimentation during the previous decade.
The first artificially-grown meat burger was created in a laboratory by Mark Post at Maastricht University in 2013 at the cost of $300,000. By 2017, the cost of producing the same amount of artificial meat had been reduced to just over $11. Of course, questions remain to be answered about whether people will feel comfortable eating meat that is produced in-vitro. But with a growing awareness of the need to feed an ever-growing world population while reducing the amount of carbon released into the air by the livestock and meat packing industry, Gates clearly believes this technology has the potential to change the world.
Speaking of carbon emissions, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology also wins a place on the 2019 breakthrough list. Once again, it’s an idea that isn’t new, but due to ongoing research and development is now beginning to become available at a price that makes it a viable proposition for industry. The principle here is that carbon released in large volumes (for example from fossil fuel power stations) can be trapped before it enters the atmosphere and contributes to human-made climate change. It can then be deposited safely at underground storage sites. Some experts estimate that this technology has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions from power stations by up to 90%.
As with most of the technologies highlighted by Gates, AI acts as an enabler in this industry, where algorithms could be trained to predict the most efficient placement of carbon capture machinery as well as understand and monitor the behaviour of materials once they are deposited for storage.
As for healthcare, Gates highlights four particular applications which have proven their potential to improve patient outcomes and quality of life, and will no doubt become more efficient at doing so as time goes on.
These are wrist-worn electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors, pills that, when swallowed, can image the inside of the human digestive system, customised cancer vaccines created using personalised DNA and immune system profiling, and a new blood test which can indicate the likelihood of a premature birth in pregnant mothers.
Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-Chief, says “Bill’s list reflects his belief that we’re approaching a tipping point in humanity’s technological development – from technologies that mostly make life longer to those that mostly make it better.
“His choices highlight some of what he considers the most important challenges and opportunities of our time.”
The MIT Technology Review breakthrough list has been published every year since 2001, and in the past has highlighted ideas and technologies which are now commonplace, including cloud computing, instant messaging and self-driving vehicles.
Here’s the full 2019 selection, as picked by Gates – a comprehensive exploration of each idea will be published in the March/ April edition of MIT Technology Review, released on March 5.
- Robot dexterity—robot hands that can learn to manipulate unfamiliar objects on their own.
- New-wave nuclear power—both fission and fusion reactor designs that could help bring down carbon emissions.
- Predicting preemies—a simple blood test to warn of a preterm birth, potentially saving many children’s lives.
- Gut probe in a pill—a swallowable device that can image the digestive tract and even perform biopsies.
- Custom cancer vaccines—a treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to target only tumour cells.
- The cow-free burger—both plant-based and lab-grown meat alternatives that could drastically cut emissions from the food industry.
- Carbon dioxide catcher—techniques for absorbing CO2 from the air and locking it away that may finally become economic.
- An ECG on your wrist—the ability for people with heart conditions to continuously monitor their health and get early warnings of problems.
- Sanitation without sewers—a self-contained toilet that could tackle disease and unpleasant living conditions in much of the developing world.
- Smooth-talking AI assistants—new advances in natural language processing that make digital assistants capable of greater autonomy.