In the “10 Breakthrough Technologies” column of Technology Review, MIT, Microsoft founder Bill Gates was asked to name a dozen innovations that will be remembered for 2019 and that will affect our future. The well-known leader tried to select not only the technologies that will be reported in the news headlines this year, but also those that will go down in history.
According to him , reducing the list to just a dozen was difficult. By the way, most of the technologies named by him in one way or another have been developed for a long time, some are already being introduced, and others will soon become the norm. So, this is more likely a forecast of the most important from the point of view of Mr. Gates about new technologies.
Robots will become nimble
Industrial robots are still clumsy and not flexible. The robot can repeatedly assemble the components on the conveyor with amazing accuracy and not be bored, but it is worth moving the object only a couple of centimeters or replacing it with something a bit different, and the machine will fail the exam. After 3-5 years, robots will be able to learn how to manage objects on their own through virtual trial and error.
One such project is Dactyl, a robot who has learned to turn a toy block in his fingers. Dactyl, a project of the nonprofit organization OpenAI from San Francisco, consists of an industrial robot arm surrounded by many light sources and cameras. Using so-called reinforcement learning, a neural network teaches a machine how to capture and successfully rotate a block in a simulated environment before the manipulator tries to cope with the task in reality. First, the software conducts random experiments, strengthening links in the network over time, when the algorithm approaches the target result.
It is usually impossible to transfer a virtual practice of this type to the real world, because such things as friction or various properties of materials are difficult to simulate. The OpenAI team bypassed this by adding an element of chance to virtual learning. If such teaching methods can be effectively used in the future, eventually robots will assemble smartphones, load dishwashers and even help grandmothers get out of bed.
Nuclear power generation
New designs of nuclear and thermonuclear reactors that are being developed in various countries of the world (Russia is one of the industry leaders) promise to make this energy source safer and cheaper. Among them are nuclear fusion reactors of the fourth generation (the development of traditional structures that can become a reality by the 2020s); small modular reactors; and, finally, full-fledged thermonuclear reactors – the cherished technology that they have been trying to create for a long time, but it still remains unattainable.
Small modular reactors typically generate tens of megawatts of energy (for comparison, a conventional nuclear reactor produces about 1000 MW). Companies like NuScale in Oregon say that miniature reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.
There is also some progress in the field of thermonuclear controlled synthesis, but before 2030 there is hardly anything definite in this area. Many people believe that synthesis is an impossible dream, but since such reactors cannot explode and do not create hazardous radioactive waste, their appearance can be a real breakthrough. By the way, Bill Gates is an investor of TerraPower and Commonwealth Fusion Systems companies involved in this area.
Predicting preterm births
15 million children are born prematurely every year – today it is the main cause of death for people under five years of age. Over the next five years, a simple blood test for a pregnant woman in the doctor’s office may report the risk of premature birth.
Our genetic material is mainly inside our cells. But a small amount of “cell-free” DNA and RNA molecules secreted by dying cells also float in our blood. In pregnant women, this material is a mixture of nucleic acids of the fetus, placenta and mother. Stanford University’s bioengineer Stephen Quake found a way to use this material to solve one of the most difficult problems in medicine: preterm labor.
After such an analysis, doctors can take steps to prevent early delivery and give the child a better chance of survival. Free-floating DNA and RNA molecules can provide information that previously required complex invasive methods of capturing cells, such as piercing the abdomen of a pregnant woman, to perform amniocentesis. According to Mr. Quake, the technology underlying such a blood test is fast, simple, and costs less than $ 10 per analysis. He and his co-workers launched the startup Akna Dx to commercialize the method.
Intestinal probe tablets
A small device that can be swallowed allows you to get detailed images of the intestine without anesthesia, even in infants and children. EED (Environmental enteric dysfunction) digestive upset can be one of the most common diseases that few people have heard of. It is characterized by inflamed intestines, which are poorly absorbed nutrients. The disease is widespread in poor countries and is one of the reasons why many people suffer from malnutrition, developmental delays and do not achieve normal growth. No one knows exactly what causes EED and how it can be prevented or treated.
An early bowel examination would help health professionals understand when to intervene and how to deal with the problem. Therapy is already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying the bowel disease of such young children often requires pain relief and a tube, called an endoscope, through the throat. It is expensive, inconvenient and impractical in those regions of the world where EED is prevalent.
Therefore, Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small devices that can be used to check the intestines for signs of EED and even for a tissue biopsy. Unlike endoscopes, they are easy to use.
Capsules for swallowing contain miniature microscopes. They are attached to a flexible thread-like cable that provides power and light when sending images to the console in the form of a portfolio with a monitor. This allows the medical professional to suspend the operation of the capsule in places of interest and pull it out after completion, which will allow it to be sterilized and reused. Although this sounds a little better than the endoscope, Mr. Tierney’s team has developed a technique that they say does not cause discomfort. The capsule can also include sensors that are capable of displaying the surface of the digestive tract with a resolution of up to one cell or capturing a three-dimensional image of sections of a couple of millimeters deep.
The technology has several uses. In MGH, it is used to diagnose Barrett’s syndrome, the precursor of esophageal cancer. For the EED, a team of researchers has developed an even more compact version of the pill for children who cannot swallow the pill. It was tested on adolescents in Pakistan, where the EED is common, and testing on babies is scheduled for this year. A small probe will help researchers answer questions about the development of EED — for example, what cells does it affect and are bacteria involved in the development of the disease.
Individual Cancer Vaccines
Scientists are on the verge of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. If it works as hoped, the vaccine will trigger a person’s immune system to detect a tumor by unique mutations – this would be an effective remedy for many types of cancer. Using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapy, limits damage to healthy cells. Attacking immune cells can also destroy individual cancer cells after an initial course of treatment.
The possibility of creating such vaccines began to emerge in 2008, five years after the completion of the Human Genome project, when genetics published the first sequence of cancer tumor cells. Soon after, the researchers began to compare the DNA of various tumor cells with the DNA of healthy cells. These studies confirmed that all cancer cells contain hundreds, if not thousands of specific mutations, most of which are unique to each tumor.
A few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided convincing evidence that a vaccine containing copies of certain mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T-lymphocytes, designed to find and destroy malignant cells.
In December 2017, BioNTech, in conjunction with the biotech giant Genentech, began extensive vaccine testing for cancer patients. The ongoing study targets at least 10 common cancers. Both companies are developing new production technologies to produce thousands of individual vaccines cheaply and quickly. It will be difficult because the creation of a vaccine involves a biopsy of the patient’s tumor, sequencing and analyzing its DNA and transmitting this information to the laboratory. After production, the vaccine must be immediately delivered to the hospital – delays can be fatal.
The UN expects that by 2050 there will be 9.8 billion people in the world. And while people on average are getting richer. None of these trends bode well for climate change, especially because richer people tend to eat more meat. By this date, according to forecasts, people will consume 70% more meat than in 2005. At the same time, animal husbandry has one of the most damaging effects on the environment.
Depending on the animal, for the production of a kilogram of meat protein by modern methods, 4–25 times more water is required, 6–17 times more land and 6–20 times more fossil fuels than to produce the same mass of vegetable protein. The problem is that people are unlikely to stop eating meat in the near future. This means that plant-grown and plant-based alternatives can be the best way out.
The production of laboratory meat involves the extraction of muscle tissue from animals and subsequent cultivation in bioreactors. The end product (at least the stuffing) should be close to natural, although researchers are still working on taste. Scientists from the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, who are working on the technology of industrial cultivation of such meat, believe that by next year they will have a laboratory burger. One of the drawbacks of meat grown artificially is that environmental benefits are negligible at best – a recent report of the World Economic Forum states that emissions from such meat will be only 7% less than natural beef.
“Ecological meat” from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor of both), which uses pea, soybean, wheat, potato and vegetable oils to imitate the texture and taste of animal meat, can be more beneficial from an environmental point of view. . Beyond Meat has built a new plant in California with an area of 2,400 square meters and has already sold more than 25 million hamburgers through 30,000 stores and restaurants. In the future, a burger with this “meat” will require 10 times less emissions than a regular beef.
Carbon dioxide trap
Even if humanity slows carbon dioxide emissions, the greenhouse effect may persist for thousands of years. According to the UN climate group, in order to prevent a dangerous rise in temperature, the world in this century will need to remove 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Last summer, Harvard climatologist David Keith calculated that, theoretically, machines could do the job for less than $ 100 per ton using an approach known as direct air trapping. This is an order of magnitude cheaper than previously thought, although it will take years until costs fall to that level. Carbon Engineering, a Canadian startup founded by Mr. Keith in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to produce synthetic fuel from CO2 produced in this way (Bill Gates is also an investor in Carbon Engineering).
The Climeworks Direct Air Capture Plant in Italy is also going to produce methane from absorbed carbon dioxide and hydrogen, and their Swiss plant will sell carbon dioxide to the soft drink industry. Global Thermostat in New York, which completed construction of its first commercial plant in Alabama last year, also supplies carbon dioxide to the carbonated beverage industry.
Also, CO2 derived from air can be used in carbon fiber, polymers or concrete. So far, however, the removal of carbon dioxide from the air, from an engineering point of view, is one of the most difficult and costly ways of dealing with climate change.
Electrocardiogram on the wrist
Fitness trackers are not serious medical devices – reading the pulse is not enough for reliable diagnosis and prevention of developing pathologies. In turn, the electrocardiogram (ECG), which doctors use to diagnose, can predict a stroke or a heart attack. Now it requires a visit to the clinic, and sometimes people just do not have time to do the test on time.
Smart watches with ECG support, made possible by innovations in hardware and software, offer the convenience of a wearable device with an accuracy close to full-fledged medical devices. The Apple Watch-compatible bracelet from the AliveCor startup, capable of detecting atrial fibrillation, a common cause of blood clots and strokes, received permission from the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) in 2017. Last year, Apple released its own watch with ECG support (FDA approved). Shortly thereafter, Withings announced plans to release a watch with an ECG function.
However, in modern wearable devices, only one electrode is still used, while in a full-fledged ECG device there are 12 of them. And none of the wearable devices is yet able to detect a heart attack as it occurs. But that may change soon. Last fall, AliveCor presented the preliminary results of the American Heart Association on a system with two sensors – it can detect a certain type of heart attack.
Toilets without sewage
About 2.3 billion people do not have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages them to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. In turn, diarrhea is the cause of death of every ninth child on the planet. Researchers are working to create a new type of toilet that will be cheap enough for developing countries and will not only be able to get rid of waste, but also recycle it. Bill Gates actively supports the development of toilets capable of recycling on-site waste, without the need to use large amounts of water to deliver feces to a remote sewage treatment plant.
Most of the prototypes are autonomous and do not need sewage, but still similar to traditional toilets and provide containers. But the toilet NEWgenerator, developed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants using an anaerobic membrane, which has smaller pores than bacteria and viruses. Another project developed by Biomass Controls from Connecticut is a refinery the size of an ordinary container – it heats the waste to form carbon-rich material that can be used as fertilizer. The system is designed for tens of thousands of users per day. Now the task is to make such projects more universal, convenient for various communities and more massive.
Free Speaking Voice Assistants
We have become accustomed to artificial intelligence-based voice assistants, but they did not live up to expectations. Technology is designed to simplify the lives of people, but so far the movement in this direction has just begun. They recognize only a narrow range of commands and are easily mistaken. But some recent advances should empower digital assistants.
In June 2018, researchers from the OpenAI team developed a technique that teaches AI on unmarked text to avoid the cost and time to classify and label all data manually. A few months later, Google introduced the BERT system, which learned how to predict missing words while studying millions of sentences. In the test for filling in the missing words, the system coped better than ordinary people.
These improvements, combined with advanced speech synthesis, make it possible to make interaction with machines more natural and create real digital helpers. Something is already surprising: for example, Google Duplex technology can make calls on behalf of a person and book places in a restaurant or salon on their own, imitating a person’s conversation. In China, consumers are already accustomed to AliMe Alibaba, who coordinates the delivery of packages by phone and bargains about the price of goods in the chat. But all this is just the beginning, the outline of the future – the AI is still working more based on statistics.