Here is the list of technological advances that we believe will make a real difference in solving important problems. Read the following to discover which are those breakthroughs that will truly change how we live and work, according to a set of experts from MIT.
1. Digital money
The rise of digital currency has massive ramifications for financial privacy.
In June 2019 Facebook unveiled a “global digital currency” called Libra. The idea triggered a backlash and Libra may never launch, at least not in the way it was originally envisioned. But it’s still made a difference: just days after Facebook’s announcement, an official from the People’s Bank of China implied that it would speed the development of its own digital currency in response. Now China is poised to become the first major economy to issue a digital version of its money, which it intends as a replacement for physical cash.
China’s leaders apparently see Libra, meant to be backed by a reserve that will be mostly US dollars, as a threat: it could reinforce America’s disproportionate power over the global financial system, which stems from the dollar’s role as the world’s de facto reserve currency. Some suspect China intends to promote its digital renminbi internationally.
Now Facebook’s Libra pitch has become geopolitical. In October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised Congress that Libra “will extend America’s financial leadership as well as our democratic values and oversight around the world.” The digital money wars have begun.
Why it matters: As the use of physical cash declines, so does the freedom to transact without an intermediary. Meanwhile, digital currency technology could be used to splinter the global financial system.
2. Unhackable internet based on quantum physics
In the last few years, scientists have learned to transmit pairs of photons across fiber-optic cables in a way that absolutely protects the information encoded in them.
An internet based on quantum physics will soon enable inherently secure communication, says MIT. A team based in Delft University of Technology is said to be building a network connecting four cities in the Netherlands entirely by means of quantum technology. Messages sent over this network will be unhackable.
Why it matters: The internet is increasingly vulnerable to hacking; a quantum one would be unhackable.
3. Quantum supremacy
Quantum computers store and process data in a way completely differently from the ones we’re all used to. In theory, they could tackle certain classes of problems that even the most powerful classical supercomputer imaginable would take millennia to solve, like breaking today’s cryptographic codes or simulating the precise behavior of molecules to help discover new drugs and materials.
Google has provided the first clear proof of a quantum computer outperforming a classical one last year in October: they claimed such demonstration as being “quantum supremacy.” A computer with 53 qubits—the basic unit of quantum computation—did a calculation in a little over three minutes that, by Google’s reckoning, would have taken the world’s biggest supercomputer 10,000 years, or 1.5 billion times as long.
IBM challenged Google’s claim, saying the speedup would be a thousandfold at best; even so, it was a milestone, and each additional qubit will make the computer twice as fast.
Why it matters: Eventually, quantum computers will be able to solve problems no classical machine can manage.
4. Tiny AI
AI has a problem: in the quest to build more powerful algorithms, researchers are using ever greater amounts of data and computing power, and relying on centralized cloud services.
Tech giants and academic researchers are working on new algorithms to shrink existing deep-learning models without losing their capabilities and these advances are just starting to become available to consumers.
All this could bring about many benefits. Existing services like voice assistants, autocorrect, and digital cameras will get better and faster without having to ping the cloud every time they need access to a deep-learning model. Tiny AI will also make new applications possible, like mobile-based medical-image analysis or self-driving cars with faster reaction times. Finally, localized AI is better for privacy, since your data no longer needs to leave your device to improve a service or a feature.
For example, last May, Google announced that it can now run Google Assistant on users’ phones without sending requests to a remote server. As of iOS 13, Apple runs Siri’s speech recognition capabilities and its QuickType keyboard locally on the iPhone. IBM and Amazon now also offer developer platforms for making and deploying tiny AI.
Why it matters: Our devices will no longer need to talk to the cloud for us to benefit from the latest AI-driven features.
5. Differential privacy – a technique to measure the privacy of a crucial data set.
In 2020, the US government has a big task: collect data on the country’s 330 million residents while keeping their identities private. The data is released in statistical tables that policymakers and academics analyze when writing legislation or conducting research. By law, the Census Bureau must make sure that it can’t lead back to any individuals.
Differential privacy is a mathematical technique that makes this process rigorous by measuring how much privacy increases when “noise” – that is inaccurate data – is added. The method is already used by Apple and Facebook to collect aggregate data without identifying particular users.
Why it matters: It is increasingly difficult to keep the collected data private. A technique called differential privacy could solve that problem, build trust, and also become a model for other countries.
6. Hyper-personalized medicine
New classes of drugs that can be tailored to a person’s genes. Case study: if an extremely rare disease is caused by a specific DNA mistake—as several thousand are—there’s now at least a fighting chance for a genetic fix.
The new medicines might take the form of gene replacement, gene editing, or antisense (a sort of molecular eraser, which erases or fixes erroneous genetic messages). What the treatments have in common is that they can be programmed, in digital fashion and with digital speed, to correct or compensate for inherited diseases, letter for DNA letter.
Why it matters: Genetic medicine tailored to a single patient means hope for people whose ailments were previously incurable.
7. Anti aging drugs
The first wave of a new class of anti-aging drugs have begun human testing. These drugs won’t let you live longer (yet) but aim to treat specific ailments by slowing or reversing a fundamental process of aging.
The drugs are called “senolytics” – they work by removing certain cells that accumulate as we age. Known as “senescent” cells, they can create low-level inflammation that suppresses normal mechanisms of cellular repair and creates a toxic environment for neighboring cells.
Why it matters: A number of different diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and dementia, could potentially be treated by slowing aging.
8. AI-discovered molecules
The universe of molecules that could be turned into potentially life-saving drugs is mind-boggling in size: researchers estimate the number at around 10 to the power of 60. That’s more than all the atoms in the solar system, offering virtually unlimited chemical possibilities.
Now machine-learning tools can explore large databases of existing molecules and their properties, using the information to generate new possibilities. This could make it faster and cheaper to discover new drug candidates.
Why it matters: Commercializing a new drug costs around $2.5 billion on average.
One reason is the difficulty of finding promising molecules.
9. Satellite mega-constellations
Satellites that can beam a broadband connection to internet terminals. As long as these terminals have a clear view of the sky, they can deliver internet to any nearby devices. SpaceX alone wants to send more than 4.5 times more satellites into orbit this decade than humans have ever launched since Sputnik.
These mega-constellations are feasible because we have learned how to build smaller satellites and launch them more cheaply: reusable architecture and cheaper manufacturing mean we can strap dozens of them onto rockets to greatly lower the cost.
Why it matters: These systems can blanket the globe with high-speed internet—or turn Earth’s orbit into a junk-ridden minefield.
10. Climate change attribution
Researchers can now spot climate change’s role in extreme weather. World Weather Attribution had compared high-resolution computer simulations of worlds where climate change did and didn’t occur.
Earlier this decade, scientists were reluctant to link any specific event to climate change. But many more extreme-weather attribution studies have been done in the last few years, and rapidly improving tools and techniques have made them more reliable and convincing.
This has been made possible by a combination of advances. For one, the lengthening record of detailed satellite data is helping us understand natural systems. Also, increased computing power means scientists can create higher-resolution simulations and conduct many more virtual experiments.
Why it matters: By disentangling the role of climate change from other factors, the studies are telling us what kinds of risks we need to prepare for, including how much flooding to expect and how severe heat waves will get as global warming becomes worse. If we choose to listen, they can help us understand how to rebuild our cities and infrastructure for a climate-changed world.
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