Now it’s time to open the door on innovation that will become prominent in 2023. The January/February Innovation Issue of the MIT Technology Review has published its annual list of Ten Breakthrough Technologies 23. More than fifty technologies were considered for the list, and those that were chosen were identified as transformative and world changing. It isn’t exclusively a list of new launches but of those technologies now becoming prominent. Editor-in-chief Mat Honan points out that some of the items on the list aren’t exactly good news, reminding the reader “inclusion is not an endorsement as much as a statement about the potential impact of technology.” Read on for a majority of those that the Review editors found to be important in 2023.
JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched in 2021, and when it had fully deployed in its solar orbit 930,000 miles from Earth, its first images were released in July of 2022. Approximately 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, the difference between the two can be seen in the side-by-side images above of the newly forming stars in the Pillars of Creation. The smaller James Webb telescope was designed to observe in a lower frequency range than the Hubble “[in order] to detect infrared radiation, allowing it to cut through dust and look far back in time to a period when the universe’s first stars and galaxies formed,” according to MIT editor Jonathan Callaghan.
“Astronomers hope that,” with its view of the early universe, “JWST they will be able to piece together how the universe’s first galaxies came to be following the Big Bang.” But the firehose of galactic data that began streaming Earthward since July is expected to do much more.
According to Callaghan, “The telescope is being used across the breadth of astronomy. It could provide unprecedented insight into planets in other solar systems, allowing us to work out what their atmospheres are made of. It will witness the birth of new worlds, take magnificent images of nebulae, probe the structures of galaxies, and much, much more.”
CRISPR FOR COMMON CONDITIONS
(in 10-15 years)
The CRISPR gene-editing tool is currently being used in experimental treatments with a primary focus on rare genetic disorders. But last year a New Zealand woman was the first person to have a treatment designed around gene-editing to permanently lower her high cholesterol. She had an inherited risk for high cholesterol and heart disease, and editor Jessica Hamzelou sees this trial as a potential turning point for CRISPR, away from scientific research labs to clinics. Newer forms of CRISPR “could take things further still,” Hamzelou explains. “Prime editing—or CRISPR 3.0—allows scientists to insert chunks of DNA into a genome. If it works in people, it could let scientists replace disease-causing genes.” Old and newer forms of editing could expand gene editing to treat many conditions. “Someday, people may have the option to add genes thought to protect against high-blood pressure, or certain diseases, to their genetic code.” Hamzelou does add that at this point, all CRISPR treatments are experimental, and we don’t know if they’re safe.
AI REDEFINING ART
Creating artworks by writing a simple description of what you want is now possible with AI image-generating programs. For the early programs you needed powerful computing resources, and the ordinary user would have to rent equipment to use text-to-image models like DALL-E (2021). A much-improved DALL-E 2 followed in 2022, along with Google’s Imagen and the MidjourneyAI image generator. But then, Stability AI in the UK released Stable Diffusion, a program capable of creating amazing images and designed to work on a good home computer.
The economic and legal complications of this new means of creating art have yet to be fully addressed, but as Will Douglas Heaven reports for MIT, “The tech is now being built into commercial software, such as Photoshop. And text-to-image has already advanced to text-to-video. One day movies could be made just by feeding a script into a computer.”
See the September 2022 TechNotes “AI Art in 10 Seconds” for a more complete description of the programs.
ORGANS ON DEMAND
(in 10-15 years)
With about 130,000 organ transplants each year worldwide, the inadequate supply of organs remains a critical problem. Two possible solutions are currently in development: animal organs genetically altered to prevent rejection and 3D-printing scaffolds for building complex human tissues.
Xenotransplantation (from the Greek xénos, meaning “foreign”) is the transplantation of living cells or organs from one species to another. The attempts to prepare a pig’s heart for human transplantation has recently moved from the lab to a 57-year-old patient, David Bennett, at a Maryland hospital. A major difficulty with this type of transplantation is due to the possible transmission of virus between the species, and immune-mediated incompatibilities that could cause rejection. Several companies, including eGenesis a biotech in Cambridge, Mass., are working with gene-editing technology, including CRISPR, to address both of these problems. MIT editor Antonio Regaldo describes another approach for increasing the supply of transplant organs using 3D printers. “Researchers are in the early stages of exploring how to engineer complex tissue from the ground up. Some are 3D-printing scaffolds in the shape of lungs. Others are cultivating blob-like “organoids” from stem cells to imitate specific organs. In the long term, researchers hope to grow custom organs in factories.”
OPEN CHIP STANDARD
Creating and sharing open standards has produced such widespread successes as the Linux operating system and the connectivity between many of our devices through open standards like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, PDF, and ethernet. Now, an open standard called RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) might change how companies create computer chips.
RISC-V is an open standard free for anyone to use when they are designing a chip. Sophia Chen writes in MIT’s Innovation Issue, “RISC-V chips have already begun to pop up in earbuds, hard drives, and AI processors, with 10 billion cores already shipped. Companies are also working on RISC-V designs for data centers and spacecraft. In a few years, RISC-V proponents predict, the chips will be everywhere.”
ANCIENT DNA ANALYSIS
Paleogenetics, “the study of the past through the examination of preserved genetic material from the remains of ancient organisms” (Wikipedia), has until recently, suffered from weak technologies used for reading ancient DNA. “Now,” Hana Kiros reports, “new cheaper techniques and new methods that make damaged DNA legible to commercial sequencers are powering a boom in ancient DNA analysis. Today, scientists can even analyze microscopic traces of DNA found in dirt Neanderthals urinated in—no teeth or bones required.”
These new techniques have led to the discovery of two extinct human species—Homo luzonensis and Denisovans and, Kiros explains, “[they have] taught us that modern humans carry a substantial Denisovan and Neanderthal DNA.” And these revelations aren’t just backward looking but are shedding light on modern situations. Recently, scientists discovered that a mutation that enabled 40% of people to survive the Black Death is also a risk factor for autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease.
The inevitability of electric vehicles has increased the demand to find new sources for the materials to build batteries, especially elements like lithium. And now improvements in recycling science make it possible to turn old batteries into new ones. Editor Casey Crownhart writes, “Recycling facilities can now recover nearly all of the cobalt and nickel and over 80% of the lithium from used batteries and manufacturing scrap left over from battery production—and recyclers plan to resell those metals for a price nearly competitive with that of mined materials. Aluminum, copper, and graphite are often recovered as well.” Battery recycling factories won’t be enough, but until new battery designs emerge, they’ll become an essential part of the source materials for our current rechargeables.
Emission-free electric vehicles have finally become mainstream, and they’ll continue to transform the automotive industry. The projections include 13% of all new car sales worldwide in 2022 and 30% at the end of this decade. A primary motivation for sales has come from government policies aimed ultimately at zero emissions for all new cars, trucks, and SUVs by 2035 in the United States and similar goals for the EU nations.
The best-selling electric vehicle in the world today is the diminutive Hongguang Mini, which has a base selling price a little below $5,000 in the country that’s the largest manufacturer of EVs, China.
EV problems still in need of solutions include prices that must come down everywhere, battery production that must increase dramatically, charging stations that need to become widely and readily available, and clean electricity generation that will have to increase to meet the charging needs of these vehicles. Despite all these obstacles, it appears the internal combustion engine will eventually become marginal.
MASS-MARKET MILITARY DRONES
Drones have become a standard weapon in high-tech warfare, but until recently, craft like the U.S. Predator and Reaper have had restricted use because of cost and strict export controls. The recent war in Ukraine has seen extensive use of low-budget drone models made in China, Iran, or Turkey.
Kelsey Atherton describes the Turkish-made TB2 as one of these new, mass-produced, readily available drones. “The TB2 is a collection of good-enough parts put together in a slow-flying body,” he writes. “It travels at speeds up to 138 miles per hour and has a communication range of around 186 miles. [The manufacturer Baykar corporation] says it can stay aloft for 27 hours. But when combined with cameras that can share video with ground stations, the TB2 becomes a powerful tool for both targeting the laser-guided bombs carried on its wings and helping direct artillery barrages from the ground.” And Atherton ends with the weapon’s most significant advantage: “Most important is simply its availability. The TB2 is there for any country that wants it.” The drone has obvious tactical advantages, and Atherton concludes, “What’s also sadly clear is that these weapons will take an increasingly horrible toll on civilian populations around the world.”
Of those nominees that didn’t make the final 10, three are particularly interesting. The International Space Station is scheduled to shut down in 2030. The answer to what will replace it might come from NASA, China, or Russia, all of whom have plans, but all are too preliminary to have made the list. Fascination with what technologies might be on those new stations was noted.
Chore robots, androids to do the dishes, the laundry, and to feed and read to the kids, also were considered, but they’re still only a remote possibility. The interest, though, is high. Amazon has acquired the iRobot company, maker of Roombas, and the Dyson company recently offered hints at a secret chore robot prototype but the idea of an autonomous home helper is still entangled with too many engineering problems. The editors left this one on the table with a declaration, “We’ll believe it when we see it.”
And then there was the unlisted innovation labeled digital fashion. In a brief postscript, here’s what the editors had to say about this new fashion class. “Fashion brands and designers are now selling digital clothing and accessories in the metaverse and on gaming platforms like Roblox. And people are buying these garments to dress up their virtual avatars, in a new form of online self-expression. The digital fashion market is growing quickly and already influencing real-world trends. But our editors felt other technologies had greater potential to affect more people’s lives in a meaningful way.”