The MIT Technology Review has published its annual “Predictions Issue” (March/April 2020) that outlines 10 breakthrough technologies the editors predict will have a major impact for years to come. This year’s roster includes individualized cure-for-one drugs, launching swarms of satellites at a time instead of single craft, reprogramming faults in our DNA, the future (or possibly the end) of cash, guaranteeing security on the internet, and the race between IBM and Google for quantum dominance.
Some of these are operational now, and some won’t be coming into view for a decade, or more, but all are in the works. The editors explain how their selections were made: “We (the contributors and editors) avoid the one-off tricks, the overhyped new gadgets. Instead, we look for those breakthroughs that will truly change how we live and work.”
1. An Unhackable Internet
Dutch researchers at Delft University of Technology QuTech research centers are currently at work building a quantum network that will connect four Netherlands cities to share communications over end-to-end quantum hardware.
The science that renders the messaging unhackable is based on the entanglement principle of quantum particles traveling in the network. Entangled particles in a quantum state retain their connection to each other despite distances between them. In conventional computing, streams of electrical or optical pulses are coded as 1s or 0s. They’re binary and can sometimes be viewed by hackers intruding into their flow from outside the system. In a quantum system, the flow of particles (atoms, electrons, or photons) called qubits can represent 1 or 0 both 1 and 0 at the same time. When an intruder enters the stream, the qubits “collapse” to the state of conventional bits, either 1 or 0. Not only has the quantum information been destroyed, making it unreadable, but there’s also a signal that the stream has been altered that alerts those within the network.
Currently, the QuTech team can send transmissions more than 1.5 km. (0.9 mi.), and they expect to establish a quantum link between Delft and The Hague, a distance of 11.1 km. (6.9 mi.), at the end of this year. For more distant connections, they will need quantum repeaters, and they expect those should be ready within the next five to six years.
2. Hyperpersonalized Medicine
If DNA does work like our body’s software, then you should be able to correct unique genetic mutations by fixing the code. This type of “editing” is now allowing new classes of customized drugs that address rare disorders at a genetic level. “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.” These medicines often don’t attract attention of the major pharmaceutical companies because of cost of development vs. limited applications calculations.
Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicineat the Technology Review, points out an economic dimension of these therapies: “The real challenge for ‘n-of-one’ treatments (a reference to single-patient clinical trials) is that they defy just about every accepted notion of how pharmaceuticals should be developed, tested, and sold.” Some of these medications are already available with new research in the offing.
3. Digital Money
When an online social network like Facebook decides it would be a good idea to issue its own global digital currency (Libra), and the most populous nation on earth (China) implies that it’s going to “speed up the development of its own digital version of its money,” some are asking, how long before cash is abandoned by all but the numismatist?
Mike Orcutt, senior reporter for blockchain at the Technology Review,sees the Chinese response as an opening of the digital money wars with the dollar’s role as the world’s de facto reserve currency at stake. And with the decline of cash, the death of financial privacy becomes more likely, with that depending on “who will develop and control the electronic payment systems of the future.” As to the availability of digital currency today, there are currently 1,658 functional cryptocurrencies according to investing.com.
4. Anti-Aging Drugs
Senolytics are a new class of drugs designed to remove “senescent” cells, which accumulate as we grow older. These cells develop as a natural result of aging, and they can generate mild inflammations “that suppress normal mechanisms of cellular repair and create a toxic environment for neighboring cells.” The purpose of senolytic medications is to remove the damaged cells more efficiently than what would happen with the body’s white cells sent to eliminate them.
Targets of the drugs include osteoarthritis of the knee, age-related diseases of the eyes and lungs, Parkinson’s, dementia, and Alzheimer’s. Companies involved in human trials of senolytics include Unity Biotechnology, Alkahest, the Mayo Clinic, and Oisín Biotechnologies. With positive results, expect see these drugs in five years.
5. AI-Discovered Molecules
Part of the long and expensive process of developing new pharmaceuticals involves finding the appropriate molecules to use from massive databases of molecules sorted by specific properties. AI algorithms, capable of deep learning, are now being used to select candidates that can be modeled and then synthesized for testing. The drug hunters have powerful new tools with these algorithms.
6. Mega-Constellations of Tiny Satellites
Orbital space surrounding the earth is becoming more crowded with satellites, and this year SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, and Telesat are planning on launching clusters of additional communications satellites (mega-constellations) to cover the earth with broadband internet connections.
The benefit will be broadband for all, but the risks include possible collisions in the overcrowded atmosphere “that could cascade into a catastrophe of millions of pieces of space debris, making satellite services and future space exploration next to impossible.” Currently, these cluster launches planned to occur on an accelerating pace this year.
7. Quantum Supremacy
There have been working quantum computers for several years now, but they have limited capacity and very limited repertoires. In October 2019, Google offered a proof of concept for quantum supremacy with a 53-qubit computer that did a calculation in three minutes that would have taken the largest supercomputer 10,000 years to complete. “The goal now is to build machines with enough qubits to solve useful problems.”
The Technology Review’s editor-in-chief, Gideon Lichfield, offers a list of those striving to produce commercial quantum computers, including Google, IBM, Microsoft, Rigetti, D-Wave, IonQ, Zapata Computing, and Quantum Circuits. As to when these sufficiently powerful quantum machines might appear, one estimate from Lichfield is five to 10 years, with the cautious reservation that these computers might remain beyond the current state of hardware and code.
8. Tiny AI
Today, when you ask your mobile to parse natural language requests and answers or do a session with keyboard autocorrect, your browser must send your request to processors and databases in the cloud. But that’s changing with an emerging generation of specialized AI chips that pack more computational power into tighter physical spaces while using less energy.
Google, for example, can now run Google Assistant on your phone, Apple’s iOS13 runs Siri and QuickType keyboard on your iPhone, and IBM and Amazon now have developer programs for creating and displaying tiny AI. The benefits are not only showing up on your mobile phone, but also will be built in to faster-reacting autonomous vehicles and mobile-based medical-image analyses.
9. Differential Privacy
One of America’s most significant databases is the 10-year informational database of the U.S. Census. Federal law requires anonymity for those residents providing the 330 million files, and to prevent “de-anonymizing” the individuals, the Census Bureau introduces inaccuracies, or “noise” into the data. The more noise, the safer the data.
This mathematical technique is called differential privacy, and it’s also used by Apple and Facebook “to collect aggregate data without identifying particular users.” Improvements expected with its use in the 2020 Census should enable its implementation in other federal agencies.
10. Climate-Change Attribution
Since 2015, the World Weather Attribution organization (WWA) has been analyzing and communicating the possible influence of climate change on extreme weather events in order to reduce the human, economic, and environmental costs of weather-related disasters. The WWA partnership includes the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford; Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute; Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environment; and the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.
James Temple, senior energy editor at the Technology Review,comments on recent advances that make their reports more reliable and convincing. “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. If we choose to listen, they can help us understand how to rebuild our cities and infrastructure for a climate-changed world.”
For some of these technologies, the development curve is approaching complete while others are a decade or more away. All could provide significant future advantages, especially in the fields of nano-medicine and advanced computing power.