New technologies emerge faster than ever now, but the editors and writers at the MIT Technology Review think they know which ones will be making the biggest impacts this year. The renowned tech magazine published its annual list of the 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2020 Wednesday morning; editor David Rotman spoke with Digital Trends about why everyone will be talking about tiny A.I., satellite mega-constellations, and anti-aging drugs this year.
“What we do to put the list together is really just ask each of our writers and editors, ‘What are really the most important advances that you’ve been writing about, thinking about over the last year?’” Rotman told Digital Trends. While it doesn’t have to be the most-covered tech, the breakthroughs that make the list often have multiple companies or organizations working towards making it happen. “We’re looking for big trends that are getting a lot of people excited,” he said.
Here’s the list:
1. Satellite mega-constellations will result as companies like SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb launch thousands of satellites, providing high-speed internet but clogging Earth’s orbit.
2. Tiny A.I. can run algorithms on our phones, instead of the cloud, giving us more power and security in our pockets.
3. Researches are turning to A.I. to discover molecules, lowering the cost and time of developing drugs.
4. With climate change attribution, institutions like World Weather Attribution are trying to determine how humans contributed to catastrophes like the Australian bushfires.
5. Delft University of Technology and others are working on a quantum internet that’s unhackable. It should be ready later this year.
6. To help patients with rare, incurable diseases, researchers are turning to personalized medicine.
7. For problems too big for even supercomputers to handle, there’s quantum supremacy.
8. There are lots of players looking to slow aging and avoid diseases like cancer and dementia, including the Mayo Clinic and Unity Biotechnology.
9. Is this the year digital money goes mainstream? Facebook and other are trying to make it happen.
10. The U.S. Census made waves when it announced the data it releases will be protected with differential privacy, a technique to help keep information secure. Some researchers worry that it may impact how they’re able to use the data, though.
With quantum supremacy, it’s a topic the editors have been following for years, but an October 2019 announcement from Google meant it had to make this year’s list. The company’s 53-bit quantum “Sycamore” processor computed a task in 200 seconds that would even the fastest supercomputer 10,000 years. “For the first time a quantum computer can do something — in this case, it is not that interesting — but it can do something that is not possible with a classical conventional computer,” said Rotman. An important part of MIT’s list is tempering expectations. Practical applications for quantum supremacy are still five to 10 years off.
That’s especially important with something like A.I.-discovered molecules. This process was recently in the news because researchers at MIT used machine learning to identify a new antibiotic. While institutions like the University of Toronto and Atomwise are working on developing other compounds, a usable drug is still several years off. “One thing we try to do with the list is have both things that are having an immediate impact, that are already available, and also things that will that will take a while,” said Rotman. The fact the list coincides with the big announcement of the antibiotic feels prescient. “I think it’s just confirmation that we’re that we have a hot topic,” he said.
Many of the technologies that made the list seem to overlap and even amplify each other, like advances in personalized and anti-aging medicine. It’s also no coincidence that A.I. is involved in many of these spaces, as it’s allowed for many breakthroughs — something that will continue as it runs on more devices, like your phone.
While the editors and writers all chose technologies that are solving big problems, Rotman pointed out that there are often downsides and risks. The satellite mega-constellations might hinder astronomers and contribute to space junk, for example. Still, “this year, I think each of the items have at least some benefits that you can point to,” he said.
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