Since 2001, the MIT Technology Review has released their list of the 10 most important technological innovations that emerged each year. The editors selected each item based on its potential to change the world. Previous years lists included agricultural drones, ultraprivate smartphones, brain mapping, neuromorphic chips, genome editing, mobile collaboration, and micro 3-D printing. The 2015 list is just as exciting.
Inventors have tried to develop realistic three-dimensional (3D) depictions of images for many years. Traditional 3D images fool your eyes by presenting multiple images at different angles. This approach works, but the downside is that it makes some users feel dizzy or ill. Magic Leap’s technology uses a very small projector to reflect light off a clear lens directly into the user’s retina. The result is an incomparably realistic image that appears in the real world. Beyond the implications for entertainment industry, the technology could provide incredibly realistic training for medical professionals or engineers.
Conventional wisdom dictates that heavy materials are strong and light materials are more flexible. Nano-architectures prove that it’s possible to turn those rules on their head. Engineers can fabricate materials with a complex web of metal trusses. In the future, super strong and light materials could improve a variety of products. Currently researchers at MIT, Caltech, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are examining how to use these materials in high-density batteries and insulation.
Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of “driverless cars”. General Motors is working with the University of Michigan and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop new software for cars that enhance safety without relinquishing control. Car-to-car communication systems transmit their position, speed, break engagement, and other data to all vehicles that are nearby. Algorithms sift through data that is collected many times each second and alert the driver in case of danger. These systems have the potential to make driving much safer and greatly reduce the number of accidents.
Google whimsically named Project Loon aims to ensure that every person has Internet access. The effort relies on balloons that float in the stratosphere. Google plans to lease the Project Loon platform to wireless carriers around the world. This allows Internet service providers to use wireless spectrum they currently own and connect it to the balloon network. Google has recently developed an innovative system that makes it possible to pilot the balloons without an on board fuel source. This new development means that it could possibly provide Internet access to the every corner of the planet.
Early detection is a potent weapon in medicine’s fight against disease. Many maladies including cancer cause noticeable symptoms when the disease is in an advanced stage. Labs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and at Johns Hopkins University are developing blood tests that could reveal early stage cancers. When cancerous cells die they release DNA into the bloodstream, typically in very small quantities. A simple blood test could detect these strands of DNA and allow doctors to begin early treatment. The ability to find cancer early could revolutionize treatment of the disease and save countless lives.
Human civilization relies on the availability of drinkable water. Today 700 million people live in areas without access to sufficient amounts of clean drinking water. Many nations have experimented with desalination plants to meet their water demands. Desalination takes salty ocean water and makes it potable. Israel’s Sorek desalination plant is now operating at peak capacity. Several advances in reverse-osmosis technology allow Sorek to sell their water to the Israeli Water Authority for 58 cents for 1,000 liters. The plant’s technology uses less energy than traditional desalination procedures which could make it a viable alternative for water starved communities.
Apple Pay allows any person with an iPhone to make payments quickly and securely. Many companies have tried to develop their own mobile payment platforms but Apple’s is likely different. The success of the iPhone means that Apple Pay already has a broad potential user base. New phones have built in finger print sensors which increase security. Apple Pay could make checking out at the grocery store a frictionless and more enjoyable process.
For an organ that is essential to human civilization, little is known about the brain. Researchers at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology and Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a new procedure for building brain organoids. Using a specialized procedure they can transform skin cells into stem cells, which can turn into clumps of neurons. Observing the clumps of neurons develop could help unlock many questions about how the brain works. This new research path could potentially help to fight numerous neurological disorders including mental illness and Alzheimer’s.
The world’s population continues to grow at a steady clip. As the planet grows more crowded it presents a challenge to the Earth’s farmers. To address rising demand, scientists are trying to genetically modify plants like rice to boost their growth. The International Rice Research Institute is leading a consortium of scientists to insert a gene from corn and sugarcane into rice plants. This gene supercharges the photosynthesis process allowing the plant to grow larger in less time. The research is in its early stages but could play a critical role in feeding future generations.
Internet of DNA
DNA plays a powerful role in shaping the lives of people everywhere. Doctors are often ill equipped to treat rare medical conditions. If researchers were able to easily compare genes from people all over the world it could revolutionize the treatment of disease. Currently, digital records that include DNA sequences are very large making them difficult to share. In addition, privacy is a serious concern. The Global Alliance for Genomics and Health is trying to solve both of these issues with a peer-to-peer based query system that would protect privacy and make it easier to study genomic sequences. Together these advances could revolutionize medicine.
Check on the 2014 list here