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TechTank

Ten innovations that could change the world

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, wireless sensor networks, grid computing, additive manufacturing, smart watches, and mobile 3-D. The 2016 list is just as exciting.

Immune engineering

Scientists have developed a gene-editing method called TALENs which can make changes to DNA in living cells. These genetically engineered immune cells are saving the lives of cancer patients and could lead to new treatments for HIV and autoimmune diseases like arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Scientists discovered that they could gain control over T cells in a person’s blood stream and, by using a virus, could add new DNA instructions to aim them at the type of blood cell that goes awry in leukemia. Scientists are now looking at creating a “universal” supply of T cells made from blood donors but edited to exclude receptor that T cells use to seek out foreign molecules.

Precise gene editing in plants

A new gene-editing method called CRISPR provides a precise way to modify crops to yield more food and more effectively resist drought and disease. Research shown that the plant genomes can be edited without leaving foreign DNA behind, which could avoid existing regulations governing genetically modified organisms. This innovation could increase agricultural productivity to feed the world’s growing population.

Conversational interfaces

China’s leading Internet company Baidu has developed powerful speech technology called Deep Speech 2 which makes using a smartphone much easier. Deep Speech 2 learns to associate sounds with words and phrases as it is fed millions of examples of transcribed speech. It can recognize spoken words with impressive accuracy–researchers found that it can sometimes transcribe Mandarin speech more accurately than a person. This type of technology matters because it can be time-consuming and frustrating to interact with devices by typing, especially in a language like Chinese with thousands of characters.

Reusable rockets

Before 2015, expensive rockets were only functional for one flight before burning up. Now they can make an upright landing and be refueled for another trip. If more rockets can land safely and be reused, the cost of spaceflight could be lowered, providing incredible opportunities for more space travel in the future. The first two successful companies at landing a rocket, SpaceX and Blue Origin, bring their rockets down on fold-out legs, a trick that requires onboard software to fire thrusters and manipulate flaps that slow the rockets at precise moments.

Robots that teach each other

Before robots can perform advanced jobs, they need to learn how to recognize and handle common objects. They need access to reams of data on how to grasp and manipulate objects. Typically, this data comes from painstaking programming. But this process could become much easier if robots that learn tasks then send that knowledge to the cloud for other robots to access later. Capabilities of robots could accelerate dramatically if each type of machine didn’t have to be programmed separately.

DNA app store

Genomes hold information about our health, traits, and relatives. Helix will collect a saliva sample from anyone who buys a DNA app, sequence and analyze the customers’ genes, and then digitize the findings so they can be accessed by software developers who want to sell other apps. An online store for information about your genes would make it cheap and easy to learn more about your health risks and predispositions. Keith Stewart of the Mayo Clinic says that most apps that return real medical information would need to include a doctor and potentially receive regulatory agency approval. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration keeps close tabs on gene tests and will decide how much information Helix apps can reveal.

SolarCity’s Gigafactory

Built and paid for by the state of New York, a $750 million solar facility in Buffalo will produce one gigawatt of solar capacity per year and make the technology far more attractive to homeowners. SolarCity’s factory will begin producing some of the most efficient solar panels available commercially. Solar rooftop panels have become increasingly popular in households due to federal solar subsidies and “net metering” rules that allow homeowners in many states to sell excess power back to the grid at retail prices. The drop in SolarCity’s installation costs could make residential solar even more popular.

Slack

Slack is an intra-office messaging system that can be used on mobile devices and desktops to share files and sort through past conversations. It gives colleagues a centralized place to communicate through instant messages and chat rooms. Unlike e-mail, Slack funnels messages into streams visible to everyone who works together, which can enhance productivity.

Tesla autopilot

Since 2014, the electric-vehicle maker has been building their cars with ultrasonic sensors, camera, front radar, and digitally controlled brakes for an extra fee. In 2015, Tesla sent a software update to the 60,000 cars built with these features to enable autonomous driving. The car can now manage its speed, steer, change lanes, and park itself. The autopilot can be activated or shut off from a touch screen and can also turn off by pressing the brakes. This could limit the number of car crashes caused by human error every day.

Power from the air

Wireless devices could draw power and communicate through nearby radio signals, such as Wi-Fi. This could eliminate the need for batteries or power cords. Internet devices powered by Wi-Fi and other wireless signals could make small computers and sensors more pervasive. In the future, security cameras, temperature sensors, and smoke alarms might never need to have their batteries changed.

Check out the lists from 2014 and 2015.

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