10 Breakthrough Technologies

OK, I’m a sucker for Top 10 lists, especially those that forecast technology trends. So the cover story on the current issue of MIT Technology Review  (their title is my title) caught my eye. All of the ten breakthrough technologies are information technology and communications (ICT)-related, even though three or four are a step removed. I’ll highlight the direct and indirect users of ICT in the rundown.

So here’s the list and summaries of what they do.

Immune Engineering

Customized T Cells Fight Leukemia and Other Diseases. Image: MIT Technology Review

Customized T Cells Fight Leukemia and Other Diseases. Image: MIT Technology Review

Would you like to have a cure for cancer? We have treatments for cancer already, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, but none is 100% successful and none reliably provides permanent remission. We have vaccines against some forms of cancer, such as the HPV vaccine, effective against at least six forms of cancer:

  • Cervical cancer: Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, and just two HPV types, 16 and 18, are responsible for about 70 percent of all cases (7,8).
  • Anal cancer: About 95 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV. Most of these are caused by HPV type 16.
  • Oropharyngeal cancers (cancers of the middle part of the throat, including the soft palate, the base of the tongue, and the tonsils): About 70 percent of oropharyngeal cancers are caused by HPV. In the United States, more than half of cancers diagnosed in the oropharynx are linked to HPV type 16 (9).
  • Rarer cancers: HPV causes about 65 percent of vaginal cancers, 50 percent of vulvar cancers, and 35 percent of penile cancers (10). Most of these are caused by HPV type 16.

But it doesn’t do you any good if you don’t take the vaccine before you get the cancer. Researchers in the UK have been able to modify the T cells that are critical to the success of the immune system to target specific ailments, such as leukemia. They proved the efficacy of the technique by using it on a 12-month-old infant named Layla who had leukemia but no T cells. The scientists used a tool called TALENS that allowed them to edit generic T cells with specific instructions aimed at the white blood cells that go awry when people have leukemia. The technique has been used on 300 patients now, many of whom are in complete remission.

Precise Gene Editing in Plants

TALENS is one genetic editing tool, and CRISPR is another. Unlike more traditional forms of genetic modification, gene editing doesn’t rely on mixing genes from different lines or causing massive genetic changes through chemical treatments or radiation. With CRISPR, the plant breeder identifies the DNA he or she wants to add to a plant and splices it in precisely, much as we edit documents. The changes can be extensive – say adding drought resistance, virus resistance, herbicide tolerance and insect resistance all at the same time, or it could be as simple as changing a single gene.

The problem that confronts plant breeders working with traditional techniques like cross breeding is to get the best genes out of the parent plants and none of the worst ones. Because traditional breeding is essentially a slightly controlled random process, this isn’t always possible. So we get tomatoes that have great flavor and disease resistance for our backyard gardens, but they may not have equally great nutrition profiles. Similarly, farmers get high-yielding corn that has great disease and pest resistance, but not much nutrition apart from sugar. With CRISPR these tradeoffs go away so breeders can make plants that are better in all the relevant dimensions. That’s huge.

Conversational Interfaces

Conversational interfaces are things like Siri that take voice commands and use them to make computers do the things we want them to do. In the full vision, they work much better than Siri and the Google and Amazon equivalents do. They’re especially useful to people who use non-phonetic alphabets such as Chinese and Japanese where typing into a desktop keyboard is challenging and touch screen keyboards are even more challenging. Voice processing is hard and computationally complex, but the research has been very active for more than 30 years. Sooner or later, all challenges yield. All I want out of conversational interfaces is a Siri that doesn’t make me swear, which doesn’t seem like too much. But I still think it’s weird to talk to a machine. But the main issue in conversational interfaces is context; so the more the device knows about what we’re doing the better it can help.

Reusable Rockets

Communication systems are increasingly integrating technologies we’ve always seen as distinct into a coherent whole, so satellites are parts of the same system that includes cell towers, small cells, Wi-Fi access points, Bluetooth devices, RFID, and NFC. It’s all bits carried by radio waves at various power levels. Satellites are incredibly valuable because they can reach people in remote areas outside the reach of wires and because they’re capable of ever more capacity. The most recent generation of satellites go up to 1 terabit per second of capacity, or a thousand gigabits:

An ultra-high capacity satellite platform, ViaSat-3 comprises three ViaSat-3 class satellites plus advanced state-of-the-art ground network infrastructure, enabling the first truly global high-speed broadband service. Each ViaSat-3 class satellite will offer more than 1,000 Gigabits per second (Gbps) or 1-Terabit per second (Tbps) – of bandwidth to enable high-speed internet, including video streaming, at scale across multiple applications simultaneously.

Launching new satellites requires inexpensive rockets, which means rockets that can land without blowing themselves up. We’re almost there.

Robots Teaching Robots

An awful lot of technology, even networking tech, is about the behavior of individual devices or pairs of devices in conversation. This is fine as far as it goes, but there’s a lot to be gained by looking at swarms, hives, and other collections of similar devices as units of analysis. This is going to be especially valuable for systems that learn, such as robots. Instead of each robot having to learn how to tie a shoe, a robot that has learned this skill can pass it on to other robots by sharing code. This means robots will need to develop a degree of uniformity in the ways they represent knowledge, which probably isn’t that hard.

DNA App Store

The DNA app store works on a principle that’s similar to the Robots Teaching Robots paradigm. As we struggle to understand the relationships between sequences of DNA and interacting systems such as nutrients, diseases, and activities, we can build systems that learn about the interactions and share findings with relevant parties. Say, for example, that people with a particular DNA sequence are sensitive to ragweed but Zyrtec clears it up better than Claritin. Your phone knows you’re in Austin, ragweed is high, you’ve been using Claritin, but Austinites who share your DNA sequence make repeat purchases of Zrytec and find it works well for them based on some sort of biomarkers. So the phone tells you to pick up some Zrytec when you’re in Costco or whatever. Just like robots teaching robots, people with similar DNA can teach each other.

SolarCity’s Gigafactory

SolarCity is a big manufacturer of solar cells, which are becoming more and more efficient as materials science progresses. The process that converts sunlight to electricity shares many elements in common with the manufacture of semiconductor chips: they have a silicon substrate that’s treated with thin film and topped with a semiconductor oxide. Current panels are 16 – 18 percent efficient, up from 12 – 14 percent a few years ago but short of the 22 – 23 percent of new designs with conventional materials and the 40 percent of experimental systems with exotic materials. We can be aggressive with our CO2 reduction goals because progress in solar is moving so rapidly. But we need to solve the problems with storage and transport to get the most out of solar.


Slack is the only product/company on MIT’s list this time around. That’s quite an honor, but it’s consistent with all the other honors Slack has won already. What does Slack do, you ask? Well it replaces email for communication among work groups in businesses and other enterprises. That’s not bad for a product that was developed as an internal tool for a gaming company. The game never went anywhere, but the company is going gangbusters.

Tesla Autopilot

This is a feature in new Teslas that does what you think it does. And it does it quite well. So it’s good to see cars catching up with tractors, the original testbed for driverless vehicles.

Power from the Air

I thought this meant wireless charging, but MIT threw me a curveball and attached it to passive Wi-Fi. This system is similar to RFID in that the transmitter doesn’t require a battery or wall power. This isn’t magic, even though it sounds like it. Passive Wi-Fi gets power from a specialized Wi-Fi access point that pumps out power that can be captured and reflected by the passive device along with its own bits. It doesn’t go as far as regular Wi-Fi, only 100 feet instead of 300, but it can go through walls. The main thing about passive Wi-Fi is the devices are incredibly cheap to manufacture and easy to integrate into new devices. So everything can play Wi-Fi essentially for free. Who doesn’t want that?

Impressive list, isn’t it?

Most of these breakthroughs are pure ICT plays – everything but the three DNA-related technologies, the solar cells, and the rocket are applications of traditional computer and semiconductor technology. But even the four exceptions are heavily intertwined with computers. The DNA systems wouldn’t be possible without the sequencing of the human genome, which took computers to do. There would be no need for reusable rockets without communication satellites, and the solar cell is built on a semiconductor technology.

So ICTs  systems can have a direct effect on our lives by getting in our faces as Slack and conversational interfaces do, or they can transform plant breeding and disease fighting as TALENS and CRISPR do, or they can point to new manufacturing processes as SolarCity shows. ICT is a juggernaut that changes nearly every aspect of our lives, hopefully for the better.