Welcome to the 21st century. We might not be able to fly on smart hoverboards yet, but brilliant tech luminaries of our time have brought plenty of wishful devices and tech to our everyday life. It has become increasingly difficult to get a handle on with the pace at which the tech industry moves, but that doesn’t mean we lose track of any phenomenal progress that will change our lives for the better. Here are the ten breakthrough technologies of 2019 that will likely be a part of our daily lives in the years to come.
Emerging Technologies of the Year
1. Speed of Light without Propellant
A list of 10 emerging technologies of the year would be incomplete without NASA. When it comes to space, there’s a fundamental problem that comes in our way to conquer it. It’s big. Even traveling at the speed of light would take us years to reach our nearest neighboring star.
NASA engineer David Burns has developed a conceptual new spaceship thruster he calls the “helical engine” – a concept which could theoretically accelerate to 99 percent the speed of light.
Burns’ concept has caused quite a buzz – New Scientist says it “may violate the laws of physics.” It utilizes Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which states that objects gain mass as they approach the speed of light. The conceptual spaceship could cause forward motion without traditional propellants.
But, there’s a long way to go from here. The helical engine is 200 meters long and would generate as much force as throwing lint in the air. For it to achieve the speed of light, it would need to generate 165 megawatts of energy to produce 1 newton of thrust. This is quite inefficient when you’re putting so much input for just a tiny bit of output. But, in the vacuum of space, this might just work.
“The engine itself would be able to get to 99 per cent the speed of light if you had enough time and power,” Burns told New Scientist.
2. Invisibility Cloak for Military
Humans have been toying with the idea of an invisibility cloak since early civilization. From Athena’s Cap of Invisibility to Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak, the notion of making oneself invisible to destroy enemies has always tickled our fancy.
Hyperstealth, a Canadian camouflage design company has patented a new invisible material, called Quantum Stealth, which easily disguises soldiers, or even its tanks, ships, or aircraft. This invisible material is as thin as paper, inexpensive, and requires no source of power. It’s not exactly an invisibility cloak but it does a pretty good job of concealing military equipment.
The material uses an approach called a lenticular lens. This material can bend light in such a way that that only things which are very close or quite far off can be seen. Thus, any object or person placed behind this thin material will not appear to the naked eye. Thus light can be in the visible spectrum, or it can be infrared, ultraviolet, or shortwave infrared light, making the material a “broadband invisibility cloak.”
3. Grow Human Brain in Lab
For years, researchers have been working to grow simplified versions of human organs, also known as lab-grown organoids, which could be used to model disease or test out new pharmaceuticals.
Now, a team of Japanese neuroscientists has grown lumps of human brain in a lab. These cells were grown from cultured pluripotent stem cells – cells that have the ability to undergo self-renewal. After growing lumps of cells, the researchers separated them and placed them individually into a petri dish, where they developed their own neural networks. In another study at Harvard, researchers showed that neural networks in the brain organoids were sparked with activity and responded when light was shone on them. In one study, Fred Gage and his colleagues at the Salk Institute in San Diego transplanted human brain organoids into mouse brains and found that they connected up to the body’s blood supply and developed fresh connections.
Brain organoids are a landmark medical advancement as they allow us to better study neurological conditions. This breakthrough, however, has opened up a hot debate on a new ethical dimension of research. Are these brains sentient? If they are, then it means they feel pain and other sensations.
For the first time, neuroscientists have crossed the Rubicon of conscious existence by growing mini-brain in the lab. Some have even been successful in transplanting the brain tissue into animals.
At the world’s largest annual meeting of neuroscientists on October 21, 2019, researchers warned that neuroscientists working on brain organoids are dangerously close to crossing the ethical line. Some worry that researchers may have already done so by growing a brain in the lab.
“If there’s even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing that line,” said Elan Ohayon, the director of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, California. “We don’t want people doing research where there is potential for something to suffer.”
Early organoids were used by researchers to study what happens to the brain when it exposed to fatal diseases, like the Zika virus which causes malformations.
4. Pill Robots
Marc Stiegler’s 1989 short story “The Gentle Seduction” maintains the idea of a technological Singularity in a rate-of-change sense, with one of the characters superimposing the idea as “a time in the future. It’ll occur when the rate of change of technology is very great – so great that the effort to keep up with the change will overwhelm us.” The heroine of the story lives in a timeline where a majority of mankind is more willing to swallow a pill to restore one’s youthful state or take a pill to boost one’s mental acuity. An unimaginative, outdoorsy woman, who is hopelessly petrified of technology, she is forced to live a technologically-impaired, forsaken life she doesn’t want. One day, the woman ends up taking a new pill robot and transmutes from a techno-neophyte to an organic intelligence. The woman stops aging as the centuries go by, she no longer needs her physical body and can choose to leave it behind and explore the universe as a type of pure mental-energy state.
The reality now seems pretty close to this piece of fiction from 1989. Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small ingestible pills that can be used to inspect the gut for signs of environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) and even obtain tissue biopsies. Studying gut illnesses of young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat. It’s uncomfortable, expensive and not to mention, impractical in poorer parts of the world where gut illnesses are prevalent.
EED is one of the most expensive illnesses to treat. It’s widespread in poor countries and is one of the reasons why children and adults there are malnourished, and never reach a normal body proportion. While we don’t exactly know what causes EED and how it could be treated, this pill would make screening easier for medical workers.
The ingestible pill may not promise ever-lasting youth but it has come pretty close to extending one’s life in poorer countries. At MGH it’s being used for practical screening for Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. It’s also being tested on adolescents and infants in Pakistan, where EED is prevalent.
5. Most Dexterous Robots Ever
What good are robots if they can’t take care of themselves in the physical world? Today’s robots can hardly move an object half a meter, let alone replace humans on the assembly line. We’ve programmed robots to pick an object but it can’t yet figure out how to grasp any object just by looking at it, regardless of its size.
OpenAI’s Dactyl is different. Its edge comes from reinforcement learning using which the robot learns how to grasp and turn the block in a simulated environment before it even tries it out for real in the physical environment.
OpenAI’s technology is open-source which would make the latest findings evenly and widely distributed, rather than in the hands of a few working closely on Dactyl.
6. Carbon Dioxide Catcher
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) asserts that limiting global warming to 1.5˚C could avert the most cataclysmic effects of climate change. To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.
In Switzerland, a giant machine is at bay sucking carbon dioxide directly from the air. The plant can easily capture about 900 tons of CO2 annually – or approximate level released from 200 cars.
The Climeworks AG facility near Zurich sits on top of a waste heat recovery facility that powers the process. Fans push air through a filter system that collects carbon dioxide. When the filter is saturated, carbon dioxide is separated at temperatures above 100 degrees Celsius.
Global Thermostat of New York, captures carbon dioxide and hydrogen to produce methane. It built its first commercial plant in Alabama in 2018. So will Carbon Engineering, a Canadian startup co-founded by Harvard climate scientist David Keith in 2009, plans to produce synthetic fuels using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient.
With enough economic data from these plants, we can make accurate calculations for other larger projects to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Top Emerging Technologies
7. ECG on Wrist to Save Lives
At 24, Thomas Larsson thought he was in the best shape he could be. But his heart rate on the Fitbit tracker told a different story: it was 142 beats per minute (bpm), way above the normal resting rate of 60 bpm.
Today’s fitness trackers come with a single sensor, whereas one equipped with ECG has twelve. ECG-enabled smart-watches have made it easier to get precise measurements of heart rate. Today’s fitness trackers can quickly detect abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack – saving you a visit to the emergency room.
An Apple Watch-compatible tracker from AliveCor can easily detect atrial fibrillation, stroke, and a frequent cause of blood clots. Last year, Apple released its own FDA-approved ECG feature embedded on the Apple Watch itself. Popular health-device maker Withings also plans to roll out an affordable ECG-equipped watch. Today’s wearables come with a single sensor, whereas a real ECG has twelve.
8. Quantum Supremacy
Google’s Sycamore Quantum Computer has achieved Quantum Supremacy. Meaning, it can perform a calculation way faster than a regular binary computer.
Sycamore completed a random number generation-related calculation in 200 seconds – in contrast, the world’s most powerful supercomputer would take 10,000 years to calculate.
Google CEO Sun Pichai has compared this feat to when Wright brothers took off their first plane ride in 1903.
The megacorp’s biggest rival IBM isn’t quite happy with this achievement. IBM argues Google’s experimental quantum computer didn’t account for plentiful disk storage and other optimization methods. And so, Google’s experiment is an excellent demonstration of the progress in superconducting-based quantum computing,” IBM researchers wrote, but it shouldn’t “be viewed as proof that quantum computers are ‘supreme’ over classical computers.”
9. Deepfake Technology
The head of the Pentagon Joint Artificial Intelligence Center recently declared that deepfake technology poses a grave danger to our national security. So, what is deepfake?
Deepfake is AI-based top emerging technology used to produce or alter video footage so it presents something that never occurred in the first place. Currently, deepfake technology is being misused to edit the faces of celebrities onto people in pornographic videos. This certainly paints a troubling picture where national security is compromised due to AI-generated fake clips.
“We saw strong indications of how this could play out in the 2016 election, and we have every expectation that — if left unchecked — it will happen to us again,” Shanahan said at the panel, per C4ISRNET. “As a department, at least speaking for the Defense Department, we’re saying it’s a national security problem as well. We have to invest a lot in it. A lot of commercial companies are doing these every day. The level of sophistication seems to be exponential.”
It’s also unfair to assume that this technology will only bring out the worst of humanity. Samsung’s AI lab recently made Mona Lisa smile and created a living portrait of Marilyn Monroe, Salvador Dali, and others to create hyper-realistic videos out of a single image.
10. Machines Master Language
AI Assistants were supposed to make our lives smarter but they’re found to be lacking the ‘smarts.’ Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and many others still lack the ability to understand natural language.
OpenAI, a nonprofit, San Francisco-based AI research company backed by Elon Musk, Reid Hoffman, and Peter Thiel, unveiled a neural network called GPT-2, which generates coherent paragraphs of text one word at a time. Google’s BERT can predict missing and does a job as well as humans at filling in gaps.
Recent advancements, coupled with better speech synthesis, are allowing us to move from giving AI Assistants like Alexa simple commands to having proper conversations with them. In a few years, Alexa and Siri would deal with daily tasks such as taking meeting minutes, shopping online, or finding information.
Google’s Duplex is already there. It can pick up your calls to screen for telemarketers and spammers. The Google Assistant can also make calls for you to make salon appointments or schedule restaurant reservations. AliMe in China can coordinate package deliveries over the phone and haggle prices of goods over chat.
AI Assistants are getting better at figuring our human needs. All we need now is for them to understand a sentence.