For the past 18 years, MIT Technology Review has published an annual list of 10 breakthrough technologies that it believes will have the biggest long-term impact on society. This year, Bill Gates helped curate the selections.
It’s fitting: investors and philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates are known for making sweeping futuristic predictions in their own annual letter. In 2015, they predicted that “by 2030, 2 billion people who don’t have a bank account today will be storing money and making payments with their phones.” By 2035, poor countries will no longer exist, they wrote in their 2014 annual letter.
For Technology Review‘s list, Bill’s predictions fall into three categories–climate change mitigation, healthcare, and artificial intelligence–and range from technologies that are hitting the commercial market to ones still in research. (It’s worth noting that the Gateses have funded a number of these technologies.)
Here is this year’s list:
- Robot dexterity: Robot hands that are better equipped to manipulate unfamiliar objects.
- New-wave nuclear power: Advanced fusion and fission reactors that could help mitigate carbon emissions.
- Predicting preemies: A blood test that can predict if a pregnant woman is at risk of a premature birth.
- Gut probe in a pill: A small, swallowable device that can capture images of the gut without anesthesia (even in children and infants).
- Custom cancer vaccines: A treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutation, which could effectively shut down many typesof cancers.
- The cow-free burger: Plant-based and lab-grown meat alternatives that could drastically cut carbon emissions.
- Carbon dioxide catcher: Technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from the air and utilize it in new ways.
- An ECG on your wrist: Technology advances that allow people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.
- Sanitation without sewers: Energy-efficient toilets that can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot in developing worlds. (More than 2 million people lack access to a clean toilet, according to Gates’s 2019 annual letter.)
- Smooth-talking A.I. assistants: New advances in capturing semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.
Entrepreneurs leading the change
A slew of startups are already busy tackling some of these technologies. Several companies, for instance, are working on creating robots that can better grasp objects. San Francisco-based OpenAI–a nonprofit co-founded and backed by Elon Musk–has trained a robot hand to manipulate a six-sided cube. The organization had previously built robots that beat humans at the multiplayer online battle arena video game Dota 2. Emeryville, California-based startup Embodied Intelligence, made up of researchers from OpenAI and University of Berkeley, is also helping robots to get a better grip. Such advances in robotics could mean companies in various industries soon may be able to automate more complex tasks currently performed by humans.
Meanwhile, A.I. assistants are here to stay–and are moving from asserting simple commands to conversing with humans. That’s a crowded market too: Google has Google Assistant, Amazon has Alexa, Apple has Siri, and Microsoft has Cortana. Plus, startups like New York-based x.ai and Germany-based TwentyBN are working on assistants that may one day better understand human behaviors.
Startups working to combat climate change are doing so in various ways, from creating alternative forms of energy to making more sustainable foods. Companies like Canada-based Terrestrial Energy and Bellavue, Washington-based TerraPower–founded by Gates in 2006–are redesigning the nuclear power plant to deliver more affordable clean heat and power. Commercial plants are expected to be available in the 2020s. Startups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which have received over $500million in funding combined, are making plant-based meats more accessible. Gates has backed both ventures.
Tech companies are also making strides in healthcare. Thanks to recent regulatory approvals and advances in hardware and software, companies like Apple, private company AliveCor, and Withings (acquired by Nokia) are developing electrocardiogram-enabled (ECG) watches to check for signs of heart disease and other health metrics–that can easily be sent to your doctor.