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On 10 Breakthrough Technologies

April 23, 2013

Every year, MIT Technology  Review  picks the 10 technologies we think most likely to change the world.

(This year, for the first time, we are calling them “10 breakthrough technologies” instead of “emerging technologies.” Why? “Emerging” has a specific meaning inside the academy and the startups that spin out of universities; but the adjective is a kind of jargon, and the word didn’t mean much to most of our readers. “Breakthrough” seemed clearer and more accurate.)

How do we choose the 10 technologies? We want them to reflect the full range of our interests, which uniquely amongst technology media companies encompass every domain: information technology, communications, energy, biomedicine, materials, and so on. But, even more, we are interested (like our owner, MIT) in how technologies can solve really hard problems. We look first for difficulty: we select problems whose intractability is a source of frustration, grief, or comedy and whose solution will expand human possibilities. The breakthroughs are variously mature. Although we insist that every technology possess some plausible path to widespread use, some are still in the lab, some are in commercial development, and others are being sold by companies.

Unlike our annual list of 35 young innovators under the age of 35, the list of 10 breakthrough technologies is entirely subjective. There is no nomination process, nor panels of distinguished judges. The 10 technologies are an expression of our preferences and emphases, and they grow out of our reporting over the previous year. This is the stuff we like.

A good (if very early) example of the kind of technology we like is the work of Theodore Berger, whose “memory implants” are described by contributing editor Jon Cohen. Berger, who is a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, wants to restore the ability to create long-term memories in patients with severe memory problems by putting silicon chips inside their heads.

Cohen writes, “In people whose brains have suffered damage from Alzheimer’s, stroke, or injury, disrupted neuronal networks often prevent long-term memories from forming. For more than two decades, Berger has designed silicon chips to mimic the signal processing that those neurons do when they’re functioning properly—the work that allows us to recall experiences and knowledge for more than a minute.”

Berger has not yet conducted human trials of his neuronal prostheses (the bar to test truly novel brain technologies on humans is rightly high), but his recent experiments have shown that silicon chips connected to rat and monkey brains by electrodes can process information just like actual neurons. “We’re not putting individual memories back into the brain,” he says. “We’re putting in the capacity to generate memories.”

We like Berger’s technology not only because it is a technical breakthrough of the highest order, which could restore patients with a crippling debility to their full selves, but also because it could change our conception of what it means to be human. A little speculation suggests that memory implants might one day make a person more memorious than she was by nature, or preserve her plasticity late into life (so that, as an old woman, she could learn new languages or skills with the ease of toddler), or provide yet more science-fictional capabilities.

But write to jason.pontin@ and tell me what you think of this year’s 10 breakthrough technologies.

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