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On 10 Breakthrough Technologies

February 18, 2015

Every year, MIT Technology Review selects the 10 technologies we believe are the greatest breakthroughs of previous months, those that in the future will have the broadest impact on commerce, medicine, and society.

Jason Pontin
Jason Pontin

The challenge and fascination of editing our publication (and therefore of creating this list) is that unlike many other technology magazines and websites, we are interested in all technologies, and most of all in how breakthroughs in one field may spur innovations in another. Those who have attended one of our seven EmTech events around the world may have watched as I struggled to explain how new developments in artificial intelligence (see “Deep Learning,” one of our breakthrough technologies from 2013) may be connected to more efficient use of advanced renewable energy sources through predictive modeling (see “Smart Wind and Solar Power,” a breakthrough technology from our 2014 list).

Our predictions are not always right, but even when we’re wrong, we’re interestingly mistaken. A few years ago, we correctly intuited that social media would be important to television (see “Social TV,” a breakthrough technology in 2010). But we didn’t understand that social and broadcast media wouldn’t merge on TV screens; instead, people would watch television and update their impressions on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram using their smartphones.

More commonly, we’re not so much wrong as simply early: cancer genomics, where gene sequencing identifies the mutations behind an individual patient’s specific cancer in order to more precisely identify the drugs most likely to work, was less practicable when it cost $30,000 to sequence someone’s cancerous and healthy tissue (see “Cancer Genomics,” from our 2011 list). Today, when the cost of sequencing a genome can be as low as $1,000, the president of the United States can talk at the State of the Union address about “precision medicine” as an imminent clinical reality. No matter that we jumped the gun a little: we prefer to be early than late.

This year, the 10 breakthrough technologies are similarly broad in scope. Senior editor Tom ­Simonite describes Google’s Project Loon, an ambitious experiment by the company’s Google X division to bring Internet access to the 60 percent of the world that doesn’t have it by floating an armada of balloons with solar-­powered electronics in the upper atmosphere.

Elsewhere, we report on cerebral organoids, clumps of tissue that possess certain features of the brain, which could “open a new window into how neurons grow and function, and … change our understanding of everything from basic brain activities to the causes of schizophrenia and autism” (see “Brain Organoids,” by Russ ­Juskalian).

Or consider the consumer technology Apple Pay: Robert Hof writes, “None of the individual technologies in it is novel, but the extent of Apple’s control over both the software and the hardware in the iPhone—which exceeds what Google can do for Google Wallet even on Android phones—allowed it to combine those technologies into a service demonstrably easier to use than any other.” Hof argues that Apple Pay will probably succeed in making mobile payments broadly used, where previous attempts have failed.

But read about all 10 technologies and write to tell me what you think at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com.

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