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2015 in Numbers: A Quantum Leap, a Mountain of Cash for Magic Leap, and China’s Big Robotics Bet

From the cost of lithium-ion batteries to Bitcoin’s transaction limit, the numbers told the tale in 2015.
December 24, 2015

As we look back and try to make sense of all the new developments in the world of technology this year, it helps to start with a few notable numbers. Here are some crucial digits behind some of the most compelling technology-related storylines of 2015.

100,000,000x: How much faster Google says its controversial “quantum computer” is at solving a specific type of computational problem. That’s proof, say the search giant’s researchers, that the machine can use quantum physics to solve certain kinds of math problems in a way conventional processors can’t. Google’s engineers are apparently already running into problems in the area of machine learning that a practical version of computer could solve (see “Google’s Quantum Dream Machine”).

$250 to $500: How much it costs to store a kilowatt-hour of energy in today’s top-of-the-line lithium-ion batteries. That means the industry’s leaders are using batteries that cost less than even the most optimistic projections from just a few years ago (see “Inexpensive Electric Cars May Arrive Sooner Than You Think”). It’s not exactly “Moore’s Law for Batteries,” but it seems fair to say the cost of lithium-ion battery storage is falling at a considerable pace. Yet-Ming Chiang, a materials science and engineering professor at MIT and the cofounder of a startup lithium-ion maker, 24M, said at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in November that the goal should be $100 per kilowatt-hour. Then we might begin to see large-scale adoption of the technology for both transportation and grid storage, which would have dramatic implications for renewable energy and especially solar.

7: The number of Bitcoin transactions the network can process per second. That’s minuscule compared to the tens of thousands per second the major credit-card payment systems handle. Bitcoin’s design does not allow for much more transaction volume, and if it keeps on growing, the digital currency could begin to malfunction in 2016. Debates over what to do about the problem have divided the community, and the near-term future of Bitcoin is unclear (see “The Looming Problem That Could Kill Bitcoin”). But all of this hasn’t hurt the currency’s price, and it certainly hasn’t stopped people from trying to find—and claiming to have found—Bitcoin’s mysterious founder, Satoshi Nakamoto.

$1.4 billion: The amount Magic Leap, maker of supposed super-cool augmented-reality products that have not yet come to market, will have secured from investors if its latest funding round is successful. Earlier this year MIT Technology Review’s Rachel Metz got a chance to experience said super-cool augmented reality. The problem is that she’s one of only a small number people who have, and most of us are still wondering what exactly all that cash is buying (see “Magic Leap Needs to Engineer a Miracle”).

36: The number of installed industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees in China. That’s good for fifth place in the world, but China is far behind the world leader, South Korea, which has 478 robots per 10,000 factory workers. Japan (315), Germany (292), and the U.S. (164) are the others in the top five. But China’s number is important because it reveals the enormous room for growth in the market, already the largest and fastest growing in the world. The number is also sure to rise quickly thanks to the government, which has similarly enormous ambitions for industrial robotics (see “China Wants to Replace Millions of Workers with Robots”). This year the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) reported that in 2014 sales of industrial robots grew 56 percent to 57,000 units in China, a significantly larger volume than was seen in second-place Japan, where there were fewer than 30,000 units sold. The IFR predicts that by 2018 a third of all installed robots will be in China.

99 percent: The portion of a generation of mosquitos, the offspring of transgenic fathers mated with normal mothers, that also turned out to be transgenic in a recently publicized laboratory demonstration of so-called “gene drives.” That defies the natural rules of inheritance, which dictate that roughly half should have been born without the new genes. It also illustrates the startling power of the gene-editing technique CRISPR, which had a huge 2015 (see “Everything You Need to Know About CRISPR Gene Editing’s Monster Year”). The researchers used CRISPR to engineer the mosquitos not only to block the parasite that causes malaria, but also to pass along the gene-editing system to their progeny, in which it can add the edits to normal chromosomes. The new tool essentially gives people the power to make a gene propagate quickly through an entire population of animals. That’s just crazy (see ”With This Genetic Engineering Technology, There’s No Turning Back”).

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