In person, Bill Gates has something of both the sage and the child about him. His encyclopedic knowledge is legendary, and the quizzical furrow of his brow when you unclearly formulate a question hints at an impatience with lesser intellects. But get him talking on a subject that interests him—which is just about any subject under the sun—and you sense that he has never really stopped being the nerdy teenager in awe at the richness and complexity of the world he is exploring.
When a chance conversation led to the proposal that he choose MIT Technology Review’s annual list of 10 breakthrough technologies, we were thrilled, but also, in hindsight, a little complacent. We’ve been compiling these lists since 2001, and we thought that if we offered Bill a shortlist of 20 to choose from, he would pick 10 and be done with it.
He rejected almost all of them.
This list, then, is very much Bill’s own, and as he explains in his introduction and my interview with him, it represents a singularly Gatesian belief: that for all the ills remaining in the world, human welfare has made so much progress that we are now moving through a slow technological tipping point. If in the past most breakthroughs were about making life longer, in the future most will be about making it more agreeable. It’s a bold and optimistic view—Bill is nothing if not an optimist—and whether or not you share it, it provides an interesting lens through which to look at the big technological trends of today.
Bill’s list focuses on three broad areas: climate change, health care, and AI. Not surprisingly, many of the items are related either to his charitable foundation’s work or to his own investments. We’ve disclosed those relationships, but whereas for a journalist they’d constitute a conflict of interest, in Bill’s case they reflect his own beliefs about which technologies will do the most good for humanity, which is precisely why we asked his opinion. It would be strange if he weren’t investing in some of them.
To complement Bill’s list we’ve compiled some of our own: 10 grand challenges humanity has yet to solve, 10 low-tech solutions that have had a big impact, and 10 of this century’s biggest technology failures—a list that, it turns out, was harder to agree on than we thought.
As in past years, we’ve featured some of the 10 breakthrough technologies in greater depth. The rest of the articles in the issue all look, in one way or another, at how innovation happens. Dayna Evans shows the barriers that certain groups of entrepreneurs still face in her profile of a women’s-health startup. David Rotman examines how AI could revitalize industries like pharma and materials, where new breakthroughs are getting increasingly expensive. Brian Bergstein looks at how non-tech companies like perfume makers are starting to adopt AI to help them innovate, and why it’s usually much harder than they expect. Kate Chandler, who researches drone use in Africa, talks about the pitfalls of importing a technology solution to the developing world without understanding the local context. David Silver, creator of AlphaGo and its successors, muses on what it means for an AI to exhibit creativity, while Harvard philosopher Sean Dorrance Kelly argues that machine creativity can never substitute for the human variety.
As always, we hope you find the list thought-provoking, and I’m interested in your thoughts on what made the cut (or what didn’t). Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.