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EmTech 2022: how technology is changing the way we live, on Earth and in space

All the latest news from EmTech 2022

4.41 And that's a wrap for today! Thanks so much for joining us. I know I've learned loads, and hope you did too and will join us for our final sessions tomorrow.

4.33 The Inflation Reduction Act is a major boon for the energy storage business. “There’s $380 billion of goodness in there for our industry” that will help catalyze developments in long-term battery storage, McDermott says.

That money will likely help meet the massive new demand for iron batteries. McDermott says interest is so great that ESS has had to “build the plane while we’re rolling down the runway” to ship out enough. They’re so popular in part because of how cheap these batteries are. “I mean, our electrochemistry is iron saturated with saltwater,” McDermott says. “I don't know how you get cheaper.”

4.22 “So long-duration energy storage sounds like a new thing. It’s not a new thing. It’s been around for more than a century in something commonly called hydro,” McDermott says, referring to hydroelectric power. But large hydroelectric dams can’t be built anywhere—they require a large amount of land and a consistent supply of water, which is an insurmountable challenge in many areas. So we still need batteries to store solar and wind energy long term to complement hydropower.

4.12 Our next speaker, Hugh McDermott, focuses on the age-old question—how do you store all this new, sustainable energy? McDermott does business development and sales for ESS Inc, a company that focuses on long-duration energy storage. ESS develops iron batteries—a cheap and long-lasting way to help expand the use of clean power and renewable energy supplies. Tech Review chose iron batteries as one of our ten breakthrough technologies last year.

4.03 Offshore wind generates twice as much energy than wind turbines based on land, according to Weinstein. Sea winds blow 24/7 and a significant portion of most countries’ populations are coastal, meaning energy transport is logistically easier. That makes this tech worth investing in, despite the challenges of commercializing gargantuan floating turbines.

3.57 This year, California committed to generating enough energy using offshore wind to power upwards of 25 million homes by 2045. But the California waters these floating turbines would be deployed in aren't empty. The stuff in sea water, like marine sanctuaries and reefs, has to coexist with these turbines. "Negotiating conflicting uses of space is a challenge but it can be done," Weinstein says.

Weinstein ends her presentation on this note: "The ocean itself has more energy than we ever need it as long as we can capture it." Exciting stuff.

3.47 Our next speaker, Alla Weinstein, is talking about offshore wind—transforming the force of winds out at sea into electricity. She is the co-founder of Trident Winds Inc, which tries to commercialize this energy with floating turbines. Weinstein says Europe is far ahead of the US in developing this technology, but the Biden administration has poured money into catching up.

These floating turbines are huge. Their triangle turbine wings are bigger than the Giants baseball stadium, and the base of the turbine is as tall as the support beams used in the Golden Gate Bridge.

3.42 Perovskite still needs a big breakthrough in stability to really get out into the field, according to Wang. Perovskite solar panels are the subject of increasing research and investment because they are lightweight, cheap, and efficient, but they remain confined to the lab because they degrade much faster than today’s leading photovoltaic materials.

3.24 Our next speaker, Rui Wang, is one of Tech Review’s 2022 Innovators Under 35. He found that adding caffeine and its derivatives—an idea that occurred to him while drinking coffee—could improve the stability of perovskite, a material used to make next-generation solar panels, “from several hours to almost five years.” You can read more Tech Review coverage of his work here.

3.12 We're now back from a fifteen-minute break! I left last session thinking about an audience member in his late 70s with heart disease. He asked Musunuru where he could sign up to use CRISPR. Musunuru told him to standby—and the audience member said he hoped he lives long enough to receive it.

Our final session of the day focuses on how we'll generate clean, efficient, and affordable energy using new technologies. Casey Crownhart, who covers climate for Tech Review, will moderate.

2.42 Lipid nanoparticles are the delivery vehicles used to send vaccines throughout the body. They’re also a way CRISPR can get into cells and edit genes, but so far scientists have only gotten them to work in the liver. “Other organs are jealous of the liver,” Afeyan jokes. Why? “The liver loves to soak things up from the blood," Musunuru explained earlier.

2.34 An audience member asks: If I get CRISPR therapy for heart disease, can I smoke cigarettes and eat hamburgers stress-free the rest of my life? Musunuru says that “there is potential for moral hazard” and, sure, some people might “eat Big Macs every day.” But he warns against it. “You can undo the good a therapy is doing by engaging in behaviors that actually balance it out or even overwhelm the protective effects of favorable genetics,” whether those genetics are naturally occurring or engineered.

2.32 Variation in the PCSK9 gene can lead to incredibly high cholesterol and serious health issues. Musurunu is pursuing a therapeutic approach to turn this gene off to prevent heart disease. He says “something I only found out recently myself is that most carnivores, dogs, cats—all of them actually lost PCSK9 naturally millions of years ago.”

2.28 Antonio asks Afeyan about emergency use authorization (which has greenlit Moderna’s covid vaccine and boosters). Afeyan says, “emergency use doesn’t mean it hasn’t been soundly demonstrated. It just means that the question most would like to get answers to—which is what would happen five years from now—isn’t answered because you can't do that until you wait five years.”

2.14 With Verve Therapeutics, Musunuru is working to develop something “like a vaccine for heart disease” by changing a single DNA letter to another letter using a CRISPR technology called base editing. A clinical trial currently underway in New Zealand is giving patients a “one-time therapy to tackle what we traditionally thought was a chronic disease” by permanently reducing cholesterol levels to prevent heart disease.

2.07 Musunuru tells us a tale of two patients. One, Avery, has cholesterol so high she has to undergo painful dialysis-like procedures to flush it every week. And another, Anna, is “a kind of a genetic superhero.” Anna was born with “a beneficial mutation that naturally turns off a cholesterol gene in her body and gifts her with extremely low cholesterol levels and protection against heart disease.”

Musunuru says this naturally occurring genetic variation was a huge clue on how to beat heart disease using CRISPR.

2.04 What was the biggest global killer of 2020? Covid comes to mind, Musunuru notes, but heart disease is the correct, less flashy answer. "If you are unfortunate enough to be born with a genetic condition that leads to high cholesterol," you are far more likely to die from a heart attack or stroke, which is how heart disease kills. Lowering cholesterol is "how you live to be 100 or older without getting cardiovascular disease."

1.59 Next is Kiran Musunuru, an American cardiologist pioneering the use of gene editing to treat heart disease. In the US, heart disease causes 1 in 5 deaths per year. A clinical trial began this summer to test whether a single change to a cholesterol-regulating gene can protect people from that fate. Antonio Regalado, Tech Review's senior biotech writer, is moderating. For more context, check out his article on how Musunuru's work is ushering in a new era of CRISPR disease prevention.

1.57 Generative AI is hot right now—so Afeyan is trying to find ways to apply it to proteins: “We applied this to a very interesting problem in the therapeutic space, which is the ability to make antibodies against any arbitrary part of a protein.”

1.54 Afeyan explains what he means by programmable medicine. In practice, you take a vaccine you've already developed, then "you do everything the same way, but you change your code, and you hope you get a different effect at the end in a predictable way."

1.49 "In the biotech industry, 12 years is about the time it takes to do anything useful," Afeyan says. Over the past 12 years, Moderna has built a platform to quickly design and deploy mRNA personalized vaccines. Despite the common belief that the first vaccine Moderna shipped was for covid, Afeyan says Moderna's covid-19 vaccine was actually the company's tenth vaccine to enter humans. Before the pandemic, the company focused on fighting flu and cancer.

1.35 Hana here! We're kicking off the afternoon with a session on programmable medicine.

First up is Nubar Afeyan, CEO of Flagship Pioneering. He’s worked on developing covid-19 vaccines and boosters and is the co-founder and chairman of the board of Moderna, which has pioneered the messenger RNA vaccine, which luckily came of age just in time to help address the global pandemic.

12.30 That’s it for the first half of today’s agenda! We’re going to take an hour’s lunch break now, and when we return I’m going to hand you over to my colleague, editorial fellow Hana Kiros. See you shortly!

12.20 Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter represents a really interesting time in the platform's history, says DiResta. "My sincere hope for Elon is that he brings on talented people who have a lot of expertise. We shouldn't want to see social media turned into a homogenous environment, differentiation is really important."

12.15 There's a lot of challenges with how we assess the impact of actors using social media to observe and amplify opinions, DiResta says.

These people aren't trying to persuade somebody to a new way of thinking, necessarily, they're trying to amplify opinions and views they already held, she explains. While there are perceptions of propaganda and influence, particularly in terms of it having a persuasive effect on human users, this amplification is more prevalent these days.

There are covert fake accounts on social media designed to produce tweets specifically for the purpose of being embedded in state media news stories as representative as, for example, the way Americans think, she adds.

"The point is not the bots—the bots are a tool of a way of pushing the message."

12.00 Next up, we’re going to talk influencers, and who’s in charge of them, exactly. Renée DiResta is the technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, examining how narratives spread across social and media networks. 

11.53 The fact that chip technologies are clustered in a handful of factories and companies in a handful of countries is neither natural nor just, says Cheng.

"If countries or societies see technologies and knowledge as a tool of geopolitics in the sense of national competition, then humanity has already lost," she adds.

11.40 There are still academic interactions between the US and China, and a ton of collaboration between AI researchers on the authorship of papers, despite the ongoing chip war, says Sheehan.

"Even though we're seeing a lot of very direct connections and collaborations get severed, there's still a lot of intellectual engagement."

Although the Chinese tech industry has a reputation for intense secrecy, a lot of misunderstanding about what Chinese platforms are up to is because the US tech industry doesn't know itself, he adds.

"The average person in, say, a big platform company [such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube] in the US doesn't think they need to be keeping up with what's happening at Tencent or Baidu, or whatever," he says.

11.37 Our very own Zeyi is an expert on all aspects of US-China relations through a tech lens. Take a look inside how the US’s recent decision to restrict exports of its EDA software, which is used to design and create ever more complex computer chips, is expected to affect China, and how an obscure Chinese e-commerce platform became America’s most popular shopping app.

11.31 We’re now going to talk about the tricky relationship between the US and China. We’re going to hear from Yangyang Cheng, a research scholar in Law and Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, and Matt Sheehan. a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Cheng’s work focuses on the development of science and technology in China and US‒China relations, while Sheehan researches China’s artificial intelligence ecosystem and global technology trends. 

11.30 Crypto assets are very different, Smith says. "Bitcoin, for a long time, was perceived to be a counter to inflation, but now it seems to be a leading indicator of: 'are we risk on, or risk off?'

11.20 Beyond the States, Europe's efforts to regulate crypto have been quite comprehensive, Smith says. "What is interesting about this, the EU is looking at a four year time period for how to regulate decentralized finance," she says.

"It's a little bit more chaotic in the US, we like to battle things out in court," she jokes. "If we get through this year without any regulation, I think there will be a more organized, concerted effort to get it in place."

11.10 Right now, we're at a new stage of crypto policy says Smith. Halloween marked the 14th anniversary of the first bitcoin white paper, she points out, explaining that agencies are trying to test the limits of their authority, and that we're also seeing proactive litigation coming from the industry when agencies fail to act.

Congress has realized there are gaps in the legal regulatory structure when it comes to crypto, and they're working to fill those gaps with legislation, she adds.

11.00 Welcome back! We’re now moving onto the thorny subject of crypto policy, and the risks and opportunities presented by this new world of digital finance. Our China reporter Zeyi Yang will be helming the next group of discussions.

Our first speaker is Kristin Smith, the executive director of the Blockchain Association, the Washington DC-based trade association representing more than 90 of the industry’s leading companies.

10.30 We’re now going to take a short break. We’ll see you back in around 25 minutes!

10.25 The entertainment industry has so much to gain from producing films or TV shows in space, she says. Despite its long history in space, research and development is another sector that could stand to greatly benefit from greater expansion beyond Earth, as could pharmaceuticals and manufacturing.

"The technical stuff will always be a challenge—the people stuff is a different challenge," she laughs.

10.10 The ISS is like a playground for scientists, Ruttley says. Orbital Reef is not just about science, she says, it's about supporting visitors who want to travel, who want to experience being in space for themselves. "It's about supporting media and entertainment. It's about supporting new markets that NASA was never intending the ISS to do," she adds.

10.04 Next on stage is Tara Ruttley, who is Blue Origin’s chief scientist for Orbital Reef, a future commercial space station in low Earth orbit.

Orbital Reef, which is being designed to host crews of passengers in the next few years for tourism, in-space manufacturing initiatives, and research, was first announced last October. NASA awarded it $130 million last December to help develop alternative destinations in space once the ISS begins to wind down at the end of 2030.

10.00 The main purpose behind creating a hybrid space network is a desire to create common, universal standards that makes it easier for both systems and hardware to communicate more effectively.

"Everything is in space today is disconnected. There are purpose-built satellites systems with proprietary communications architectures, so much like the period before the internet existed, you have to have the right tools and software in order to leverage information from all these disparate systems.

"The recognition is that there's actually more economic benefit to having integrated architectures, much like your mobile phone. I don't care which which provider you use, and which type of hardware you use, because they're all integrated together. Standards allows us to to communicate and then leverage that information in a totally different way for physical transportation, or everything that we do today."

09.53 "Policy needs to be agile, just like our technologies, that's really the bottom line," says Butow. He praises the current administration for its attitude towards fair regulatory policy.

When it comes to commercializing space, "those who get there first and build the industrial base for the 21st and 22nd century, they're going to be the winners," he adds.

09.50 Aalyria's network was previously used by Project Loon, Google's now defunct aerospace networking project that sought to use high altitude weather balloons to deliver high speed internet to remote locations.

09.39 Next up, we’re going to hear from Steve “Bucky” Butow, the director of the Space Portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU). The purpose of the unit, which was created in 2015, is to work with the Pentagon and external industry to accelerate adoption of commercial technologies in the US military. 

Joining him is Brian Barritt from Aalyria, an early-stage Google spinout focused on managing hyper fast and ultra-secure communications networks that span land, sea, air, near space, and into deep space.

They’re going to be discussing what it takes to build labs in space, and what it’s like to work and conduct experiments in zero-gravity.

09.38 Space is now accessible to civilians, albeit very wealthy ones. If you have a spare $450,000, you could snag yourself a seat on Virgin’s suborbital spaceplane, the cheapest way to space at the moment.

09.36 Preparing for space is certainly easier than it used to be, but it’s still no walk in the park. If you’re interested in reading more about Axiom Space’s private astronaut missions, Neel V. Patel went behind the scenes of what it’s like to ready yourself for microgravity.

09.30 People on the ground are more likely to track space debris, rather than astronauts themselves, López-Alegría says. They don't really see space debris, because if it's moving slowly enough to see, it's not really a threat. However, the wider issue of space debris is something that needs to be approached with caution, given the increasing amount of man-made materials present in space.

"The bigger pieces, like rocket bodies and defunct satellites, people are recognizing that socially, we have to be responsible," he says.

09.26 Recycling is crucial onboard the ISS, particularly given that it costs around $50,000 per kilo to get something sent to the station, he says.

"Imagine having to bring everything with you on a trip that's gonna last 18 months maybe—you gotta bring food clothing, water, oxygen propellant, all that stuff with you. So, the more you do recycle, the better, it's important."

09.25 In order to live in space, you have to be comfortable spending extended periods of time in confined spaces, he jokes.

09.17 Conducting research in microgravity, generally understood as the weightlessness that's experienced in space, presents an interesting challenge, he says.

"We were pretty busy [on the ISS]," he says, conducting 25 experiments a week. One example involved experimenting with tumor organoids in low-earth orbit, which helped to evaluate early pre-cancer and cancer changes under a high-resolution microscope.

09.15 López-Alegría isn't a fan of the rising use of the term 'space tourism' to describe the increasing numbers of people heading into space.

"We don't like the word tourism, that's not what we're about, says López-Alegría. "The ISS is a place to do meaningful work."

09.12 Our first speaker is Michael López-Alegría, an astronaut with more than 40 years of aviation and space experience with the US Navy and NASA under his belt. During his time at NASA, he performed an impressive total of 10 spacewalks, totaling 67 hours and 40 minutes, and logged more than 257 days in space. 

He’s now the Commander of Axiom Mission 1, the first all-private crew to go into orbit and to the International Space Station (ISS), and also duetted with pianist BLKBOK from space back in April, which I’m sure you’ll agree is pretty cool.

09.10 In the past, getting into space was limited to government agencies. These days, space is the next frontier for business, creating exciting new opportunities to improve our life back on Earth. Today we’re going to hear from the people shooting for the stars at the cutting edge of space commercialization.

09.05 Hello, and welcome to EmTech 2022! I’m Rhiannon, a reporter at MIT Technology Review, and I’ll be taking you through all the major news and announcements from the first day of the conference.

Today, we’ll be covering the technologies that are creating new opportunities for our planet, our bodies and our businesses. First up, we’re going to hear a few words from Jennifer Strong, our editorial director for audio and live journalism.

Come back to this page for rolling updates throughout the day as we kick off EmTech 2022, MIT Technology Review’s flagship event on emerging technology and global trends.

Global changemakers, innovators, and industry veterans will take to the stage ​​to distinguish what’s probable, plausible, and possible with tomorrow’s breakthrough technologies.

We’ll be hearing from some of the biggest names in the industry, discussing everything from how to get promising ideas off the ground, to commercializing space, to building tomorrow’s AI and tackling the world’s biggest challenges. 

Today we’ll be exploring some of the exciting technologies promising to change our lives, such as clean energy and CRISPR. Tomorrow will be focused on unpacking what the future holds for Web 3.0, body tech, and AI.

Programming starts at 9am ET, and you can follow along here to find out what's being said on stage. It's not too late to get tickets, if you haven't already.

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