10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2015: Where Are They Now?
Each year MIT Technology Review selects 10 emerging technologies that we believe will remake the world. Here’s how this year’s picks got closer to reality over the past 10 months.
When Rachel Metz of MIT Technology Review saw the four-armed blue monster, she knew Magic Leap’s technology was something special. The company is working on a headset that can make you see virtual 3-D objects blended seamlessly into the real world. Magic Leap doesn’t talk much about its technology or strategy. But we have learned that the company is working on silicon chips that process light and is inviting developers to create content for the headset, which does not yet have a public release date. Microsoft is working on a similar headset scheduled for a limited release early next year. Comparing demonstrations of the competing technologies suggested that both projects have amazing potential.
Engineering the structure of metals and ceramic materials at the nanoscale can give them superpowers that might transform how we build just about everything. They can become incredibly flexible, strong, and extremely light all at the same time, and gain the ability to spring back into shape after being crushed flat. In September, the CalTech lab of Julia Greer, which has pioneered this idea, reported new records for the strength and resilience of such materials. But as she told MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge in November, making these materials practical still requires figuring out ways to make them in larger quantities.
The roads would be safer if nearby vehicles automatically shared details of their speed, direction, and other information over wireless links. This year Mercedes-Benz confirmed that its version of that technology will appear in 2017 E-Class models going on sale next year, and General Motors was reported to be putting car-to-car communication in the 2017 Cadillac CTS sedan. Leading Chinese car manufacturer Changan has been testing the technology at its Michigan research center, and says it may appear in its vehicles in 2018. U.S. transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said in May that he was accelerating work on rules that would require car-to-car communication technology on all new vehicles.
Alphabet continued testing its giant helium balloons intended to widen Internet access in 2015. In October the company signed an agreement with the government of Indonesia to give the technology its biggest test yet. In 2016 cellular networks serving the country’s 250 million people will begin to integrate the balloons into their networks, acting as extra cellular towers floating in the stratosphere. In India, however, the planned Loon rollout reportedly hit roadblocks in communications technology and security late in the year. Alphabet’s balloon team has also begun collaborating with Facebook, which has plans to use high-altitude drones for cheap Internet access.
Just a vial or two of blood can reveal a wealth of information about a person’s cancer, developing fetus or transplanted organ. “Foreign” cells in the body shed fragments of DNA into the blood that can be read thanks to advances in sequencing technology. Liquid biopsies are now becoming widely used, but their power and effectiveness is still not fully understood. Many expectant mothers have blood tests to check their fetus’ chromosomes, but they sometimes reveal undiagnosed cancers, too. And although liquid biopsies for cancer have become common, the evidence they are improving outcomes/treatment is so far equivocal.
There isn’t enough fresh water in the world to meet the needs of the world’s growing population, but technology that removes the salt from seawater has gotten much more efficient. This year a new “megascale” desalination plant that uses a technique called reverse osmosis ramped up to full capacity in Israel. It is capable of producing 627,000 cubic meters of water a day, at much lower prices than previous plants thanks to advances in engineering and materials. A new plant built on similar technology recently opened in Carlsbad, California, north of San Diego. It is expected to produce over 200,000 cubic meters of water a day, estimated to take care of 7 percent of San Diego County’s supply.
The idea of paying for stuff with your phone had been around for a long time before Apple decided to take a whack at it. But with Apple Pay the company made a version of the concept significantly easier to use and more secure than those that came before. Apple also used its considerable business clout to bring banks, retailers, and payments processors on board. Uptake of Apple Pay has been steady but not explosive. As of this summer, 13 percent of people with compatible iPhones had tried it and 27 percent of U.S. retailers accepted it. That’s not bad considering how slowly retailers and the payments industry changes, but not enough to make 2015 the “year of Apple Pay,” as CEO Tim Cook predicted in January.
Lab-grown clumps of brain tissue similar to the brain of a human embryo during the first trimester provide a new way to understand brain disorders and test new treatments. Brain organoids can be cultured from skin cells and are being used to study Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and epilepsy. One study this year used the technique to shed new light on the role of genetics in autism, and found a way to use genetic engineering to grow brain organoids from the cells of autistic people that lacked one feature characteristic of the condition.
Late in 2014 plant scientists created a new rice plant with a massive upgrade to its capability to extract energy from sunlight. The technique could increase the productivity of rice crops, and perhaps also wheat, by as much as 50 percent, making it possible to feed more people in poor regions of the world. MIT Technology Review estimates it will be 10 to 15 years before the effort by 12 labs in eight countries pays off—longer than any other technology on this year’s list. But there has been some progress in recent months, with the project advancing to its third phase at the start of December. Having shown that they can get the enzymes needed to supercharge photosynthesis into rice, the researchers are now focused on understanding how to regulate their activity so they function correctly.
As genome sequencing has become cheaper, its use has grown rapidly—and so has the number of separate databases in the world storing genomic data. Geneticists are now rolling out infrastructure to link up those isolated DNA databanks and solve medical discoveries that can only be found by sharing and comparing genomic data. This year patients’ genomes began streaming over the Internet via one such system, called Matchmaker Exchange. In October doctors in Calgary, Canada, and Baltimore, Maryland, reported that this led them to discover that two boys thousands of miles apart with serious, unknown developmental disorders had the same genetic condition. Comparing the boys’ genome sequences helped uncover the exact mutation that causes the disease.