Letter from the Editor

Tales of power and responsibility

Many of the breakthroughs on our annual list embody the good-versus-evil dichotomy that faces all technologists.

Our annual list of 10 world-changing technologies invariably defies attempts to find an overarching theme. But a look back at the past few years shows a trend: we’re including more and more advances in artificial intelligence.

We’ve featured surprise modeling, a form of machine learning (2008); Siri (2009); deep learning (2013); neuromorphic chips (2014); conversational interfaces (2016); robots that teach each other (2016); self-driving trucks (2017); and reinforcement learning (2017).

Algorithms that learn have been around for decades, so why this sudden flowering? It’s thanks in part to better algorithms, but mostly to an explosion in the quantity of data available for training them—from photos to disease statistics to online shopping patterns—and to new kinds of chips that can better handle their massive processing needs.

This year’s list again contains two AI entries. Generative adversarial networks, or GANs, are AIs pitted against one another in an evolutionary arms race, which speeds up the pace of learning, sometimes by orders of magnitude. And cloud-based AI makes deep-learning algorithms as ubiquitous and accessible as blogging software.

Gideon Lichfield

Combined, these two innovations could put far more AI power in the hands of far more people. As is usually the case with a powerful technology, this cuts both ways. It promises to turbocharge scientific research and economic productivity. But it may also allow almost anyone to craft convincing fake images and videos that further erode society’s ability to distinguish truth from lies. Ian Goodfellow, the inventor of GANs, is the rare technologist who is actively working on countering possible abuses of his invention, as Martin Giles relates in a profile of him.

There’s a similar good-or-evil dichotomy in some of the other technologies on this year’s list. As Antonio Regalado reports, genetics is evolving from the search for “the gene for X” to statistical analyses of big genomic databases that can now reveal “the thousand genes for X.” That will help identify people at high risk of things like heart disease and Alzheimer’s, but it will also predict traits such as height and IQ. What will we do with such knowledge? Synthetic human embryos will help medical researchers study the earliest stages of life, but when does it become unethical to grow one? Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs plans to turn a Toronto neighborhood into a smart-city experiment, stuffing it with sensors to scoop up data on its residents’ every movement. Will it, asks Elizabeth Woyke, become a shining example of how to use big data for public good, or a privacy nightmare?

Luckily, perhaps, not everything on our list is so ethically fraught. A natural-gas power plant that doesn’t emit carbon dioxide; a 3-D printer for metal; simultaneous-­translation devices that nestle in your ear like the Babel fish of the cult classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. All these and more are in this, our 17th annual list of the 10 breakthrough technologies. I hope you enjoy it.