Innovation

The 10 biggest breakthrough technologies of 2018... so far

MIT Technology Review's annual list of tech that will have a large impact on human life includes 3D metal printing, democratized AI, and online privacy that taps the blockchain.

Building a slide deck, pitch, or presentation? Here are the big takeaways:
  • 3D metal printing, artificial embryos, and dueling neural networks are three of the biggest breakthrough technologies of 2018. — MIT Technology Review
  • While some of the choices on MIT's 2018 list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies have not yet reached widespread use, they will all have a profound effect on human life. — MIT Technology Review

The year 2018 has only just begun, but a number of emerging technologies are poised to make a huge impact on our lives for the rest of the year and into the future, according to a Wednesday report from the MIT Technology Review.

The annual report, titled 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2018, features some advances that have been in the works for years, and others that were more recent achievements. Some of the technologies listed have not yet reached widespread use, while others may soon become commercially available.

"What we're really looking for is a technology, or perhaps even a collection of technologies, that will have a profound effect on our lives," according to the report. Many have direct implications for the enterprise, including improvements to security, data analysis, and travel.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)

Here are MIT's 10 breakthrough technologies for 2018, in no particular order.

1. 3D metal printing

3D printing technologies have been in existence for decades, and have proven to have a number of enterprise applications, including for rapid prototyping and medical device testing. However, it's been slow to catch on: Only 18% of organizations said they were actively using 3D printers as part of business operations in 2016, according to a Tech Pro Research survey.

But 3D printing is now becoming easier and less expensive to potentially be a practical way to manufacture parts, which could upend the entire manufacturing industry, MIT noted. A number of companies, including GE, Markforged, and Desktop Metal, have recently released 3D metal printers, which could reduce the need for manufacturers to maintain large inventories, and instead customer print materials as needed.

2. Artificial embryos

Embryologists working at the University of Cambridge in the UK recently grew realistic-looking mouse embryos using only stem cells—no egg or sperm needed. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Rockefeller University are now pursuing the next step of making an artificial embryo from human stem cells. While these embryos could make it easier for researchers to study the beginning of human life, they have also stoked an ethical debate.

3. Sensing city

Many smart city plans have faced delays and operational and cost issues, but a new smart city project in Toronto, called Quayside, is working with Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs to rebuild the urban neighborhood around digital technologies.

The project aims to base decisions about design, policy, and technology on data gathered from an extensive network of sensors, that can measure factors such as air quality, noise level, and human activity. It also calls for all vehicles to eventually be autonomous and shared.

4. AI for everybody

Up to this point, artificial intelligence (AI) tools have only been accessible for big tech companies like Amazon, Baidu, Google, and Microsoft, along with some startups. But new machine learning tools based in the cloud are helping more enterprises tap this emerging technology.

"Sectors such as medicine, manufacturing, and energy could also be transformed if they were able to implement the technology more fully, with a huge boost to economic productivity," according to the report.

5. Dueling neural networks

While AI can identify images after being trained on a database of pictures, it still fails to generate original images by itself. Until now: A major breakthrough approach from a PhD student at the University of Montreal, called a generative adversarial network (GAN), takes two neural networks and pits them against each other, to create realistic images and speech.

"The technology has become one of the most promising advances in AI in the past decade, able to help machines produce results that fool even humans," according to the report.

6. Babel-fish earbuds

Google's $159 Pixel Buds work with its Pixel smartphones and the Google Translate app to produce almost real-time translation. While they faced criticism for their design, they "show the promise of mutually intelligible communication between languages in close to real time," the report noted.

7. Zero-carbon natural gas

Natural gas is one of the world's primary sources of electricity, but is a major source of carbon emissions. A company called Net Power is testing a technology that could make clean energy from natural gas, which could offer the world a way to produce carbon-free energy from a fossil fuel at a less expensive cost.

8. Perfect online privacy

A new cryptographic protocol called a zero-­knowledge proof may help true internet privacy finally become a reality. It was pioneered by digital currency Zcash, the developers of which used a message called a zk-SNARK (zero-knowledge succinct non-interactive argument of knowledge) to give users the power to transact anonymously.

"For banks, this could be a way to use blockchains in payment systems without sacrificing their clients' privacy," the report stated. "Last year, JPMorgan Chase added zk-SNARKs to its own blockchain-based payment system."

9. Genetic fortune telling

Scientists are able to use data from large genetic studies to create polygenic risk scores, which offer predictions about health and IQ based on examining a person's DNA.

10. Material's quantum leap

IBM researchers recently were recently able to simulate the electronic structure of a small molecule using a seven-qubit quantum computer. Understanding molecules in exact detail like this will allow researchers to design more effective drugs and better materials for generating and distributing energy.

Also see

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Image: iStockphoto/monsitj

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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