By Jack Uldrich
In between all of the presidential tweets, catastrophic rain storms, fires and hurricanes, sexual harassment scandals, and Bitcoin mania, it is sometimes hard to remember that technological change is accelerating and, as it does, the world continues to evolve.
Over the past year, a number of developments have occurred, but below are ten which I believe could be real “game-changers.” The majority may appear to relate to healthcare (and they do), but the advances in artificial intelligence, self-learning computer chips, and quantum software will accelerate progress in a myriad of other industries.
1. Alien Intelligence.
Imagine a robot with no knowledge of an internal combustion engine being given thousands of bolts, screws, panels and parts and then constructing a high-performance automobile within a matter of hours. It sounds impossible, right?
Well, artificial intelligence experts have done something comparable by getting a computer to master the game of chess with no human input in just 24 hours. This is a game-changer for a two reasons.
First, it suggests that an “alien intelligence” has been created. I say “alien” because with no human input, the computer, which was only given the rules of the game, came up with novel methods to win games that had evaded the world’s best chess players since the game was first created. This then leads the second game-changer: “Alien Intelligence” may soon be able to apply the “rules” of other fields, including biology, chemistry, logistics, manufacturing, pharmacology, traffic, and travel–to rapidly create innovative solutions to complex problems. What this implies is that machines may soon be doing everything from reducing gridlock by more effectively managing traffic to creating personalized drugs to cure people of diseases that they didn’t even know they had.
2. Genetic Sleuthing.
Curing a person of a disease that they don’t even know they have may sound like science fiction, but it is now moving closer to reality. This is because Google recently released a tool called DeepVariant that applies artificial intelligence to sequencing data to build a more complete picture of a person’s genome. In addition to teasing out the genetic causes of diseases, this information will help better identify potential drug therapies.
While DeepVariant is impressive, what is facilitating this revolution is the sheer torrent of genomic data that is being created, analyzed, and turned into useful insights via artificial intelligence. In the UK, 500,000 people are sharing genetic data via UK Biobank; in China, Kadoorie Biobank has recruited a half million people; and in the United States Stanford University has created the Global Biobank Engine. The net impact is that people the world over–by comparing their genetic information against millions of others–will soon begin to have a better understanding of their genome and their unique potential health concerns thanks to artificial intelligence.
3. Chemical Surgery.
The first shot in the medical revolution of curing diseases before they start was fired this year at Sun Yat-sen University when scientists performed “chemical surgery” on a human embryo. Beta-thalassemia is a potentially life-threatening blood disorder caused by a change to single base in the genetic code and it might soon be cured by replacing a single, errant gene through a procedure known as “base editing.” That embryo was not implanted, but the treatment suggests that in the near future a number of inherited diseases may be treated and eliminated before a person is even born. (A similar experiment was also conducted at the Oregon Health and Science University this year.)
4. Molecular Scissors.
As positive as “chemical surgery” may be, there may be even better news for those already inflicted with gene-related diseases. Earlier this year, scientists attempted to cure a patient’s Hunter Syndrome by permanently modifying their DNA. The technology employed is called zinc finger nucleases and the procedure has been likened to a pair of “molecular scissors” that can identify and cut out a specific piece of DNA. The modified DNA–which is hoped will cure the disease–then becomes a part of the person’s DNA and will remain there for the rest of the person’s life. The technique won’t fix the damage someone has already suffered, but it is expected that the technique may soon be applied to embryos and keep young people from getting the disease in the first place.
5. CRISPR-Carrying Nanoparticles.
One of the problems associated with “molecular scissors” and “chemical surgery” is that they rely on viruses to shepard the gene-modifying tools into human cells. The downside is that these viruses can sometimes trigger antibodies to fight the virus. Researchers at MIT have now developed new nanoparticles that could eliminate the need to use viruses. In addition to not triggering antibodies, these nanoparticles have the added advantage of better targeting the errant gene. This, in turn, may eliminate problems associated with genes ending up in the wrong place and causing unintended problems.
6. Cancer Vaccine & “Kill Switches".
Moderna, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup, has developed what it claims is a new process that allows a patient’s body to use mRNA to make its own medicine. The process hijacks a cell’s protein-making mechanism to teach the body how to recognize targets that appear only on cancer cells. Longer-term, the company hopes to create programs for infectious diseases, cardiovascular disorders and rare diseases. In a related development, researchers at Northwestern have identified small RNA molecules which might be used to prompt cancer cells to commit suicide.
7. Self-Learning Neuromorphic Computer Chips.
If it seems that technological advances are arriving faster than ever, it is because they are. One reason for this is that mankind’s tools of discovery are getting increasingly powerful. A wonderful example of this is Intel’s new Loihi computer chip–a “self learning neuromorphic computer chip.” The chip mimics the human brain and gets smarter over time by constantly using data to learn and make inferences. Today, for example, a computer chip in an automobile can recognize a young child and a ball. With self-learning chips, the technology will soon be able to surmise the probability that the child’s ball may bounce into the street and that the child will chase after it. In this sense, the computer chip will know to slow the car down in the presence of a combination of a young child and a ball. This is a simplistic example but when the same process can be applied to health data, cybersecurity threats, weather, etc., it is easy to imagine how many problems could be prevented before they ever occur.
8. Solid State Batteries: Breakthrough advances in batteries always appear to be just around the corner but they never seem to materialize. The same might be true with Ionic Material’s new solid state battery technology which reportedly combines the advantages of alkaline batteries (cheap, safe and reliable) with the advantages of lithium batteries (powerful, rechargeable, and more environmentally-friendly), but the early reports are positive. The company does this by replacing the liquids in batteries with a polymer material. If the technology scales, alkaline batteries could become more powerful and rechargeable thus enabling renewable, distributed energy (solar, wind, etc.,) to flourish by allowing consumers to affordably store those energy sources and then access that energy as needed.
9. Seawater Rice.
Together with wheat and corn (maize), rice is one of the three leading sources of food and calories in the world. Recently, a research team lead by Yuan Longping, known as China’s “father of hybrid rice,” crossbred a new type of rice that can be grown in diluted seawater. This is significant because in China alone almost 1 million square kilometers are unfarmed because the land has a high level of salinity. This new rice can be grown in these unused and under-utilized areas suggesting that 100 billion pounds of additional rice could be grown annually–enough to feed 200 million people. (UC plant geneticist Pamela Ronald is also working on developing rice plants that grow in harsh conditions, including those areas affected by drought).
10. Quantum Software.
Quantum computers already exist and, by the end of this year, Google hopes to achieve “quantum supremacy”–using a quantum computer to do something that is beyond the power of a conventional computer. Whether it succeeds in this mission is yet to be determined, but the company has paved the way for other companies and industries to tap into quantum computers by making an open-source software available to the public for free. The software, called OpenFermion, allows innovative researchers to begin exploring how quantum computers can lead to practical advances in everything from new drugs and materials to solving complex logistical issues. The fact that the software will work on quantum computers from IBM, Rigetti and others is an added bonus.
The quantum age is likely to arrive sooner than most people expect, and the possibilities this creates are astounding.
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