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What Amazes the Amazing Mr. Gates

MIT’s Technology Review recently asked Bill Gates what new technologies he feels will be changing the world for the better. Here’s what he has his eye on.

Robots will be getting more dexterous and smarter:  To date, robots have proven pretty adept at completely repetitive tasks. That’s why they’ve done so well in terms of replacing humans on assembly lines. But if any change is introduced, they tend not to fare so well. Now, thanks to AI techniques like  reinforcement learning, robot dexterity and flexibility are improving. In 3-5 years, they should be better able to deal with the “messiness of reality.” (They’re not mentioned in the article, but my favorite robot watching is looking at the robot dog videos from Boston Dynamics, especially the one where the dog slips on a banana peel. Google it!)

New-wave nuclear power:  Historically, cost and safety have gotten in the way of acceptance of nuclear power. Among the new designs that are coming on board are:

…generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach.

It’s always good news to have breakthroughs in technologies that are alternative to the use of fossil fuels as a source of power.

The ability to predict premature babies: My kids all went full term, but few things strike more terror into a parent’s heart than that thought of having a preemie. One in 10 babies are born prematurely, and “it’s the leading cause of death for children under age five.” Now, within a few years, there’ll be a simple, non-invasive blood test that can alert a physician if a pregnant mother is apt to deliver prematurely. The doctor can then take steps to ward off an early birth. And that’s good news.

Better screening for gut diseases: Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) is fairly common in poor countries, and when it comes to malnourishment, is often the culprit. But endoscopic testing is expensive and difficult to conduct under less than optimal conditions. Now a scientist has come up with “swallowable capsules [that] contain miniature microscopes.” These microscopes send images to a console, helping a physician make a diagnosis and determine treatment. In addition to EED, the device can be used to test for a precursor for esophageal cancer.

Custom cancer vaccines: Another breakthrough that Bill Gates likes is custom cancer vaccines that “trigger a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations.” The hope is that these vaccines will work better than shotgun chemo approaches in terms of destroying tumor cells, but they’ll do so without causing as much damage to healthy cells as chemo does.

Plant-based (and lab-grown) burgers: You may remember “hold the pickle, hold the lettuce.” Now it’s becoming “hold the cow-based burger.” Anyway, the good news is that the world is getting richer, and more folks can afford meat. The bad news is that to produce a pound of animal-based protein uses a lot more water, land, and fossil fuel than does the production of a pound of plant protein. So it will be better all round for the environment if we’re consuming more plant-based or lab-grown meat. (A friend recently had one of the plant-based protein burgers and said it was a bit well-done – the only way it was offered in the restaurant – but basically okay.)

Capturing carbon dioxide:  A number of companies are working on “practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air [that] can soak up excess greenhouse-gase emissions.” A capture approach that was recently discovered should be able to bring the cost per ton of capture down by an order of magnitude. Still need to figure out what to do with it once it’s captured. Folks are working on that, too.

ECG’s from a wearable device: This capability is already available on an Apple Watch and other devices, and deliver nearly as accurate a result as the one you’d get from a medical device that requires a trip to a clinic.

Toilets that don’t require sewers:  One thing that those of us who live in more modern, wealthier countries don’t have to worry about is sanitation. But that’s not true for much of the world. Providing better sanitation has been one of Bill Gates’ aims for nearly a decade. In 2011, he set up the “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge.” A number of companies  responded to the challenge of perfecting energy-efficient toilets that don’t need a sewer system, and which can perform on-the-spot waste treatment. Now the challenge is to produce them at scale, a challenge that should be met in the next couple of years.

AI assistants get more conversational – and more capable: Just as robots are getting more adept, so too are AI assistants like Alexa and Siri. And pretty soon, they’ll be good for something more than telling us who won the Best Actress Oscar and playing the song we requested. Again, it’s AI that’s improving, in this case due to natural language processing. Some of the improvements are already available. Google Duplex:

… can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. It can also make calls for you to schedule restaurant reservations or salon appointments…In China, consumers are getting used to Alibaba’s AliMe, which coordinates package deliveries over the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.

While AI assistants can do more than they used to (haggling! Alright), “they still can’t understand a sentence. Lines are scripted or generated statistically, reflecting how hard it is to imbue machines with true language understanding.”

But it’s going to happen…

Anyway, thanks to the amazing Mr. Gates for giving us a view into the technology he thinks is most amazingly worthwhile.