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MIT Tech Review’s Breakthrough Technologies for 2021 – Part 2

In my most recent post, I summarized the first five technologies listed in the MIT Technology Review’s annual roundup of breakthrough technologies. Here’s my summary of the final five.

The Review’s section on hyper-accurate positioning begins with an anecdote about a recent technology success in China. Last summer, the country’s global navigation satellite system was able to forewarn a village in danger of a landslide that its citizens were in peril. The villagers were evacuated and there was no loss of life. This disaster-monitoring/early-warning system is just one of many applications where GPS plays a role.

Precision agriculture, drone delivery, logistics, ride-hailing, and air travel all depend on highly accurate position detection from space. Now a series of deployments and upgrades are boosting the accuracy of the world’s most powerful global satellite positioning systems from several meters to a few centimeters.

When GPS was first introduced nearly twenty years ago, positioning accuracy was between five to ten meters. It’s now approaching the one-to-three-meter range. And they’re even talking about centimeters! New, non-satellite technologies are in the works, including an “approach [that] uses the quantum properties of matter to locate and navigate without outside references.” Lots of exciting things happening in this space, that’s for sure.

Whether we like it or not, the pandemic has accelerated the trend toward remote everything. Online conferencing/meeting tools, and work-from-home for remote access have been around for a good long while. What’s changed is that a lot more people are using them, and this is accelerating our acceptance of online in all aspects of our life. Most of us will go back to celebrating holidays with families in person, rather than on Zoom. But will be going on as many face-to-face sales calls as we used to?

Two areas that Tech Review points to are learning and healthcare. Most of the parents I know (and most of the kids) were more than happy to get back into the physical classroom. But teachers have become more attuned to and skilled at incorporating technology into their teaching methods. And online tutoring that addresses the specific learning styles and needs of learners will likely become more widely used.

Never say never, but telemedicine isn’t going to fully replace visits to the doctor’s office any time soon. Still, we’re seeing that many routine visits and check-ins can be accomplished through online “house calls” and through monitoring technology.

And one thing to note: perfecting remote learning and medicine will have tremendous benefit for those living in remote and underserved areas.

AI and robots are getting smarter about plenty of things, but for all the advances in neural networks, they’re still not all that adept when presented with something that’s new and unfamiliar. That’s because they still can’t operate like humans do, learning by combining sensory input (sights, sounds) with words to create meaning. Multi-skilled AI, “with access to both the sensory and linguistic ‘modes’ of human intelligence, should give rise to a more robust kind of AI that can adapt more easily to new situations or problems.” The first application area: computer vision.

I don’t imagine it will have much of an impact on my life, but I’ll take the Tech Review’s word for it that they’ve awarded TikTok recommendation algorithms a place on their breakthrough technologies list. TikTok’s “For You” matters because “it’s flipped the script on who can get famous online.”

While other platforms are geared more toward highlighting content with mass appeal, TikTok’s algorithms seem just as likely to pluck a new creator out of obscurity as they are to feature a known star. And they’re particularly adept at feeding relevant content to niche communities of users who share a particular interest or identity.

Who knows? Maybe you, too, can get TikTok famous online!

Green hydrogen is the final technology that makes it onto the breakthrough list. Green hydrogen will play a critical role in achieving clean energy goals.

Hydrogen has always been an intriguing possible replacement for fossil fuels. It burns cleanly, emitting no carbon dioxide; it’s energy dense, so it’s a good way to store power from on-and-off renewable sources; and you can make liquid synthetic fuels that are drop-in replacements for gasoline or diesel. But most hydrogen up to now has been made from natural gas; the process is dirty and energy intensive.

Enter solar and wind power, which are dropping in price as they’re perfected and their use becomes more widespread. “Simply zap water with electricity, and presto, you’ve got hydrogen.” Relative to hydrogen produced from natural gas, solar and wind are still more expensive, but that’s changing and should continue to change.

The Tech Review led its list off with a shoutout to Messenger RNA. Given the pandemic, and the role that mRNA vaccines are playing in getting us through it, this certainly should have come in first place. But I’m not sure if there’s any rank ordering when it comes to the rest of the breakthrough technologies cited. I can’t be the only person out there who thinks that green hydrogen, which will help us move away from fossil fuel, is more important than TikTok algorithms that help nobodies become famous. (But maybe that’s just me!)