The top ten tech breakthroughs of 2017

2nd January 2018
Alice Matthews

It’s been another eventful 12 months in the world of technology. Further ground has been broken in the journey towards autonomous driving and the integration of technology in the healthcare sector. Plus the continued drive for smaller size, lower power devices. This has also been met with further concerns around data security as more and more ‘things’ around us become connected.

The MIT Technology Review has published its top ten technology breakthroughs of 2017 that will have potential influence, both now and in the future, across politics, culture, healthcare, transport and the economy.

So, in no particular order…

  1. Reversing paralysis

Significant progress has been made in using brain implants to restore freedom of movement following spinal injuries. Research has enabled the spine of a paralysed monkey to be electrically stimulated via a recording device attached to the animal’s motor cortex. This then enabled the monkey’s right leg to extend and flex.

  1. Self-driving trucks

Platooning technology is already being trialled around the world, which has several potential advantages around efficiency and carbon emissions by cutting down on wind drag and saving fuel. There are several issues still to be resolved however, particularly around safety and the economics of what the technology will mean for the world’s truck drivers.

  1. Paying with your face

Facial recognition technology is already being employed in China to authorise payments, gain access to facilities and even track down criminals. This sort of technology is now familiar to anyone with an electronic passport, and it has developed and expanded rapidly in China over the last few years due to the country’s attitudes towards surveillance and privacy.

  1. Practical quantum computers

It was recently the 45th anniversary of Atari’s 1972 release of Pong, the earliest arcade video game. You only have to look at the development of video games to realise the increase in computing power since then. Advances at blue-chip companies such as Google and Intel indicate that computers with previously unimaginable power are now within reach.

  1. The 360 degree selfie

The world of photography is being opened up to a whole new dimension with inexpensive cameras that are capable of taking spherical images. Historically the cost of the cameras and the production process for capturing spherical images has been prohibitive. However, innovations in several technologies that combine images from multiple lenses and sensors is bringing this technology into the mainstream.

  1. Hot solar cells

Advances in this sector could help create cheap and continuous power by converting heat into focussed beams of light. The main issue with traditional photovoltaics is that they can be bulky and expensive. However, a team of MIT scientists has built a different sort of solar energy device that uses inventive engineering and advances in materials science to capture far more of the sun’s energy.

  1. Gene therapy 2.0

Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses. Crucial puzzles have been solved and gene therapies are on the verge of curing devastating genetic disorders. Two gene therapies for inherited diseases have won regulatory approval in Europe.

  1. The cell atlas

The next step in finding out more about the human body will be a scheme to individually capture and scrutinise millions of cells using the most powerful tools in modern genomics and cell biology. The objective is to construct the first comprehensive ‘cell atlas’, or map of human cells, a technology that could comprehensively reveal, for the first time, what human bodies are actually made of and provide scientists with a sophisticated new model of biology that could speed the search for drugs.

  1. Botnets of things

The issue around hacking is getting worse as the world becomes more connected. And, as many devices have little or no security, it is easier than ever to build huge botnets that take down much more than one site at a time. The number of vulnerable devices is only going to increase, and increase rapidly. While this ‘breakthrough’ is certainly not a good thing, it is significant. Current IoT trends favour the attacker, so we can only expect the number of botnet attacks to increase.

 10. Reinforcement learning

Welcome the idea, or shrink away in fear, the fact is that computers are becoming smarter, and are now able to figure out how to do things that no programmer could teach them. Now reinforcement learning may soon inject greater intelligence into gaming, the automotive industry, manufacturing and robotics.

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