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MIT’s Top 5 tech breakthroughs for 2020

These are the top advances in technology that will impact the world in the coming decade.

Image source: Drew Beamer/Unsplash/Big Think
  • Each year, Massachusetts Institute of Technology lists the biggest tech advances on the horizon.
  • Pivotal new technologies will change the way we communicate, spend, and get well.
  • We're about to find out what recent discoveries really mean in our daily lives.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology is no stranger to technology. It's one of the world's most productive and forward-facing tech research organizations. Scientists at MIT recently published their top 10 technological breakthroughs for 2020 list, which covers various tech-related industries and the most promising developments that everyone should be following in the coming year and beyond. Below are the first five on their list, each with the potential to change the world.

1. An unhackable internet

Optical fibers colored lamp

Image source: Umberto/Unsplash

MIT says: Later this year, Dutch researchers will complete a quantum internet between Delft and the Hague.

Scientists of the Quantum Internet Alliance initiative have announced that they're in the process of building the world's first purely quantum network. It incorporates new quantum repeaters that allow qubits to be passed along long distances without being corrupted or losing their superposition. The group published a paper last October laying out their vision for an Arpanet-type quantum prototype stretching between Delft and the Hague by the end of this decade. (Here's a great explainer.)

Think of a coin. Lay it flat on a table and it will be either heads or tails. This is more or less how things work in the world at larger scales. To see what things are like at a much smaller, quantum size, spin the coin and observe it from above. From that perspective, the coin's state could be described as being both head and tails at the same time. Being in this rapidly changing condition is like being in "superposition" in quantum physics.

To see, or measure, the coin's head/tails state at any given moment, you'd have to stop it spinning. Thus measured, the coin would be taken it out of superposition. Just like entangled quantum particles.

In computing systems, data objects are represented by bits. These strings of data are comprised of zeros and ones (heads or tails). In the quantum world, however, what needs to be represented is the "spinning coin" of superposition in its as-yet-unresolved state. So quantum computing uses "qubits" instead of bits.

Being able to represent data with qubits — objects that collapse out of superposition if they're intercepted or tampered with — is an attractive prospect for an increasingly security-conscious world, a natural foundation on which to build a super-secure quantum internet.

Still, qubits are far more complex than bits, and thus harder to process and exchange. Even worse, our spinning coin will eventually stop spinning and resolve as heads or tails. This makes retaining and exchanging qubits in superimposition a serious challenge. While there are various combinations of classical and quantum internets and encryption keys under consideration and construction, they all share a need for the robust, accurate transmission of qubits over long distances.

Stephanie Wehner of QuTech, a quantum computing and internet center at Delft University of Technology, is coordinator of the project:

"With this very extensive simulation platform we've recently built, which is now running on a supercomputer, we can explore different quantum network configurations and gain an understanding of properties which are very difficult to predict analytically. This way we hope to find a scalable design that can enable quantum communication across all of Europe."

2. Personalized medicine

DNA samples in test tubes in a laboratory

DNA Genotyping and Sequencing. A selection of DNA samples for amplification at the Cancer Genomics Research Laboratory, part of the National Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG).

Image source: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

MIT says: Novel drugs are being designed to treat unique genetic mutations.

Developing treatments for any condition can be difficult and expensive. It behooves researchers to get the most bang for their buck by concentrating on formulating solutions for diseases that afflict large groups of people. Hand in hand with this is a need for generalized remedies that address characteristics the whole group shares.

This is changing, according to MIT, with gene editing offering the potential for transforming medicine from the traditional "one size fits all" approach to a more effective "n-of-1" approach. This new form of medicine involves targeting and manipulation of an individual patient's genes, with the application of rapidly maturing technologies for gene replacement including gene editing, and antisensing that removes or corrects problem-causing genetic messages. "What the treatments have in common," says MIT, "is that they can be programmed, in digital fashion and with digital speed, to correct or compensate for inherited diseases, letter for DNA letter." Treatments may also be optimized to avoid contemporary medicine's often harsh side effects.

If gene editing lives up to its promise, medicine is about to become radically more successful and humane.

3. Digital money

Chinese yuan in hand from bank ATM

Image source: Artwell/Shutterstock

MIT says: The rise of digital currency has massive ramifications for financial privacy.

Bitcoin is, as of this writing, collapsing, but it's nonetheless clear that purely digital monetary systems have considerable appeal. It would mean the end of germ-encrusted metal and paper money, and perhaps more importantly, an opportunity for governments and their central banks to more closely control currency and to instantly execute monetary policy changes.

The truth is we've been halfway there for a long time, currencies such as Bitcoin and Libra notwithstanding. The money in our bank accounts is virtual — we personally possess no piles of physical cash at our local bank. Electronic purchasing with credit and debit cards is the norm for most, and when large movements of cash occur between banks, they do so in the digital domain. It's all been mostly bytes and bits for some time. What we currently have is a mish-mash of physical and digital money, and MIT predicts the imminent arrival of purely digital monetary systems.

In 2014, China began quietly exploring and building their Digital Currency/Electronic Payments system, or DC/EP. According to OZY, the People's Bank of China has already applied for 84 patents for various innovations their new system requires.

One of China's goals is to construct an on-ramp that makes it easy for citizens to switch to an all-digital system. "Virtually all of these patent applications relate to integrating a system of digital currency into the existing banking infrastructure," Marc Kaufman of Rimon Law tells OZY. The country is developing systems that allow people to swap traditional money for digital currency, as well chip card and digital wallets from which the currency may be spent.

An all-digital monetary system would present privacy issues, since all of one's money would presumably be visible to governmental agencies unless adequate privacy protections are implemented. Developing that protection is going to require a deeper exploration of privacy itself, a discussion that has been overdue since the dawn of the internet.

4. Anti-aging drugs

Man with grey hair and beard in nature

Image source: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

MIT says: Drugs that try to treat ailments by targeting a natural aging process in the body have shown promise.

Strides are being made toward the production of new drugs for conditions that commonly accompany getting older. They don't stop the aging process, but the hope is that in the next five years, scientists may be able to delay some of aging's effects.

Senolytics are a developing branch medicine designed to clean out unwanted cells that accumulate in our bodies as we age. These senescent cells can wind up as plaque on brain cells and as deposits that cause inflammation, inhibiting healthy cell maintenance and leaving toxins in our bodies.

While trials by San Francisco–based Unity Biotechnology are now underway for a senolytic medication targeting osteoarthritis of the knee, MIT notes that other aging-related ailments are getting a promising fresh look as well. A company named Alkahest, which specializes in Parkinson's and dementia, is investigating the extraction of certain components of young people's blood for injection into Alzheimer's patients in the hopes of arresting cognitive and functional decline. Meanwhile, researchers at Drexel University College of Medicine are investigating the use of an existing drug, rapamycin, as an anti-aging skin creme.

5. AI-discovered molecules

bubbles made with oil, water, and dish washing liquid

Image source: Sharon Pittaway/Unsplash

MIT says: Scientists have used AI to discover promising drug-like compounds.

Drugs are built from compounds, or combinations of molecules that together produce some sort of medically useful effect. Scientists often find that known compounds have surprising medical value. Recent research found that 50 non-cancer drugs can fight cancer in addition to their primary uses.

But what about new compounds? MIT notes there may be as many as 1060 molecule combinations yet to be discovered, "more than all the atoms in the solar system."

Artificial intelligence can help by sifting through molecule properties recorded in existing databases to identify combinations that may have promise as drugs. Operating more quickly (and cheaper) than humans can, machine learning techniques may revolutionize the search for new medicines.

Researchers at Hong Kong–based Insilico Medicine and the University of Toronto announced last September that AI algorithms had picked out about 30,000 unexplored molecule combinations, eventually reducing that list down to six promising new medical compounds. Synthesis and subsequent animal testing revealed one of them to be especially interesting as a drug. One out of 30,000 may not seem that impressive, but AI and machine learning are quickly evolving.

MIT predicts that in 3-5 years, such investigations will be regularly bearing fruit.

Rounding out the list

The other five technological advances featured on MIT's list are:

6. Satellite mega-constellations
7. Quantum supremacy
8. Tiny AI
9. Differential privacy
10. Climate change attribution

The list can be read in full in the March/April 2020 issue of MIT Technology Review.

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