Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
MIT’s Top 5 tech breakthroughs for 2020
These are the top advances in technology that will impact the world in the coming decade.
- 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
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 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
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
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
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.
- Top 6 fears about future technology - Big Think ›
- 10 Ways Technology Will Transform the Human Body in the next ... ›
- These are the top 10 emerging technologies of 2019 | World ... ›
- Use an anti-aging device to get a facelift at home - Big Think ›
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to light recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.
But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.
Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.
If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.
Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.
According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.
The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.
But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.
Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.
Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.
We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.
Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).
With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.
The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.
- How love makes us feel can only be defined on an individual basis, but what it does to the body, specifically the brain, is now less abstract thanks to science.
- One of the problems with early-stage attraction, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, is that it activates parts of the brain that are linked to drive, craving, obsession, and motivation, while other regions that deal with decision-making shut down.
- Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.