M.I.T.'s Technology Review magazine recently published its annual list of 10 Breakthrough Technologies "that will have a profound effect on our lives." Let's unpack them.
#1. CRISPR to modify the human genome
CRISPR or, more formally, CRISPR/Cas9, stands for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats/CRISPR associated protein 9," is a system that scientists have borrowed and adapted from bacteria to cut and modify DNA. It can be used to correct a disease-causing error that was inherited or that occurred in our DNA when it replicated; to enhance the genetic complement of crops or livestock; even to modify insects to reduce their ability to damage crops.
More than 200 people have been treated with CRISPR gene therapy, including to reverse the mutation in sickle-cell anemia and to lower cholesterol by correcting a molecular defect that causes dangerously high levels of cholesterol in the blood. CRISPR could potentially be applied to correct the genetic lesions in many diseases.
#2. AI [Artificial Intelligence] that makes images
The editors of Technology Review summarized it nicely:
This is the year of the AI artists. Software models developed by Google, OpenAI, and others can now generate stunning artworks based on just a few text prompts. Type in a short description of pretty much anything, and you get a picture of what you asked for in seconds. Nothing will be the same again.
When the first text-to-image model was released in 2021, you could type in a short description of pretty much anything, and the program produced a picture of what you asked for in seconds. It was effective but somewhat crude. The next generation, released in 2022, was a major advance, with much more polished, sophisticated images. And so it goes. See some of what we're in for here. (Note, especially, the faked image of President Trump's arrest.)
#3. A chip design that changes everything
Chip manufacturers have generally licensed designs from a few big producers, but a popular open standard called RISC-V is making it easier for anyone to create a chip. Many startups are exploring the possibilities.
Chip companies such as Intel and Arm have long kept their blueprints proprietary. Customers would buy off-the-shelf chips, which may have had capabilities irrelevant to their product, or pay more for a custom design. Since RISC-V is an open standard, anyone can use it to design a chip, free of charge.
RISC-V chips have already begun to pop up in earbuds, hard drives, and AI processors, with 10 billion cores already shipped. Companies are also working on RISC-V designs for data centers and spacecraft. In a few years, RISC-V proponents predict, the chips will be everywhere.
#4. Mass-market military drones
For decades, the drone battlefield has been dominated by the United States' high-end precision-strike drones, such as the Predator and Reaper. The war in Ukraine has altered the landscape, however, with the widespread availability and use of low-budget versions from China, Iran, and Turkey. They vary greatly in capability and cost.
#5. Abortion pills via telemedicine
Years ago, the FDA approved a two-drug combination, mifepristone and misoprostol, which, taken together as pills, can safely end a pregnancy during the first trimester. By 2020, they accounted for more than half of all abortions in the U.S.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court and the end of abortion as a right last year, various nonprofits began to facilitate patients' consultations with a medical provider via video call, text, or app. The provider then prescribes the pills, which are shipped to the patient.
#6. Organs for transplantation on demand
Currently, more than 100,000 Americans are waiting for transplants, and due to a shortage of hearts, lungs, livers, and kidneys, at least 17 die each day. Donor organs — from a living person or cadaver — must match the rejection recipient's tissue type and size, and often, they are not perfect. Two new high-tech approaches to providing organs for transplantation might ultimately both eliminate the need for organ donors and reduce the risk of tissue rejection.
The first approach is three-dimensional (3D) bioprinting, which uses "bio-ink," a printable material made from a patient's own cells, to print layer upon layer, creating tissue that the recipient will not reject.
This might work for relatively uncomplicated organs such as skin, but the fabrication of other, more complex organs presents imposing obstacles. The liver and kidneys, for example, produce hormone-like substances that modulate physiological processes such as blood coagulation, blood pressure, and removing toxins from the bloodstream. It is difficult to see how these closely regulated functions could be incorporated into 3D-printed organs.
The second, more promising approach is to genetically engineer animals — most often, pigs (because their organs are an appropriate size) — so that their transplanted organs will not be rejected. In effect, it uses genetic engineering to grow "humanized" tissues and organs in animals. Two separate, very small clinical trials have already been performed – a pig heart transplanted into a patient with terminal heart disease and a pig kidney implanted in a brain-dead patient. The heart transplant patient died two months post-transplant (apparently from a latent virus in the organ), and the kidneys worked well until the experiment was terminated after three days. These are considered encouraging early results.
#7. The Inevitable Electric Vehicle
Sales of emissions-free, electric cars and trucks are soaring. They accounted for about 13% of all new auto sales globally in 2022, up from 4% just two years earlier, according to the International Energy Agency. However, unrealistic mandates and incentives will likely encounter formidable obstacles, as discussed here. There must be more electricity available to charge them, and battery production has to be massively increased.
#8. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)
The telescope, a NASA-led collaboration among the U.S., Canada, and Europe, the most powerful space telescope in history, can view objects 100 times fainter than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. Since it began full operations in July of last year from its perch beyond the moon, its output has been remarkable, "from images of remote galaxies at the dawn of time to amazing landscapes of nebulae, the dust-filled birthplaces of stars."
The JWST's project schedule is packed, and every day it collects more than 50 gigabytes of data, which contains images and spectroscopic signatures (essentially light broken apart into its elements) which are then converted into information that can be used by amateur and professional scientists.
#9. Ancient DNA analysis
Technology Review describes this "breakthrough" thusly:
Genomic sequencing tools now let us read very old strands of human DNA. Studying traces from humans who lived long ago reveals much about who we are and why the modern world looks the way it does. It also helps scientists understand the lives of regular people living back then — not just those who could afford elaborate burials.
I'm not so sure about this one, which seems as though it would be of primary academic interest, mainly to anthropologists. But, hey, let's throw them a bone. An ancient bone.
10. Battery recycling
Demand for lithium-ion batteries is skyrocketing as EVs become more common, but there are already shortages of the metals needed to build battery cells. The demand for lithium could increase 20-fold by 2050. Recycling would help (but probably not enough) to address two problems: the supply of new batteries and disposal of used ones. Older methods of processing spent batteries were unable to recover enough of the individual metals to make recycling economical, but new approaches enable recyclers to more effectively dissolve the metals and separate them from battery waste. Companies are building facilities that will reclaim lithium, nickel, and cobalt and channel them back to lithium-ion battery manufacturers.
Henry I. Miller, MS, MD, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He served for fifteen years at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in a number of posts, including as the founding director of the Office of Biotechnology.