List of Breakthrough Technologies Advances 2020

  • Maxine Hunt
  • March 5, 2020
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Technologies

Technologies Here is our annual list of technological advances that we believe will make a real difference in solving important problems. How do we pick? We avoid the one-off tricks, the overhyped new gadgets. Instead, we look for those breakthroughs that will truly change how we live and work.

  1. Unhackable internet
  2. Hyper-personalized medicine
  3. Digital money
  4. Anti-aging drugs
  5. AI-discovered molecules
  6. Satellite mega-constellations
  7. Quantum supremacy
  8. Tiny AI
  9. Differential privacy
  10. Climate change attribution

We’re excited to announce that with this year’s list we’re also launching our very first editorial podcast, Deep Tech, which will explore the people, places, and ideas featured in our most ambitious journalism.

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Unhackable internet

An internet based on quantum physics will soon enable inherently secure communication. A team led by Stephanie Wehner, at the Delft University of Technology, is building a network connecting four cities in the Netherlands entirely by means of quantum technology. Messages sent over this network will be unhackable.

In the last few years, scientists have learned to transmit pairs of photons across fiber-optic cables in a way that absolutely protects the information encoded in them. A team in China used a form of the technology to construct a 2,000-kilometer network backbone between Beijing and Shanghai—but that project relies partly on classical components that periodically break the quantum link before establishing a new one, introducing the risk of hacking.

The Delft network, in contrast, will be the first to transmit information between cities using quantum techniques from end to end.

The technology relies on a quantum behavior of atomic particles called entanglement. Entangled photons can’t be covertly read without disrupting their content.

But entangled particles are difficult to create, and harder still to transmit over long distances. Wehner’s team has demonstrated it can send them more than 1.5 kilometers (0.93 miles), and they are confident they can set up a quantum link between Delft and the Hague by around the end of this year. Ensuring an unbroken connection over greater distances will require quantum repeaters that extend the network.

Such repeaters are currently in design at Delft and elsewhere. The first should be completed in the next five to six years, says Wehner, with a global quantum network following by the end of the decade.

Hyper-personalized medicine

Here’s a definition of a hopeless case: a child with a fatal disease so exceedingly rare that not only is there no treatment, there’s not even anyone in a lab coat studying it. “Too rare to care,” goes the saying.

That’s about to change, thanks to new classes of drugs that can be tailored to a person’s genes. If an extremely rare disease is caused by a specific DNA mistake—as several thousand are—there’s now at least a fighting chance for a genetic fix.

One such case is that of Mila Makovec, a little girl suffering from a devastating illness caused by a unique genetic mutation, who got a drug manufactured just for her. Her case made the New England Journal of Medicine in October after doctors moved from a readout of her genetic error to treatment in just a year. They called the drug miles, after her.

Digital money

Last June Facebook unveiled a “global digital currency” called Libra. The idea triggered a backlash and Libra may never launch, at least not in the way it was originally envisioned. But it’s still made a difference: just days after Facebook’s announcement, an official from the People’s Bank of China implied that it would speed the development of its own digital currency in response. Now China is poised to become the first major economy to issue a digital version of its money, which it intends as a replacement for physical cash. China’s leaders apparently see Libra, meant to be backed by a reserve that will be mostly US dollars, as a threat: it could reinforce America’s disproportionate power over the global financial system, which stems from the dollar’s role as the world’s de facto reserve currency. Some suspect China intends to promote its digital renminbi internationally.

Anti-aging drugs

The first wave of a new class of anti-aging drugs has begun human testing. These drugs won’t let you live longer (yet) but aim to treat specific ailments by slowing or reversing a fundamental process of aging.

The drugs are called senolytics—they work by removing certain cells that accumulate as we age. Known as “senescent” cells, they can create low-level inflammation that suppresses normal mechanisms of cellular repair and creates a toxic environment for neighboring cells.

In June, San Francisco–based Unity Biotechnology reported initial results in patients with mild to severe osteoarthritis of the knee. Results from a larger clinical trial are expected in the second half of 2020. The company is also developing similar drugs to treat age-related diseases of the eyes and lungs, among other conditions.

AI-discovered molecules

The universe of molecules that could be turned into potentially life-saving drugs is mind-boggling in size: researchers estimate the number at around 1060. That’s more than all the atoms in the solar system, offering virtually unlimited chemical possibilities—if only chemists could find the worthwhile ones.

Now machine-learning tools can explore large databases of existing molecules and their properties, using the information to generate new possibilities. This could make it faster and cheaper to discover new drug candidates.

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Satellite mega-constellations

Satellites that can beam a broadband connection to internet terminals. As long as these terminals have a clear view of the sky, they can deliver internet to any nearby devices. SpaceX alone wants to send more than 4.5 times more satellites into orbit this decade than humans have ever launched since Sputnik.
These mega-constellations are feasible because we have learned how to build smaller satellites and launch them more cheaply. During the space shuttle era, launching a satellite into space cost roughly $24,800 per pound. A small communications satellite that weighed four tons cost nearly $200 million to fly up.