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10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019

A robot can repeatedly pick up a component on an assembly line with amazing precision and without ever getting bored—but move the object half an inch, or replace it with something slightly different, and the machine will fumble ineptly or paw at thin air.

Using what’s known as reinforcement learning, neural-network software learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real.

But if researchers can reliably employ this kind of learning, robots might eventually assemble our gadgets, load our dishwashers, and even help Grandma out of bed.—Will Knight Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality.

Many consider fusion a pipe dream, but because the reactors can’t melt down and don’t create long-lived, high-level waste, it should face much less public resistance than conventional nuclear.

Free-floating DNA and RNA can yield information that previously required invasive ways of grabbing cells, such as taking a biopsy of a tumor or puncturing a pregnant woman’s belly to perform an amniocentesis.

Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height.

Therapies are already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying illnesses in the guts of such young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat.

(Though it sounds gag-­inducing, Tearney’s team has developed a technique that they say doesn’t cause discomfort.) It can also carry technologies that image the entire surface of the digestive tract at the resolution of a single cell or capture three-dimensional cross sections a couple of millimeters deep.

The little probe will help researchers answer questions about EED’s development—such as which cells it affects and whether bacteria are involved—and evaluate interventions and potential treatments.—Courtney Humphries The treatment incites the body’s natural defenses to destroy only cancer cells by identifying mutations unique to each tumor Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine.

By using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapies, limits damage to healthy cells.

The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008, five years after the Human Genome Project was completed, when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumor cell.

few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided compelling evidence that a vaccine containing copies of these mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T cells primed to seek out, attack, and destroy all cancer cells harboring them.

Depending on the animal, producing a pound of meat protein with Western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, and 6 to 20 times more fossil fuels than producing a pound of plant protein.

One drawback of lab-grown meat is that the environmental benefits are still sketchy at best—a recent World Economic Forum report says the emissions from lab-grown meat would be only around 7% less than emissions from beef production.

The better environmental case can be made for plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor in both companies), which use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, and plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.

According to an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a Beyond Meat patty would probably generate 90% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than a conventional burger made from a cow.—Markkus Rovito Practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air can soak up excess greenhouse-gas emissions.

To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.

In a surprise finding last summer, Harvard climate scientist David Keith calculated that machines could, in theory, pull this off for less than $100 a ton, through an approach known as direct air capture.

That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than earlier estimates that led many scientiststo dismiss the technology as far too expensive—though it will still take years for costs to fall to anywhere near that level.

Carbon Engineering, the Canadian startup Keith cofounded in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to ramp up production of its synthetic fuels, using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient.

(Bill Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.) Zurich-based Climeworks’s direct air capture plant in Italy will produce methane from captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen, while a second plant in Switzerland will sell carbon dioxide to the soft-drinks industry.

Some could be nested within products like carbon fiber, polymers, or concrete, but far more will simply need to be buried underground, a costly job that no business model seems likely to support.

But given how slowly we’re reducing emissions, there are no good options left.—James Temple Regulatory approval and technological advances are making it easier for people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.

But an electrocardiogram—the kind doctors use to diagnose abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack— requires a visit to a clinic, and people often fail to take the test in time.

Last fall, AliveCor presented preliminary results to the American Heart Association on an app and two-­sensor system that can detect a certain type of heart attack.—Karen Hao Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.

The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera.

“But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.”—Erin Winick New techniques that capture semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.

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