In early 2014, the scientific community got in a stir. A Chinese research team had managed to give two newborn macaque monkeys customized alterations in their genome. Two of the genes which the rest of the species naturally possess were silenced in the pair of monkeys, which also had a third gene that macaques lack.
This genetic miracle was carried out using a new technique that allows the DNA of plants and animals to be edited in a similar way to the copy & paste function of a word processing program. CRISPR, as it is known, could revolutionize research into illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, raising possibilities of improving the quality of life of those who suffer from these diseases.
The importance of CRISPR’s future uses has led the MIT Technology Review, published in Spanish by Opinno, to include it on its list of 10 Emerging Technologies for 2014. Each year, the publication chooses 10 advances it believes will have greatest impact on society. Much as the Industrial Revolution transformed 19th century society, so the techniques chosen may open the door to a possible better future.
Sometimes, when that door swings open for the first time, the improvements seem to have limited possibilities. This is the case with 3D printers, whose early uses were only for entertainment. However, thanks to the perseverance of the research community, this technique has advanced so much that it seems it may be possible in the future to manufacture organs and biological fabrics. This would increase the availability of transplantable organs and give rise to other improvements in medicine, saving countless lives. For this reason, a recent breakthrough in small-scale 3D printing also makes it onto the list for 2014.
It may be that, in the future, humanity will be able to produce whole organs, just like biological ones. In the meantime, it is trying to understand how they work. One of them, however, continues to be a great unknown: the brain. Uncertainties about how it works have led scientists to build the most detailed map in history. After decades of work, this atlas in 3D has achieved a resolution 50 times greater than previous maps, permitting navigation in a way similar to using maximum zoom on Google Maps.
Health is not the only area of society that technology is revolutionizing. In fact, humanity could be approaching a new Agricultural Revolution thanks to the latest advances in drones. These unmanned craft now incorporate sensors and cameras that can help increase harvests and reduce damage to crops.
While these drones help human life from the air, their robot companions do so from the earth. They are no longer simply partners for playing games with, but are becoming heroes, and the MIT Technology Review knows it. Increases in their agility and balance are giving rise to a new generation of machines able to carry out rescue missions in the event of natural disasters and fires, in cases where it is too dangerous for humans to enter the affected zone.
However strong and fast robots may be, they too need a powerful brain to guide them, just like humans. Their own computer brains are becoming better and better thanks to the development of neuromorphic chips. These microprocessors inspired by biological networks of neurons could make computers more intuitive and astute, which would improve their autonomy and allow them to understand their environment in a more complete way.
Apart from man-machine cooperation, technological advances also try to improve links among humans. A number of companies have developed services supporting networking via mobile devices. These tools can save time and costs, advantages that the MIT Technology Review considers essential to society.
To make these tools genuinely useful, they require security systems that guarantee data authenticity and maintain privacy. At a time when hacking and spying are major worries, a new smartphone with this kind of service could be just what society needs.
The journal not only values a technology’s capacity to affect human lives. Something it takes into account is environmental improvements, and that is why one of the 10 new technologies could stimulate renewable energy production. Using artificial intelligence and big data, solar panels and wind turbines could run according to increasingly accurate weather forecasts, thus greatly increasing their efficiency.
Health, the environment, privacy and security represent fundamental aspects of life. However, the MIT Technology Review has selected one last breakthrough that does not fit into any of these fields. This is the Oculus Rift virtual reality helmet. This field of technology has historically been associated with video games and entertainment. However, virtual reality has improved to the point that it can now offer new ways of relating to and understanding the world.
These advances are just a small part of all that scientists, engineers, business people and inventors imagine, design and develop each day. Every one of these grains of sand builds a new reality, little by little. Soon, the MIT Technology Review will publish their 2015 selection of technologies, giving us another glimpse of how our lives might be in the future. Probably one or two on the list will create a bit of a stir.