Scientists are making remarkable progress at using brain implants to restore the freedom of movement that spinal cord injuries take away.
The French neuroscientist was watching a macaque monkey as it hunched aggressively at one end of a treadmill. His team had used a blade to slice halfway through the animal’s spinal cord, paralyzing its right leg. Now Courtine wanted to prove he could get the monkey walking again. To do it, he and colleagues had installed a recording device beneath its skull, touching its motor cortex, and sutured a pad of flexible electrodes around the animal’s spinal cord, below the injury. A wireless connection joined the two electronic devices. They were able to make the monkey walk again.
Availability: 10 to 15 years
Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?
Availability: 5 to 10 years
Paying with Your Face
Face-detecting systems in China now authorize payments, provide access to facilities, and track down criminals. Will other countries follow?
Practical Quantum Computing
Advances at Google, Intel, and several research groups indicate that computers with previously unimaginable power are finally within reach.
Availability: 4-5 years
The 360-Degree Selfie
Inexpensive cameras that make spherical images are opening a new era in photography and changing the way people share stories.
Hot Solar Cells
By converting heat to focused beams of light, a new solar device could create cheap and continuous power.
Standard silicon solar cells mainly capture the visual light from violet to red. That and other factors mean that they can never turn more than around 32 percent of the energy in sunlight into electricity. The MIT device is still a crude prototype, operating at just 6.8 percent efficiency—but with various enhancements it could be roughly twice as efficient as conventional photovoltaics.
The key step in creating the device was the development of something called an absorber-emitter. It essentially acts as a light funnel above the solar cells. The absorbing layer is built from solid black carbon nanotubes that capture all the energy in sunlight and convert most of it into heat. As temperatures reach around 1,000 °C, the adjacent emitting layer radiates that energy back out as light, now mostly narrowed to bands that the photovoltaic cells can absorb. The emitter is made from a photonic crystal, a structure that can be designed at the nanoscale to control which wavelengths of light flow through it. Another critical advance was the addition of a highly specialized optical filter that transmits the tailored light while reflecting nearly all the unusable photons back. This “photon recycling” produces more heat, which generates more of the light that the solar cell can absorb, improving the efficiency of the system.
Availability: 10 to 15 years
Gene Therapy 2.0
Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses.
Fixing rare diseases, impressive in its own right, could be just the start. Researchers are studying gene therapy in clinical trials for about 40 to 50 different diseases, says Maria-Grazia Roncarolo, a pediatrician and scientist at Stanford University who led early gene-therapy experiments in Italy that laid the foundation for Strimvelis. That’s up from just a few conditions 10 years ago. And in addition to treating disorders caused by malfunctions in single genes, researchers are looking to engineer these therapies for more common diseases, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart failure, and cancer. Harvard geneticist George Church has said that someday, everyone may be able to take gene therapy to combat the effects of aging.
The Cell Atlas
Biology’s next mega-project will find out what we’re really made of.
Availability: 5 years
Botnets of Things
The relentless push to add connectivity to home gadgets is creating dangerous side effects that figure to get even worse.
By experimenting, computers are figuring out how to do things that no programmer could teach them.
Reinforcement learning works because researchers figured out how to get a computer to calculate the value that should be assigned to, say, each right or wrong turn that a rat might make on its way out of its maze. Each value is stored in a large table, and the computer updates all these values as it learns. For large and complicated tasks, this becomes computationally impractical. In recent years, however, deep learning has proved an extremely efficient way to recognize patterns in data, whether the data refers to the turns in a maze, the positions on a Go board, or the pixels shown on screen during a computer game.
In fact, it was in games that DeepMind made its name. In 2013 it published details of a program capable of learning to play various Atari video games at a superhuman level, leading Google to acquire the company for more than $500 million in 2014. These and other feats have in turn inspired other researchers and companies to turn to reinforcement learning. A number of industrial-robot makers are testing the approach as a way to train their machines to perform new tasks without manual programming. And researchers at Google, also an Alphabet subsidiary, worked with DeepMind to use deep reinforcement learning to make its data centers more energy efficient. It is difficult to figure out how all the elements in a data center will affect energy usage, but a reinforcement-learning algorithm can learn from collated data and experiment in simulation to suggest, say, how and when to operate the cooling systems.
Availability: 1 to 2 years