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Breakthrough technologies for 2019 – the Bill Gates list

by Sumeet Swarup

In January, MIT Technology Review asked Bill Gates to pick breakthrough technologies for 2019 that he is watching. Here is what he picked:

Robot dexterity – robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world. Currently robots on assembly lines can repeatedly pick up, move, and place components in desired places – a fixed motion that can be pre-programmed. Sometime in the future, a robot hand will be able to mimic a human hand to perfection, but that’s still far away. Currently a robot hand in San Francisco has learnt how to manipulate an object on its own through virtual trial and error. The hand has learnt how to grasp, turn and flip a toy building block in its fingers.

New wave nuclear power – new types of nuclear reactors make energy produced through fission (splitting of atoms) and fusion (combining of atoms) a more practical outcome. Even though nuclear energy has been a pipe dream for the last 20 years, it seems more plausible in the next 10, since there are new age companies, with new scientific breakthroughs, dedicated investments (Bill Gates is an investor) and deals with distribution companies.

Carbon dioxide catcher – most talk on climate focus on slowing down the emissions and the negative change. But what about the change that has already happened? A Harvard scientist has designed a technique to capture Carbon dioxide from the air, and some hi-tech startups have pilots running to convert that CO2 into other products. Bill Gates is an investor

An ECG on your wrist – ECG enabled wearables are being invented that can detect your heart abnormalities, which can result in a future heart attack or stroke. Apple Watch is one such device. Such products require regulatory approval, which is being given on a case by case basis

Smooth talking AI assistants – Recent research is letting us move from giving AI assistants simple commands (Alexa, Siri), to having conversations with them, for example taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online. The recent version of Google Duplex can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. Alibaba’s AliMe coordinates package deliveries on the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.

Predicting pre-term births – A simple test of the pregnant woman’s blood will identify whether a premature baby might happen. The test will cost less than $10, and a startup Akna Dx has been launched. About 10% babies are born prematurely and it is the leading cause of death amongst children less than 5.

A pill that contains a microscope – a pill that can be swallowed, contains a tiny microscope can image the entire digestive tract right from the throat to the intestine to find presence of various anomalies, and send back images to an external console

Personalized cancer vaccines – perform a biopsy on a patient’s tumor, sequence and analyze its DNA, get that information to the production site, produce customized vaccine for that patient, administer it, which triggers the person’s immune system identify the tumor and target it. Human trials have already started.

The meat free burger – 1 pound of meat protein produced with western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, 6 to 20 times more fossil fuel than producing 1 pound of plant protein. Lab grown meat is one option, but the environmental benefits are still limited. The other option is plant based meats from 2 companies, both of whom have Bill Gates as investor. Both use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.

Sanitation without sewers – About 2.3 Billion people don’t have good sanitation, which leads to unhealthy conditions. In 2011, Bill Gates created “Reinvent the toilet challenge”, which invited applications from around the world for cheap toilets that can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well. Many potential ideas have come forward, and are now trying to commercialise it, and build for scale.

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