As 2017 comes to a close, we thought we’d share a roundup of some major technology milestones that took place during the year. This report features technologies that you probably heard about in the news—like blockchain and genetic therapy—with important advances that didn’t get a lot of attention like “hot” solar and liquid biopsies. Taken as a whole, it’s inspiring how many major improvements to people’s lives are just over the horizon.
Here are 11 breakthrough technologies from 2017:
- Quantum computers reach 50 quibit threshold. Today’s computers have become known as “classical” computers because of the rapid advancement of an entirely new computing framework: quantum computing. Classical computers are based on binary systems that use bits that can either be on or off—the familiar 1 or 0. Quantum computation works using qubits that can be simultaneously 1 and 0, which greatly expands their power for doing complex, computationally-intensive operations. Quantum computing is not a recent idea, it has been explored theoretically by researchers for some time. But during 2017 university and corporate researchers built functioning quantum computers that herald a new horizon in computing, including one system said to use 50 quibits—a significant milestone because that’s the level at which quantum computers begin to surpass even the fastest classical supercomputers.
- “Hot” solar cells. Solar panel technology has advanced in recent years, bringing costs down. In 2017 solar achieved a major new milestone in efficiency. These new “hot” solar cells convert heat to light and enable cheaper solar panels that provide continuous power. The secret to “hot” solar lies in converting heat into the spectrum of light that is most efficient at powering solar cells. Early prototypes are expected to move into commercial development in the years ahead.
- Harvesting clean water from air. In 2017, a team of scientists from MIT and the University of California, Berkeley successfully tested a process for harvesting clean water from the air using porous crystals that convert the water using no energy at all. Previous iterations of the technology required high moisture levels and a lot of electricity. By combining the water extraction tech with solar, zero-energy water creation becomes possible, with disruptive possibilities in everything from home appliances to agriculture to city water supplies.
- Gene therapy 2.0. Countless diseases are caused by a single anomaly in a single gene. Researchers have been theorizing and experimenting with gene therapy for decades. The idea is compelling: use a uniquely-engineered virus to deliver healthy copies of a gene into patients with defective versions. In 2017, scientists made major strides towards deploying gene-based therapies for the first time, opening the door to treating previously untreatable conditions.
- Precision farming. Agriculture may be one of the oldest human enterprises, but 2017 saw food production rocket into the future. Commercial agriculture and individual farmers alike are deploying sensors, automation, drones, GPS-mapping tools, and data-analytics to create new capabilities that boost crop yields and food quality while also reducing water and chemical use. Australian researchers, for example, demonstrated a streamlined, low-cost monitoring system in Indonesia that uses sustainable solar and smartphones.
- Reversing paralysis. Many scientists hoping to turn brain-computer interfacing (BCI) into viable systems focus their work on paralysis, which often occurs after connections between the brain and nervous system are damaged. In 2017, a major milestone in reversing paralysis was reached when researchers wirelessly connected a BCI device to electrical stimulators elsewhere in the body. This created a ‘neural bypass’ that allowed a paralysis patient to move his limbs. Next up are attempts to use similar technology to reverse blindness and restore memories lost to Alzheimer’s disease.
- Liquid biopsies. 2017 saw a major step forward in doctors’ ability to evaluate cancer. Traditional biopsies involve collecting tissue samples from the patient’s body for analysis by a lab. Because they often require surgery, biopsies are invasive, risky, and painful. Rapidly advancing through clinical trials, liquid biopsies allow cancer detection from a vial of blood, offering a faster and easier alternative to traditional biopsies as well as entirely new cancer detection capabilities.
- Payments using facial recognition. During 2017, years of development in facial recognition technologies paid off in China, where facial-recognition systems went mainstream. These systems use a person’s face as a “key” to do things like authorize payments, pick up train tickets, and open doors in secure buildings. In the years ahead, the same technology is expected to expand into new areas like policing and everyday interactions with banks, stores, and public transportation.
- Space race 2.0. Space X, the private space technologies company, achieved a major milestone earlier in 2017 when it landed one of its Falcon 9 rockets. Not because of the landing, but because that same rocket had been launched and landed previously. By demonstrating that reusable rockets are possible, the space industry took a major step towards lower-cost access to space. But that wasn’t the only big news in the space industry. Blue Origin announced that it would begin carrying tourists to space within 18 months. And then there’s NASA’s announcement of a mission to an asteroid with $10,000 quadrillion worth of nickel and iron.
- Blockchain beyond Bitcoin. Bitcoin’s skyrocketing price got most of the media attention during 2017, but there were big milestones taking place in blockchain, the foundational technology that enables cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. New uses of blockchain were launched in applications as diverse as music distribution, automobile title registry, and government IDs. Blockchain is rapidly disrupting industries like healthcare, insurance, and financial services, with $5.4 billion dollars in global investment expected by 2023.
- 4D printing. Just as 3D printing is moving into the mainstream in the aerospace, energy, electronics, and manufacturing industries, a new technology is coming of age: 4D printing. In 4D printing, the fourth dimension refers to time, because 4D-printed materials are designed to change shape when exposed to water, temperature changes, or other factors. New uses of the technology emerged during 2017 when the aerospace industry began testing the use of 4D printing to send compact, collapsed materials into space where they can self-assemble.
In the months and years ahead, we expect many of these technological marvels to create not only new capabilities but entirely new products and even industries. The future looks bright.