I cannot predict the future, but I can look at the recent past. What happened in 2015 as far as technology is concerned? Many things happened that, had I predicted them in January 2015, people would have thought I was slightly mad. Let us review some of them.
- Amazon sells a fully functional tablet for $50. It offers a decent resolution (600 x 1024 pixels) and a solid processor (1.3 GHz, 4 cores). It has a camera, Bluetooth, wifi…
- The Raspberry Pi computer is down to $5. It includes a 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM. You could literally cover your walls of working computers for a few hundred dollars.
- The Tesla car company updated its car remotely with an autopilot feature. The cars are not really autonomous like Google’s self-driving cars… but they are learning from their users and they are being continuously improved remotely by Tesla. The online demos are amazing. Tesla was founded by Elon Musk.
- When 2015 started, Ebola was a major source of worry. Companies invested millions in finding a vaccine and this was often considered a waste of money. Then we got what appears to be a robust Ebola vaccine. Hardly anyone worries about Ebola today.
- We have landed a probe on a comet as part of the Rosetta mission. (Credit: Dimitrios Psychogios)
- We got the first prosthetic hand that delivers touch sensations to the brain. (Credit: Christoph Nahr)
- Though the military has used fancy drones for some time… we saw autonomous drones becoming good enough and cheap enough to be used by everybody. For example, Hexo+ sells a drone capable of following and filming you for much less than $2000. (See it in action.)
- As far as I can tell, video games in 2015 did not make much progress compared to previous years… For example, virtual reality is still only in the laboratories. Nevertheless, massive fortunes and investments were made in the field in 2015. Candy Crush, a silly video game, sold for nearly 6 billion dollars. Minecraft, another silly video games, sold for 2.5 billion dollars. In comparison, the budget of the American National Science Foundation (NSF), the richest research funding body in science and engineering in the world, has a budget of 5.6 billion dollars.
Voice recognition is nothing new and has been usable for many years. But we saw qualitative progress in 2015 with Google announcing breakthrough progress soon after Apple had announced a major reduction in its error rate. There is no question that the error rates are still well above human levels, but the gap has been reduced drastically. Maybe more remarkable is that the entire world has had access to this improved technology.
In artificial intelligence, there has been an explosion of interest for a technique called deep learning. Consequently, some have said that 2015 was a breakthrough year for artificial intelligence. What is clear is that many companies are betting the farm on machine learning with a particular emphasis on deep learning, from Facebook to Google. (Credit: Peter Turney)
We knew that companies like Google and Facebook did a lot of research on machine learning. In 2015, we saw a drive to make this technology as open source. Google published its TensorFlow library which is reportedly both state-of-the-art and just amazing. Facebook published as open source its AI hardware design. Elon Musk and others have funded OpenAI, an organization that aims to produce advanced AI technology and make it available as open source, to ensure that the technology is not locked away by some government or corporation. (Credit: Sidharth Kashyap)
- Going to space is amazingly expensive. NASA shuttles were meant to bring the prices down but they failed to deliver the needed cost savings. Then the owner of an Internet bookstore funded a rocket (Blue Horizon’s New Shepard) that could go to space, and come back, landing vertically, ready to be reused. The video of the landing is amazing. Another private company (Space X) attempted landing an autonomous drone ship on an ocean platform. Space X was founded by Elon Musk, a billionaire you could make movies about. Hopefully, all this work will finally bring down costs and accelerates space exploration. (Credit: Isaac Kuo and Ade Oshineye)
- Though there has been not specific breakthrough, the cost of solar power has continued to fall at an exponential rate in 2015. It is now predicted that, at the current rate, we will never have a chance of running out of oil… rather, renewable energy like solar will get so cheap that we will not need to burn oil. (Credit: Greg Linden)
- Quantum computing is not a new idea: we have long thought that computers using quantum computing could outdo our electronic computers. For the first time in 2015, Google described a quantum computing experiments that is orders of magnitude faster than what a regular electronic computer can do. (Credit: Dominic Amann, Venkatesh Rao)
- The first human clinical trials for an anti-aging pill are approved. The pill is unlikely to add decades to anybody’s life, but it marks an important first step in curing aging.
As a more extreme case, an American company, BioViva, modifies genetically a middle-aged human being in the hope of delaying or reversing aging. Yes, we have been at the point where we can modify the genes (the DNA) of a living person for quite some time. We have now reached the point where some people are ready to apply this technology to stop and reverse aging.
- Though it was a small test, we got what might be the first successful clinical trial against Parkinson’s in the sense that we have a drug that can reverse (not just slow) cognitive impairment due to the disease. The good results come from a cancer drug marketed by Novartis. We also got a dog’s dementia reversed using stem cells. We have also an ongoing clinical trial to cure Alzheimer using the plasma of young donors.
- Researchers made a kidney-like organ out of skin cells. In fact, it appears like we could regrow an entire body out of skin cells. (Credit: Juho Vepsäläinen)