MIT Tech Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies for 2016

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A lot of the technologies I cover here have to do with consumer electronics and the companies that make them, largely Apple.

MIT Technology Review highlights up and coming technologies with their annual 10 Breakthrough Technologies list for 2016. These could very well be the next frontiers for consumer electronics companies - not just today’s major players like Apple, Google, etc., but the companies mentioned in the list as well. It makes a nice tie in with my post about future technologies from last week.

I’ve had a glance at a few of the lists from past years and the latter years seem to have entries that are more relevant and less outlandish - still ambitious, but much more plausible, economically speaking. A lot of the entries note that the technologies are already available, either to the public as a purchasable product or as readymade tools for scientists, engineers, businesses, etc. This year is no exception.

Baidu and conversational interfaces

A particular technology that grabbed my interest was the progress Baidu, basically China’s Google, has made and continues to make with voice interfaces through their research and DuEr voice assistant.

Here’s Will Knight on why China needs better voice interfaces:


"A more efficient mobile interface would come as a big help in China. Smartphones are far more common than desktops or laptops, and yet browsing the Web, sending messages, and doing other tasks can be painfully slow and frustrating. There are thousands of Chinese characters, and although a system called Pinyin allows them to be generated phonetically from Latin ones, many people (especially those over 50) do not know the system. It’s also common in China to use messaging apps such as WeChat to do all sorts of tasks, such as paying restaurant tabs. And yet in many of China’s poorer regions, where there is perhaps more opportunity for the Internet to have big social and economic effects, literacy levels are still low."


The iPhone and other smartphones have a way to write Chinese characters by drawing with finger strokes, but from personal experience, I can say that it is far surpassed in usage by the phonetic Pinyin keyboard. I can imagine it being especially difficult in China as it isn’t an English-speaking country.

Better voice interfaces are a much more necessary area for technological innovation in China than it is in the West. I expect that at sometime in the future, this could be a point of friction for American consumer electronics companies trying to localise their products there.


"The big challenge for Baidu will be teaching its AI systems to understand and respond intelligently to more complicated spoken phrases. Eventually, Baidu would like for DuEr to take part in a meaningful back-and-forth conversation, incorporating changing information into the discussion. To get there, a research group at Baidu’s Beijing offices is devoted to improving the system that interprets users’ queries. This involves using the kind of neural-network technology that Baidu has applied in voice recognition, but it also requires other tricks. And Baidu has hired a team to analyze the queries fed to DuEr and correct mistakes, thus gradually training the system to perform better."


It’s interesting how invested Baidu is in voice, given that it’s nuanced and maybe even human as our emotions, making it hard to translate digitally. Although it’s easy to see why that is when you think about one day being able to communicate reliably and effectively with the technology around you.

Tesla Autopilot

Last week I mentioned how Tesla is at the forefront of automobile innovation. While still a long way from achieving its maximum impact (especially being an upper-class brand), the rate at which they’re implementing and offering their innovations is astounding. Autopilot is probably the biggest one yet.

Here’s Ryan Bradley on his personal experience with Autopilot:


"I was amazed by how quickly I got used to it, how inevitable it began to feel. As a Tesla engineer told me - on condition of anonymity, because the company won’t let anyone but Musk speak publicly these days - the thing that quickly becomes strange is driving a car without Autopilot. “You’ll feel like the car is not doing its job,” he said."


The car today is like an extension of the human mind, but Autopilot makes the case that even that is far too limiting for what the car can be in the future.


"With its incremental approach, Tesla stands in contrast to Google and other companies that have small test fleets gathering data in hopes of someday launching fully autonomous cars. For Tesla, its customers and their partially autonomous cars are a widely distributed test fleet."


I gravitate towards the idea of Autopilot as opposed to fully-automated driving, insofar as personally-owned cars go. I can imagine that being a good idea for public transport, but I think the appeal of actually having control of the wheel - even in the form of Autopilot in that automated driving can be toggled - will linger for a very long time.

Even if these cars had different roles to fill, Tesla can gather real user data, whereas Google and others might have working models they test themselves, but not purchasable models that can be tested on the road by customers. In that respect, Tesla might be more capable than Google in creating the self-driving cars that even they want.

Bradley mentions Autopilot being in a legal grey area, enabling Autopilot cars to be driven in varying, real-world scenarios without hitting stumbling blocks, at least for now. I’ve mentioned this advantage before. Having these cars on the road already enables the virtuous cycle of gathering useful data and continuous improvement from that data - again, something only they have, giving them a perpetually growing lead. Although we’ll see if this pays off in the future as the competition intensifies and new competencies are introduced and applied e.g. mass manufacturing expertise, something that Tesla’s currently struggling with.


That’s just two of the ten technologies mentioned in the list. You should definitely check the rest, linked below, if you want a good grasp on what could be very big parts of our lives in the future.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that three of the ten technologies come from Elon Musk’s companies. I bet we’ll only be hearing his name a lot more often.

(Via MIT Technology Review)