2016 was filled with technological breakthroughs. Many of them have reshaped their industries and set new trends for future developments. Here is Noosphere’s pick for the best technology and science achievements of the past year.
When doctors at Great Ormond Street, in London saw the results of the Cellectis treatment for leukemia on Layla Richards, they were stunned. In June, doctors had used up every option from chemotherapy to a bone marrow transplant. Using this new technique, doctors were able to announce in November that Layla was cured.
It was made using the gene-editing method called TALENs, to make four changes to the DNA of white blood cells. These killer T cells, an essential cell in a healthy persons immune system, had been programmed to wipe out cancer. The same technique could be used to treat everything from multiple sclerosis to HIV and diabetes.
Cellectis has been developing the treatment since 2011 and the technique has now been tested in more than 300 patients, with many patients entering complete remission. A dozen drug firms and biotechnology companies are now working to bring similar treatments to market.
You may have heard of CRISPR. In short, it is an easy, exact way to alter genes in living cells. Since the technique was discovered in 2014, it has been used to create new traits in plants such as disease resistance and drought tolerance.
This year researchers have begun engineering a new generation of crops that do not introduce foreign DNA. Not only should this satisfy many people who have been concerned about mixing DNA from different species, they are also not subject to existing regulations on genetically modified organisms, which means that they should make it to market much quicker.
The relative ease that researchers are able to create new species, means that even small research labs and plant breeders are able to enter the game without the expense and risks of conventional genetic engineering.
This is good news for officials who are already starting to worry how we will feed the Earths growing population. A lab in China has already created a fungus-resistant wheat and they are attempting to increase yields as well.
Rockets typically are destroyed the first time they are used. But this year they started to flying home again for refueling. Blue Origin and SpaceX have both launched payloads to space and flown their rockets home safely to prepare for another launch. If they are able to make the rockets reusable, spaceflight could become a hundred times cheaper.
While Blue Origin is hoping to take eager tourists our of the atmosphere on four-minute joy rides to space, SpaceX want to support it existing satellite-launch and space station supply mission business. Both have traditionally been very expensive, because a rocket costs tens of millions of dollars and only flies once. The fuel itself is less than one percent of the cost.
Once refuelable rockets hit the stage, the cost of accessing space will fall to a fraction of what it is now and open up possibilities that we have not even dreamed of yet.
It takes children years to learn to pick up a ball or drink from a sippy cup. And every person has to learn how to do this on their own. For years, engineers have been teaching robots to do some of these routine activities, with some success. Now, researchers are teaching robots to learn to do these things for themselves, and then teach other robots what they are learning so that they don’t have to keep learning over an over.
Stefanie Tellex, at Brown University, hopes that her “Million Object Challenge” will facilitate this process. She wants to teach robots around the world to learn to identify and handle simple household items from bowls to bananas, upload their data to the cloud, and allow other robots to analyze and use the information.
While it is possible to program a robot to perform these kinds of tasks, the algorithms need to be individually designed and programmed by people at this point, making interaction with a dynamic world impractical.
This database would form the basis for robots to learn and share how to interact with the world in which we live in a very natural way. Coupled with voice recognition, this technology takes us one step closer to a world where robots can understand and follow simple directions that would be entirely impossible today, such as, “Can you get me a pen from the drawer?”
The Internet of Things (IoT) has changed the way we interact with the world around us. Smart homes will get even smarter when each device no longer needs a battery or power cord. A new Technology is letting gadgets work and communicate using just the energy of nearby TV, radio, cell-phone, or Wi-Fi signals.
University of Washington researchers have developed a technique and have already demonstrated Internet-connected temperature and motion sensors, and even a camera.
Using induction to wirelessly transfer power is nothing new. What is new is the technique to wirelessly communicate using the very low energy radio signals. Researchers used a principle called backscattering to selectively reflect incoming radio waves to construct a new signal. The technique has been compared to sending an SOS message using the sun and a mirror.
A special Wi-Fi device is used to generate the signal and the connected gadget is also able to absorb some energy from the signal to power its own circuits. Prototypes have beamed data as far as 100 feet and are able to make connections through walls. Devices such as security cameras, temperature sensors, smoke alarms and motion detectors would be extremely cheap to make and would never need to have their batteries changed.