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10 Breakthrough Technologies
PLUS: Review p. 92 Review p. 96
The Politics Virtual Reality
of Robots Is the Art Form
and Jobs of the Future
VOL. 120 NO. 2 MARCH/APRIL 2017

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VOL. 120 NO. 2 10 Breakthrough Technologies MARCH/APRIL 2017
BLOCKCHAIN—
YOU’VE HEARD
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THE IMPACT.

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MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL. 120 | NO. 2 TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM

From the Editor

Every year, MIT Technology Review to senior editor Will Knight, reinforce-
selects the 10 technologies we believe ment learning is an old idea, toyed with
are the big breakthroughs of the last by AI pioneers like Marvin Minsky, that
year: innovations that are a clear never quite worked. But in March 2016,
advance in their field. “AlphaGo, a program trained using rein-
We’ve published a list of the year’s forcement learning, destroyed one of
most impactful technologies since the best Go players of all time … The
2002. We’re sometimes wrong. We once feat was astonishing, because it is vir-
thought social media and broadcast tually impossible to build a good Go-
television would merge (see “Social TV,” playing program … Not only is the game
May/June 2010). But they remain sepa- extremely complex, but even accom-
rate streams that people can experience plished players may struggle to say why
simultaneously, tweeting their impres- certain moves are good or bad.” Knight
sions of presidential debates as they says that reinforcement learning, cur-
watch them on TV. More often, we’re rently being explored by Uber, OpenAI,
not so much wrong as too early: cancer and DeepMind, could speed the devel-
genomics, where doctors sequence the opment of self-driving cars and robots
mutations of a patient’s tumor to better that can reliably grasp objects.
match the drugs most likely to help, was Or consider the cross-disciplinary
less practicable when sequencing was approach in “Reversing Paralysis” (see
more expensive (see “Cancer Genomics,” page 82), which combines neuroscience
May/June 2011). and electronics. Senior editor Anto-
What do we like? We are cross-­ nio Regalado describes how a French
disciplinary in our thinking: we enjoy neuroscientist named Grégoire Cour-
tracing how developments in one field tine installed a recording device inside
lead to advances in another. A break- the skull of a semi-paralyzed macaque
through in artificial intelligence (see monkey, and then sutured electrodes
“Deep Learning,” May/June 2013) has around the animal’s partially severed
become crucial to the ambitions for spinal cord. “A wireless connection
self-driving cars (see “Tesla Autopilot,” joined the two electronic devices. The
March/April 2016). We applaud ambi- result: a system that read the monkey’s
tious solutions, such as Google’s plan intention to move and then transmitted
to bring Internet access to everyone in it immediately in the form of bursts of
the world (see “Project Loon,” March/ electrical stimulation to its spine.” Sud-
April 2015). And we admire elegance denly, the monkey’s leg could extend
and power: we were blown away when and flex, and it “hobbled forward.” In
scientists used CRISPR to engineer the past, a few people have controlled
two macaque monkeys, demonstrating robotic arms using brain implants; but
the vast potential of gene editing (see by wirelessly connecting brain-reading
“Genome Editing,” May/June 2014). technologies to electrical stimulators,
This year’s 10 Breakthrough Tech- researchers like Courtine are creating
nologies reflect the same tastes. “Rein- “neural bypasses” that could allow the
forcement Learning” (see page 32) disabled to walk.
describes an ambitious approach in These are just two of the technolo-
AI: computers repeat an action until gies in this year’s list. Read all 10 tech-
something difficult goes more smoothly, nologies, and tell me which you think
GUIDO VIT TI

whereupon the system favors the behav- are most remarkable at jason.pontin@
ior that led to that outcome. According technologyreview.com.

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MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL. 120 | NO. 2 TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM

Contents
March /April 2017 BREAKTHROUGH TECHNOLOGIES

Reinforcement Learning by Will Knight p32

The 360-Degree Selfie by Elizabeth Woyke p36

Gene Therapy 2.0 by Emily Mullin p48

Hot Solar Cells by James Temple p52

The Cell Atlas by Steve Connor p58

Self-Driving Trucks by David H. Freedman p62

Paying with Your Face by Will Knight p72

Practical Quantum Computers by Russ Juskalian p76

Reversing Paralysis by Antonio Regalado p82

Botnets of Things by Bruce Schneier p88

2 From the Editor UPFRONT REVIEWS

8 Feedback 13 One Man Hacks His Own Genes 92 “The Relentless Pace of Automation”
When Brian Hanley needed a test subject, he Artificial intelligence can make life better—but
VIEWS thought, why not me? for whom?
By David Rotman
10 Drivers Wanted 16 AI’s Poker Triumph
It was supposed to be hard for a computer to 96 Virtually There
10 Playtime’s Over
beat people at poker. But AI made it look easy. Some call VR the art form of the century. Now
11 Paper Problem we just have to figure out what to do with it.
18 Very Light Jockeys
By Ty Burr
A camel race in the desert, with robots as the
Q+A riders.
DEMO
28 Jessica Brillhart 20 Reinventing the Web for Better Privacy
Google’s “principal filmmaker” conducts A new system lets you control your own data, 100 Inside the Far-Out Glass Lab
experiments in the future of virtual reality. and block a site’s access if you no longer trust it. A key ingredient of your future flexible device is
taking shape in rural New York.
22 The Robots in the Grocery Store By Katherine Bourzac
ON THE COVER How automation and artificial intelligence are
getting food to you faster.
40 YEARS AGO
24 Eyeing a Dropbox IPO
Can a tech unicorn cash in on corporate users?
108 Electronic Money Is Too Easy
In 1977, a writer wondered how it would affect
26 Hand Over the Data us if cash just went away.
A Google report shows how law enforcement
For the cover, artist Brendan Monroe drew the 10
requests for Internet user data are on the rise.
Breakthrough Technologies design, which we then had
woven into a tapestry on a Jacquard loom—an ode to
a much earlier breakthrough technology. The tapestry
was photographed by Leonard Greco.

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MIT Technology Review
Volume 120, Number 1

have a relatively uncomplicated tumor mean you can save them. But molecular
genome. diagnosis does mean survival for thou-
But there are disincentives to this sands of patients who would otherwise
approach. Insurance companies don’t face an immediate death. This alone has
cover molecular diagnostics, forcing oth- forever changed the practice of oncology.
erwise willing doctors into unwelcome
financial discussions with their patients. I Michael P. Castro is a medical oncologist in
also suspect most community oncologists Los Angeles.
don’t bother to seek a molecular diag-
nosis because they simply don’t have the AI Can’t Help Us, Because Online
resources available to deal with results Trolls Aren’t the Real Problem
that may be unfamiliar to them or point to The fundamental problem with online dis-
treatments that require substantial work course (“If Only AI Could Save Us from
to access. In a world where time is money Ourselves,” January/February 2017) is that
and no one pays for concierge levels of we’ve become less civil as a society. Online
service, why bother? Some oncologists postings are a manifestation of that, but
take on this burden nobly, for reasons they’re not the root of what’s wrong. Politi-
other than money—but they’re quite a cal discourse over the past few cycles has
rare breed. disinhibited people from expressing their
Cancer Sequencing Isn’t Perfect, In my practice, a small percentage darkest sentiments. It’s become okay to
but Standard Care Is Worse of patients derive meaningful benefits endorse ideas that people weren’t openly
Steve Hall’s otherwise well-balanced from molecular diagnosis. But how- admitting to several years ago.
article (“The Cancer Lottery,” Janu- ever unsatisfactorily low the number is, Now that Trump’s president, people
ary/February 2017) contained one mis- the alternative—standard care—is even who may have been sheepish about their
leading notion—that a patient must be worse. I for one can’t imagine putting views have had them validated. So they
at a major academic center to undergo my head in the sand and going back to become even more willing to openly voice
genomic sequencing. In fact, genomic practicing as if everyone has the same ideas once considered unacceptable.
testing, often exceeding what’s possi-
ble in university laboratories, is readily
commercially available. Unfortunately, I for one can’t imagine putting my head in the sand and going
oncologists who order genomic sequenc- back to practicing as if everyone has the same disease.
ing often do so after other “standard” ther-
apies have failed and no other treatment disease. There may be growing pains, We’re not likely to see a meaning-
options remain—more or less at the end of but the pre-molecular era of oncology ful decline in abusive postings anytime
life. This strategy is the least likely one to hardly deserves any sentimentality. And soon. Real live moderators will continue
succeed, because the tumor burden may what we’re powerless to act on today may to be the most effective remedy, even
already be overwhelming, and the number become a breakthrough news event in the as the volume of objectionable mate-
of molecular aberrations in the cancer too near future. rial they have to deal with expands.
vast and varied to be overcome by simple Genomic sequencing is far from a
targeting strategies. The far better strat- panacea—knowing the truth about what’s Robert DeVellis lives in Chapel Hill, North
egy is early diagnosis, when patients may driving people’s cancer doesn’t always Carolina.

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Views

trucks carry thousands of pounds of haz-


ROBOTICS ardous materials every day.

Drivers Wanted We don’t yet have any federal regula-


tions regarding automated vehicles. The
Self-driving trucks are an experiment, and government has issued guidelines for test-
we’re the guinea pigs. ing them, but they’re voluntary guide-
lines for manufacturers, not regulations.
Imagine driving down the interstate past A number of states allow testing for auto-
an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer. Its driv- mated vehicles, but they all employ differ-
er’s hands aren’t touching the wheel. ent standards.
Tech companies envision—and are Self-driving cars and trucks are an
investing in—a future in which thousands experiment. But our highways shouldn’t
of such vehicles would navigate our road- be experimental grounds where public
James P. Hoffa ways (see “10 Breakthrough Technolo- safety is put at risk. Yes, we should strive
gies: Self-Driving Trucks,” page 62). Most to innovate and make progress, but we
people don’t welcome this scenario, nor also need to ensure that changes are
should they. A 2016 study conducted by indeed advancements for the betterment
researchers at the University of Michigan of our society—including the driving pub-
Transportation Research Institute found lic and our nation’s workers.
that 95 percent of U.S. motorists had con- Anything man-made can fail. If that
cerns about sharing the road with autono- failure occurred in a heavy vehicle driving
mous trucks and trailers. Safety was the next to you, wouldn’t you want a driver
major worry. behind the wheel?
Skilled, experienced drivers play a
huge role in ensuring the safe operation James P. Hoffa is the general president
of heavy vehicles. The value of a human in of the International Brotherhood of
that truck won’t go away no matter what Teamsters.
technology is developed.
Those who advocate for self-driving
cars often cite the fact that human error is ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

Emma Brunskill
largely responsible for most traffic deaths.
But that doesn’t mean self-driving cars
Playtime’s Over
and trucks will be able to avoid those Getting computers to beat humans at games
errors. An automated vehicle in Pitts- is impressive. But now the real work begins.
burgh recently drove the wrong way up
a one-way road. Last year in Florida a Early last year, a computer achieved
man using Tesla’s Autopilot feature was world-class performance in the game
killed when the system failed to recognize Go—years before most people believed
a tractor-trailer in front of the car. These such a feat would be possible.
are not doomsday scenarios; these are That’s impressive, but our ambitions
legitimate concerns. should be set higher. Computer science
There are other worries: with cyber- could help provide what the world critically
security breaches now a frequent topic needs: tools that enable all of us to reach
in the news, what happens when not just beyond what we thought we were capable
one but a “platoon” of trucks is hacked? of. Reinforcement learning—an integral
ANDY FRIEDMAN

The risks to the public only increase as part of the Go success—can accelerate that
more vehicle systems are controlled by process (see “10 Breakthrough Technolo-
Kenneth Rogoff computer. Don’t forget that some of those gies: Reinforcement Learning,” page 32).

10

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TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM VOL. 120 | NO. 2

Reinforcement learning is a way of human-computer collaborations could sionally), there are 34 $100 bills floating
making a computer learn through experi- help students to learn using approaches around for every man, woman, and child
ence to make a series of decisions that we can’t yet imagine. This vision of rein- in the country. Similar figures hold for
yield positive outcomes—even without forcement learning has artificially intel- big bills in other advanced economies.
any prior knowledge of how its actions ligent agents redefining what outstanding What are they being used for? The evi-
will affect its immediate environment. A human performance looks like—and dence seems clear: a huge amount of the
software-based tutor, for example, would enabling all of us to achieve it. world’s cash supply is used to facilitate tax
alter its activities in response to how stu- evasion, crime, and corruption.
dents perform on tests after using it. Emma Brunskill is an assistant professor of Given that, going to a completely
If we hope to create artificial teaching computer science at Stanford University. cashless society might appear to be a
agents using reinforcement learning, we’ll great idea. But it’s not so simple. Ordi-
need algorithms that are “data smart.” We nary people rely on cash to protect their
might gather data from online educa- CURRENCY privacy, and cash still comes in handy
tional systems and use it to help the agent
estimate the effectiveness of different
Paper Problem during prolonged power outages. One
way to deal with the problem might be to
teaching approaches. When a student logs Cash is passé. But digital money makes you phase out large-denomination notes such
in, should the system provide him with a easier to track. as the U.S. $100 bill, the 500-euro note,
problem to solve? Or would starting with and the 1,000 Swiss franc note—anything
an explanatory video be better? The data One great challenge facing society is worth $50 or more. (Although I wouldn’t
can help it decide. where to draw the line between an indi- suggest following the example of India,
But in some cases there’s not enough vidual’s right to privacy and the govern- which recently phased out 85 percent of
data, or not the right kind of data, which ment’s right to tax, regulate, and enforce its currency supply almost overnight. This
makes it challenging to develop systems the law. Few areas illustrate this problem move had disastrous effects that could
that make good decisions. It would be nice as well as the way we spend our money. have been avoided if the change had been
if we could create a system that didn’t Our transactions are increasingly made more gradually, over a period of
need so much data in the first place. And digital (and thus easily tracked), and in years.)
that’s exactly what my group is working places like China many companies are We shouldn’t get rid of cash entirely.
on—we’re developing reinforcement- adopting biometrics (like fingerprints or Even with the rapid evolution of new tech-
learning algorithms and statistical tech- eye scans) to verify who we are (see “10 nologies such as Bitcoin, paper currency
niques to allow computers to develop Breakthrough Technologies: Paying with provides ordinary citizens with a critical
good suggestions while using less data. Your Face,” page 72). In India, the govern- safety valve. The government’s objective
We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re ment has taken biometric data from 1.1 in regulating new or old transaction tech-
tightening the gap between theory and billion people. But these developments nologies should be to discourage whole-
practice.
In the end, we shouldn’t leave it all to
There are 34 $100 bills floating around for every man,
the computers. So-called “human-in-the-
loop” reinforcement learning can acceler- woman, and child in the country. A huge amount of that cash
ate the process, allowing algorithms to is being used to facilitate corruption and tax evasion.
“reason” about their own limited perfor-
mance and reach out to humans for help alone don’t give us a good answer to the sale tax evasion and crime while leaving
when they need, for example, to expand question of what we should do with good ordinary people a margin of privacy and
the set of possible decisions. My group old-fashioned paper currency. convenience in their ordinary lives. Put-
and our collaborators at the University of The demand for cash has dwindled in ting the economy on a cash diet is a good
Washington are now testing algorithms the legal, tax-compliant economy, but the idea. Literally going cashless is not.
for a tutoring system that can tell if its underground economy uses it as much as
current curriculum isn’t enabling all stu- ever. Incredibly, given that 95 percent of Kenneth Rogoff is a professor of economics
dents to learn well, and then asks people Americans report that they’ve never held a at Harvard University and the author of
to add new hints to the system. Such $100 bill (the rest say they hold one occa- The Curse of Cash.

11

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Upfront

One Man’s
Quest to Hack
His Own Genes
When Brian Hanley set out to test a gene
therapy, he started with himself.
NIV BAVARSKY

13

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MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL. 120 | NO. 2 TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM

Upfront

In a dream Brian Hanley told me about, enes, or gulp megavita-


he’s riding a bus when he meets a man mins, sometimes with
in dark leather clothing. Next thing he disregard for main-
knows, he is splayed across a tilted metal stream medical think-
bed, being electrocuted. ing. Now unregulated
The dream was no doubt connected gene therapy could be the
to events that took place last June at a next frontier. “I think it’s
plastic surgeon’s office in Davis, Califor- damn crazy,” says Bruce
nia. At Hanley’s request, a doctor had Smith, a professor at
injected into his thighs copies of a gene Auburn University who
that H­ anley, a PhD microbiologist, had develops gene therapy for
designed and ordered from a research dogs. “But that is human
supply company. Then, plunging two nature, and it’s colliding
pointed electrodes into his leg, the doc- with technology.”
tor had passed a strong current into his To pull off his exper-
body, causing his muscle cells to open and iment, Hanley used his
absorb the new DNA. scientific knowledge and
The experiment is an example of “do- part of his life savings.
it-yourself ” gene therapy, a risky under- He put his insider know-
taking that is being embraced by a few how to work to procure
daring individuals seeking to develop supplies, order blood
anti-aging treatments. The gene Hanley tests, win the sign-off of
added to his muscle cells would make his an ethics committee, and
body produce more of a potent hormone— engage a plastic surgeon
potentially increasing his strength, stam- who gave him two treat-
ina, and life span. ments, a small dose in Biologist Brian Hanley shows a tattoo on his thigh marking the
Hanley, 60, is the founder of a one- 2015 and then a larger location where a “DIY” gene therapy he developed was administered.
man company called Butterfly Sciences, one last June.
also in Davis. After encountering lit- Hanley, who drives a battered sedan ful of other cases of DIY gene therapy as
tle interest from investors for his ideas humming with rave music, fits the profile well. “And there are probably a lot more,”
about using DNA injections to help AIDS of an underappreciated genius on a self- he says, although no one is quite sure,
patients gain strength, he concluded that improvement quest. He’s a prolific online since regulators have not signed off on the
he should be the first to try it. “I wanted commenter whose arguments touch on experiments. “This is a completely free-
to prove it, I wanted to do it for myself, everything from radiation to electric cars form exercise.”
and I wanted to make progress,” he says. to street pickup of leaf piles. But his sci- Hanley says he did not secure the
Most gene therapy involves high-tech, entific thinking seems sound, and he says approval of the U.S. Food and Drug
multimillion-dollar experiments carried the meaning of his dream is straightfor- Administration before carrying out
out by large teams at top medical centers, ward too: he’d become Dr. Frankenstein’s his experiment. The agency generally
with an eye to correcting rare illnesses monster. “My unconscious is really not requires companies to seek an autho-
like hemophilia (see “Gene Therapy 2.0,” that subtle,” he says. “I had become some- rization called an investigational new
page 48). But Hanley showed that gene thing else, not entirely me.” drug application before administering
Hanley’s undertaking has caught the any novel drug or gene therapy to people.
COURTESY OF BRIAN HANLEY

therapy can be carried out on the cheap in


the same setting as liposuction or a nose attention of big-league scientists. His Hanley argues that his self-experiment
job, and might one day be easily accessed blood is now being studied by researchers didn’t pose any risk to the public. That’s
by anyone. In an attempt to live longer, at Harvard University at the laboratory of not to say it wasn’t without dangers, such
some enthusiasts of anti-aging medicines George Church, the renowned genomics as immune reactions. “I spent years doing
already inject hormones, swallow fuller- expert. Church says he knows of a hand- very little else other than iterating designs

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and thinking of all the ways something “It has very profound positive effects in QUOTED
could go wrong,” he says. The day I met most species.”
him, Hanley zipped open his cargo pants Hanley says he designed a plasmid “Are you happy?”
to show me three black dots tattooed on containing the human GHRH gene on — What researchers in Europe, using a novel
his left thigh, marking the site of one his computer and then located a scien- brain-machine interface, asked three completely
of the injections. Had the gene therapy tific supply company that manufactured paralyzed patients. They all said yes.
gone haywire, he says, his fail-safe option the DNA rings for him at a cost of about
was to have the affected tissue surgically $10,000. He showed me two vials of the
removed. stuff he’d brought along in a thermos, “This thing that really
Most often, gene therapy relies on each containing water thickened by half promoted entrepreneurship
viruses to shuttle DNA into a person’s a milligram of DNA. and democracy risks
cells. Hanley opted instead for a simpler In planning his study, Hanley skipped
becoming the opposite
method called electroporation. In this some steps that most companies develop-
procedure, circular rings of DNA, called ing a drug would consider essential. In of that.”
plasmids, are passed into cells using an addition to avoiding the FDA, he never — Mark Surman, executive director of the
electrical current. Once inside, they don’t tested his plasmid in any animals. He Mozilla foundation, on its research that shows
become a permanent part of the person’s did win clearance for the study from the the Internet is not open or free enough.

chromosomes. Instead, they float inside Institute of Regenerative and Cellular


the nucleus. And if a gene is coded into Medicine in Santa Monica, California,
the plasmid, it will start to manufacture a private “institutional review board,” or
“It will probably disrupt
proteins. The effect of plasmids is tempo- IRB, that furnishes ethics oversight of in vitro fertilization as we
rary, lasting at most a few months. human experiments. know it.”
Hanley pored over decade-old stud- According to Church’s lab, Hanley’s — Eli Adashi, a professor of medical science
ies by a company called VGX Animal levels of GHRH appear elevated, suggest- at Brown University and researcher on a new
Health that had tried zapping plasmids ing that the treatment may have had an technology that could turn any human cell into
into the muscles of cows, dogs with kid- effect, but it’s too early to say definitively. a sperm or egg.
ney disease, and baby piglets. They’d So what happens next? The FDA could
explored adding extra copies of the gene get involved, intervening with warning BY THE NUMBERS

for growth-hormone-releasing hormone letters or site visits or auditing his ethics 2,500
(GHRH)—a molecule that is normally board. The plastic surgeon—whose name Number of homes that Tesla says it could power
made in the brain. One of its roles is to Hanley asked to keep confidential—could per day with its new lithium-ion battery storage
travel to the pituitary gland, where it acts face questions from California’s medical facility in California.
board. Or perhaps authorities will simply
Gene therapy can be done look the other way because the only per- 7.8 million
son Hanley put at risk was himself. Metric tons of carbon dioxide that the
on the cheap, in the same The kind of attention he is hoping construction of a wall on the Mexican border
setting as a nose job. for, he says, is from investors—someone
will emit, according to the Institute for
Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the
to fund a larger study or perhaps pay for University of Bath.
as a regulator of growth hormone itself, his treatment. Hanley is proud of what
telling the body to make more. It also he’s done. He created a company, secured
10 percent
appears to have an array of other roles, patents, made new contacts, identified Drop in average hourly earnings of taxi drivers in
including enhancing the immune system. a gene therapy that has plausible ben- cities after Uber arrived, according to a study by
“We never did try it in humans, but efits for people, and offered himself up the University of Oxford.
from everything that I saw in dogs, cats, as a pioneering volunteer. Doing gene
cattle, pigs, and horses, it seems like a therapy to yourself, he says, “focuses the
$514 million
reasonable leap forward,” says Douglas mind, it really does.” Amount of money that Snapchat, which plans to
Kern, a veterinarian who worked at VGX.  —Antonio Regalado go public, lost in 2016.

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Upfront

Why Poker Is a Big Deal good player. If you always bluff, you are
not a good player. Game theory tells you

for Artificial Intelligence how to randomize your play in a way that


is, in a sense, optimal.”
Last year, Sandholm led the develop-
Playing poker involves dealing with imperfect information, which makes
ment of a poker-playing program called
the game very complex—like many real-world situations.
Claudico, which was soundly beaten in a
match against several professional play-
As the great Kenny Rogers once said, a Libratus was created by Tuomas ers. He explains that Libratus uses sev-
good gambler has to know when to hold ­ andholm, a professor in the computer
S eral new advances to achieve such a high
’em and know when to fold ’em. It turns science department at Carnegie Mel- level of play. This includes a new equilib-
out that a computer program can do this lon University, and his graduate student rium approximation technique, Sandholm
better than any human player. At the Noam Brown. Sandholm says it is amaz- says, as well as several new methods for
Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh this winter, ing that humans have been able to outplay analyzing possible outcomes as cards are
a program called Libratus handily out- computers for so long. The researchers revealed at later stages of a game.
played the pros after thousands of games use game theory, or the mathematics of Advances in machine learning and AI
of heads-up, no-limit Texas Hold’em. strategic decision making, to find the have recently given rise to a number of
It is a huge achievement in artificial superhuman game-playing programs. Last
intelligence. Poker requires reasoning and year, researchers at DeepMind, a subsid-
Poker involves reasoning
intelligence that are difficult for machines iary of Alphabet, developed a program that
to imitate. It is fundamentally different
and intelligence that have beat one of the world’s best Go players.
from checkers, chess, or Go, because an been hard for AI to master. This achievement was spectacular because
opponent’s hand remains hidden from Go is extremely complex, and because it is
view. In such games of “imperfect infor- best strategy given various uncertain- hard to measure progress in the game. The
mation,” it is enormously complicated to ties, known as an equilibrium. Because techniques used to build a smarter poker-
figure out the ideal strategy given every the possibilities are so vast, this usually bot could have many real-world appli-
approach your opponent may be taking. involves some form of approximation. cations. Game theory has already been
“Poker has been one of the hardest “Whether a move is good or not depends applied to research on jamming attacks
games for AI to crack,” says Andrew Ng, on things you cannot observe,” says Vin- and cybersecurity, automated guidance for
chief scientist at Baidu. “There is no single cent Conitzer, a professor at Duke Uni- taxi services, and robot planning, says Sam
optimal move, but instead an AI player versity who teaches AI and game theory. Ganzfried, who helped develop Claudico
has to randomize its actions so as to make “This also results in a need to be unpre- and is now an assistant professor at Florida
opponents uncertain when it is bluffing.” dictable. If you never bluff, you are not a International University. —Will Knight

TO MARKET Press a silver button on this device’s side, and tiny bumps rise
from various holes in a grid that dominates the top half of the
Blitab Tablet gadget. Sixty-five words at a time, the Blitab tablet translates text
Tablet for the Blind from the Web and other digital sources into Braille so people who
are blind can more easily access anything from mindless jokes to
COMPANY:
Blitab
e-books to political news. Other refreshable Braille displays on
the market tend to cost thousands of dollars and produce just
COURTESY OF BLITAB

PRICE: a few words at a time on one line. The Blitab’s Braille display
$500
includes 14 rows, each made up of 23 cells with six dots per cell.
AVAILABILITY: Underneath the grid are numerous layers of fluids and a special
This summer membrane that pushes up the tiny bubbles. —Rachel Metz

16

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THE CIO
ADVENTURE:
NOW, NEXT
AND…BEYOND
MIT SLOAN CIO Symposium
May 24, 2017

The 14th Annual MIT Sloan CIO Symposium THIS YEAR'S TOPICS INCLUDE: Putting AI to Work,
Designing for Digital, IoT, Cybersecurity, as well as a sneak
combines the academic thought leadership preview into Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s new book,
of MIT with the in-the-trenches experience Machine, Platform, Crowd – Harnessing the Digital Economy.
of global CIOs and industry experts. It is the
This MIT all-star lineup consists of scholars who are affiliated with
premier international conference for CIOs the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), MIT Sloan Center
and business leaders to look beyond day-to- for Information Systems Research (CISR), and MIT Sloan, as
well as the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the MIT Technology
day issues and explore enterprise innovations
Review, Jason Pontin, and the Editor-in-Chief of the MIT Sloan
in technology and business practices. Management Review, Paul Michelman:

• Erik Brynjolfsson • Andrew P. McAfee • Peter D. Weill


• Kristine Dery • Leslie Owens • George Westerman
• Nils O. Fonstad • Alex Pentland • Barbara Wixom
• Stuart Madnick • Jeanne W. Ross

REGISTER NOW: www.mitcio.com Use Promo


Code TR2017

CIO.indd 1 2/8/17 6:20 PM


MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL. 120 | NO. 2 TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM

Upfront

Very Light Jockeys

At the annual Moreeb


Dune Festival in the Liwa
desert in the United Arab
Emirates, tiny robots fill
in for human jockeys in a
camel race. The nine-day
event celebrating Arabian
culture features a mix of
21st-century technologies.
Trainers remotely control
the robots, which weigh
just a few pounds each, as
they use a whip to push
their camels faster.

Photograph by
Karim Sahib

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MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
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Upfront

One Startup’s Vision to Reinvent ble by an identity system built to be inde-


pendent of any one company, including

the Web for Better Privacy Blockstack. It uses the digital ledger, or
blockchain, underpinning the digital cur-
rency Bitcoin to track usernames and asso-
Blockstack’s system would let you control your own personal data—for example,
ciated encryption keys that allow a person
by revoking a site’s access to it.
to control his or her data and identity. A col-
lective of thousands of computers around
Venture capitalist Albert Wenger has done needs your information, you will grant the globe maintains the blockchain, and
well by investing in Web businesses—he access to a profile under your control alone. no one entity controls it. Blockstack’s sys-
was an early backer of Etsy and Tumblr. If you want to stop using a service, you can tem uses the blockchain to record domain
But at his urging, Union Square Ventures, revoke its access to your profile and data names, too, meaning there’s no need for an
where he is a partner, is backing a com- and take it elsewhere. Sites will run all their equivalent to ICANN, the body that over-
pany founded on the principle that the code on your computer, in the browser. sees Web domains today. Software built
Web needs a rethink. “We’re trying to turn the existing model on top of the name and ID systems gives
“We’re living in a time period where on its head,” says Ryan Shea, CEO and people control over their data. Microsoft
the new incumbents like Amazon, Google, cofounder of Blockstack. “You can try to is already collaborating with Blockstack to
and Facebook have firmly established work with the existing model from within, explore uses for its platform.
themselves and are near monopolists in but sometimes it’s easier to step outside of Blockstack’s tweaks on how the Web
their markets,” says Wenger. “If we want a it and build something new from a clean functions may seem abstruse. But Shea
long-term, open playing field for innova- slate.” Blockstack’s vision is made possi- argues that low-level features of the
tion, we’re going to need new, Web’s design, like the lack of a
decentralized infrastructure.” built-in, independent identity
Blockstack recently system, are at the root of prob-
received $4 million in funding lems such as the dominance of
from USV and others to try to large companies and the lati-
establish that more open play- tude they have to make use of
ing field. The startup is work- user data. He says that com-
ing on open-source software panies will still be able to seek
that will create a kind of paral- profits on the new platform,
lel universe to the Web we but power will be tilted more
know—one where users have in favor of users.
more control of their data. The dream of a new kind
Later this year, Blockstack will of online sphere faces some
release software that lets you significant obstacles, though.
surf sites and apps created for Bitcoin’s design has proved to
this new digital domain using lack the capacity needed for a
your existing Web browser. You widely used currency—and it’s
will still be able to load sites by not clear how to build similar,
clicking links or typing Web fully decentralized systems that
addresses, but instead of creat- have it, says Emin Gün Sirer,
ing accounts with each site, as an associate professor at Cor-
people do with Google or Face- nell University. Such systems
book, users of sites built on might also struggle to resolve
PATRICK KYLE

Blockstack’s system will control disputes over things like copy-


their own digital identity (or right claims on domain names,
identities). To use a site that he says. —Tom Simonite

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must reads
must reads
must reads
must reads
Go online to get all Membership Medicine: The Doctor
Will See You Now
the technology stories
that matter: Self-Taught Self-Driving Cars Will
Soon Hit The Road
technologyreview.com/
marchmustreads Diagnosing Disease with a Face Pic

The Tiny Supercomputer That’s


All The Rage

10 Breakthrough Technologies of
2016: Where Are They Now?

ad.full.mustreads.ma17_v5.indd 11 1/27/17 12:07 PM


MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
VOL. 120 | NO. 2 TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM

Upfront

The Robotic Grocery Store of the Future Is Here


Swarm robotics, autonomous delivery vehicles, and machine-learned
preferences will help deliver your food faster.

Most people don’t buy a jar of relish every That turns storing, picking, and storage scheme, so that popular items
week. But when they decide to buy one shipping items into a complex, time- are always within easy reach. Once an
from Ocado—the world’s largest online- constrained optimization problem. But order is packed, it’s hauled off in a large
only grocery retailer—they don’t have to in order for Ocado to grow and turn a truck and taken to a distribution center
scrabble at the back of the store. Instead, profit—which it does, despite a crowded to be loaded into a van. Each van then
when they select a jar from Ocado’s online U.K. grocery market—it has to make every embarks on a delivery route that can be
store, they summon robots and artificial step as efficient as possible. carefully optimized according to factors
intelligence to have it delivered to their Currently, when a customer orders such as customer time preferences, traf-
door. groceries via Ocado’s website, large plas- fic, and even weather. But Ocado wants
Ocado claims that its 350,000-square- tic crates are swiftly filled. The contain- to be faster. “Fractions of a second in our
foot warehouse in Dordon, near the U.K.’s ers are packed by hand, but little legwork business count,” says Paul Clarke, O ­ cado’s
second city of Birmingham, is more heav- is required: 30 kilometers of conveyor chief technology officer. “It’s all about
ily automated than Amazon’s warehouse belts at the Dordon warehouse carry how we can shave the next little bit off
facilities. The company’s task is certainly empty boxes straight to people who our process.”
more challenging in many respects: most work as pickers. They grab items from So its third warehouse—currently
of the 48,000 lines of goods that it sells shelves that are replenished by robots, in live trials near Andover, west of Lon-
COURTESY OF OCADO

are perishable, and many must be chilled or from boxes brought out of storage via don—is being designed from scratch.
or frozen. Some, such as sushi, must be cranes and conveyors. Ocado’s algorithms Its main floor is laid out in a giant grid
delivered on the same day they arrive in monitor demand for products and use about the size of a football field, split into
the warehouse. the information to map out an optimal washing-­machine-size squares. Beneath

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each square is a vertical stack of five crates of oranges to a bottle of wine. As a result, the food of machine learning,” says Clarke.
of groceries. On the surface of the grid Clarke says, humans will be involved for The company uses machine learning to
are up to 1,000 robots, each able to lift the foreseeable future. spot missing items in a shop, populate a
crates from below. The robots scuttle He’s similarly restrained about auto- basket of groceries on the basis of learned
around, passing within centimeters of mation of the delivery process. While the preferences, and even suggest versions of
each other, at up to nine miles per hour. company is already in discussions with products that are lower in salt or sugar.
Orders relayed via a specially designed 4G the University of Oxford’s self-driving- Over time, Ocado plans to streamline
network instruct the robots to grab crates vehicle spinout Oxbotica—though it the ordering process as far as it possibly
and shuttle them to the edge of the grid, won’t say about exactly what—Clarke says can. Clarke suggests that the company
where pickers can grab the needed prod- many customers will continue to prefer could acquire consumption data from
ucts. The robots work as a swarm: if the a human to deliver their order, even if your smart fridge, listen to what recipes
required product is four crates down in autonomous vehicles make it possible for you’re talking about via a smart assistant
a stack, for instance, several of them can robots to take over the job. Still, Ocado’s like Amazon’s Alexa, and even mine your
remove boxes to open the way. business is by nature one in which robots calendar for data so it knows you’ll be
The Andover warehouse, which is cooking for friends next weekend. Ulti-
likely to enter full service this year, is a mately, he says, it would like for “the right
In the grocery delivery groceries to turn up, at the right time, as
trial for an even larger facility in Erith,
just outside London, which will begin business, fractions of a if by magic, without you even having to
construction next year. Its storage area second count. ask for them.”
will be three times the size. That will make It’s not the only company asking food
it even more complex to work out where will ultimately be preferable to humans. shoppers to sacrifice anonymity for con-
to store goods and retrieve them, using When pushed on the impact of automa- venience. Amazon’s new Go convenience
thousands of robots. Clarke says that the tion on employment, Clarke is bullish. store, for instance, allows shoppers to
computational demands of this optimi- He insists that it’s a “game that is going scan their phone, pick up food from the
zation problem are bearable, but he adds to play out regardless,” adding that “this shelf, and walk straight out, paying later
that the company is investing in GPU- is happening on a world stage … if we as a because the company knows just what
based systems and keeping a watchful U.K. business don’t continue to get better they took.
eye on quantum computing for the future. using automation, somebody else will, and Still, if customers can stomach the loss
Ocado is working on robotics that we’re determined not to let that happen.” of privacy, Ocado offers something valu-
could one day pick orders from the crates The customer experience, meanwhile, able in return. “We can free people up,”
carried by its swarm of robots, but that’s will benefit from AI systems being built says Clarke, “so that they have more time
difficult, thanks to the wide variation in by Ocado’s developers. “With more data to experiment and experience the delight
the shape of groceries—from, say, a bag comes greater intelligence—because that’s of food.” —Jamie Condliffe

TO MARKET Kuri looks up at me and squints as if in a smile. Then the robot


rolls across the floor, emitting a few R2-D2-like beeps. Mayfield
Kuri Robotics built Kuri as the next step in home robotics, ready to
Home robot offer companionship and entertainment with personality. The
20-inch-tall robot is essentially an Amazon Alexa on wheels, let-
COMPANY:
Mayfield Robotics
ting users play music or control their smart devices from any-
where in the home. It can also live-stream video of your home for
PRICE: surveillance purposes. Behind one of Kuri’s eyes is a 1080p cam-
COURTESY OF KURI

$699
era, and users can access a live stream from an app. Kuri comes
AVAILABILITY: across as lovable but simple, so there’s no reason to expect it to
Late 2017 do more than simple jobs. —Signe Brewster

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Upfront

Of the big IPOs expected to occur this year,


Dropbox’s could be one of the most intrigu-
ing. When Dropbox last raised money, in
2014, it was valued at a hefty $10 billion.
But large investors such as Fidelity and T.
Rowe Price slashed the value of the Drop-
box shares on their books by as much as 50
percent in 2015. The key concern: could
a company whose free file storage service
is used by hundreds of millions of people
find enough paying customers to make a
great business?
Investors may be in for a pleasant sur-
prise. According to the company, sales
are now running at more than $1 billion
a year, up from around $400 million in
2014. That’s thanks in part to growing
sales of Dropbox Business, a souped-up
version of the free app that costs $150
per employee per year. The company has
been cash-flow positive since early 2016,
even as it has made heavy investments in
engineering, sales, and IT infrastructure.
Now CEO and cofounder Drew
­Houston is leading a new strategic charge.
In addition to selling utilities to keep dig-
ital files safe and accessible, Dropbox
intends to offer software that businesspeo-
ple use for hours each day to create con-
tent and get work done. “This is a mature,
very, very powerful software company,”
says Bryan Schreier, a partner with ven-
ture capital firm Sequoia Capital, which
was an early investor in the company.
That doesn’t mean Dropbox will live
up to that heady $10 billion valuation,
which even at the time was widely seen
as a sign of a bubble about to burst. Even
at an annualized revenue of $1 billion,
investors would need to think the com-
pany is worth 10 times its current sales
on the day it goes public. These days, the
average cloud software company trades
at just 4.7 times revenue, according to

Eyeing a Dropbox IPO


SAM D’ORAZIO

­Bessemer Venture Partners.


Still, Schreier and other investors
Can the tech unicorn cash in on corporate users? insist they are no longer worried about

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Dropbox’s fundamental business model. industries like health care and financial network to cut the time it takes to store
About 10 million new people start using services, while younger providers such as and sync traffic.
the free consumer product every month. Asana, Atlassian, and Slack already han- The result is more of a traditional
An increasing percentage of those users dle elements of what Dropbox aims to enterprise software company than the
sign up for the $100-a-year Pro version, do. According to Gartner analyst Karen hyper-efficient app maker Houston
which offers more storage and sharing ­Hobert, there are 130 companies just founded in 2007. The idea for the com-
features. Many of those Pro customers in the electronic file storage and sync pany came when Houston realized dur-
use Dropbox at work, and once their market. ing a long bus ride that he’d forgotten the
employers realize how popular it is, they Yet even rivals see Dropbox as a likely USB drive with his work files at home.
are more likely to step up to Dropbox survivor of the inevitable consolidation. The resulting cloud-storage app was a
Business, which is designed for use by The overall market opportunity for pro- sensation with people who felt his pain.
teams rather than individuals. So far ductivity and collaboration tools is $30 By 2012, Dropbox had 100 million reg-
more than 200,000 companies have billion, if you replace all those PC disk istered users.
signed up for Dropbox Business, up from drives and traditional Windows or Mac Then things got difficult. Giants such
50,000 in 2014. While most are small and programs with cloud-based alternatives. as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google
medium-sized companies, a few big com- “That’s an order of magnitude more than began giving away cloud storage capacity
panies such as Expedia and News Corp. the combined revenue of all the players as a way to sweeten other offerings. As
have more than 10,000 seats. today,” says Box chief executive officer prices collapsed, cloud storage specialists
A successful push into productivity Aaron Levie. “As everything moves to faced an existential threat.
and collaboration software could give A successful move by Dropbox into
corporate customers much more to buy The tools workers will use the huge market for productivity and col-
from Dropbox. The first example is Paper, laboration software could brighten the
which provides a kind of virtual white
in five years will be very outlook, but it will require the company
space where employees and contractors different from today’s. to pull off two tough transformations at
can share Excel spreadsheets, Google once. Dropbox is still evolving from a
Docs, and other digital assets regardless of the cloud, there’s going to be plenty of maker of a free consumer app to a cor-
what device they are using. The idea is to opportunity.” porate IT infrastructure company. Now
tie together scores of different productiv- Dropbox has been bulking up for this it must also move from selling technol-
ity tools and fold in management tools to opportunity since 2014, when Houston ogy that’s designed to be as invisible as
help teams keep projects on track. Paper hired Woodside. A former McKinsey con- possible to making products people use
has been in beta since late 2015 and offi- sultant, Woodside joined Google in 2003 throughout much of their day. Its com-
cially launched in January. “In five years, as an operations expert before running petitor Box provides a cautionary tale.
you could start a business on Dropbox: U.S. sales and then the Motorola Mobil- It introduced a Paper-like product three
that is something we aspire to,” says chief ity cell-phone division. At Dropbox, he’s years ago called Box Notes. But Levie
operating officer Dennis Woodside, who hired more than 200 salespeople, up from admits that its reception has been less
declined to comment on IPO plans. zero when the company relied solely on than overwhelming. Box relaunched
Dropbox is far from the only com- Internet clicks. The engineering team has Notes with new features earlier this year. 
pany looking to change the way work is more than doubled to more than 1,000 Woodside responds that few com-
done. Google offers G Suite, which con- members, large by any measure. And he panies have the scale, the technical
tains business versions of apps such as has overseen a massive, risky IT overhaul. expertise, and the brand to pull off its
Google Docs and Gmail. Facebook has a While most companies are moving more ambitious plans. “There’s close to two
collaboration service called Workplace. of their business onto public cloud plat- billion knowledge workers in the world,
Microsoft is improving its cloud offerings forms like the one run by Amazon Web and I know this much: the tools they’ll be
as it seeks to defend the massive mar- Services, Dropbox has shifted billions of using in five years are not the ones they’re
ket share earned with its Windows and its U.S. customers’ files away from Ama- using today,” he says. “Is the number 500
Office monopolies. Box has strong trac- zon’s platform to three of its own data million? A billion? I don’t know. But we
tion with companies in highly regulated centers. That way, Dropbox can tweak its have a shot.” —Peter Burrows

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Upfront

Hand Over the Data


Governments are getting more user data from Internet companies every year, as people leave more traces of their lives online and law
enforcement officials become increasingly reliant on that information. These figures, from Google’s “transparency report,” show how
many times authorities in the U.S. and other countries have requested evidence about people who use the company’s services.

FOREIGN

U
 NITED STATES
80,000
Subpoenas: Do not require review
by a judge. Can include users’
names and IP addresses.
Preservation requests: Ask
company to set aside certain
information while the government
goes to court to compel company
to disclose it.
Search warrants: Court-­
sanctioned demands for personal
content such as e-mail messages,
60,000
documents, photos, or videos.
Pen register and wiretap orders:
Orders approved by a judge for
metadata about communications
(pen registers) or for their content
(wiretaps).
Other court orders and
emergency requests
Type not reported

40,000

20,000
ILLUSTRATION BY LUKE SHUMAN; DATA FROM GOOGLE

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015

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Focus on the
Technologies That Matter Most

technolo
g yreview.c
om/marc
hsubscri
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Q+A Jessica Brillhart


Jessica Brillhart is the principal filmmaker
for virtual reality at Google, where she
enjoys one of the most creative jobs in
Silicon Valley. She makes VR experiences
(including World Tour, the first film made
with Google’s Jump system, a circular
16-camera rig designed to capture VR films)
and conventional movies (or “flatties,” as
she calls them), and she evaluates new
VR technologies, such as Google’s own
Cardboard, a cheap headset that works with
smartphones. (For more on the challenge
of telling stories in VR, see “Virtually There,”
page 96.) She spoke to MIT Technology
Review’s editor in chief, Jason Pontin.

What does the principal film- When did you first encounter demo that they were hesitant with a camera and filmed
maker for VR at Google do? virtual reality? to show me because it was the everyday stuff, and then he and
I see the technologies we’re One day, I visited an engineer- first they ever filmed. It was of his wife found a way to edit it
building at Google, specifi- ing team that was building a all the engineers in the office together. And he wanted to dis-
cally in VR. And I ask what 360° camera, and I saw their turning on the rig for the first miss all the film that came
I can do with them cre- demos, and it was the stuff time. And they were so happy! before him, because he thought
atively. I mediate between the we’re used to now—musi- I just loved the goofy looks on it was just theater. Vertov’s idea
­e ngineers and creative peo- cians in 360 degrees—and I their faces. At first they were was that the camera was a dis-
ple, and I make stuff in the thought, “That’s kind of inter- just looking around. Like, “Is embodied eye: a detached
process. esting.” But there was one it working? We don’t know.” thing that could follow a horse,
And then suddenly they were or be under a train, or throw
throwing their arms in the air. you over a building. It can show
And you felt delighted because a world previously unknown to
they were just so pleased that it you. But it’s ­Vertov’s perspec-
worked. And I knew I had seen tive on the world.
something that filmmaking With VR it’s about you
had a really hard time doing. being convinced that you’re
Probably could never do. physically in another space.
VR is an embodied medium:
Can VR support a story with a creators are taking that
through line? detached eye and reattach-
I’m pretty harsh about this ing it to someone’s face. VR
question, because I think reminds us of the nuances of
emphasizing storytelling isn’t experiences, what connects
right. Storytelling is the prod- people with each other, with
uct of film as a medium. In places, with things in the real
TIM BARBER

Man with a Movie Camera world. And that to me is the


[1929], Dziga Vertov went out key to really understanding

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what kind of storytelling could VR users often are curi-


even exist in a VR space. ous about what they want to
see—and resist what the cre-
Who is doing for VR what ator intends them to see.
Gregg Toland, who invented I love defiance. If I’m in a space
the deep focus used in Citizen and there’s a large red arrow
Kane, did for film? pointing to a door, it’s awful. I
From a cinematics stand- don’t want to go there. I’ve got-
point, Felix & Paul are techni- ten to know Rand and Robyn
cally excellent. But if anyone is Miller, the co-creators of Myst.
going to be remembered, it’s a Robyn said he would go into
kid from the Czech Republic every experience and see where
named Tomáš Mariančík who the creator wanted him to look.
created an experience called But Robyn would inspect
Sightline: The Chair. The whatever he was meant to see
idea is: the world evolves as and then turn in the opposite
you spin. So I’m looking at a direction. He said you’d be
candle. If I look away and then shocked by how little there is
look back, the candle will be a there. And so I started doing
cube. And I’ll look back at the that, too. I feel, “Don’t put me
cube and it will be a building, in a space and say I have to
and then a tree. Everything look where you want. That’s ents looking in at the doorway when you’re a kid. But now the
changes, everything evolves. not how this new thing works.” and you can hear her behind rig would capture everything.
The only way you can stop it you playing badly, and you’re You could watch someone you
is by not moving. But you can Is there a better way? watching their reaction. loved respond the way she
only do that for so long before There’s a scene in an experi- used to, or eat cake a certain
you move a little bit, and ence called Residence where Do you try to be careful about way. It is going to be interest-
on it goes. It’s kind of drug- a young girl is playing vio- what you make your visitors ing to see what happens when
like, where suddenly you get lin, kind of poorly. That’s the experience? we aren’t able to forget any-
beyond your anxieties and you whole scene, but if you turn I look to gaming for a lot thing anymore.
feel euphoric. around you can see her par- of clues. Most games won’t
immediately throw you into Will VR supplant film?
the worst possible fit. No, My mom saw a piece I did for
they’ ll say, “Here are some the first time. She came out of
mushrooms and if you step the experience and she said,
on them they’ll die, and if you “Oh my gosh. This transports
eat them you’ll grow.” And you your brain.” Skeptical people
progressively gain strength come into my studio and they
and get to the boss levels. I say, “What you got?” They go
believe you have to create sim- into the experience and their
ilar cadences in VR. jaw just drops. VR is its own
medium. It’s not going to hurt
Will people use VR to record any other medium. You’re
home videos? going to see a lot of tradi-
Yes, but I’m still figuring out tional-media folks trying to
whether or not that’s a good get it to work in their domain,
thing. It might be overwhelm- and they may succeed. I don’t
ing. Think of everything you know. But something really
forget about a birthday party special is happening.

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These technologies all have


staying power. They will affect the
economy and our politics, improve
medicine, or influence our culture.
THE DISPLAY TEXT IN THIS SECTION IS SET LYDIA (COLOPHON FOUNDRY, 2010), A BOLD, CONDENSED ITERATION OF WARREN CHAPPELL’S LYDIAN FROM 1938;
AND FERRY (LET TERS FROM SWEDEN, 2014), BASED ON EARLY 20TH CENTURY SWEDISH HARBOR LET TERING

Some are unfolding now; others


will take a decade or more to
develop. But you should know
about all of them right now.

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Reinforcement
Learning

Breakthrough
An approach to
artificial intelligence By experimenting, computers are
that gets computers
to learn like people,
figuring out how to do things that no
without explicit programmer could teach them.
instruction.
By

Why It Matters

I
Progress in self-­
Will Knight

driving cars and other


forms of automation
nside a simple computer simulation,
will slow dramatically
unless machines can
a group of self-driving cars are per-
hone skills through forming a crazy-looking maneuver on
experience. a four-lane virtual highway. Half are
trying to move from the right-hand
Key Players
lanes just as the other half try to merge
- DeepMind
- Mobileye from the left. It seems like just the sort of
- OpenAI tricky thing that might flummox a robot
- Google vehicle, but they manage it with precision.
- Uber I’m watching the driving simulation
Availability
at the biggest artificial-intelligence con-
1 to 2 years ference of the year, held in Barcelona this
past December. What’s most amazing
SEYMOUR CHWAST

is that the software governing the cars’


behavior wasn’t programmed in the con-
ventional sense at all. It learned how to
merge, slickly and safely, simply by practic-

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ing. During training, the control software Reinforcement learning copies a very
performed the maneuver over and over, simple principle from nature. The psy-
altering its instructions a little with each chologist Edward Thorndike documented

can get a robot to grasp objects it


attempt. Most of the time the merging it more than 100 years ago. Thorndike

The technology
happened way too slowly and cars inter- placed cats inside boxes from which they
fered with each other. But whenever the could escape only by pressing a lever. After
merge went smoothly, the system would a considerable amount of pacing around
learn to favor the behavior that led up to it. and meowing, the animals would eventu-
This approach, known as reinforce- ally step on the lever by chance. After they
ment learning, is largely how AlphaGo, learned to associate this behavior with the
a computer developed by a subsidiary desired outcome, they eventually escaped
of Alphabet called DeepMind, mastered with increasing speed.
the impossibly complex board game Go Some of the very earliest artificial-­

has never seen before.


and beat one of the best human players intelligence researchers believed that this
in the world in a high-profile match last process might be usefully reproduced in
year. Now reinforcement learning may machines. In 1951, Marvin Minsky, a stu-
soon inject greater intelligence into much dent at Harvard who would become one of
more than games. In addition to improv- the founding fathers of AI as a professor
ing self-driving cars, the technology can at MIT, built a machine that used a simple
get a robot to grasp objects it has never form of reinforcement learning to mimic a
seen before, and it can figure out the opti- rat learning to navigate a maze. Minsky’s
mal configuration for the equipment in a Stochastic Neural Analogy Reinforcement
data center. Computer, or SNARC, consisted of dozens
of tubes, motors, and clutches that simu-
lated the behavior of 40 neurons and syn-
apses. As a simulated rat made its way out
of a virtual maze, the strength of some syn-
aptic connections would increase, thereby
reinforcing the underlying behavior.
There were few successes over the next
few decades. In 1992, Gerald T ­ esauro, a
researcher at IBM, demonstrated a pro-
gram that used the technique to play
backgammon. It became skilled enough to
rival the best human players, a landmark a good Go-playing program with conven-
achievement in AI. But reinforcement tional programming. Not only is the game
learning proved difficult to scale to more extremely complex, but even accomplished
complex problems. “People thought it was Go players may struggle to say why certain
a cool idea that didn’t really work,” says moves are good or bad, so the principles of
David Silver, a researcher at ­DeepMind the game are difficult to write into code.
in the U.K. and a leading proponent of Most AI researchers had expected that
reinforcement learning today. it would take a decade for a computer to
That view changed dramatically play the game as well as an expert human.
in March 2016, however. That’s when
COURTESY OF MOBILEYE

AlphaGo, a program trained using rein- Jostling for position


forcement learning, destroyed one of the Silver, a mild-mannered Brit who became
These images are from the Mobileye
best Go players of all time, South Korea’s fascinated with artificial intelligence as an
vision system for cars, which will Lee Sedol. The feat was astonishing, undergraduate at the University of Cam-
benefit from reinforcement learning. because it is virtually impossible to build bridge, explains why reinforcement learn-

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BREAKTHROUGH TECHNOLOGIES

ing has recently become so formidable.


He says that the key is combining it with
deep learning, a technique that involves
using a very large simulated neural net-
work to recognize patterns in data (see “10
Breakthrough Technologies 2013: Deep
Learning”).
Reinforcement learning works because
researchers figured out how to get a com-
puter to calculate the value that should
be assigned to, say, each right or wrong
turn that a rat might make on its way out
of its maze. Each value is stored in a large
table, and the computer updates all these
values as it learns. For large and compli-
Reinforcement learning led to AlphaGo’s stunning
cated tasks, this becomes computationally
victory over a human Go champion last year.
impractical. In recent years, however, deep
learning has proved an extremely efficient
way to recognize patterns in data, whether
the data refers to the turns in a maze, the complex situations that involve interact- Reinforcement learning is being
positions on a Go board, or the pixels ing with human drivers, such as traffic applied in a growing number of areas, says
shown on screen during a computer game. circles or four-way stops. If we don’t want Emma Brunskill, an assistant professor
In fact, it was in games that Deep- them to take unnecessary risks, or to clog at Stanford University who specializes in
Mind made its name. In 2013 it published the roads by being overly hesitant, they the approach. But she says it is well suited
details of a program capable of learning to will need to acquire more nuanced driving to automated driving because it enables
play various Atari video games at a super- skills, like jostling for position in a crowd “good sequences of decisions.” Progress
human level, leading Google to acquire of other cars. would proceed much more slowly if pro-
the company for more than $500 million The highway merging software was grammers had to encode all such deci-
in 2014. These and other feats have in demoed in Barcelona by Mobileye, an sions into cars in advance.
turn inspired other researchers and com- Israeli automotive company that makes But there are challenges to overcome,
panies to turn to reinforcement learning. vehicle safety systems used by dozens of too. Andrew Ng, chief scientist at the
A number of industrial-robot makers are carmakers, including Tesla Motors (see “50 Chinese company Baidu, warns that the
testing the approach as a way to train their Smartest Companies 2016”). After screen- approach requires a huge amount of data,
machines to perform new tasks without ing the merging clip, Shai Shalev-Shwartz, and that many of its successes have come
manual programming. And researchers Mobileye’s vice president for technology, when a computer could practice relent-
at Google, also an Alphabet subsidiary, shows some of the challenges self-driv- lessly in simulations. Indeed, research-
worked with DeepMind to use deep rein- ing cars will face: a bustling roundabout ers are still figuring out just how to make
forcement learning to make its data cen- in Jerusalem; a frenetic intersection in reinforcement learning work in complex
ters more energy efficient. It is difficult Paris; and a hellishly chaotic scene from a situations in which there is more than one
to figure out how all the elements in a road in India. “If a self-driving car follows objective. Mobileye has had to tweak its
data center will affect energy usage, but the law precisely, then during rush hour protocols so a self-driving car that is adept
a reinforcement-­learning algorithm can I might wait in a merge situation for an at avoiding accidents won’t be more likely
learn from collated data and experiment hour,” Shalev-­Shwartz says. to cause one for someone else.
in simulation to suggest, say, how and Mobileye plans to test the software When you watch the outlandish merg-
COURTESY OF DEEPMIND

when to operate the cooling systems. on a fleet of vehicles in collaboration ing demo, it looks as though the company
But the setting where you will proba- with BMW and Intel later this year. Both has succeeded, at least so far. But later
bly most notice this software’s remarkably Google and Uber say they are also test- this year, perhaps on a highway near you,
humanlike behavior is in self-driving cars. ing reinforcement learning for their self- reinforcement learning will get its most
Today’s driverless vehicles often falter in driving vehicles. dramatic and important tests to date.

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PRODUCT PHOTOS BY LEONARD GRECO

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Breakthrough
Consumer cameras
that produce 360°

The 360-Degree Selfie


images, providing
a realistic sense of
events or places.

Why It Matters
Photos and videos
with this perspective
could become the
new standard for
everything from news
coverage to vacation
shots.

Key Players
- Ricoh
- Samsung
- 360fly
- JK Imaging (maker of
Kodak Pixpro digital
cameras)
- IC Real Tech (maker of
the ALLie camera)
- Humaneyes Technologies

Availability
Now

Inexpensive cameras that make


spherical images are opening a new era
in photography and changing the way
people share stories.

By Elizabeth Woyke

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S
easonal changes to vegetation fas- look at the image through a virtual-reality captured that context: use a rig to posi-
cinate Koen Hufkens. So last fall headset they can rotate the photo by mov- tion multiple cameras at different angles
Hufkens, an ecological researcher ing their head, intensifying the illusion with overlapping fields of view or pay at
at Harvard, devised a system to that they are in the woods. least $10,000 for a special camera. The
continuously broadcast images Hufkens says the project will allow production process was just as cumber-
from a Massachusetts forest to a website him to document how climate change is some and generally took multiple days to
called VirtualForest.io. And because he affecting leaf development in New Eng- complete. Once you shot your footage, you
used a camera that creates 360° pictures, land. The total cost? About $550, includ- had to transfer the images to a computer;
visitors can do more than just watch the ing $350 for the Ricoh Theta S camera wrestle with complex, pricey software to
feed; they can use their mouse cursor (on that takes the photos. fuse them into a seamless picture; and
a computer) or finger (on a smartphone We experience the world in 360 then convert the file into a format that
or tablet) to pan around the image in a degrees, surrounded by sights and sounds. other people could view easily.
circle or scroll up to view the forest can- Until recently, there were two main Today, anyone can buy a decent 360°
opy and down to see the ground. If they options for shooting photos and video that camera for less than $500, record a video

COURTESY OF ALLIE CAMERA

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ALLie Camera
It uses technology originally
Chicago’s Millennium Park captured by developed for the surveillance industry
the ALLie camera. and can capture images in low light.

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Ballet dancers captured by the


of news events.
for raw footage
that it could become a new standard
The 360° format is so compelling

Samsung Gear 360.

within minutes, and upload it to Facebook fleeing the militant group Boko Haram
or YouTube. Much of this amateur 360° puts you in the center of a crowd receiv-
content is blurry; some of it captures 360 ing food from aid groups. You start by
degrees horizontally but not vertically; watching a man heaving sacks off a pickup
and most of it is mundane. (Watching truck and hearing them thud onto the
footage of a stranger’s vacation is almost ground. When you turn your head, you
as boring in spherical view as it is in reg- see the throngs that have gathered to
ular mode.) But the best user-generated claim the food and the makeshift carts
360° photos and videos—such as the Vir- they will use to transport it. The 360° for-
tual Forest—deepen the viewer’s apprecia- mat is so compelling that it could become
tion of a place or an event. a new standard for raw footage of news
Journalists from the New York Times events—something that Twitter is trying
and Reuters are using $350 Samsung to encourage by enabling live spherical
COURTESY OF SAMSUNG

Gear 360 cameras to produce spherical videos in its Periscope app.


photos and videos that document any- Or consider the spherical videos of
thing from hurricane damage in Haiti to medical procedures that the Los Angeles
a refugee camp in Gaza. One New York startup Giblib makes to teach students
Times video that depicts people in Niger about surgery. The company films the

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samsung gear 360


Samsung has given these cameras
to New York Times and Reuters
journalists who are producing 360°
news coverage.

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Ricoh Theta S
Ricoh put the image sensors on the
camera’s sides instead of behind its Utah’s Sidestep Canyon captured
lenses, making its thin shape possible. by the Ricoh Theta S.

JOHN FOWLER/FLICKR

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operations by attaching a $500 360fly 4K pare for games in ways that conventional dragon processors similar to those that
camera, which is the size of a baseball, to sideline and end-zone videos can’t. run Samsung’s high-end handsets.
surgical lights above the patient. The 360° Camera companies also benefited in
view enables students to see not just the Component innovations recent years from smartphone vendors’
surgeon and surgical site, but also the way These applications are feasible because continuous quest to integrate higher-
the operating room is organized and how of the smartphone boom and innova- quality imaging into their gadgets. The
the operating room staff interacts. tions in several technologies that combine competition forced component makers
Meanwhile, inexpensive 360° cameras images from multiple lenses and sensors. like Sony to shrink image sensors and
such as Kodak’s $450 Pixpro SP360 4K For instance, 360° cameras require more ensure that they offered both high reso-
are popping up on basketball backboards, horsepower than regular cameras and lution and good performance in low light.
football fields, and hockey nets during generate more heat, but that is handled As the huge smartphone market helped
practice for professional and collegiate by the energy-efficient chips that power bring down component prices, 360°-cam-
teams. Coaches say the resulting videos smartphones. Both the 360fly and the era makers found it possible to price
help players visualize the action and pre- $499 ALLie camera use Qualcomm Snap- their devices accessibly, often at less than

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360Fly 4K
Dustproof and water-resistant, it’s
often used to record extreme sports.

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Bicyclists in Taiwan captured


technologies.
and innovations in computer vision
because of the smartphone boom
These applications are possible

by the 360fly 4K.

$500. “There are sensors that now cost The cameras connect to the apps wire-
$1 instead of $1,000 because they’re used lessly, and many of them allow you to
in smartphones, which have incredible upload photos and video directly from
economies of scale,” says J­ effrey Martin, your phone to Facebook and YouTube.
the CEO of a 360°-camera startup called In turn, those sites have made it possible
Sphericam. Advances in optics played a over the past year for people not just to
part as well. Unlike traditional cameras, post recorded 360° content but to live-
which have fairly narrow fields of view, stream 360° videos as well.
360° cameras sport exaggerated fish-eye Because creating 360° content
lenses that require special optics to align requires stitching together multiple
and focus images across multiple points. images, doing it on the fly for live stream-
Most 360° cameras lack displays ing represents an impressive technical
KIN MUN LEE/FLICKR

and viewfinders. To compensate, cam- achievement. Computer-vision algorithms


era makers developed apps that you can have simplified the process so that it can
download to your phone to compose be done on the camera itself, which in
shots and review the resulting images. turn allows people to live-stream video

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with minimal delays. (It helps that most ularity of these devices will benefit the time playing games. Instead, they may
consumer-grade cameras have only two virtual-reality industry as well as cam- don VR headsets to do things like virtu-
lenses and thus one stitch line. Profes- era makers. You don’t need special VR ally attend a wedding.
sional versions can have six to 24 lenses.) gear to view spherical videos, but YouTube Once people discover spherical videos,
The ALLie camera supports fast stitching says many people look at them on smart- research suggests, they shift their viewing
and live-streaming, as do Ricoh’s upcom- phones slipped into VR headsets, such behavior quickly. The company Human-
ing Ricoh R development kit camera and as Google’s Cardboard and Daydream eyes, which is developing an $800 camera
Kodak’s Orbit360 4K, which will be avail- devices. And more people experimenting that can produce 3-D spherical images,
able later this year for $500. with 360° cameras means more content says people need to watch only about 10
Spherical cameras represented 1 per- for other people to watch in VR. hours of 360° content before they instinc-
cent of worldwide consumer camera In fact, John Carmack, the chief tech- tively start trying to interact with all vid-
shipments in 2016 and are set to reach 4 nology officer of Facebook’s Oculus VR eos. When you see 360° imagery that truly
percent in 2017, according to the research subsidiary, has predicted that people will transports you somewhere else, you want
firm Futuresource Consulting. The pop- spend less than 50 percent of their VR it more and more.

TOM P OOLE/FLICKR

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Kodak pixpro sp360 4k


An urban scene captured by the It can be mounted on a drone to
Kodak Pixpro SP360 4K. produce aerial 360° videos.

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Breakthrough
First gene therapies
on track for approval
in the U.S. More are
on the way.

Why It Matters
Thousands of
diseases stem from
an error in a single
gene. New treatments
could cure them.

Gene Therapy 2.0


Key Players
- Spark Therapeutics
- BioMarin
- BlueBird Bio
- GenSight Biologics
- UniQure

Availability
Now

Scientists have solved fundamental


problems that were holding back cures
for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll
see if the same approach can take on
cancer, heart disease, and other
common illnesses.
ARMANDO VEVE

By Emily Mullin

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W
hen Kala Looks gave birth At first, Kala and Philip thought their Researchers have been chasing the
to fraternal twin boys in only option was to get Levi a bone mar- dream of gene therapy for decades. The
January 2015, she and her row transplant, but they couldn’t find a idea is elegant: use an engineered virus
husband, Philip, had no match for him. Then they learned about to deliver healthy copies of a gene into
idea that one of them was an experimental gene therapy at Boston patients with defective versions. But
harboring a deadly mutation in his genes. Children’s Hospital. It was attempting until recently it had produced more
At three months old, their son Levi to treat children like Levi by replacing disappointments than successes. The
was diagnosed with severe combined the gene responsible for destroying his entire field was slowed in 1999 when an
immune deficiency, or SCID, which ren- immune system. 18-year-old patient with a liver disease,
ders the body defenseless against infec- “I thought, this isn’t real,” Kala says. Jesse ­Gelsinger, died in a gene-therapy
tions. Levi’s blood had only a few immune “There’s no way this could work.” experiment.
cells essential to fighting disease. Soon he Nonetheless, the Lookses flew from But now, crucial puzzles have been
would lose them and have no immune their home in Michigan to Boston in solved and gene therapies are on the
system at all. May 2015. Days later, Levi got an infu- verge of curing devastating genetic dis-
Kala and Philip frantically began sion of the therapy into his veins. He has orders. Two gene therapies for inherited
sanitizing their home to keep Levi alive. been a normal boy ever since—and he has diseases—Strimvelis for a form of SCID
They got rid of the family cat, sprayed even grown larger than his twin brother. and Glybera for a disorder that makes fat
every surface with Lysol, and boiled the Babies born with SCID typically didn’t build up in the bloodstream—have won
twins’ toys in hot water. Philip would survive past two years old. Now, a one- regulatory approval in Europe. In the
strap on a surgical mask when he came time treatment offers a cure for patients United States, Spark Therapeutics could
home from work. like Levi Looks. be the first to market; it has a treatment

Gene-Therapy Time Line

CHRIS WARE /GET T Y; FOX PHOTOS /GET T Y; COURTESY OF THE IMMUNE


DEFICIENCY FOUNDATION; COURTESY OF THE GELSINGER FAMILY

1960s 1970s 1990 1999


The idea of gene therapy Scientists experiment with using A four-year-old girl (pictured at Jesse Gelsinger, 18, becomes
arises when scientists discover viruses to introduce new genes lower right in 1992) is treated the first patient to die in a clinical
enzymes that can be used to cut into animals. for SCID, a genetic disease that trial for gene therapy.
DNA sequences and stitch them would have left her defenseless
together in test tubes. against infections. But other
children with the disease will
later develop leukemia from a
different gene therapy.

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for a progressive form of blindness. Other everyone may be able to take gene therapy Gene-therapy researchers have sur-
gene therapies in development point to to combat the effects of aging. mounted many of those early problems
a cure for hemophilia and relief from an Early gene therapies failed in part by using viruses that are more efficient
incapacitating skin disorder called epider- because of the delivery mechanism. In at transporting new genetic material into
molysis bullosa. 1990, a four-year-old girl with a form cells.
Fixing rare diseases, impressive in of SCID was treated by scientists at But several challenges remain. While
its own right, could be just the start. the National Institutes of Health, who gene therapies have been developed for
Researchers are studying gene therapy in extracted white blood cells from her, several relatively rare diseases, creating
clinical trials for about 40 to 50 different inserted normal copies of her faulty gene such treatments for more common dis-
diseases, says Maria-Grazia Roncarolo, a into them, then injected her with the cor- eases that have complex genetic causes
pediatrician and scientist at Stanford Uni- rected cells. But patients later treated for a will be far more difficult. In diseases like
versity who led early gene-therapy experi- different type of SCID went on to develop SCID and hemophilia, scientists know the
ments in Italy that laid the foundation for leukemia. The new genetic material and precise genetic mutation that is to blame.
Strimvelis. That’s up from just a few con- the virus used to carry it into cells were But diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes,
ditions 10 years ago. And in addition to delivered to the wrong part of the genome, and heart failure involve multiple genes—
treating disorders caused by malfunctions which switched on cancer-­causing genes and the same ones aren’t all involved in all
in single genes, researchers are looking to in some patients. In Gelsinger’s case, the people with those conditions.
engineer these therapies for more com- virus used to transport functioning genes Nonetheless, for Kala and Philip Looks,
mon diseases, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, into his cells made his immune system go the success of gene therapy is already real.
heart failure, and cancer. Harvard geneti- into overdrive, leading to multiple organ A treatment they had never heard of rid
cist George Church has said that someday, failure and brain death. their child of a horrific disease.
MIKAEL HÄGGSTRÖM; COURTESY OF UNIQURE; MYSTÈRE MARTIN /

2007-2008 2012 May 2016 2017 or 2018


Patients with an inherited The European Medicines European regulators approve A gene therapy for an inherited
retinal disease called Leber’s Agency approves the first gene Strimvelis, the second gene disease could be approved in the
WIKIMEDIA; ERIC PIERMONT/ GET T Y

congenital amaurosis appear therapy for an inherited disease. therapy for an inherited disease, U.S. for the first time.
to have improved vision Called Glybera, the drug treats to treat a type of SCID.
after treatment with a gene lipoprotein lipase deficiency,
therapy. However, years later, which causes fat to build up in
researchers will report in the the blood.
New England Journal of Medicine
that some patients’ eyesight has
begun to wane.

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Hot Solar Cells

Breakthrough
A solar power device
that could theoretically By converting heat to focused beams
double the efficiency of
conventional solar cells.
of light, a new solar device could
create cheap and continuous power.
Why It Matters
By
The new design
James Temple
could lead to

S
inexpensive solar
power that keeps
working after the
olar panels cover a growing num-
sun sets.
ber of rooftops, but even decades
Key Players after they were first developed,
- David Bierman, Marin the slabs of silicon remain bulky,
Soljacic, and Evelyn expensive, and inefficient. Funda-
Wang, MIT
mental limitations prevent these conven-
- Vladimir Shalaev, Purdue
University tional photovoltaics from absorbing more
than a fraction of the energy in sunlight.
Availability But a team of MIT scientists has built
10 to 15 years a different sort of solar energy device that
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEN RICHARDSON

uses inventive engineering and advances


in materials science to capture far more of
the sun’s energy. The trick is to first turn
sunlight into heat and then convert it back
into light, but now focused within the spec-
trum that solar cells can use. While various
researchers have been working for years on

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A view of the solar device seen by


looking through the equipment used
to focus simulated sunlight on it.

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so-called solar thermophotovoltaics, the The key step in creating the device of light flow through it. Another critical
MIT device is the first one to absorb more was the development of something called advance was the addition of a highly spe-
energy than its photovoltaic cell alone, an absorber-emitter. It essentially acts cialized optical filter that transmits the
demonstrating that the approach could as a light funnel above the solar cells. tailored light while reflecting nearly all
dramatically increase efficiency. The absorbing layer is built from solid the unusable photons back. This “pho-
Standard silicon solar cells mainly black carbon nanotubes that capture all ton recycling” produces more heat, which
capture the visual light from violet to red. the energy in sunlight and convert most generates more of the light that the solar
That and other factors mean that they can of it into heat. As temperatures reach cell can absorb, improving the efficiency
never turn more than around 32 percent around 1,000 °C, the adjacent emitting of the system.
of the energy in sunlight into electricity. layer radiates that energy back out as There are some downsides to the MIT
The MIT device is still a crude prototype, light, now mostly narrowed to bands that team’s approach, including the relatively
operating at just 6.8 percent efficiency— the photovoltaic cells can absorb. The high cost of certain components. It also
but with various enhancements it could emitter is made from a photonic crystal, currently works only in a vacuum. But the
be roughly twice as efficient as conven- a structure that can be designed at the economics should improve as efficiency
tional photovoltaics. nanoscale to control which wavelengths levels climb, and the researchers now have

Above: Black carbon nanotubes sit on top


of the absorber-emitter layer, collecting
energy across the solar spectrum and
converting it to heat.

Facing page: The absorber-emitter


layer is situated above an optical filter
and photovoltaic cell, which is visible
underneath.

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efficient as conventional
The device eventually could be twice as

photovoltaics.

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a clear path to achieving that. “We can fur- is easier to store than electricity, it should
ther tailor the components now that we’ve be possible to divert excess amounts gener-
improved our understanding of what we ated by the device to a thermal storage sys-
need to get to higher efficiencies,” says tem, which could then be used to produce
Evelyn Wang, an associate professor who electricity even when the sun isn’t shining.
helped lead the effort. If the researchers can incorporate a stor-
The researchers are also exploring ways age device and ratchet up efficiency levels,
to take advantage of another strength of the system could one day deliver clean,
solar thermophotovoltaics. Because heat cheap—and continuous—solar power.

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Concentrated light from a solar simulator shines


through the window of a vacuum chamber,
where it reaches the solar thermophotovoltaic
device and generates electricity.

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Breakthrough
A master catalog of
every cell type in the
human body.

Why It Matters
Super-accurate mod-
els of human physiol-
ogy will speed up the
discovery and testing
of new drugs.

Key Players
- Broad Institute

The Cell Atlas


- Sanger Institute
- Chan Zuckerberg Biohub

Availability
5 years
COURTESY OF FRED TOMASELLI AND JAMES COHAN. NEW YORK

Biology’s next mega-project will find out


what we’re really made of.
FRED TOMASELLI
Airborne Event
2003
Mixed media, acrylic paint,
resin on wood By Steve Connor

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I
n 1665, Robert Hooke peered down Fig. 1 Robert Hooke’s drawing of cork,
his microscope at a piece of cork and as seen through a microscope (1665).
discovered little boxes that reminded
Fig. 2 Sperm containing a homunculus
him of rooms in a monastery. Being (Nicholas Hartsoeker, 1695).
the first scientist to describe cells,

“human cell atlas” that defines living cells by what


Hooke would be amazed by biology’s next Fig. 3 Daguerreotypes of blood from
mega-project: a scheme to individually humans, camels, and toads (A. Donné,
1845).
capture and scrutinize millions of cells
using the most powerful tools in modern Fig. 4 Plant cells (J. M. Schleiden,
genomics and cell biology. 1838).
The objective is to construct the
first comprehensive “cell atlas,” or map Fig. 5 Sketches of animal cells
(Theodor Schwann, 1839).
of human cells, a technological marvel
that should comprehensively reveal, for Fig. 6 A nerve (A. von Kolliker, 1852).

goes on inside them.


the first time, what human bodies are
Scientists are building an ultra-detailed
actually made of and provide scientists a
sophisticated new model of biology that
could speed the search for drugs.
To perform the task of cataloguing
the 37.2 trillion cells of the human body, Three technologies are coming
an international consortium of scientists together to make this new type of map-
from the U.S., U.K., Sweden, Israel, the ping possible. The first is known as “cel-
Netherlands, and Japan is being assem- lular microfluidics.” Individual cells are
bled to assign each a molecular signature separated, tagged with tiny beads, and
and also give each type a zip code in the manipulated in droplets of oil that are
three-dimensional space of our bodies. shunted like cars down the narrow, one-
“We will see some things that we way streets of artificial capillaries etched
expect, things we know to exist, but into a tiny chip, so they can be corralled,
I’m sure there will be completely novel cracked open, and studied one by one.
things,” says Mike Stubbington, head of The second is the ability to iden-
the cell atlas team at the Sanger Insti- tify the genes active in single cells by
tute in the U.K. “I think there will be decoding them in superfast and efficient
surprises.” sequencing machines at a cost of just a
Previous attempts at describing cells, few cents per cell. One scientist can now
from the hairy neurons that populate the process 10,000 cells in a single day.
brain and spinal cord to the glutinous The third technology uses novel
fat cells of the skin, suggest there are labeling and staining techniques that can
about 300 variations in total. But the locate each type of cell—on the basis of
true figure is undoubtedly larger. Analyz- its gene activity—at a specific zip code in
ing molecular differences between cells a human organ or tissue.
has already revealed, for example, two Behind the cell atlas are big-science
new types of retinal cells that escaped powerhouses including Britain’s Sanger
decades of investigation of the eye; a cell Institute, the Broad Institute of MIT and
that forms the first line of defense against Harvard, and a new “Biohub” in Cali-
pathogens and makes up four in every fornia funded by Facebook CEO Mark
10,000 blood cells; and a newly spot- ­Zuckerberg. In September Zuckerberg
ted immune cell that uniquely produces and his wife, Priscilla Chan, made the cell
a steroid that appears to suppress the atlas the inaugural target of a $3 billion
immune response. donation to medical research. 

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Fig. 1 Fig. 2 Fig. 3

Fig. 5

Fig. 4

Fig. 6
WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON

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Self-Driving
Trucks

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Breakthrough
Long-haul trucks that
drive themselves for Tractor-trailers without a human
extended stretches
at the wheel will soon barrel onto

By
on highways.
highways near you. What will this

David H. Freedman
Why It Matters
mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck
The technology might
free truck drivers drivers?
to complete routes
more efficiently, but it
could also erode their
pay and eventually
replace many of them
altogether.

Key Players
- Otto
- Volvo
- Daimler
- Peterbilt

Availability
5 to 10 years

R
oman Mugriyev was driving his many technical problems are still unre- the ones for self-driving cars. Otto and
long-haul 18-wheeler down a solved, proponents claim that self-driving other companies will need to demon-
two-lane Texas highway when he trucks will be safer and less costly. “This strate that sensors and code can match
saw an oncoming car drift into system often drives better than I do,” says the situational awareness of a professional
his lane just a few hundred feet Greg Murphy, who’s been a professional trucker—skills honed by years of expe-
ahead. There was a ditch to his right and truck driver for 40 years. He now serves rience and training in piloting an easily
more oncoming cars to his left, so there as a safety backup driver during tests of destabilized juggernaut, with the momen-
was little for him to do but hit his horn self-driving trucks by Otto, a San Fran- tum of 25 Honda Accords, in the face of
and brake. “I could hear the man who cisco company that outfits trucks with the confusing road hazards, poor surface con-
taught me to drive telling me what he equipment needed to drive themselves. ditions, and unpredictable car drivers.
always said was rule number one: ‘Don’t At first glance, the opportunities and And perhaps most important, if self-
hurt anybody,’” Mugriyev recalls. challenges posed by self-driving trucks driving trucks do take hold, they figure to
But it wasn’t going to work out that might seem to merely echo those asso- be more controversial than self-­driving
way. The errant car collided with the front ciated with self-driving cars. But trucks cars. At a time when our politics and
of Mugriyev’s truck. It shattered his front aren’t just long cars. For one thing, the economy are already being upended by
axle, and he struggled to keep his truck economic rationale for self-driving trucks the threats that automation poses to jobs
and the wrecked car now fused to it from might be even stronger than the one for (see “The Relentless Pace of Automation,”
hitting anyone else as it barreled down driverless cars. Autonomous trucks can page 92), self-driving trucks will affect an
ANDREW PAYNTER; COURTESY OF OT TO

the road. After Mugriyev finally came to coördinate their movements to platoon enormous number of blue-collar work-
a stop, he learned that the woman driving closely together over long stretches of ers. There are 1.7 million trucking jobs
the car had been killed in the collision. highway, cutting down on wind drag and in the U.S., according to the Bureau of
Could a computer have done better at saving on fuel. And letting the truck drive Labor Statistics. Technology is unlikely
the wheel? Or would it have done worse? itself part of the time figures to help truck- to replace truckers entirely anytime soon.
We will probably find out in the next ers complete their routes sooner. But it will almost certainly alter the nature
few years, because multiple companies are But the technological obstacles fac- of the job, and not necessarily in ways that
now testing self-driving trucks. Although ing autonomous trucks are higher than all would welcome.

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A human can push the red


“We’re not waiting” this through electromechanical actua- buttons to the right of the
steering wheel to instantly take
Otto’s headquarters, in the once-seedy tors mounted to the truck’s mechanical
over from the self-driving system.
South of Market section of San Francisco, steering, throttling, and braking systems.
isn’t much like many of the other tech Two big red buttons in the cab—Otto calls
startups that have transformed the area. them the Big Red Buttons—can cut off
Proudly oblivious to that neighborhood all self-driving activity. But even without
upgrade, it’s a barely renovated former them, the system is designed to yield to
furniture warehouse converted to a garage any urgent tugs on the steering wheel or
and machine shop, with semi trucks in heavy pumps of the pedals from anyone
various states of dismantlement hulk- in the driver’s seat.
ing over benches of tools and comput- Otto was founded early in 2016 by
ers. “No fancy, shiny offices here,” brags Anthony Levandowski, who had been
Eric ­Berdinis, Otto’s young and clean-cut-­ with Google’s self-driving-car effort, and
looking product manager. Lior Ron, who headed up Google Maps,
Berdinis shows off the latest gen- along with two others. It was a natural
eration of the company’s fast-evolving move to build on Google’s vast experience
technology, which is currently installed with its autonomous cars, which have
on Volvo semis. Unlike the bolted-on, driven more than two million miles on
kludgy-looking hardware that’s been on U.S. roads in several states, with an eye
testing runs for the past year, the newer toward the four million trucks in the U.S.
versions of the company’s sensor and pro- alone. Volvo Trucks, Daimler Trucks, and
cessing arrays are more sleekly integrated Peterbilt have been working on their own
throughout the Volvo cab. The equipment autonomous-truck technology.
includes four forward-facing video cam- Then, as further validation, Uber
eras, radar, and a box of accelerometers snatched Otto up for a reported $680
that Berdinis boasts is “as close as the million last August. That deal has given
government allows you to get to missile- Otto’s team access to roughly 500 engi-
guidance quality.” neers at Uber working on self-driving
Particularly key to Otto’s technology is technology, according to Berdinis. Levan-
a lidar system, which uses a pulsed laser to dowski now heads that effort for Uber,
amass detailed data about the truck’s sur- which has said it envisions providing an
roundings. The current third-party lidar overarching and largely automated trans-
box costs Otto in the vicinity of $100,000 portation network for both goods and
each. But the company has a team design- people.
ing a proprietary version that could cost Otto has only seven trucks on the road
less than $10,000. with its technology, but it hopes owners of
Inside the cab is a custom-built, many more trucks will eventually take on
liquid-cooled, breadbox-size micro-­ the equipment for free to test it out. Ber-
supercomputer that, Berdinis claims, dinis says the company is working to drive
provides the most computing muscle down the cost of the technology to the
ever crammed into so small a package. point where it offers a one- or two-year
It is needed to crunch the vast stream of payback. That’s likely to mean something
sensor data and shepherd it through the in the vicinity of $30,000 for a retrofit.
guidance algorithms that adjust braking “We expect the government to mandate
and steering commands to compensate this technology eventually, and for truck
for the truck’s load weight. Rounding out manufacturers to integrate it into their
the hardware lineup is a drive-by-wire vehicles,” says Berdinis. “But new-truck A shipment of Budweiser was
box to turn the computer’s output into development is on an eight-year cycle, and loaded onto an autonomous
physical truck-control signals. It does we’re not waiting.” Otto truck last year.

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The driver can sit in the back of
the cab while the truck drives
itself—albeit in the right lane only.

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Greg Murphy, a longtime long-


haul trucker, keeps an eye on
things during tests of Otto trucks.

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Roman Mugriyev wonders how


well self-driving trucks would
handle dangerous situations.

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Pay cuts with no driver in it,” says Berdinis. But


Last October an Otto-outfitted self-driv- Otto does expect to free up the driver
ing truck carried 2,000 cases of Budweiser during highway cruising to remain in the
beer 200 kilometers down Interstate 25 back of the cab relaxing, working, or even
in Colorado from Fort Collins to Colorado napping. And therein lies the strongest
Springs—while the truck’s only human part of the economic case for self-driving
driver sat in the sleeper berth at the back trucks. Drivers are legally restricted to

the economics will work


of the cab without touching the vehicle’s 11 hours of driving a day and 60 hours a
controls. week. Given that a new big rig goes for

Even if drivers stay on in the cab, it’s not clear


That commercial delivery, the first ever about $150,000, and taking into account
to be handled by an autonomous heavy the vast delays that pulling over to rest
truck, illustrated the potential of the tech- injects into the movement of goods, trucks
nology. But it also demonstrated the cur- that can cruise nearly 24/7 could dramati-
rent limitations. The human driver piloted cally lower freight costs.
the truck to and from the highway the old- There are other anticipated savings
fashioned way, because the technology from having trucks drive themselves across
doesn’t drive on small rural roads or in America’s 230,000 miles of highway. Fuel
cities. Even after it was on the highway, a
car drove ahead of the truck to make sure
out in their favor. is about a third of the cost of operating
a long-haul truck, and while drivers are
the far right lane remained clear. Otto’s capable of wringing maximum miles per
system is programmed to stay in that gallon from their trucks, many are too
lane, because on many roads trucks are heavy-footed on the pedals. (Berdinis
restricted to the far right and are generally says the best drivers are 30 percent more
considered safer there. And the truck was fuel-efficient than the worst ones.) Otto’s
surrounded by several cars carrying Otto equipment is programmed to keep trucks
personnel and Colorado State Patrol staff. pegged to optimal speeds and acceleration.
In all other testing of Otto-equipped Then there’s the potential to cut down
trucks, a professional driver like Greg on accidents. Truck and bus crashes kill
Murphy sits in the driver’s seat, constantly about 4,000 people a year in the U.S. and
ready to take the controls at a moment’s injure another 100,000. Driver fatigue is
notice, even on the highway. Another Otto a factor in roughly one of seven fatal truck
employee is in the cab as well. Murphy hits accidents. More than 90 percent of all acci-
the Big Red Buttons when there’s debris on dents are caused at least in part by some
the road, or construction. “My hands are form of driver error. We don’t yet know
always on the wheel, and I have to concen- what fraction of those errors would be
trate pretty hard to be ready,” says Murphy. eliminated by autonomous technology—
“It’s actually harder than normal driving.” or what new errors might be introduced
(I was invited to sit in on an Otto test ride, by it—but tests of self-driving cars suggest
but shortly before I was due to show up the technology will cut down on mistakes.
I was told there had been a scheduling As long as self-driving trucks require
miscommunication and a truck wouldn’t a driver to remain on board, driving jobs
be available. I suspect the cancellation seem safe. In some ways those jobs, which
had more to do with that morning’s heavy pay an average of about $40,000 a year,
rain—which can throw off autonomous could even improve. For one thing, driv-
vehicles—but Otto stuck to its story.) ing a truck 11 hours a day is stressful. “You
In fact, Otto insists it has no plans get physically and mentally tired,” says
to release products intended to operate ­Mugriyev, the driver in the Texas acci-
trucks without a driver in the cab. “We’re dent, which occurred in 2013. (He was
at least a decade away from having trucks not found to be at fault.) Besides being able

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Otto says it has no intention


of getting drivers out of the
cab entirely—at least for the
next decade.

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A key detail not seen in most


images of the Budweiser delivery:
Otto staff and police riding nearby
in cars to ensure safety. Inset:
Otto’s facility in San Francisco.

to nap and relax in the cab while Otto does One endorsement of the potential ben- Even if, as is likely for the foresee-
the driving, says Berdinis, drivers could efits of autonomous trucks to both truck- able future, drivers stay on in the cab of
use the time away from the wheel to catch ing companies and drivers has come from self-driving trucks, it’s not clear the eco-
up on trucking’s heavy paperwork, locate the state government of Ohio, a trucking nomics will work out in their favor. That’s
a “backhaul” load that would pay for the hub that’s home to more than 70,000 driv- because there’s currently no regulation
return trip, chat with family and friends, ers. The state has committed $15 million to that would require companies to pay driv-
learn a second trade, or run a business. set up a 35-mile stretch of highway outside ers for the time they spend in the back of
“And while they’re doing it, the drivers are Columbus for testing self-driving trucks. the cab. What’s more, freight companies
still getting paid for driving,” he says. The heads of both the American Trucking are likely to be forced to convert the cost
These potential benefits could help Associations and the Ohio Trucking Asso- savings from always-rolling trucks into
with recruiting and training truck driv- ciation have publicly suggested that auton- lower hauling charges in order to compete.
ers—a key concern, because there’s actually omous trucks will be good for truckers. Those dropping fees could put pressure on
a big shortage of drivers in both the U.S. However, the technology is not just truckers’ pay. “If load prices get pushed
and Europe. The American Trucking Asso- a way to make the job more attractive to down with this technology, the company
ciations pegs the current U.S. shortage at human drivers; it’s potentially a way for will say, ‘You didn’t do as much driving, so
about 50,000 drivers and predicts that a trucking companies to fill in for drivers you don’t make as much,’” says Mugriyev.
total of nearly 900,000 new drivers will be who aren’t available. And if self-driving
needed over the next eight years. “We have systems someday become accepted as Safety questions
customers calling us up saying they’ll buy capable of standing in for drivers, why Is Otto’s technology up to safely pilot-
10 new trucks from us if we can provide keep human drivers on at all? After all, ing 80,000 pounds of truck down a busy
the drivers, too,” says Carl Johan Almqvist, drivers account for a third of the per-mile highway? Having a driver in the cab won’t
who heads product safety at Volvo Trucks. costs of operating a truck. do much to make up for any shortcomings

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Self-driving cars have managed to


do well in mostly city driving in spite of
these limitations, but at highway speeds
and with limited maneuverability, trucks
may come up short more often. “We’re still
having problems with these challenges,”
says Volvo Trucks’ Almqvist. Heavy-truck
drivers typically spend months in driv-
ing school, and go through thousands of
miles of supervised driving, before taking
full charge of a big rig. Thus, matching a
human driver’s skill is harder for a self-
driving truck than it is for a self-driving
car. Mugriyev wonders, for example, if an
autonomous system would be able to do
what he did: wrestle to a safe stop a truck
with a blown front axle and a smashed-up
car pasted to its front.
Because of such safety concerns, Volvo
has no current plans to field its auton-
omous trucks on public roads. Instead,
it intends to limit them to private loca-
tions such as mines and ports. “On public
roads, we’ll use the technology to sup-
port the driver, not to replace the driver,”
says Almqvist. Volvo is still unsure about
social acceptance of the technology. The
company sometimes identifies the license
plates of passing cars when testing its
autonomous trucks, and then tracks the
in the system, given that by Otto’s own of lane on either side of a truck, mean- car owners down and surveys them about
reckoning it can take up to 30 seconds for ing even small hazards at the side of the their perceptions.
a driver resting in the back to fully orient lane can’t be avoided without leaving the Berdinis acknowledges the challenges,
to the driver’s seat. lane. “Many avoidance algorithms for self- but he insists Otto’s technology is rapidly
The extensive history racked up by driving cars just don’t apply to trucks,” evolving to meet them. “We won’t ship
Google’s self-driving cars is encouraging, says Berdinis. until we’re confident there are no situa-
with only 20 crashes over seven years and One advantage for trucks is that some tions where we’d need a human to imme-
millions of miles. Only one of the crashes of the sensors can be mounted at the top of diately take control of the truck,” he says.
was found to be the fault of the car: a traf- the cab, providing a high-up view that can Otto will also have to convince regula-
fic merging situation of the sort that Otto see over traffic far ahead. But even state- tors its systems are ready for the highway.
hands off to the driver. of-the-art sensors can struggle to provide Unlike Uber, which has relied on the con-
But that record doesn’t easily trans- accurate, unambiguous data. Bright sun- sumer popularity of its passenger service
late into a prediction for the safety of self-­ light can briefly blind cameras, computers to take to the roads first and wrestle with
driving trucks. As Berdinis notes, trucks can’t always differentiate between a car regulations later, Otto will do everything
can’t swerve to avoid a hazard the way by the side of the road and a big sign, and strictly by the book, notes Berdinis.
cars can. A fast, hard turn of the steering systems can be thrown off by snow, ice, Even Volvo’s Almqvist thinks the tech-
wheel at high speed would set the truck to and sand. They also can’t interpret facial nology will make it to public roads in the
fishtailing and possibly jackknifing. From expressions and gestures of nearby driv- not-too-distant future. But timing will be
the moment the brakes are applied in a ers to predict the driving behavior of other crucial, he adds: “If we do it too soon and
truck going 55 miles per hour, it takes well vehicles. And few systems would be able to have an accident, we’ll hurt the industry.
over the length of a football field for the differentiate between a hitchhiker and a And if you lose the public’s trust, it’s very
vehicle to stop. There are only six inches construction worker gesturing to pull over. difficult to regain it.”

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Paying with Your Face


Breakthrough
Face recognition
technology that
is finally accurate
enough to be widely
used in financial
transactions and
other everyday
applications.

Why It Matters
The technology
offers a secure and
extremely convenient
method of payment
but could raise
privacy concerns.

Key Players
- Face++
- Baidu
- Alibaba

Availability
Now

Face-detecting systems in China now


authorize payments, provide access to
facilities, and track down criminals. Will
other countries follow?
YOSHI SODEOKA

By Will Knight

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S
hortly after walking through the Technology from Face++ is already Facial recognition has existed for
door at Face++, a Chinese startup being used in several popular apps. It is decades, but only now is it accurate enough
valued at roughly a billion dollars, possible to transfer money through Alipay, to be used in secure financial transactions.
I see my face, unshaven and look- a mobile payment app used by more than The new versions use deep learning, an
ing a bit jet-lagged, flash up on a 120 million people in China, using only artificial-intelligence technique that is
large screen near the entrance. your face as credentials. Meanwhile, Didi, especially effective for image recognition
Having been added to a database, my China’s dominant ride-hailing company, because it makes a computer zero in on
face now provides automatic access to the uses the Face++ software to let passengers the facial features that will most reliably
building. It can also be used to monitor my confirm that the person behind the wheel identify a person (see “10 Breakthrough
movements through each room inside. As is a legitimate driver. (A “liveness” test, Technologies 2013: Deep Learning”).
I tour the offices of Face++ (pronounced designed to prevent anyone from duping “The face recognition market is huge,”
“face plus plus”), located in a suburb of the system with a photo, requires people says Shiliang Zhang, an assistant profes-
Beijing, I see it appear on several more being scanned to move their head or speak sor at Peking University who specializes
screens, automatically captured from while the app scans them.) in machine learning and image process-
countless angles by the company’s soft- The technology figures to take off in ing. Zhang heads a lab not far from the
ware. On one screen a video shows the soft- China first because of the country’s atti- offices of Face++. When I arrived, his stu-
ware tracking 83 different points on my tudes toward surveillance and privacy. dents were working away furiously in a
face simultaneously. It’s a little creepy, but Unlike, say, the United States, China has a dozen or so cubicles. “In China security is
undeniably impressive. large centralized database of ID card pho- very important, and we also have lots of
Over the past few years, computers tos. During my time at Face++, I saw how people,” he says. “Lots of companies are
have become incredibly good at recogniz- local governments are using its software to working on it.”
ing faces, and the technology is expanding identify suspected criminals in video from One such company is Baidu, which
quickly in China in the interest of both surveillance cameras, which are omni- operates China’s most popular search
surveillance and convenience. Face recog- present in the country. This is especially engine, along with other services. Baidu
nition might transform everything from impressive—albeit somewhat dystopian— researchers have published papers show-
policing to the way people interact every because the footage analyzed is far from ing that their software rivals most humans
day with banks, stores, and transporta- perfect, and because mug shots or other in its ability to recognize a face. In Janu-
tion services. images on file may be several years old. ary, the company proved this by taking

COURTESY OF FACE++

Face++ pinpoints 83 points


on a face. The distance
between them provides a
means of identification.

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Local governments are using the software to identify


suspected criminals in video from surveillance

omnipresent in China.
Employees simply show

cameras, which are


their face to gain entry to
the company’s headquarters.

The system captured


MIT Technology Review’s
Will Knight as he moved
through Face++’s offices.

part in a TV show featuring people who Jie Tang, an associate professor at


are remarkably good at identifying adults Tsinghua University who advised the
from their baby photos. Baidu’s system founders of Face++ as students, says the
outshined them. convenience of the technology is what
Now Baidu is developing a system appeals most to people in China. Some
that lets people pick up rail tickets by apartment complexes use facial recogni-
showing their face. The company is tion to provide access, and shops and res-
COURTESY OF FACE++; WILL KNIGHT

already working with the government of taurants are looking to the technology to
Wuzhen, a historic tourist destination, to make the customer experience smoother.
provide access to many of its attractions Not only can he pay for things this way,
without a ticket. This involves scanning he says, but the staff in some coffee shops
millions of faces in a database to find a are now alerted by a facial recognition
match, which Baidu says it can do with system when he walks in: “They say,
99 percent accuracy. ‘Hello, Mr. Tang.’”

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elicate quantum
ere d exp
wh e
om ri m
ro en
e ts
th

to

ar
in

e
n

ha
ow

pp
rs d

eni
Daniël Bouman pee

ng a
t
ultra-cold tempe
her

ra
c

t
r

ure
a
se

s.
re
h
ec

uT
Q

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Breakthrough
The fabrication of
stable qubits, the
basic unit of quantum
computers.

Why It Matters
Quantum computers
could be exponentially
faster at running
artificial-intelligence
programs and handling

Practical
Quantum Computers
complex simulations
and scheduling
problems. They
could even create
uncrackable encryption.

Key Players
- QuTech
- Intel
- Microsoft
- Google
- IBM

Availability
4 to 5 years

Advances at Google, Intel, and several


research groups indicate that computers
with previously unimaginable power are
finally within reach.
MATHIJS LABADIE

By Russ Juskalian

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O
ne of the labs at QuTech, a Dutch
research institute, is responsi-
ble for some of the world’s most
advanced work on quantum
computing, but it looks like an
HVAC testing facility. Tucked away in a
quiet corner of the applied sciences build-
ing at Delft University of Technology, the
space is devoid of people. Buzzing with
resonant waves as if occupied by a swarm
of electric katydids, it is cluttered by tan-
gles of insulated tubes, wires, and control
hardware erupting from big blue cylinders
on three and four legs.
Inside the blue cylinders—essen-
tially supercharged refrigerators—spooky
quantum-­mechanical things are happen-
ing where nanowires, semiconductors, and
superconductors meet at just a hair above
absolute zero. It’s here, down at the limits
of physics, that solid materials give rise to
so-called quasiparticles, whose unusual
behavior gives them the potential to serve
as the key components of quantum com-
puters. And this lab in particular has taken
big steps toward finally bringing those
computers to fruition. In a few years they
could rewrite encryption, materials sci-
ence, pharmaceutical research, and arti-
ficial intelligence.
Every year quantum computing comes
up as a candidate for this Breakthrough
Technologies list, and every year we reach
the same conclusion: not yet. Indeed,
for years qubits and quantum comput-
ers existed mainly on paper, or in fragile
experiments to determine their feasibil-
ity. (The Canadian company D-Wave Sys-
tems has been selling machines it calls
built.
being
ally
actu-
are
designs
theoretical
Previously

quantum computers for a while, using a


specialized technology called quantum
annealing. The approach, skeptics say, is
at best applicable to a very constrained
set of computations and might offer no
speed advantage over classical systems.)
This year, however, a raft of previously
theoretical designs are actually being built.
Also new this year is the increased avail-
ability of corporate funding—from Google,

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This blue refrigerator
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
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79
gets down to just
above absolute zero,
making quantum
experiments possible
on tiny chips
deep inside it. On
subsequent pages
are scenes from the
Delft lab where the
experiments are
prepared.
TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.COM
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What Is a Quantum Computer?


At the heart of quantum computing is the quantum bit, or
qubit, a basic unit of information analogous to the 0s and 1s
represented by transistors in your computer. Qubits have
much more power than classical bits because of two unique
properties: they can represent both 1 and 0 at the same time,
and they can affect other qubits via a phenomenon known as
quantum entanglement. That lets quantum computers take
shortcuts to the right answers in certain types of calculations.

RUSS JUSKALIAN

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IBM, Intel, and Microsoft, among others— ing the rope, pulling on it, whatever,” is on target to build a 49-qubit system by
for both research and the development of says Kouwenhoven, the knots remain as soon as a year from now. The target of
assorted technologies needed to actually and “you don’t change the information.” around 50 qubits isn’t an arbitrary one. It’s
build a working machine: microelectron- Such stability would allow researchers to a threshold, known as quantum suprem-
ics, complex circuits, and control software. scale up quantum computers by substan- acy, beyond which no classical supercom-
The project at Delft, led by Leo tially reducing the computational power puter would be capable of handling the
­K ouwenhoven, a professor who was required for error correction. exponential growth in memory and com-
recently hired by Microsoft, aims to over- Kouwenhoven’s work relies on munications bandwidth needed to sim-
come one of the most long-standing obsta- manipulating unique quasiparticles that ulate its quantum counterpart. In other
cles to building quantum computers: the weren’t even discovered until 2012. And words, the top supercomputer systems can
fact that qubits, the basic units of quantum it’s just one of several impressive steps currently do all the same things that five-
information, are extremely susceptible to being taken. In the same lab, Lieven to 20-qubit quantum computers can, but
noise and therefore error. For qubits to be ­Vandersypen, backed by Intel, is showing at around 50 qubits this becomes physi-
useful, they must achieve both quantum how quantum circuits can be manufac- cally impossible.
superposition (a property something like tured on traditional silicon wafers. All the academic and corporate quan-
being in two physical states simultane- Quantum computers will be particu- tum researchers I spoke with agreed that
ously) and entanglement (a phenomenon larly suited to factoring large numbers somewhere between 30 and 100 qubits—
where pairs of qubits are linked so that (making it easy to crack many of today’s particularly qubits stable enough to per-
what happens to one can instantly affect encryption techniques and probably pro- form a wide range of computations for
the other, even when they’re physically viding uncrackable replacements), solv- longer durations—is where quantum com-
separated). These delicate conditions are ing complex optimization problems, and puters start to have commercial value. And
easily upset by the slightest disturbance, executing machine-learning algorithms. as soon as two to five years from now, such
like vibrations or fluctuating electric fields. And there will be applications nobody has systems are likely to be for sale. Eventually,
People have long wrestled with this yet envisioned. expect 100,000-qubit systems, which will
problem in efforts to build quantum com- Soon, however, we might have a bet- disrupt the materials, chemistry, and drug
puters, which could make it possible to ter idea of what they can do. Until now, industries by making accurate molecular-
solve problems so complex they exceed researchers have built fully programma- scale models possible for the discovery of
the reach of today’s best computers. But ble five-qubit computers and more frag- new materials and drugs. And a million-­
now Kouwenhoven and his colleagues ile 10- to 20-qubit test systems. Neither physical-qubit system, whose general
believe the qubits they are creating could kind of machine is capable of much. But computing applications are still difficult to
eventually be inherently protected—as sta- the head of Google’s quantum comput- even fathom? It’s conceivable, says Neven,
ble as knots in a rope. “Despite deform- ing effort, Harmut Neven, says his team “on the inside of 10 years.”

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REVERSING
Paralysis

Breakthrough
Wireless brain-body
electronic interfaces Scientists are making remarkable
to bypass damage to

By
the nervous system.
progress at using brain implants to

Why It Matters
restore the freedom of movement
that spinal cord injuries take away.
Antonio Regalado
Thousands of people
suffer paralyzing
injuries every year.

“G
Key Players
- École Polytechnique
Fédérale de Lausanne o, go!” was the thought
- Wyss Center for Bio and racing through Grégoire
Neuroengineering Courtine’s mind.
- University of Pittsburgh The French neuro-
- Case Western Reserve
scientist was watching a
University
macaque monkey as it hunched aggres-
Availability sively at one end of a treadmill. His team
10 to 15 years had used a blade to slice halfway through
the animal’s spinal cord, paralyzing its
right leg. Now Courtine wanted to prove
he could get the monkey walking again.
To do it, he and colleagues had installed a
recording device beneath its skull, touch-
ing its motor cortex, and sutured a pad
of flexible electrodes around the animal’s
spinal cord, below the injury. A wire-

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An implant shown on a silicone
model of a primate brain.
ALAIN HER ZOG / EPFL

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Grégoire Courtine holds the two


main parts of the brain-spine
interface. less connection joined the two electronic sors or robotic arms with their thoughts,
devices. thanks to a brain implant wired to
The result: a system that read the machines. Now researchers are taking
monkey’s intention to move and then a significant next step toward reversing
transmitted it immediately in the form of paralysis once and for all. They are wire-
bursts of electrical stimulation to its spine. lessly connecting the brain-reading tech-
Soon enough, the monkey’s right leg nology directly to electrical stimulators
began to move. Extend and flex. Extend on the body, creating what Courtine calls
and flex. It hobbled forward. “The mon- a “neural bypass” so that people’s thoughts
key was thinking, and then boom, it was can again move their limbs.
HILLARY SANCTUARY / EPFL

walking,” recalls an exultant Courtine, a At Case Western Reserve University,


professor with Switzerland’s École Poly- in Cleveland, a middle-aged quadriple-
technique Fédérale de Lausanne. gic—he can’t move anything but his head
In recent years, lab animals and a few and shoulder—agreed to let doctors place
people have controlled computer cur- two recording implants in his brain, of the

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Milestones in
Neural Bypass
1961
Physician and inventor William F. House tests
the first cochlear implant to restore hearing.
The devices will go on to benefit more than
250,000 people.

1998
Doctors install a single electrode in the brain
of a paralyzed man unable to speak. He uses it
to communicate through a computer.

2008
A monkey’s brain signals are sent over the
Internet from the U.S. to Japan, causing a
robot to walk on a treadmill.

2013
U.S. regulators approve a “bionic eye” sold
by the company Second Sight. It uses a
chip sutured to the retina to bypass injured
photoreceptors.
ALAIN HER ZOG / EPFL; COURTESY OF THE W YSS CENTER

2014-2015
Ohio doctors launch efforts to “reanimate”
the arms of two different paralyzed men. The
thoughts of each are transmitted to electrodes
on their arms, causing their hands to open and
shut.
Top left: A close-up Top right: Flexible electrodes Above: A model
of a brain-reading developed to simulate the spinal of a wireless 2016
chip, bristling with cord. neurocommunication 28-year-old Nathan Copeland operates a
electrodes. device sits on a skull. robotic hand that, via a brain implant, allows
him to “feel” the fingers. He fist-bumps Barack
Obama during a presidential visit to a lab in
Pittsburgh.

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In these frames of a video made by EPFL


researchers, a monkey with a spinal cord
injury that paralyzed its right leg is able to
walk again.
EPFL

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same type Courtine used in the monkeys. other spectacular brain-control feats
Made of silicon, and smaller than a post- haven’t had any broader practical use.
age stamp, they bristle with a hundred The technology remains too radical and
hair-size metal probes that can “listen” as too complex to get out of the lab. “Twenty
neurons fire off commands. years of work and nothing in the clinic!”
To complete the bypass, the Case Courtine exclaims, brushing his hair back.
everyday self. They want

team, led by Robert Kirsch and Bolu “We keep pushing the limits, but it is an
­Ajiboye, also slid more than 16 fine elec- important question if this entire field will
trodes into the muscles of the man’s arm ever have a product.”
and hand. In videos of the experiment, Courtine’s laboratory is located in a
the volunteer can be seen slowly raising vertiginous glass-and-steel building in
his arm with the help of a spring-loaded Geneva that also houses a $100 million
“People would prefer to be restored to their

arm rest, and willing his hand to open center that the Swiss billionaire Hansjörg
and close. He even raises a cup with a Wyss funded specifically to solve the
straw to his lips. Without the system, he remaining technical obstacles to neuro-
can’t do any of that. technologies like the spinal cord bypass.
Just try sitting on your hands for a It’s hiring experts from medical-device
to be ­reanimated.”

day. That will give you an idea of the shat- makers and Swiss watch companies and
tering consequences of spinal cord injury. has outfitted clean rooms where gold
You can’t scratch your nose or tousle a wires are printed onto rubbery electrodes
child’s hair. “But if you have this,” says that can stretch as our bodies do.
Courtine, reaching for a red espresso cup The head of the center is John
and raising it to his mouth with an actor’s ­Donoghue, an American who led the early
exaggerated motion, “it changes your life.” development of brain implants in the U.S.
The Case results, pending publica- (see “Implanting Hope,” March 2005) and
tion in a medical journal, are a part of a who moved to Geneva two years ago. He
broader effort to use implanted electron- is now trying to assemble in one place
ics to restore various senses and abili- the enormous technical resources and
ties. Besides treating paralysis, scientists talent—skilled neuroscientists, technol-
hope to use so-called neural prosthetics ogists, clinicians—needed to create com-
to reverse blindness with chips placed mercially viable systems.
in the eye, and maybe restore memo- Among Donoghue’s top priorities is a
ries lost to Alzheimer’s disease (see “10 “neurocomm,” an ultra-compact wireless
Breakthrough Technologies 2013: Mem- device that can collect data from the brain
ory Implants”). at Internet speed. “A radio inside your
And they know it could work. Con- head,” Donoghue calls it, and “the most
sider cochlear implants, which use a sophisticated brain communicator in the
microphone to relay signals directly to world.” The matchbox-size prototypes are
the auditory nerve, routing around non-­ made of biocompatible titanium with a
working parts of the inner ear. Videos of sapphire window. Courtine used an ear-
wide-eyed deaf children hearing their lier, bulkier version in his monkey tests.
mothers for the first time go viral on the As complex as they are, and as slow
Internet every month. More than 250,000 as progress has been, neural bypasses are
cases of deafness have been treated. worth pursuing because patients desire
But it’s been harder to turn neural them, Donoghue says. “Ask someone if
prosthetics into something that helps par- they would like to move their own arm,” he
alyzed people. A patient first used a brain says. “People would prefer to be restored
probe to move a computer cursor across to their everyday self. They want to be
a screen back in 1998. That and several reanimated.”

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Breakthrough
Malware that takes
control of webcams,
video recorders,
and other consumer

Botnets of Things
devices to cause
widespread Internet
outages.

Why It Matters
Botnets based on
this software are
disrupting larger and
larger swaths of the
Internet—and getting
harder to stop.

Key Players
- Whoever created the
Mirai botnet software
- Anyone who runs a poorly
secured device online—
including you?

Availability
Now

The relentless push to add connectivity


to home gadgets is creating dangerous
side effects that figure to get even
worse.
ROBERT BEAT T Y

By Bruce Schneier

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B
otnets have existed for at least a an Internet infrastructure provider par- the number of vulnerable devices will go
decade. As early as 2000, hack- tially offline. Taking down that provider, up by orders of magnitude over the next
ers were breaking into com- Dyn, resulted in a cascade of effects that few years.
puters over the Internet and ultimately caused a long list of high-­ What do hackers do with them?
controlling them en masse from profile websites, including Twitter and Many things.
centralized systems. Among other things, Netflix, to temporarily disappear from the Botnets are used to commit click
the hackers used the combined comput- Internet. More attacks are sure to follow: fraud. Click fraud is a scheme to fool
ing power of these botnets to launch dis- the botnet that attacked Dyn was created advertisers into thinking that people are
tributed denial-of-service attacks, which with publicly available malware called clicking on, or viewing, their ads. There
flood websites with traffic to take them Mirai that largely automates the process are lots of ways to commit click fraud, but
down. of coöpting computers. the easiest is probably for the attacker
But now the problem is getting worse, The best defense would be for every- to embed a Google ad in a Web page he
thanks to a flood of cheap webcams, dig- thing online to run only secure software, owns. Google ads pay a site owner accord-
ital video recorders, and other gadgets so botnets couldn’t be created in the first ing to the number of people who click on
in the “Internet of things.” Because these place. This isn’t going to happen anytime them. The attacker instructs all the com-
devices typically have little or no secu- soon. Internet of things devices are not puters on his botnet to repeatedly visit
rity, hackers can take them over with lit- designed with security in mind and often the Web page and click on the ad. Dot,
tle effort. And that makes it easier than have no way of being patched. The things dot, dot, PROFIT! If the botnet makers
ever to build huge botnets that take down that have become part of Mirai botnets, figure out more effective ways to siphon
much more than one site at a time. for example, will be vulnerable until their revenue from big companies online, we
In October, a botnet made up of owners throw them away. Botnets will get could see the whole advertising model of
100,000 compromised gadgets knocked larger and more powerful simply because the Internet crumble.

OUTAGE DATA FROM DOWNDETECTOR

This map shows the extent of some


of the Internet outages caused by
denial-of-service attacks on Dyn
on October 21, 2016. Dyn operates
domain-name servers that connect
end users to websites.

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Worldwide number of “Internet-


connectable” devices

over the next


of magnitude
and more powerful simply

up by orders
vulnerable devices will go
2011 8.0 billion

because the number of


Botnets will get larger

few years.
2012 9.3 billion

2013 11.1 billion

2014 13.1 billion


Similarly, botnets can be used to evade Once you know a botnet exists, you
spam filters, which work partly by know- can attack its command-and-control sys-
ing which computers are sending millions tem. When botnets were rare, this tactic
of e-mails. They can speed up password was effective. As they get more common,
guessing to break into online accounts, this piecemeal defense will become less
mine bitcoins, and do anything else that so. You can also secure yourself against
2015 15.2 billion requires a large network of computers. the effects of botnets. For example, several
This is why botnets are big businesses. companies sell defenses against denial-of-
Criminal organizations rent time on them. service attacks. Their effectiveness varies,
But the botnet activities that most depending on the severity of the attack
often make headlines are denial-of-­service and the type of service.
attacks. Dyn seems to have been the vic- But overall, the trends favor the
tim of some angry hackers, but more attacker. Expect more attacks like the one
financially motivated groups use these against Dyn in the coming year.
DATA FROM IHS MARKIT

2016 17.4 billion attacks as a form of extortion. Political


groups use them to silence websites they Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at
don’t like. Such attacks will certainly be a IBM Resilient, is the author of 13 books on
tactic in any future cyberwar. cryptography and data security.

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Reviews
“The Relentless Pace of
gutting of its middle class. Indeed, in his
farewell speech to thousands in a packed
convention hall in Chicago, President
Automation” Obama warned: “The next wave of eco-
nomic dislocations won’t come from over-
seas. It will come from the relentless pace
Artificial intelligence could dramatically improve the economy and aspects of everyday of automation that makes a lot of good
life, but we need to invent ways to make sure everyone benefits. middle-class jobs obsolete.”
The White House report points in par-
By David Rotman ticular to the current wave of AI, which
it describes as having begun around
2010. That’s when advances in machine
learning and the increasing availability
of big data and enhanced computation
Last October, Uber had one of its self-­ It estimates that automated vehicles power began providing computers with
driving trucks make a beer run, travel- could threaten or alter 2.2 million to 3.1 unprecedented capabilities such as the
ing 200 kilometers down the interstate to million existing U.S. jobs. That includes ability to accurately recognize images.
deliver a cargo of Budweiser from Fort Col- the 1.7 million jobs driving tractor-­ The report says greater deployment of
lins to Colorado Springs. A person rode in trailers, the heavy rigs that dominate the AI and automation could boost economic
the truck but spent most of the trip in the highways. Long-haul drivers, it says, “cur- growth by creating new types of jobs and
sleeper berth, monitoring the automated rently enjoy a wage premium over others improving efficiency in many businesses.
system. (The test came just a few weeks in the labor market with the same level of But it also points to the negative effects:
after Uber had announced its driverless educational attainment.” In other words, job destruction and related increases in
car service in Pittsburgh.) The self-driving if truck drivers lose their jobs, they’ll be income inequality. For now at least, “less
truck developed by Uber’s recently acquired particularly screwed. educated workers are more likely to be
Otto unit reflects remarkable technological It is hard to read the White House replaced by automation than highly edu-
achievements (see “10 Breakthrough Tech- report without thinking about the presi- cated ones.” The report notes that so far
nologies: Self-Driving Trucks,” page 62). dential election that happened six weeks automation has displaced few higher-skill
It also provides yet another indicator of a before it was published. The election was workers, but it adds: “The skills in which
looming shift in the economy that could decided by a few Midwest states in the humans have maintained a comparative
have deep political consequences. heart of what has long been called the advantage are likely to erode over time as
It is uncertain how long it will take Rust Belt. And the key issue for many AI and new technologies become more
for driverless trucks and cars to take over voters there was the economy—or, more sophisticated.”
the roads. For now, any so- precisely, the shortage Labor economists have been point-
called autonomous vehicle “Artificial Intelligence, of relatively well-­paying ing out the employment consequences
will require a driver, albeit Automation, and the Economy” jobs. In the rhetoric of the of new digital technologies for several
one who is often passive. Executive Office of the President campaign, much of the years, and the White House report duti-
December 2016
But the potential loss of blame for lost jobs went fully lays out many of those findings. As it
millions of jobs is Exhibit A in a report to globalization and the movement of notes, the imminent problem is not that
issued by the outgoing U.S. administra- manufacturing facilities overseas. “Make robots will hasten the day when there is
tion in late December. Written by Presi- America great again” was, in some ways, a no need for human workers. That end-of-
dent Obama’s top economic and science lament for the days when steel and other work scenario remains speculative, and
advisors, “Artificial Intelligence, Automa- products were made domestically by a the report pays it little heed. Instead, it
tion, and the Economy” is a clear-eyed thriving middle class. is far more concerned with the transi-
look at how fast-developing AI and auto- But many economists argue that auto- tion in our economy that is already under
mation technologies are affecting jobs, mation bears much more blame than glo- way: the types of jobs available are rap-
and it offers a litany of suggestions for balization for the decline of jobs in the idly changing. That’s why the report is
how to deal with the upheaval. region’s manufacturing sector and the so timely. It is an attempt to elevate into

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Washington political circles the discus- employment. Automation has been dis- Left out
sion of how automation and, increas- placing workers from a variety of occupa- It is often argued that technological
ingly, AI are affecting employment, and tions, including ones in manufacturing. progress always leads to massive shifts in
why it’s time to finally adopt educational And now, he says, AI and the quickening employment but that at the end of the day
and labor policies to address the plight of deployment of robots in various indus- the economy grows as new jobs are cre-
workers either displaced by technology or tries, including auto manufacturing, ated. However, that’s a far too facile way of
ill suited for the new opportunities. metal products, pharmaceuticals, food looking at the impact of AI and automa-
DELCAN & COMPANY

It is “glaringly obvious,” says Daron service, and warehouses, could exacer- tion on jobs today. Joel Mokyr, a leading
Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, that bate the effects. “We haven’t even begun economic historian at Northwestern Uni-
political leaders are “totally unprepared” the debate,” he warns. “We’ve just been versity, has spent his career studying how
to deal with how automation is changing papering over the issues.” people and societies have experienced the

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ing employed.” As an alternative, Muro


On Your Own proposes what he calls a “universal basic
The U.S. government lags in spending on programs to help workers with economic transitions. adjustment benefit.” Unlike the universal
basic income, it would consist of targeted
.99
benefits for those seeking new job oppor-
1
tunities. It would provide such support
as wage insurance, job counseling, relo-
0.8
.66 cation subsidies, and other financial and
Percent of GDP, 2014

career help.
0.6 Such generous benefits are unlikely to
.45
be offered anytime soon, acknowledges
0.4 Muro, who has worked with manufac-
.22 turing communities in the Midwest (see
.17
0.2 .11 “It’s the Jobs, Stupid,” January/February
2017). However, the presidential elec-
tion, he suggests, was a wake-up call for
France Germany Korea Canada Japan United States
many people. In some ways the result
was “secretly about automation,” he says.
radical transitions spurred by advances in least by the federal government. Accord- “There is a great sense of anxiety and
technology, such as the Industrial Revo- ing to the White House report, the U.S. frustration out there.”
lution that began in the late 18th century. spends around 0.1 percent of its GDP on The question, then, is whether the
The current disruptions are faster and programs designed to help people deal looming onslaught of AI will make exist-
“more intensive,” Mokyr says. “It is noth- with changes in the workplace—far less ing tensions even worse.
ing like what we have seen in the past, and than other developed economies. And
the issue is whether the system can adapt this funding has declined over the last Cloudy days
as it did in the past.” 30 years. No one actually knows how AI and
Mokyr describes himself as “less pessi- The picture is actually even worse than advanced automation will affect future
mistic” than others about whether AI will those numbers alone suggest, says Mark job opportunities. Predictions about what
create plenty of jobs and opportunities to Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings types of jobs will be replaced and how fast
make up for the ones that are lost. And Institution. Existing federal “readjust- vary widely. One commonly cited study
even if it does not, the alternative—tech- ment programs,” he says, include a col- from 2013 estimated that roughly 47 per-
nological stagnation—is far worse. But lection of small initiatives—some dating cent of U.S. jobs could be lost over the next
that still leaves a troubling quandary: how back to the 1960s—addressing everything decade or two because they involve work
to help the workers left behind. “There is from military-­base closings to the needs that is easily automated. Other reports—
no question that in the modern capitalist of Appalachian coal-mining communi- noting that jobs often involve multiple
system your occupation is your identity,” ties. But none are specifically designed to tasks, some of which might be easily auto-
he says. And the pain and humiliation felt help people whose jobs have disappeared mated while others are not—have come
by those whose jobs have been replaced by because of automation. Not only is the up with a smaller percentage of occupa-
automation is “clearly a major issue,” he overall funding limited, he says, but the tions that machines could make obso-
SOURCES: BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, OECD 2016

adds. “I don’t see an easy way of solving help is too piecemeal to take on a broad lete. A recent study by the Organization
it. It’s an inevitable consequence of tech- labor-force disruption like automation. for Economic Cooperation and Develop-
nological progress.” Some observers, spearheaded by ment estimates that around 9 percent of
The problem is that the United States a clique of Silicon Valley insiders, have U.S. jobs are at high risk. But the other
has been particularly bad over the last few begun arguing for a universal basic part of the employment equation—how
decades at helping people who’ve lost out income as a way to help those unable many jobs will be created—is essentially
during periods of technological change. to find work. Wisely, the White House unknowable. In 1980, who could have
Their social, educational, and financial report rejects such a solution as “giving predicted this decade’s market for app
problems have been largely ignored, at up on the possibility of workers’ remain- developers?

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In the past, new technologies have system much more effectively. For exam- share of jobs that are “routine”—econo-
greatly expanded overall employment ple, some areas of the United States have mists’ shorthand for ones that are easily
opportunities. But no particular economic successfully connected training programs automated. Areas with a high percentage
rule dictates that this will always be true. at community colleges to local companies of routine jobs overwhelmingly went for
And some economists warn that we must and their needs, he says, but other regions Donald Trump and his message of turning
not be overly sanguine about the conse- have not, and the federal government has back the clock to “make American great
quences of automation and AI. done little in this realm. As a result, he again.”
“AI is very much in its infancy,” says says, “large areas have been left behind.” The economic anxiety over AI and
MIT’s Acemoglu. “We don’t really know One problem the growing adoption automation is real and shouldn’t be dis-
what it can do. It’s too soon to know its of AI could make much worse is income missed. But there is no reversing tech-
impact on jobs.” A key part of the answer, inequality (see “Technology and Inequal- nological progress. We will need the
he says, will be to what extent the tech- ity,” November/December 2014) and the economic boost from these technolo-
nologies are used to replace humans or, gies to improve the
alternatively, to help them carry out their
The economic anxiety over AI and automation lackluster produc-
jobs and expand their capabilities. Per- tivity growth that is
sonal computers, the Internet, and other
is real and shouldn’t be dismissed. But there is threatening many
technologies of the last several decades no reversing technological progress. people’s financial
did replace some bank tellers, cashiers, prospects. Further-
and others whose jobs involved routine sharp divisions between the geographic more, the progress AI promises in medi-
tasks. But mainly these technologies com- areas that benefit and those that don’t. cine and other areas could greatly improve
plemented people’s abilities and let them We don’t need the expert-written White how we live. Yet if we fail to use the tech-
do more at work, says Acemoglu. Will that House report to tell us that the impact of nology in a way that benefits as many peo-
pattern continue? “With robots, and down digital technologies and automation in ple as possible (see “Who Will Own the
the line with artificial intelligence, the large swaths of the Midwest is very dif- Robots?” July/August 2015), we risk fuel-
replacement part might be far stronger,” ferent from the effects in Silicon Valley. A ing public resentment of automation and
he cautions. post-election analysis showed that one of its creators. The danger is not so much
Not only might automation and AI the strongest predictors of voting behav- a direct political backlash—though the
prove particularly prone to replacing ior was not a county’s unemployment rate history of the Luddites suggests it could
human workers, but the effects might not or whether it was wealthy or poor but its happen—but, rather, a failure to embrace
be offset by the government policies that and invest in the technology’s abundant
have softened the blow of such transi- possibilities.
SOURCES: WHITE HOUSE AI REPORT, BASED ON BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS; FREY AND

tions in the past. Initiatives like improved The Poor Get Poorer Despite the excitement around AI, it
retraining for workers who have lost their Low-paying jobs are particularly vulnerable. is still in its early days. Driverless vehi-
jobs to automation, and increased finan- cles are fine on sunny days but struggle in
cial protections for those seeking new the fog or the snow, and they still can’t be
Percentage of jobs at likely risk of automation

100
careers, are steps recommended by the 83%
trusted in emergency situations. AI sys-
White House report. But there appears to tems can spot complex patterns in mas-
be no political appetite for such programs. 80 sive data sets but still lack the common
OSBORNE (2013); COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS

“I’m very worried that the next wave sense of a child or the innate language
[of AI and automation] will hit and we 60 skills of a two-year-old. There are still very
won’t have the supports in place,” says difficult technical challenges ahead. But
Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard. 40 31% if AI is going to achieve its full economic
Katz has published research showing that potential, we’ll need to pay as much atten-
large investments in secondary educa- tion to the social and employment chal-
20
tion in the early 1900s helped the nation 4%
lenges as we do to the technical ones.
make the shift from an agriculture-based
economy to a manufacturing one. And Less than $20 $20 to $40 More than $40 David Rotman is the editor of MIT
now, he says, we could use our education per hour per hour per hour Technology Review.

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Virtually There
Traditional movies were the popular art form of the
20th century. Is virtual reality what comes next?

By Ty Burr

Would you watch a virtual-reality Casablanca?


The question is ridiculous, but usefully so. VR
will never be like the movies, culturally or aesthet-
ically, and the best way to understand why may be
to imagine you’re experiencing the 1942 Warner
Brothers classic not as a linear story viewed from
a theater seat, but as an immersive world accessed
by a digital headset.
Most of us would never leave Rick’s Café
Américain. We’d go behind the bar with Sascha,
hover by Emil the croupier at the roulette table,
hang out with Sam as he played “As Time Goes By”
again. Me, I’d be following Peter Lorre’s sniveling
Ugarte. But the central drama of Rick’s rekindled
love and sacrifice for Ilsa Lund? We’d probably
never get that far. Director Michael Curtiz and
the Warner Brothers elves did such a brilliant job
imagining the world of Casablanca that we’d be
content to explore it until we bumped up against
the walls, like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show.
Similarly, a virtual-reality Citizen Kane might
be a survey of the title character’s infinite base-
ment, each talisman sparking its own flashback
in no particular order. The Godfather VR Edition
might allow us to prowl the haunted house of Don
Corleone’s extended family, with the drama of
Michael’s slow rise and rot only one small thread
amid the warp and weft.
VR will never become the new cinema.
Instead, it will be a different thing. But what is
that thing? And will audiences trained in passive
linear narrative—where scene follows scene like
beads on a string, and the string always pulls us
forward—appreciate what the thing might be? Or
will we only recognize it when the new medium
has reached a certain maturity, the way audiences
in 1903 sat up at The Great Train Robbery and
recognized that, finally, here was a movie?
As a movie critic and a writer who has been
covering film over 35 years, I recognize that I’m
Ed Ruscha
part of a vast viewership beholden to a media The End, 1991
format that has passed its apogee: the roughly Synthetic polymer paint and graphite on canvas
two-hour visual experience, usually narrative, pro- 70 x 112 inches

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jected on a screen for multiple viewers. We of development, since exploring and inter- Quill VR illustration software, developed
live in a time of cultural and technologi- acting with a fictional reality is the plot of at Story Studio, to create a vivid impres-
cal upheaval, and traditional cinema was most video games. Other, more narrative sionistic flow of color that evolves around,
the art form of the 20th century. Distribu- virtual-­reality experiences, available for behind, and even beneath a viewer. Dear
tion points are multiplying (TV, computer, purchase or free in the online VR stores Angelica does move forward in linear fash-
phone) while viewing lengths run from that serve as visual entry points once you ion, but it doesn’t tell a story so much as
binge-watched multi-hour TV episodes to put on the Rift, the Gear, or the Vive, feel unfold like a poignant train of thought,
10-second Snapchats. remarkably fresh. They point the way for- and you can sense the filmmakers taking
Once a technological Holy Grail or ward toward … something. baby steps toward a new visual and psy-
the province of science fiction films like Sometimes that something can be star- chological grammar.
Brainstorm (1983), The Lawnmower Man tlingly beautiful. The 20-minute Notes on These are beguiling visions, evidence
(1992), The Matrix (1999), and Avatar Blindness: Into the Darkness was much of new ways of expressing human experi-
(2009), virtual-reality technology was praised at the now-annual virtual-real- ences, owing little to other media. Yet there
for years bedeviled by image-rendering ity sidebar at the Sundance Film Festival are still stumbling blocks. For one thing,
glitches and the vertigo last year, and it went on to VR hardware is still very clumsy. You have
that can afflict users trying Notes on Blindness win festival prizes through- to put on the headset, set up the movement
to navigate a poorly cre- free for Samsung Gear or out 2016. Based on the dia- tracking devices, log on to the computer,
ated virtual space. It’s hard Google Cardboard ries of the late John Hull, and avoid tripping over all those cords as
to enjoy a fantasy world a British writer and editor you grope blindly about the rec room. It
Dear Angelica
when you feel you’re about free for Oculus who lost his sight at age 45, is as if Thomas Edison had told everyone
to throw up. But now the Notes uses Hull’s recorded that they needed to rewire their homes and
future may finally be here. Invisible voice as guide to an other- assemble the projectors themselves if they
free for most head-mounted
Consumer-ready VR hel- displays on the Jaunt channel
world: a 360° panoramic ever wanted to watch a motion picture—
mets like the Oculus Rift, London park, ink-black and that they then had to put the projector
the Samsung Gear V12, Remembering Pearl Harbor except for silhouetted out- on over their heads.
free for the Vive Most virtual-reality experiences that
Sony PlayStation VR, and lines, that is illuminated
the HTC Vive plunge view- Paul McCartney: Early Days by each sound we hear. A attempt to combine the narrative forward
ers into immersive 3-D free on the Jaunt channel passing jogger’s feet seem momentum of film with the immersive
environments where they to bioluminesce with every exploration of VR end up highlighting
The Rose and I
can move within a storyline free for most head-mounted
clip-clop; the wind through the worst of both mediums. Compared
or game space without feel- displays from Penrose Studios the trees brings imagined with the promise of Notes on Blindness
ing sick. They’re the new- color to branches and leaves. and Dear Angelica, these “entertainments”
Allumette represent the current reality of virtual real-
est iterations of headsets An entire landscape of syn-
free from Penrose Studios
that have been around for esthesia comes into being ity, and it’s worth talking about what they
decades (I tested the CyberMaxx helmet before our eyes and ears. Yes, it would are and how you experience them.
for Entertainment Weekly way back in and does work on a rectangular film or TV The experiences are different on dif-
1994), and they all descend from the first screen, but not nearly as convincingly as ferent headsets. Google Cardboard, an
head-mounted display unit developed this immersive inner-yet-outer experience. appealingly low-entry headset, lets you
by computer scientist Ivan Sutherland Even more striking is Dear Angelica, play VR content on an iPhone or Android
in 1968, a behemoth so heavy that it was a highlight of this January’s Sundance VR phone slotted into a cardboard box; it’s the
bolted to the ceiling and nicknamed the showcase. Directed by Saschka Unseld VR equivalent of a Victorian stereoscope
“Sword of Damocles.” and developed in the skunk works of Ocu- or a later generation’s GAF ­View-Master,
Meanwhile, content creators—visual lus Story Studio, it’s a memory play told and while it’s funky and the visuals can
artists and game developers, filmmak- from the point of view of a young woman, get mighty pixelated, it works. The Ocu-
SARAH SHATZ/U SA NET WORK

ers and other storytellers—are trying to voiced by Mae Whitman, as she reminisces lus Rift, available at electronics outlets for
figure out how it might work. (See an about her late mother, a larger-than-life about $600 (hand controls are an addi-
interview with Google’s principal film- film actress, voiced by Geena Davis. As tional $200), offers vastly improved visual
maker for VR, Jessica Brillhart, on page with Notes on Blindness, there’s no attempt resolution but requires a PC system with
28.) Gaming software and networks rep- to capture a photographic reality; rather, state-of-the-art graphic capability (at least
resent the most fertile and obvious center the artist Wesley Allsbrook has used the $880) and a decent amount of technical

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savvy to use. The more recently arrived lets you access archival historical record-nately, that’s where the innovation stops.
HTC Vive has all that plus a pair of laser ings and material by wandering around Almost all the dialogue-heavy scenes play
sensors that have to be precisely positioned and picking things up; it’s well done, but out within a typical film screen, with little
on your walls so that the user’s movements it plays like a CD-ROM the company exploration of the medium’s panoramic
can be accurately tracked. (The Rift has never got around to releasing in the 1990s.possibilities. One appeal of VR drama is its
a similar sensor that stands on a table- Jaunt also has some sort of deal with potential for surprise—for things to hap-
top and looks like a microphone but isn’t.) Paul McCartney that has resulted in VR pen where you least expect them to.
I didn’t test-drive the Samsung Gear or concert documentaries (good) and Paul Oshmyansky’s film demonstrates a
other headsets for this article. ­McCartney: Early Days, which simply puts few things: first, that VR narrative enter-
What are we able to dream while wear- Macca in a room and projects slide photos tainment may live closer to the aesthetics
ing these brave new goggles? In the vir- over his face while he talks about the young
of theater than film (reverse theater-in-
tual stores encountered once you put on Beatles (not so good). the-round, to be exact, with the viewer
the headsets—visual malls that seem to Some VR content houses have thought standing at the center of a 360° radius
hover in space—you can pay for, collect, harder about the medium’s possibilities. of action); and second, that a workable
and access games, apps, social-media plat- Penrose Studios has created two animated language of shots or other means of con-
forms, and a lot of what could be termed shorts for most VR platforms: The Rose veying information and directing audi-
short VR programming, little of which is ence attention has yet to be
terribly interesting. You can watch brief discovered. For now, what’s
comic skits—YouTube product busted out
These are beguiling visions, evidence still being sold in most
into 3-D—and travelogues that reinforce of new ways of expressing human cases is novelty—the fact
the View-Master comparison. experiences, owing little to other media. that you’re watching some-
Doug Liman, the director of such Hol- thing supposedly more real-
lywood hits as Swingers (1996) and The and I and the excellent Allumette com- istic than anything before—and not the
Bourne Identity (2002), has produced and bine crude stop-motion-style graphics with experience itself. But realism shouldn’t
co-directed a VR series called Invisible engaging stories and a genuinely novel be the goal; a compelling immersive envi-
for Jaunt, a VR production company and vantage point in which the viewer seems ronment, whether it’s reality- or fantasy-
online store. In five episodes of about six to hover in space; the Vive’s motion track- based, should be.
minutes each, a clunky thriller storyline ing especially allows you to lean in, peer What’s clear is that we’re just at the
about invisible cousins comes to grief on around, and get up close to the characters. beginning of VR’s long gestational period,
soap-opera-level acting, dreadful writing, For the more adventurous, there’s a but the medium is established. The finan-
and an aesthetic that still owes much to wealth of what might be called cottage- cial backing is there, as is the creative and
traditional film. Each time the image cuts industry VR on the Internet, made by technological drive to improve the experi-
to a new angle, viewers have to joltingly unaffiliated creators curious to push the ence. Eventually there will be a project (or
reorient themselves in space. Still, a chase boundaries of a new medium. Most of it two, or three) that will transform virtual
scene in Episode 5 shows some initiative involves 360° filmmaking, but only some reality from a curiosity to a genuine mass-
in visualizing a 360° dramatic landscape. of it is in 3-D, and very little involves appeal canvas for expression and enter-
Similarly, a short clip, Mr. Robot VR, motion tracking. tainment. Works like Allumette, Notes on
available on a number of headsets, does The high point of cottage-industry VR Blindness, and especially Dear Angelica
little other than put the characters on so far may be last year’s Career Opportu- point the way toward what VR might
a Coney Island Ferris wheel and allow nities in Organized Crime, which billed yet become, but it’s almost impossible to
the show’s creator, Sam Esmail, to mess itself as the first 360° feature-length VR describe what that may be. A movie that
around with the new technology. Liman’s movie. Directed by virtual-reality enthu- we seem to live? An adventure that dou-
Swingers star Jon Favreau—now a major siast (and radiologist) Alex O­ shmyansky, bles as a world? An immersive head trip, a
Hollywood director himself (Elf, The Jun- Career Opportunities is about as crude as tour of this and other planets, just another
gle Book)—has a more promising interac- they come—it looks like something made way to numb ourselves with fantasy? We
tive project called Gnomes & Goblins in in borrowed offices and someone’s garage, lack words to describe the future because
the works; a preview is currently available and in fact it was. But there’s a story of we haven’t invented it yet.
exclusively on the Vive. sorts there, about a Russian mobster with a
Remembering Pearl Harbor, produced human resources department and a slacker Ty Burr is a film critic for the Boston
by Time Life and available on the Vive, kid who locates his inner badass. Unfortu- Globe.

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Demo

A key ingredient in flexible


and lightweight devices of
the future is taking shape
at Corning’s research
center in rural New York.

INSIDE
FAR-OUT

By Katherine Bourzac
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Photographs by
Rachel Jerome Ferraro

THE
GLASS LAB

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Furnace workers at Corning’s


research melters, working in
teams, wear silvery “bunny
suits” when opening a 1,600
°C oven where experimental
glass is melted.

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t Corning’s headquarters in upstate New


York, three people in bulky masks and sil-
very, spacesuit-like gear are working the
research furnaces. They move gracefully
and in harmony. They have to, to face a
1,600 °C furnace, grab an incandescent
crucible of molten glass, pour out the mate-
rial, and shape it before it hardens. One
worker’s glove begins to smoke; he seems
to pay it no mind.
“They’re doing a ballet,” says Adam
Ellison, a materials scientist at the com-
pany, watching the furnace workers as the
glass dumps brimstone-like heat into the
surrounding air. “It’s hot as hell, the glass
gets stiff very quickly, and you can only
work with it for a few minutes,” he says.
Ellison would know—he helped develop
the material they’re pouring, which is
branded Gorilla Glass and is found on
many smartphones because it is tough,
thin, and lightweight.
These researchers are helping Corning
investigate just how much further it can
push the properties of glass. If the com-
pany could make glass that is difficult to
scratch and break but also bendy, it could

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Potential
products
are subject
to every
kind of
abuse
engineers
can think
of and
quantify.

Top: Workers pour the contents of


a crucible of melted glass onto a
metal table.

Bottom: A worker uses scissors


to shape the glass into a puck
for scientists to study. The glass
quickly stiffens and begins to
change color as it cools.

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New glass that passes


muster is tested in a
miniature version of the
company’s manufacturing
line. Glass for displays
and cell phones is made in
meters-wide sheets; this
process makes test glass
a few centimeters wide.

open up entirely new product categories:


cell phones and tablets that fold or roll, for
example. Thin, flexible glass might also
turn curvy surfaces such as car interiors
into touch-screen displays.
The research melter team prepares
about eight to 12 experimental pours a
day, providing samples for company sci-
entists. The scientists want to know what
will happen if they try something new,
such as melting glass at a different tem-
perature. The team also tests different
manufacturing methods to see how they
affect glass properties.
Potential new products are subject to
every kind of abuse Corning engineers
can think of and quantify. One machine
repeatedly bends a thin piece of glass
to see how long it will hold up; another
machine bends glass in two until it shat-
ters with an eardrum-shocking pop. Spe-
cialists in fractography—the science of
how and why materials like glass frac-
ture—use custom machines to measure
the pressure required to fracture glass.
With microscopes, researchers study the
mechanical messages in the resulting
crack pattern. Glass that’s stronger will
fracture with a large number of cracks;
weaker glass cracks in only a few places.
Materials that pass the test might next
be made into cell-phone dummies and
repeatedly dropped from waist height
onto cement, gravel, and other surfaces.

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1 2

1-2 Corning also develops new


processes for handling glass,
which can help device makers
make custom pieces for new
models of electronics. This
ultrathin glass spiral was cut with
a new laser machining process.

3-4 This machine bends a piece of


flexible glass to determine how
much stress it can take before
it breaks. Researchers can then
study the pattern of the fracture
to learn how to make the glass
more resilient.

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Under a polarizing lens,


colored stripes indicate
mechanical strain inside
a puck of experimental
glass. The iridescence in
this sample suggests that
it will break easily and that
researchers should alter
the processing conditions.

“It’s hot as hell,


the glass gets
stiff very quickly, Most of the company’s research is on
new manufacturing processes and gradual

and you can only


improvements of existing products like
Gorilla Glass. But scientists also get to
play around. One of Ellison’s recent proj-
ects, for example, was to try to re-create

work with it for a


the glass used to make the fourth-century
Roman Lycurgus Cup. The goblet is cran-
berry red when lit from behind and jade
green when lit from the front.

few minutes.”
Ellison giddily shows off a sample of
his Lycurgus-inspired glass, holding it up
to a window to demonstrate the effect.
“Now I know in detail why it does this,” he
says. Since he doesn’t know what use such
glass might have today or in the future,
though, the recipe will go onto the shelf
for a future employee to find.

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40 Years Ago

Electronic Money Is Too Easy


In 1977, a writer worried that people might lose control if cash went away and
transactions went digital.

“The era of Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) is undoubtedly on its way. Auto-
mated clearing houses have been set up to transfer payments from bank to
bank via computer; pay-by-phone services are springing up; and electronic
terminals are appearing in banks and stores to check credit and dispense cash.
The possibility that electronic cash might zip through the consumer’s fin-
gers faster than hard money worries Gordon B. Thompson of Bell Northern
Research. Mr. Thompson wondered whether the combined impact of respon-
sive cable TV and electronic money might tempt the shopper into impulsive
video-shopping. ‘The hard sell one sees on television could be directly coupled
to a purchasing act,’ said Mr. Thompson. ‘By just inserting a credit card in the
appropriate slot and pressing a button, the latest kitchen gizmo is on its way to
the viewer’s home, and his bank account will have been automatically adjusted.’
Electronic gambling could also be possible with the combined responsive
cable TV/EFT systems, said Mr. Thompson. There could be ten-second lotter-
ies, with painless payments made by simply slipping a credit card into the slot.
[These systems could] bilk every compulsive gambler in the entire country.
EFT could make it possible to issue paychecks on a daily basis, and to pay
bills on a daily basis ... It could be possible to control payments precisely for
maximum benefits, for example, paying one’s taxes precisely at 11:59 on April
15 of each year. Unfortunately, according to Robert H. Long and Wayne B.
Lewin of the Bank Administration Institute, the government would prob-
ably already have gone to daily payment of taxes by then.
Other effects are not so obvious, said the two researchers. Because com-
puters are more impersonal than human-centered systems, there might be
an increase in ‘beat the system’ types of crimes. The challenge of the game of
ripping off the computer may be just too much. ‘The person who today tries to
beat the house in Las Vegas ... might find the challenge of beating the electronic
value transfer system too good to pass up. After all, who is hurt?’ they asked.
Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the concentration of data in EFT sys-
tems will tempt greater government control of the economy, for huge amounts
of economic data will be readily available, tempting policymakers to act upon
it. And the power of EFT records may also tempt government to gather infor-
mation on the habits and finances of the public, perhaps endangering privacy.”

Excerpted from “Doubts About Electronic Money,” from the February 1977 issue of
Technology Review.

MIT Technology Review (ISSN 1099-274X), March/April 2017 Issue, Reg. U.S. Patent Office, is published bimonthly by MIT Technology Review, 1 Main St. Suite 13, Cambridge, MA 02142-1517. Entire contents ©2017. The editors seek
diverse views, and authors’ opinions do not represent the official policies of their institutions or those of MIT. Periodicals postage paid at Boston, MA, and additional mailing offices. Postmaster: send address changes to MIT Technol-
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