MIT has just published a list of the ten technological innovations which should make us sit up and take notice this year. They relate to public health, manufacturing industry and new ways to harness energy.

As every year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has just published a list of the 10 breakthrough technologies which are expected to make an impact this year both on companies and on the (wo)man in the street. MIT’s ranking demonstrates how digital has gained ground in three main areas which could prove key to sustained economic growth. Firstly the health sector should benefit from a wider range of tools, e.g. to help restore long-term memory capability, to enable pre-natal DNA sequencing, or use ‘big data’ to help understand the spread of diseases. On the industrial front, MIT identifies technologies that will help make solar power generation much more efficient, make highly efficient DC power grids feasible, and take firms further along the road to automation. Last but not least, customer experience is also in the spotlight this year: a smart watch, ‘deep learning’ and a ‘temporary social media’ concept are three further breakthrough technologies set to have an impact in 2013.

Four innovative processes helping drive sustainable economic growth

MIT underlines that General Electric is on the verge of using the 3D printing process to make some jet engine parts. This ‘additive manufacturing’ approach is seen as a major breakthrough for manufacturing machine parts rapidly and seamlessly in high-tech materials. Ground-breaking technology in automation features in the shape of the Baxter robot, which works safely and intelligently alongside people on a production line, carrying out simple repetitive production tasks such as moving and assembling components. MIT’s list also includes two new technologies for the energy sector. A design being worked on at the California Institute of Technology is expected to double the efficiency of a solar cell, which would completely change the economics of renewable energy. The idea is to use a prism-like device to split sunlight into six to eight component wavelengths, each of which would then be dispersed to a cell made of a semiconductor capable of absorbing it. Instead of converting barely 20% of the energy into electricity, this approach would garner more like 50%.The second energy sector project is the brainchild of Swiss-Swedish conglomerate ABB. The engineering giant has developed a high-voltage Direct Current circuit breaker capable of disconnecting parts of a DC grid that are experiencing a problem, allowing the rest to keep working. DC grids are more efficient than the more usual AC networks at connecting far-flung sources of renewable energy (RES), and so this breakthrough would help provide RES more efficiently and help them compete better with fossil fuels.

Six breakthroughs for health or wellbeing

Among the advances made in the health sector, one of the breakthroughs on MIT’s list is an electronic implant into the brain which mimics the signal processing that properly-functioning neurons perform. Long term, Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, hopes to be able to restore the ability to create long-term memories by implanting chips like these into the brains of stroke victims or other brain-damaged patients who have lost this faculty. ‘Deep learning’, another technology in the area of the brain is also tipped to make great strides this year. The basic idea – that software can simulate the neocortex’s large array of neurons in an artificial ‘neural network’ – is decades old, but improvements in mathematical formulae and increasingly powerful computers now enable computer scientists to model many more layers of virtual neurons than ever before. With this greater depth, they are producing remarkable advances in speech and image recognition.  ‘Deep learning’ can also help perform work such as identifying molecules that could lead to new drugs by zeroing in on those molecules most likely to bind to their targets. Last but not least, MIT has highlighted two trendy technologies which are likely to enhance customer experience: smart watches, on which L’Atelier reported in a recent article, and ‘Temporary Social Networks’, the example listed being Snapchat, a photo messaging app developed by four students at Stanford University, which enables users to set a time limit on how long recipients can view their photos, after which they will be hidden from the recipient's device and deleted from the company's servers.