MIT Technology Review : We reveal our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2021
For the last 20 years, MIT Technology Review has compiled an annual selection of the year’s most important technologies. Today, we unveil this year’s list. Some, such as mRNA vaccines, are already changing our lives, while others are still a few years off. As always, three things are true of our list. It is eclectic; some of the innovations on it are clearly making an impact now, while some have yet to do so; and many of them have the potential to do harm as well as good. Whether or not they come to represent progress 20 years from now depends on how they’re used—and, of course, on how we’re defining progress by then. Taken together, we believe this list represents a glimpse into our collective future.
Here are our 10 breakthrough technologies of 2021:
Messenger RNA vaccines. The two most effective vaccines against the coronavirus are based on messenger RNA, a technology that has been in the works for 20 years and could transform medicine, leading to vaccines against various infectious diseases, including malaria.
GPT-3. Large natural-language computer models that learn to write and speak are a big step toward AI that can better understand and interact with the world. GPT-3 is by far the largest—and most literate—to date.
TikTok recommendation algorithms. These algorithms have changed the way people become famous online. The ability of new creators to get a lot of views very quickly—and the ease with which users can discover so many kinds of content—have contributed to the app’s stunning growth.
Lithium-metal batteries. Electric vehicles are expensive, and you can only drive them a few hundred miles before they need to recharge. Lithium-metal batteries, as opposed to the existing lithium-ion, could boost the range of an EV by 80%.
Data trusts. A data trust is a legal entity that collects and manages people’s personal data on their behalf. They could offer a potential solution to long-standing problems in privacy and security.
Green hydrogen. Hydrogen has always been an intriguing possible replacement for fossil fuels, but up to now it’s been made from natural gas; the process is dirty and energy intensive. The rapidly dropping cost of solar and wind power means green hydrogen is now cheap enough to be practical.
Digital contact tracing. Although it hasn’t lived up to the hype in this pandemic, especially in the US, digital contact tracing could not only help us prepare for the next pandemic but also carry over to other areas of healthcare.
Hyper-accurate positioning. While GPS is accurate to within 5 to 10 meters, new hyper-accurate positioning technologies have accuracies within a few millimeters. That could be transformative for delivery robots and self-driving cars.
Remote everything. The pandemic forced the world to go remote. The knock-on effects for work, play, healthcare and much else besides are huge.
Multi-skilled AI. AI currently lacks the ability, found even in young children, to learn how the world works and apply that general knowledge to new situations. That’s changing.
Read more about each of these technologies, and read the latest issue of MIT Technology Review, all about progress. Not a subscriber? Now’s your chance! Prices range from just $50 to $100 a year for you to get access to fantastic, award-winning journalism about what’s now and what’s next in technology.