For the past 22 years, we’ve been publishing an annual list of the 10 biggest breakthrough technologies. In 2018, we defined a breakthrough as “a technology, or perhaps even a collection of technologies, that will have a profound effect on our lives.” That’s pretty broad! But it gets at the heart of what we try to identify: transformative, world-changing technologies.
I love digging through our back catalogue and perusing the lists from previous years because you can see that change happening. The lists are fascinating snapshots of the evolution of big tech breakthroughs. They document the progress we have made in many of the core areas at the intersection of science and engineering—energy, AI, biotech, quantum computing, and climate tech, to name a few.
But they are also snapshots of the times we live in. Last year I wrote that I would be pleased if we did not need to include anything covid-19-related on this year’s list. In the previous two years mRNA vaccines, digital contact tracing, covid treatments, and variant tracking had made the list—all grim reminders of the severity of the pandemic. But it was precisely this progression of technologies that helped us, finally, begin to beat covid-19 back to the point where we can live with some sense of normalcy again.
While we don’t have a covid-related technology on the list this year, there are other reminders of the monumental challenges we face. There is the ongoing war in Ukraine. Abortion access has been limited in many states and banned in several others. We continue to face headwinds as we try to make progress against climate change.
Some of the items on the list—such as the widening availability of military drones—aren’t exactly good news. One of the more interesting discussions we had putting this year’s list together was about whether or not we should include technologies that are designed, literally, to kill people. But ultimately, inclusion is not an endorsement as much as it is a statement about the potential impact of a technology.
There are also real reasons for optimism related to other things we see happening. We’re making progress in helping humans live longer, healthier lives with tools such as CRISPR and the potential to produce organs on demand. We’re also getting better at recycling batteries and making EVs truly practical alternatives to gas-powered cars.
Finally, some of my favorite things on the list this year are the ones that just inspire a sense of awe and wonder at the scope of human achievement. The James Webb Space Telescope, for example, was a no-brainer to include. So was image-generating AI—which in the coming years will have implications for all sorts of applications beyond just creating art. And while the ability to analyze ancient DNA has the potential to unlock many new scientific discoveries, it’s also just pretty cool. Neanderthal DNA!
I hope you enjoy this issue. And in the coming weeks, we will have even more for you to check out at technologyreview.com—including a poll where you can vote on what you think the 11th breakthrough technology should be.
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Thank you for reading,