2015 was a big year for tech. We made a lot of discoveries and reached a lot of major milestones — but 2016 is poised to be even crazier. In a lot of ways, 2015 laid the groundwork for much bigger things, so instead of looking back and recapping humanity’s technological achievements, lets take a look forward and examine the technologies that will have the biggest impact on 2016.
Gene editing ala CRISPR-Cas9
Every so often, a tool comes along that completely changes how scientists do their work. CRISPR-Cas9 is one of those tools. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s basically a new technique that allows scientists to make specific changes to specific genes in living cells. Such a thing was possible in the past, but the methods were slow and cumbersome, so they weren’t widely adopted, and therefore didn’t have much of an impact on the world.
CRISPR-Cas9 is completely different. It’s fast, easy, and is already impacting the world we live in. In the three short years that it’s been around, the technique has enabled scientists to do amazing things: reverse mutations that cause blindness, stop cancer cells from multiplying, and even make cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Biologists have used CRISPR to render wheat invulnerable to killer fungi, and engineer crops that can withstand droughts. The crazy part is that all of this stuff happened within the last couple years. We’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with this technique, so you should expect to see a whole lot more of it in 2016.
Pretty soon, the world is going to reach a tipping point. We’ll have too many people living on the planet, and not enough arable land to raise crops to feed all the hungry mouths. Agriculture will need to adapt in order to keep pace, and one of the most promising ways it’s doing that is by moving indoors. Indoor farms carry a number of big advantages. They don’t require the use of herbicides or pesticides; they can be built in urban areas to eliminate shipping costs; and they can even grow plants faster and more efficiently than traditional farms. In 2015, for example, Philips built an experimental indoor farm in the Netherlands that employs a connected, customizable LED system to provide specialized lighting sequences that target each plant’s ideal growth requirements — thus boosting yields and slashing grow times. There’s actually a factory in Japan that uses a similar method to produce lettuce — and the facility can pump out over 30,000 heads per day, every single day of the year.
Perhaps the most important part is that we’ve already worked out all the kinks in the process. Unlike some of the other proposed solutions to the future of food (lab-grown meat, genetically modified crops, or even automated farming via drones), indoor farms don’t require a lot more research and development before they can come to fruition. We can start building them now.
It’s easy to take for granted here in the developed world, but there’s currently about 4 billion people on this planet who don’t have access to the Internet. That’s well over half the globe. Bringing those remaining people online will undoubtedly have an enormous impact on the world — but making that happen is easier said than done. Internet access requires infrastructure that’s difficult to build in developing countries, so it can take years to bring it to underdeveloped parts of the world. Thankfully, Google has developed a clever workaround. Instead of spending millions to install fiber optic lines underground, the search giant is bringing cheap wireless Internet to remote regions of the world via a network of high-altitude balloons.
Google has been working on this project (dubbed Project Loon) for the past few years, but it managed to get the first installations up and running in 2015, starting off in places like Sri Lanka and India. And there’s more on the way for 2016 — a lot more. Google has plans to deploy Loon networks over dozens of other locations in the next few years, and as this project brings more of the globe online, it will have a ripple affect on the rest of the globe. New markets will open up, new goods and services will find their way into the global marketplace, and the world will be more connected than ever before.
In case you missed it, 2015 was the year that we figured out how to land rockets. Aerospace companies have been trying to do this for decades, but 2015 was the year that a few of them finally managed to do it. Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team brought one back down from suborbital heights, and shortly thereafter Elon Musk and SpaceX brought one back down from near Earth orbit. This is no small accomplishment. From this moment onward, the cost of getting stuff into space will get lower and lower, which will have an enormous impact on just about every person on the planet. Cheaper access to space means more satellites, better telecommunications networks, more accurate weather prediction, and much more. In a few years time, there’s no telling what we’ll build up there — space stations, telescopes for exploration, maybe even space-based solar arrays that beam unlimited electricity back down to Earth. The sky is no longer the limit.
Artificial neural networks
Artificial neural networks are already here, but they’re poised to get even bigger, badder, and more sophisticated in the next couple years. If you’re unfamiliar, ANNs are basically simulated brains that are run on traditional computers. It’s important to note that in these simulated brains, we can give the software “neurons” basically any programming we want. We can try to set up their rules so their behavior mirrors that of a human brain, and we can also use them to solve problems in ways that nobody has ever dreamt of before.
You might not realize it, but you probably use ANNs in your day-to-day life. Google and Facebook use them to recognize objects in your photos; shipping companies use them to optimize delivery routes; and big credit card companies use them to detect fraudulent transactions. But the thing is, all of this is done behind the scenes, so we’re often not even aware of what’s happening. Moving forward, ANNs will continue to work in the background of our lives, but they’ll power much more sophisticated things — such as self-driving cars, next-generation drone delivery systems, and increasingly-intelligent virtual assistants.
Bitcoin has left an indelible mark on the modern world, but the technology it’s built on might actually end up having a bigger impact. The Blockchain, as it’s called, is a decentralized, widely distributed public database used to record Bitcoin transactions. It started off as the public ledger for a digital currency, but lately it’s begun to branch out and find applications outside of Bitcoin. Programmers are now using it to build things like distributed cloud storage solutions that are impervious to outages, self-executing contracts, and alternatives to our ridiculously complicated patent system.
In the future, the Blockchain could even be used to build a tamper-proof electronic voting system that’s immune to political corruption. And this is just the beginning. There’s already a large number of startups out there using the technology in new (and potentially game-changing) ways, and they’ll only become more abundant in 2016.
2015 was a monumental year for drones. It was arguably the year that the UAVs transitioned from a fringe hobbyist affair and became a full-fledged mainstream phenomenon. Drones are everywhere now, but for all the popularity they’ve gained of the past 12 months, the tech is still very young in the grand scheme of things. We’re really just beginning to scratch the surface of what’s possible with autonomous UAVs.
In 2016, drones will become practically ubiquitous. Filmmaking, surveillance, land management, agriculture, and package delivery are all being impacted by them. The FAA is expected to roll out formal regulations for commercial drone use sometime in 2016, and as soon as that happens, it’ll be off to the races. A number of different companies (including Amazon) are already developing drone-based delivery solutions, so shortly after the government lays down some rules, the shipping industry will likely experience a major tectonic shift. Get ready; it’s just around the corner.