Technology Trends to Watch in 2023
The start of a new year is often a time to contemplate the future and what might lie ahead on the horizon. This week, the magazine MIT Technology Review unveiled its annual list of 10 technologies to watch—innovations that it thinks are on the verge of rapid adoption or causing significant cultural changes, or already in the process of creating such a shift. This year’s list includes items from the amazing astronomy enabled by JWST, to the ‘inevitable’ electric vehicle, as well as technologies that are further down the road, such as the ability to grow replacement organs to order.
Amy Nordrum, an executive editor at MIT Technology Review, joins Ira to talk about some of the innovations and the difficulties of narrowing a universe of possibilities into a list of 10 key technologies to watch. They also discuss some technologies highlighted in the past that went on to make a big difference—cloud computing, anyone?—as well as some projects the magazine highlighted in the past that did not turn out to be as significant as once thought.
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Amy Nordrum is an executive editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.
IRA FLATOW: The start of a new year often means a time to think about the future, right? Well, this week the magazine Technology Review unveiled their annual list of 10 technologies to watch, which covers things from the amazing astronomy coming from JWST to advances in computer chip design.
Joining me now to talk about some of their picks is Amy Nordrum, executive editor at Technology Review. Welcome back to Science Friday, Amy. Happy New Year.
AMY NORDRUM: Thank you, Ira. Happy New Year. It’s great to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. You have 10 technologies on this list. How do you choose them from all the possibilities, right?
AMY NORDRUM: It’s a pretty tough process, I’ll be honest. But we basically have everybody on our team, all the reporters and editors who are following technology developments day in and day out, nominate technologies either from their area of coverage or things that they just think are really poised to have a breakthrough moment. We had over 50 nominees this year. And we talk it all over and we debate and discuss them. And then we get it down to 10 that we feel are truly the most important technologies to watch right now.
IRA FLATOW: Do you get it into really good arguments, heated arguments, about what to include?
AMY NORDRUM: Oh, yeah. There’s lots of lively debate and discussion. I mean, getting three people to agree on anything is tough. We’ve got a mixture of almost 30, and there’s plenty of disagreement and debate. But I think that process really helps us sharpen our own ideas so that we feel good in the end about the list that we come up with and feel like it’s a representation of technology and where it’s headed.
IRA FLATOW: And how do you choose the time frame? I mean, five years, 10 years, what distance are you looking forward?
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s different for each technology. But what we look for are technologies that are really at an important moment. That could be defined in a couple of different ways. It could mean there’s a major scientific discovery that’s now going to make a certain technology possible that wasn’t possible before. Or it could mean a technology is finally getting tested in the real world, in a pilot facility or in a new treatment for someone. Or maybe it’s just like some technical system that has successfully scaled up and is now commercially viable and about to be adopted in a big way.
So we really try to identify things that are at this critical moment. Some of the technologies on our list have already had that breakthrough moment recently, and then others we think are really poised to have it in the next couple of years.
IRA FLATOW: OK. So let’s get through some of those technologies. One is CRISPR for high cholesterol. Tell me about that.
AMY NORDRUM: Sure. So CRISPR, the gene editing tool that we’ve all heard of, has been around for a while– about a decade now. And there’s a number of rare genetic conditions that it’s being developed to treat. But most of us don’t have one of those conditions. Now we’re starting to see CRISPR enter trials for conditions that are much more common. And the one that we put on the list this year was CRISPR for high cholesterol.
Lots of people have high cholesterol. It can lead to heart disease. And a woman in New Zealand recently became the first person to receive a CRISPR-based treatment in a trial that could potentially lower her cholesterol for the rest of her life. And that treatment uses a new kind of CRISPR. It’s called base editing– what some people call CRISPR 2.0. And it’s able to not just cut DNA and turn off specific genes, but it can actually swap base pairs. So it can switch like an A to a C or a T to a G.
And there’s CRISPR treatments being developed for other common conditions, too. And that’s definitely a space to watch over the next couple of years.
IRA FLATOW: Put me on the list for that cholesterol one, OK.
AMY NORDRUM: A lot of people would sign up for that I think.
IRA FLATOW: We’ve all seen more and more electric vehicles on the road and in dealers lots. But you’re calling this the inevitable EV. What does that mean?
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah. I mean, EVs have been around for a while, obviously. But we feel this year they really finally have reached an important inflection point. So that’s why we’re calling it the inevitable EV. Because we finally feel confident saying it’s more likely than not that moving forward these vehicles are going to be the default option for millions of people who are looking to purchase new cars. And that’s for a couple of different reasons.
There’s a lot of major automakers, including GM, that have already said they’re going to convert their entire production lines to all-electric vehicles. These auto companies are no longer going to make vehicles with combustion engines. And there’s been also some important policy changes and some new public investments in this space. Like California has the new rule that says, starting in 2035, all new sales of gas-powered vehicles are prohibited. It’s only electric cars from that point forward.
And the Inflation Reduction Act also had a big tax credit– a couple of tax credits– that will help move electric vehicles forward. So all together, we feel like these factors are really accelerating the development and adoption of EVs in a big way that hasn’t been true over the past decade or so.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Another thing on your list that ties in to EVs is battery recycling. You see that as a technology to watch. What do you mean by battery recycling– from the cars?
AMY NORDRUM: Exactly. And other things as well. I mean, with all these millions of more EVs on the roads, we’re going to need a lot more batteries. But not just for EVs. There’s lots of other reasons that we need them too. Batteries can help us store clean energy on the grid for later use. And they can help convert all kinds of other stuff that’s currently running on fossil fuels to run on clean energy.
But the problem is they’re really dirty to produce still. They have a lot of rare and valuable chemicals in them. And if we’re really going to scale up and start to use millions more all over the place, we have to start finding practical ways to recycle them.
So one of our reporters, Casey Crownhart, visited a plant run by a company called Redwood Materials, in Nevada, where this is starting to be done. It’s still in the early stages, but they do have a pilot facility there that’s developed a process that lets them recycle batteries of all sorts. And she’s written a story that’ll be out next week about the challenges and the potential of that process.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, an important technology. Speaking about important technologies, you write about organs on demand. We can demand organs, and they’ll make them for us?
AMY NORDRUM: Maybe so. Hopefully in the future that’ll be the case. This is one of my personal favorites on the list. What we’re calling organs on demand here really describes a few different scientific efforts by different groups, different companies, and entrepreneurs to generate organs that could be transplanted into people who need them. So we’re talking hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers– those are some of the most common organs that people need.
So scientists are working on a couple of ways to make that possible, including growing them in animals. Last year, there was a man who had surgery at the University of Maryland to receive a part grown in a pig that had been gene edited to make the pig’s organs more compatible with a human body. And he lived for a couple of months with that pig heart beating inside of him.
There’s other methods. There’s a person right here in Boston where I am who had severe liver disease and received an injection of liver cells into their lymph nodes from a donor. And the scientists who led that trial, from a company called LyGenesis, are hoping that that will help that person generate what’s called an organoid, which is basically a new miniature liver right inside their own body. And that’s the first time that approach has been tested out in a human as well.
So there’s these different efforts underway. And some are being tested out in humans for the first time. So it’s still early days. But if that works, it could really change medicine.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Speaking of things that could change, last month, we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the invention of the transistor. Which, as you know, is the basis for all computer chips. Are we going to be seeing new computer chip design in the future?
AMY NORDRUM: Absolutely. That’s another item on our list. We actually have recognized what’s called RISC-V. This is an open standard for computer chip design. And what it is is– I mean, you’ve probably heard of open source software, anybody can use it for free.
IRA FLATOW: Right.
AMY NORDRUM: This is that same kind of thing for computer chips. And it’s important because that industry has long, really, required anybody who wants to make a chip to license a design from one of the big companies. But RISC-V, this open standard, allows anybody to use it for free to design a very simple chip that can do whatever they need.
And it has been around for a while, but in the last year it’s really started to get some traction. And it’s got some support from Intel, which is actually one of the companies that has long licensed its own chips. So that whole ecosystem is changing in a really significant and interesting way.
IRA FLATOW: Good to hear. Because I’m going to head now into my basement and try to get in on that open source designing of computer chips. We’ll see how well that works out.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, you could use it. I could use it. Anybody can use it to make a chip and not have to pay those fees. So yeah, go for it, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: Well, the only chips are making our potatoes. So I don’t think is going to work. Are there themes or trends that we’re seeing emerge across a few of these technologies, something in common?
AMY NORDRUM: Well, we really do try to identify technologies that are tackling big problems. So we want to have technologies on the list that are not just going to help a niche or specialized area or field, but are actually going to be meaningful to many of us. So that’s where you see these biotech technologies that could affect millions of people. That’s where you see the climate change technologies.
And I think there’s also a few technologies on the list– like you mentioned the Webb Telescope– that really kind of get at just the sense of wonder and are going to help us hopefully answer questions just fundamental to who we are and where we came from and like what else is out there. And so I think that that’s also another big theme of a couple of items on the list this year.
IRA FLATOW: I mentioned at the top the frank exchange of views you all had in choosing what to include. Are there big things that did not make the list of 10?
AMY NORDRUM: Oh, sure. Yes. I’ll tell you one I nominated that didn’t make the list. So I nominated next generation space stations. This was my term.
IRA FLATOW: Oh, I like that.
AMY NORDRUM: Well, thank you. I thought it was pretty good. But it was getting to this idea that the International Space Station is going to close in 2030. And NASA’s not going to build another one. It’s going to rent space on a private space station. And there’s plans in the works from a couple of teams right now to develop one of those. And then China has its own space station now. And Russia has said it’s going to launch one too.
So I was thinking maybe we roll all that up and feature it on the list. But through the discussion and debate, these plans are still pretty preliminary and it’s not really clear yet what the new space stations will help us do. Like, what new science might emerge from those or what instruments might be on them. So collectively, at the end of the day, we felt like it was best to wait on that one.
IRA FLATOW: I’m trying to figure out– you’ve been doing this for about 20 years. You’ve been making these lists. And you must track winners and losers. Any big winners or big losers in your predictions?
AMY NORDRUM: Yes, we don’t always get it right. That is absolutely true. We have certainly been successful at anticipating more than a few big technologies that have come down the road. So in 2010, we picked cloud programming. In 2011, we had cloud streaming. And the growth of cloud computing has just taken off since then, and we’re all using it every single day for all kinds of things at work, in our free time, to stream movies, stream TV shows. So I think it’s fair to say we got that one right.
But there’s definitely some that we got wrong. So in 2013, we had Baxter, the robot, on the list. I don’t know if you remember Baxter, but–
IRA FLATOW: Baxter, the robot.
AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, it’s a cute name for a robot. I will say that. So this was a manufacturing robot. It was meant to sit on a manufacturing line, working side by side with humans. It had these robotic arms that you could program to do all kinds of things. And the technology was really slick. It seemed like it worked pretty well. It was designed by a famous roboticist. But it just didn’t really find its commercial niche. It didn’t end up being adopted in a big way. So the company that made it shut down five years after we named Baxter, the robot, to our list.
And we also had Project Loon on the list. That’s one of the Alphabet projects to deliver the internet by balloon. And that project was grounded a couple of years later, as well.
IRA FLATOW: Loon by balloon. I get it. I get it now, Amy. Thank you, Amy. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Ira. So good to be here.
IRA FLATOW: Great picks. Amy Nordrum, executive editor at Technology Review.
As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.