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As the coronavirus pandemic forces people to keep their distance, could this be robots‘ time to shine? A group of scientists think so, and they’re calling for robots to do the “dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs” of infectious disease management.
Social distancing has emerged as one of the most effective strategies for slowing the spread of COVID-19, but it’s also bringing many jobs to a standstill and severely restricting our daily lives. And unfortunately, the one group that can’t rely on its protective benefits are the medical and emergency services workers we’re relying on to save us.
Robots could be a solution, according to the editorial board of Science Robotics, by helping replace humans in a host of critical tasks, from disinfecting hospitals to collecting patient samples and automating lab tests.
According to the authors, the key areas where robots could help are clinical care, logistics, and reconnaissance, which refers to tasks like identifying the infected or making sure people comply with quarantines or social distancing requirements. Outside of the medical sphere, robots could also help keep the economy and infrastructure going by standing in for humans in factories or vital utilities like waste management or power plants.
When it comes to clinical care, robots can play important roles in disease prevention, diagnosis and screening, and patient care, the researchers say. Robots have already been widely deployed to disinfect hospitals and other public spaces either using UV light that kills bugs or by repurposing agricultural robots and drones to spray disinfectant, reducing the exposure of cleaning staff to potentially contaminated surfaces. They are also being used to carry out crucial deliveries of food and medication without exposing humans.
But they could also play an important role in tracking the disease, say the researchers. Thermal cameras combined with image recognition algorithms are already being used to detect potential cases at places like airports, but incorporating them into mobile robots or drones could greatly expand the coverage of screening programs.
A more complex challenge—but one that could significantly reduce medical workers’ exposure to the virus—would be to design robots that could automate the collection of nasal swabs used to test for COVID-19. Similarly automated blood collection for tests could be of significant help, and researchers are already investigating using ultrasound to help robots locate veins to draw blood from.
Convincing people it’s safe to let a robot stick a swab up their nose or jab a needle in their arm might be a hard sell right now, but a potentially more realistic scenario would be to get robots to carry out laboratory tests on collected samples to reduce exposure to lab technicians. Commercial laboratory automation systems already exist, so this might be a more achievable near-term goal.
Not all solutions need to be automated, though. While autonomous systems will be helpful for reducing the workload of stretched health workers, remote systems can still provide useful distancing. Remote control robotics systems are already becoming increasingly common in the delicate business of surgery, so it would be entirely feasible to create remote systems to carry out more prosaic medical tasks.
Such systems would make it possible for experts to contribute remotely in many different places without having to travel. And robotic systems could combine medical tasks like patient monitoring with equally important social interaction for people who may have been shut off from human contact.
In a teleconference last week Guang-Zhong Yang, a medical roboticist from Carnegie Mellon University and founding editor of Science Robotics, highlighted the importance of including both doctors and patients in the design of these robots to ensure they are safe and effective, but also to make sure people trust them to observe social protocols and not invade their privacy.
But Yang also stressed the importance of putting the pieces in place to enable the rapid development and deployment of solutions. During the 2015 Ebola outbreak, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation organized workshops to identify where robotics could help deal with epidemics.
But once the threat receded, attention shifted elsewhere, and by the time the next pandemic came around little progress had been made on potential solutions. The result is that it’s unclear how much help robots will really be able to provide to the COVID-19 response.
That means it’s crucial to invest in a sustained research effort into this field, say the paper’s authors, with more funding and multidisciplinary research partnerships between government agencies and industry so that next time around we will be prepared.
“These events are rare and then it’s just that people start to direct their efforts to other applications,” said Yang. “So I think this time we really need to nail it, because without a sustained approach to this history will repeat itself and robots won’t be ready.”
Image Credit: ABB’s YuMi collaborative robot. Image courtesy of ABB Continue reading →
The Messy, Secretive Reality Behind OpenAI’s Bid to Save the World
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The AI moonshot was founded in the spirit of transparency. This is the inside story of how competitive pressure eroded that idealism. …Yet OpenAI is still a bastion of talent and cutting-edge research, filled with people who are sincerely striving to work for the benefit of humanity. In other words, it still has the most important elements, and there’s still time for it to change.”
3D Printed Four-Legged Robot Is Ready to Take on Spot—at a Lower Price
Luke Dormehl | Digital Trends
“[Ghost Robotics and Origin] have teamed up to develop a new line of robots, called the Spirit Series, which offer impressively capable four-legged robots, but which can be printed using additive manufacturing at a fraction of the cost and speed of traditional manufacturing approaches.”
The Studs on This Punk Bracelet Are Actually Microphone-Jamming Ultrasonic Speakers
Andrew Liszewski | Gizmodo
“You can prevent facial recognition cameras from identifying you by wearing face paint, masks, or sometimes just a pair of oversized sunglasses. Keeping conversations private from an ever-growing number of microphone-equipped devices isn’t quite as easy, but researchers have created what could be the first wearable that actually helps increase your privacy.”
Iron Man Dreams Are Closer to Becoming a Reality Thanks to This New Jetman Dubai Video
Julia Alexander | The Verge
“Tony Stark may have destroyed his Iron Man suits in Iron Man 3 (only to bring out a whole new line in Avengers: Age of Ultron), but Jetman Dubai’s Iron Man-like dreams of autonomous human flight are realer than ever. A new video published by the company shows pilot Vince Reffet using a jet-powered, carbon-fiber suit to launch off the ground and fly 6,000 feet in the air.”
Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet
Richard Cooke | Wired
“More than an encyclopedia, Wikipedia has become a community, a library, a constitution, an experiment, a political manifesto—the closest thing there is to an online public square. It is one of the few remaining places that retains the faintly utopian glow of the early World Wide Web.”
The Very Large Array Will Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Life
Georgina Torbet | Digital Trends
“To begin the project, an interface will be added to the NRAO’s Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico to search for events or structures which could indicate the presence of life, such as laser beams, structures built around stars, indications of constructed satellites, or atmospheric chemicals produced by industry.”
The Terrible Truth About Star Trek’s Transporters
Cassidy Ward | SyFy Wire
“The fact that you are scanned, deconstructed, and rebuilt almost immediately thereafter only creates the illusion of continuity. In reality, you are killed and then something exactly like you is born, elsewhere. There’s a whole philosophical debate about whether this really matters. If the person constructed on the other end is identical to you, down to the atomic level, is there any measurable difference from it being actually you?”
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Roads criss-cross the landscape, but while they provide vital transport links, in many ways they represent a huge amount of wasted space. Advances in “smart road” technology could change that, creating roads that can harvest energy from cars, detect speeding, automatically weigh vehicles, and even communicate with smart cars.
“Smart city” projects are popping up in countries across the world thanks to advances in wireless communication, cloud computing, data analytics, remote sensing, and artificial intelligence. Transportation is a crucial element of most of these plans, but while much of the focus is on public transport solutions, smart roads are increasingly being seen as a crucial feature of these programs.
New technology is making it possible to tackle a host of issues including traffic congestion, accidents, and pollution, say the authors of a paper in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A. And they’ve outlined ten of the most promising advances under development or in planning stages that could feature on tomorrow’s roads.
A variety of energy harvesting technologies integrated into roads have been proposed as ways to power street lights and traffic signals or provide a boost to the grid. Photovoltaic panels could be built into the road surface to capture sunlight, or piezoelectric materials installed beneath the asphalt could generate current when deformed by vehicles passing overhead.
Countries like Japan, Denmark, the Netherlands, Taiwan, and South Korea have built roads that play music as cars pass by. By varying the spacing of rumble strips, it’s possible to produce a series of different notes as vehicles drive over them. The aim is generally to warn of hazards or help drivers keep to the speed limit.
Weight-in-motion technology that measures vehicles’ loads as they drive slowly through a designated lane has been around since the 1970s, but more recently high speed weight-in-motion tech has made it possible to measure vehicles as they travel at regular highway speeds. The latest advance has been integration with automatic licence plate reading and wireless communication to allow continuous remote monitoring both to enforce weight restrictions and monitor wear on roads.
The growing popularity of electric vehicles has spurred the development of technology to charge cars and buses as they drive. The most promising of these approaches is magnetic induction, which involves burying cables beneath the road to generate electromagnetic fields that a receiver device in the car then transforms into electrical power to charge batteries.
Smart traffic signs
Traffic signs aren’t always as visible as they should be, and it can often be hard to remember what all of them mean. So there are now proposals for “smart signs” that wirelessly beam a sign’s content to oncoming cars fitted with receivers, which can then alert the driver verbally or on the car’s display. The approach isn’t affected by poor weather and lighting, can be reprogrammed easily, and could do away with the need for complex sign recognition technology in future self-driving cars.
Traffic violation detection and notification
Sensors and cameras can be combined with these same smart signs to detect and automatically notify drivers of traffic violations. The automatic transmission of traffic signals means drivers won’t be able to deny they’ve seen the warnings or been notified of any fines, as a record will be stored on their car’s black box.
Car-to-car communication technology and V2X, which lets cars share information with any other connected device, are becoming increasingly common. Inter-car communication can be used to propagate accidents or traffic jam alerts to prevent congestion, while letting vehicles communicate with infrastructure can help signals dynamically manage timers to keep traffic flowing or automatically collect tolls.
Combing sensors and cameras with object recognition systems that can detect vehicles and other road users can help increase safety and efficiency at intersections. It can be used to extend green lights for slower road users like pedestrians and cyclists, sense jaywalkers, give priority to emergency vehicles, and dynamically adjust light timers to optimize traffic flow. Information can even be broadcast to oncoming vehicles to highlight blind spots and potential hazards.
Automatic crash detection
There’s a “golden hour” after an accident in which the chance of saving lives is greatly increased. Vehicle communication technology can ensure that notification of a crash reaches the emergency services rapidly, and can also provide vital information about the number and type of vehicles involved, which can help emergency response planning. It can also be used to alert other drivers to slow down or stop to prevent further accidents.
Smart street lights
Street lights are increasingly being embedded with sensors, wireless connectivity, and micro-controllers to enable a variety of smart functions. These include motion activation to save energy, providing wireless access points, air quality monitoring, or parking and litter monitoring. This can also be used to send automatic maintenance requests if a light is faulty, and can even allow neighboring lights to be automatically brightened to compensate.
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As you know if you’ve ever been to, heard of, or read about the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, there’s no shortage of tech in any form: gadgets, gizmos, and concepts abound. You probably couldn’t see them all in a month even if you spent all day every day trying.
Given the sheer scale of the show, the number of exhibitors, and the inherent subjectivity of bestowing superlatives, it’s hard to pick out the coolest tech from CES. But I’m going to do it anyway; in no particular order, here are some of the products and concepts that I personally found most intriguing at this year’s event.
e-Novia’s Haptic Gloves
Italian startup e-Novia’s Weart glove uses a ‘sensing core’ to record tactile sensations and an ‘actuation core’ to reproduce those sensations onto the wearer’s skin. Haptic gloves will bring touch to VR and AR experiences, making them that much more life-like. The tech could also be applied to digitization of materials and in gaming and entertainment.
e-Novia’s modular haptic glove
I expected a full glove, but in fact there were two rings that attached to my fingers. Weart co-founder Giovanni Spagnoletti explained that they’re taking a modular approach, so as to better tailor the technology to different experiences. He then walked me through a virtual reality experience that was a sort of simulated science experiment: I had to lift a glass beaker, place it on a stove, pour in an ingredient, open a safe to access some dry ice, add that, and so on. As I went through the steps, I felt the beaker heat up and cool off at the expected times, and felt the liquid moving inside, as well as the pressure of my fingertips against the numbered buttons on the safe.
A virtual (but tactile) science experiment
There was a slight delay between my taking an action and feeling the corresponding tactile sensation, but on the whole, the haptic glove definitely made the experience more realistic—and more fun. Slightly less fun but definitely more significant, Spagnoletti told me Weart is working with a medical group to bring tactile sensations to VR training for surgeons.
Sarcos Robotics’ Exoskeleton
That tire may as well be a feather
Sarcos Robotics unveiled its Guardian XO full-body exoskeleton, which it says can safely lift up to 200 pounds across an extended work session. What’s cool about this particular exoskeleton is that it’s not just a prototype; the company announced a partnership with Delta airlines, which will be trialing the technology for aircraft maintenance, engine repair, and luggage handling. In a demo, I watched a petite female volunteer strap into the exoskeleton and easily lift a 50-pound weight with one hand, and a Sarcos employee lift and attach a heavy component of a propeller; she explained that the strength-augmenting function of the exoskeleton can easily be switched on or off—and the wearer’s hands released—to facilitate multi-step tasks.
Hyundai’s Flying Taxi
Hyundai and Uber partnered to unveil an air taxi concept. With a 49-foot wingspan, 4 lift rotors, and 4 tilt rotors, the aircraft would be manned by a pilot and could carry 4 passengers at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. The companies say you’ll be able to ride across your city in one of these by 2030—we’ll see if the regulatory environment, public opinion, and other factors outside of technological capability let that happen.
Mercedes’ Avatar Concept Car
Welcome to the future
As evident from its name, Mercedes’ sweet new Vision AVTR concept car was inspired by the movie Avatar; director James Cameron helped design it. The all-electric car has no steering wheel, transparent doors, seats made of vegan leather, and 33 reptilian-scale-like flaps on the back; its design is meant to connect the driver with both the car and the surrounding environment in a natural, seamless way.
Offered the chance to ‘drive’ the car, I jumped on it. Placing my hand on the center console started the engine, and within seconds it had synced to my heartbeat, which reverberated through the car. The whole dashboard, from driver door to passenger door, is one big LED display. It showed a virtual landscape I could select by holding up my hand: as I moved my hand from left to right, different images were projected onto my open palm. Closing my hand on an image selected it, and suddenly it looked like I was in the middle of a lush green mountain range. Applying slight forward pressure on the center console made the car advance in the virtual landscape; it was essentially like playing a really cool video game.
Mercedes is aiming to have a carbon-neutral production fleet by 2039, and to reduce the amount of energy it uses during production by 40 percent by 2030. It’s unclear when—or whether—the man-machine-nature connecting features of the Vision AVTR will start showing up in production, but I for one will be on the lookout.
Waverly Labs’ In-Ear Translator
Waverly Labs unveiled its Ambassador translator earlier this year and has it on display at the show. It’s worn on the ear and uses a far-field microphone array with speech recognition to translate real-time conversations in 20 different languages. Besides in-ear audio, translations can also appear as text on an app or be broadcast live in a conference environment.
It’s kind of like a giant talking earring
I stopped by the booth and tested out the translator with Waverly senior software engineer Georgiy Konovalov. We each hooked on an earpiece, and first, he spoke to me in Russian. After a delay of a couple seconds, I heard his words in—slightly robotic, but fully comprehensible—English. Then we switched: I spoke to him in Spanish, my words popped up on his phone screen in Cyrillic, and he translated them back to English for me out loud.
On the whole, the demo was pretty cool. If you’ve ever been lost in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak, imagine how handy a gadget like this would come in. Let’s just hope that once they’re more widespread, these products don’t end up discouraging people from learning languages.
Not to be outdone, Google also announced updates to its Translate product, which is being deployed at information desks in JFK airport’s international terminal, in sports stadiums in Qatar, and by some large hotel chains.
Stratuscent’s Digital Nose
AI is making steady progress towards achieving human-like vision and hearing—but there’s been less work done on mimicking our sense of smell (maybe because it’s less useful in everyday applications). Stratuscent’s digital nose, which it says is based on NASA patents, uses chemical receptors and AI to identify both simple chemicals and complex scents. The company is aiming to create the world’s first comprehensive database of everyday scents, which it says it will use to make “intelligent decisions” for customers. What kind of decisions remains to be seen—and smelled.
Banner Image Credit: The Mercedes Vision AVTR concept car. Photo by Vanessa Bates Ramirez Continue reading →
For most of history, technology was about atoms, the manipulation of physical stuff to extend humankind’s reach. But in the last five or six decades, atoms have partnered with bits, the elemental “particles” of the digital world as we know it today. As computing has advanced at the accelerating pace described by Moore’s Law, technological progress has become increasingly digitized.
SpaceX lands and reuses rockets and self-driving cars do away with drivers thanks to automation, sensors, and software. Businesses find and hire talent from anywhere in the world, and for better and worse, a notable fraction of the world learns and socializes online. From the sequencing of DNA to artificial intelligence and from 3D printing to robotics, more and more new technologies are moving at a digital pace and quickly emerging to reshape the world around us.
In 2019, stories charting the advances of some of these digital technologies consistently made headlines. Below is, what is at best, an incomplete list of some of the big stories that caught our eye this year. With so much happening, it’s likely we’ve missed some notable headlines and advances—as well as some of your personal favorites. In either instance, share your thoughts and candidates for the biggest stories and breakthroughs on Facebook and Twitter.
With that said, let’s dive straight into the year.
No technology garnered as much attention as AI in 2019. With good reason. Intelligent computer systems are transitioning from research labs to everyday life. Healthcare, weather forecasting, business process automation, traffic congestion—you name it, and machine learning algorithms are likely beginning to work on it. Yet, AI has also been hyped up and overmarketed, and the latest round of AI technology, deep learning, is likely only one piece of the AI puzzle.
This year, Open AI’s game-playing algorithms beat some of the world’s best Dota 2 players, DeepMind notched impressive wins in Starcraft, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Libratus “crushed” pros at six-player Texas Hold‘em.
Speaking of games, AI’s mastery of the incredibly complex game of Go prompted a former world champion to quit, stating that AI ‘”cannot be defeated.”
But it isn’t just fun and games. Practical, powerful applications that make the best of AI’s pattern recognition abilities are on the way. Insilico Medicine, for example, used machine learning to help discover and design a new drug in just 46 days, and DeepMind is focused on using AI to crack protein folding.
Of course, AI can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to deepfakes and fake news, for example, AI makes both easier to create and detect, and early in the year, OpenAI created and announced a powerful AI text generator but delayed releasing it for fear of malicious use.
Recognizing AI’s power for good and ill, the OECD, EU, World Economic Forum, and China all took a stab at defining an ethical framework for the development and deployment of AI.
Processors and chips kickstarted the digital boom and are still the bedrock of continued growth. While progress in traditional silicon-based chips continues, it’s slowing and getting more expensive. Some say we’re reaching the end of Moore’s Law. While that may be the case for traditional chips, specialized chips and entirely new kinds of computing are waiting in the wings.
In fall 2019, Google confirmed its quantum computer had achieved “quantum supremacy,” a term that means a quantum computer can perform a calculation a normal computer cannot. IBM pushed back on the claim, and it should be noted the calculation was highly specialized. But while it’s still early days, there does appear to be some real progress (and more to come).
Should quantum computing become truly practical, “the implications are staggering.” It could impact machine learning, medicine, chemistry, and materials science, just to name a few areas.
Specialized chips continue to take aim at machine learning—a giant new chip with over a trillion transistors, for example, may make machine learning algorithms significantly more efficient.
Cellular computers also saw advances in 2019 thanks to CRISPR. And the year witnessed the emergence of the first reprogrammable DNA computer and new chips inspired by the brain.
The development of hardware computing platforms is intrinsically linked to software. 2019 saw a continued move from big technology companies towards open sourcing (at least parts of) their software, potentially democratizing the use of advanced systems.
Increasing interconnectedness has, in many ways, defined the 21st century so far. Your phone is no longer just a phone. It’s access to the world’s population and accumulated knowledge—and it fits in your pocket. Pretty neat. This is all thanks to networks, which had some notable advances in 2019.
The biggest network development of the year may well be the arrival of the first 5G networks.
5G’s faster speeds promise advances across many emerging technologies.
Self-driving vehicles, for example, may become both smarter and safer thanks to 5G C-V2X networks. (Don’t worry with trying to remember that. If they catch on, they’ll hopefully get a better name.)
Wi-Fi may have heard the news and said “hold my beer,” as 2019 saw the introduction of Wi-Fi 6. Perhaps the most important upgrade, among others, is that Wi-Fi 6 ensures that the ever-growing number of network connected devices get higher data rates.
Networks also went to space in 2019, as SpaceX began launching its Starlink constellation of broadband satellites. In typical fashion, Elon Musk showed off the network’s ability to bounce data around the world by sending a Tweet.
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality
Forget Pokemon Go (unless you want to add me as a friend in the game—in which case don’t forget Pokemon Go). 2019 saw AR and VR advance, even as Magic Leap, the most hyped of the lot, struggled to live up to outsized expectations and sell headsets.
Mixed reality AR and VR technologies, along with the explosive growth of sensor-based data about the world around us, is creating a one-to-one “Mirror World” of our physical reality—a digital world you can overlay on our own or dive into immersively thanks to AR and VR.
Facebook launched Replica, for example, which is a photorealistic virtual twin of the real world that, among other things, will help train AIs to better navigate their physical surroundings.
Our other senses (beyond eyes) may also become part of the Mirror World through the use of peripherals like a newly developed synthetic skin that aim to bring a sense of touch to VR.
AR and VR equipment is also becoming cheaper—with more producers entering the space—and more user-friendly. Instead of a wired headset requiring an expensive gaming PC, the new Oculus Quest is a wireless, self-contained step toward the mainstream.
Niche uses also continue to gain traction, from Google Glass’s Enterprise edition to the growth of AR and VR in professional education—including on-the-job-training and roleplaying emotionally difficult work encounters, like firing an employee.
Digital Biology and Biotech
The digitization of biology is happening at an incredible rate. With wild new research coming to light every year and just about every tech giant pouring money into new solutions and startups, we’re likely to see amazing advances in 2020 added to those we saw in 2019.
None were, perhaps, more visible than the success of protein-rich, plant-based substitutes for various meats. This was the year Beyond Meat was the top IPO on the NASDAQ stock exchange and people stood in line for the plant-based Impossible Whopper and KFC’s Beyond Chicken.
In the healthcare space, a report about three people with HIV who became virus free thanks to a bone marrow transplants of stem cells caused a huge stir. The research is still in relatively early stages, and isn’t suitable for most people, but it does provides a glimmer of hope.
CRISPR technology, which almost deserves its own section, progressed by leaps and bounds. One tweak made CRISPR up to 50 times more accurate, while the latest new CRISPR-based system, CRISPR prime, was described as a “word processor” for gene editing.
Many areas of healthcare stand to gain from CRISPR. For instance, cancer treatment, were a first safety test showed ‘promising’ results.
CRISPR’s many potential uses, however, also include some weird/morally questionable areas, which was exemplified by one the year’s stranger CRISPR-related stories about a human-monkey hybrid embryo in China.
Incidentally, China could be poised to take the lead on CRISPR thanks to massive investments and research programs.
As a consequence of quick advances in gene editing, we are approaching a point where we will be able to design our own biology—but first we need to have a serious conversation as a society about the ethics of gene editing and what lines should be drawn.
3D printing has quietly been growing both market size and the objects the printers are capable of producing. While both are impressive, perhaps the biggest story of 2019 is their increased speed.
One example was a boat that was printed in just three days, which also set three new world records for 3D printing.
3D printing is also spreading in the construction industry. In Mexico, the technology is being used to construct 50 new homes with subsidized mortgages of just $20/month.
3D printers also took care of all parts of a 640 square-meter home in Dubai.
Generally speaking, the use of 3D printing to make parts for everything from rocket engines (even entire rockets) to trains to cars illustrates the sturdiness of the technology, anno 2019.
In healthcare, 3D printing is also advancing the cause of bio-printed organs and, in one example, was used to print vascularized parts of a human heart.
Living in Japan, I get to see Pepper, Aibo, and other robots on pretty much a daily basis. The novelty of that experience is spreading to other countries, and robots are becoming a more visible addition to both our professional and private lives.
We can’t talk about robots and 2019 without mentioning Boston Dynamics’ Spot robot, which went on sale for the general public.
Meanwhile, Google, Boston Dynamics’ former owner, rebooted their robotics division with a more down-to-earth focus on everyday uses they hope to commercialize.
SoftBank’s Pepper robot is working as a concierge and receptionist in various countries. It is also being used as a home companion. Not satisfied, Pepper rounded off 2019 by heading to the gym—to coach runners.
Indeed, there’s a growing list of sports where robots perform as well—or better—than humans.
2019 also saw robots launch an assault on the kitchen, including the likes of Samsung’s robot chef, and invade the front yard, with iRobot’s Terra robotic lawnmower.
In the borderlands of robotics, full-body robotic exoskeletons got a bit more practical, as the (by all accounts) user-friendly, battery-powered Sarcos Robotics Guardian XO went commercial.
Self-driving cars did not—if you will forgive the play on words—stay quite on track during 2019. The fallout from Uber’s 2018 fatal crash marred part of the year, while some big players ratcheted back expectations on a quick shift to the driverless future. Still, self-driving cars, trucks, and other autonomous systems did make progress this year.
Winner of my unofficial award for best name in self-driving goes to Optimus Ride. The company also illustrates that self-driving may not be about creating a one-size-fits-all solution but catering to specific markets.
Self-driving trucks had a good year, with tests across many countries and states. One of the year’s odder stories was a self-driving truck traversing the US with a delivery of butter.
A step above the competition may be the future slogan (or perhaps not) of Boeing’s self-piloted air taxi that saw its maiden test flight in 2019. It joins a growing list of companies looking to create autonomous, flying passenger vehicles.
2019 was also the year where companies seemed to go all in on last-mile autonomous vehicles. Who wins that particular competition could well emerge during 2020.
Blockchain and Digital Currencies
Bitcoin continues to be the cryptocurrency equivalent of a rollercoaster, but the underlying blockchain technology is progressing more steadily. Together, they may turn parts of our financial systems cashless and digital—though how and when remains a slightly open question.
One indication of this was Facebook’s hugely controversial announcement of Libra, its proposed cryptocurrency. The company faced immediate pushback and saw a host of partners jump ship. Still, it brought the tech into mainstream conversations as never before and is putting the pressure on governments and central banks to explore their own digital currencies.
Deloitte’s in-depth survey of the state of blockchain highlighted how the technology has moved from fintech into just about any industry you can think of.
One of the biggest issues facing the spread of many digital currencies—Bitcoin in particular, you could argue—is how much energy it consumes to mine them. 2019 saw the emergence of several new digital currencies with a much smaller energy footprint.
2019 was also a year where we saw a new kind of digital currency, stablecoins, rise to prominence. As the name indicates, stablecoins are a group of digital currencies whose price fluctuations are more stable than the likes of Bitcoin.
In a geopolitical sense, 2019 was a year of China playing catch-up. Having initially banned blockchain, the country turned 180 degrees and announced that it was “quite close” to releasing a digital currency and a wave of blockchain-programs.
Renewable Energy and Energy Storage
While not every government on the planet seems to be a fan of renewable energy, it keeps on outperforming fossil fuel after fossil fuel in places well suited to it—even without support from some of said governments.
One of the reasons for renewable energy’s continued growth is that energy efficiency levels keep on improving.
As a result, an increased number of coal plants are being forced to close due to an inability to compete, and the UK went coal-free for a record two weeks.
We are also seeing more and more financial institutions refusing to fund fossil fuel projects. One such example is the European Investment Bank.
Renewable energy’s advance is tied at the hip to the rise of energy storage, which also had a breakout 2019, in part thanks to investments from the likes of Bill Gates.
The size and capabilities of energy storage also grew in 2019. The best illustration came from Australia were Tesla’s mega-battery proved that energy storage has reached a stage where it can prop up entire energy grids.
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