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10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019, curated by Bill Gates

https://www.technologyreview.com/lists/technologies/2019/

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I was honored when MIT Technology Review invited me to be the first guest curator of its 10 Breakthrough Technologies. Narrowing down the list was difficult. I wanted to choose things that not only will create headlines in 2019 but captured this moment in technological history—which got me thinking about how innovation has evolved over time.

My mind went to—of all things—the plow. Plows are an excellent embodiment of the history of innovation. Humans have been using them since 4000 BCE, when Mesopotamian farmers aerated soil with sharpened sticks. We’ve been slowly tinkering with and improving them ever since, and today’s plows are technological marvels. 

This story is part of our March/April 2019 Issue

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Read Bill Gates’s introduction

But what exactly is the purpose of a plow?

As well as his introductory essay, read Bill Gates’s conversation with editor in chief Gideon Lichfield. Below are his picks for the 10 Breakthrough Technologies.

Robot dexterity

Nicolas Ortega

Robot dexterity
  • Why it matters

    If robots could learn to deal with the messiness of the real world, they could do many more tasks.

  • Key Players

    OpenAI
    Carnegie Mellon University
    University of Michigan
    UC Berkeley

  • Availability

    3-5 years

Robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world.

For all the talk about machines taking jobs, industrial robots are still clumsy and inflexible. A robot can repeatedly pick up a component on an assembly line with amazing precision and without ever getting bored—but move the object half an inch, or replace it with something slightly different, and the machine will fumble ineptly or paw at thin air.

But while a robot can’t yet be programmed to figure out how to grasp any object just by looking at it, as people do, it can now learn to manipulate the object on its own through virtual trial and error.

One such project is Dactyl, a robot that taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Dactyl, which comes from the San Francisco nonprofit OpenAI, consists of an off-the-shelf robot hand surrounded by an array of lights and cameras. Using what’s known as reinforcement learning, neural-network software learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. The software experiments, randomly at first, strengthening connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal.

It usually isn’t possible to transfer that type of virtual practice to the real world, because things like friction or the varied properties of different materials are so difficult to simulate. The OpenAI team got around this by adding randomness to the virtual training, giving the robot a proxy for the messiness of reality.

We’ll need further breakthroughs for robots to master the advanced dexterity needed in a real warehouse or factory. But if researchers can reliably employ this kind of learning, robots might eventually assemble our gadgets, load our dishwashers, and even help Grandma out of bed. —Will Knight

New-wave nuclear power

Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center/MIT

Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality. 

New nuclear designs that have gained momentum in the past year are promising to make this power source safer and cheaper. Among them are generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach. Developers of generation IV fission designs, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, have entered into R&D partnerships with utilities, aiming for grid supply (somewhat optimistically, maybe) by the 2020s.

Small modular reactors typically produce in the tens of megawatts of power (for comparison, a traditional nuclear reactor produces around 1,000 MW). Companies like Oregon’s NuScale say the miniaturized reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.

There has even been progress on fusion. Though no one expects delivery before 2030, companies like General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout, are making some headway. Many consider fusion a pipe dream, but because the reactors can’t melt down and don’t create long-lived, high-level waste, it should face much less public resistance than conventional nuclear. (Bill Gates is an investor in TerraPower and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.) —Leigh Phillips

Predicting preemies

Nenov | Getty

Predicting preemies
  • Why it matters

    15 million babies are born prematurely every year; it’s the leading cause of death for children under age five

  • Key player

    Akna Dx

  • Availability

    A test could be offered in doctor’s offices within five years

A simple blood test can predict if a pregnant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely.

Our genetic material lives mostly inside our cells. But small amounts of “cell-free” DNA and RNA also float in our blood, often released by dying cells. In pregnant women, that cell-free material is an alphabet soup of nucleic acids from the fetus, the placenta, and the mother.

Stephen Quake, a bioengineer at Stanford, has found a way to use that to tackle one of medicine’s most intractable problems: the roughly one in 10 babies born prematurely.

Free-floating DNA and RNA can yield information that previously required invasive ways of grabbing cells, such as taking a biopsy of a tumor or puncturing a pregnant woman’s belly to perform an amniocentesis. What’s changed is that it’s now easier to detect and sequence the small amounts of cell-free genetic material in the blood. In the last few years researchers have begun developing blood tests for cancer (by spotting the telltale DNA from tumor cells) and for prenatal screening of conditions like Down syndrome.

The tests for these conditions rely on looking for genetic mutations in the DNA. RNA, on the other hand, is the molecule that regulates gene expression—how much of a protein is produced from a gene. By sequencing the free-floating RNA in the mother’s blood, Quake can spot fluctuations in the expression of seven genes that he singles out as associated with preterm birth. That lets him identify women likely to deliver too early. Once alerted, doctors can take measures to stave off an early birth and give the child a better chance of survival.

The technology behind the blood test, Quake says, is quick, easy, and less than $10 a measurement. He and his collaborators have launched a startup, Akna Dx, to commercialize it. —Bonnie Rochman

Gut probe in a pill

Bruce Peterson

Gut probe in a pill
  • Why it matters

    The device makes it easier to screen for and study gut diseases, including one that keeps millions of children in poor countries from growing properly

  • Key player

    Massachusetts General Hospital

  • Availability

    Now used in adults; testing in infants begins in 2019

A small, swallowable device captures detailed images of the gut without anesthesia, even in infants and children. 

Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) may be one of the costliest diseases you’ve never heard of. Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height. No one knows exactly what causes EED and how it could be prevented or treated.

Practical screening to detect it would help medical workers know when to intervene and how. Therapies are already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying illnesses in the guts of such young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat. It’s expensive, uncomfortable, and not practical in areas of the world where EED is prevalent.

So Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small devices that can be used to inspect the gut for signs of EED and even obtain tissue biopsies. Unlike endoscopes, they are simple to use at a primary care visit.

Tearney’s swallowable capsules contain miniature microscopes. They’re attached to a flexible string-like tether that provides power and light while sending images to a briefcase-like console with a monitor. This lets the health-care worker pause the capsule at points of interest and pull it out when finished, allowing it to be sterilized and reused. (Though it sounds gag-­inducing, Tearney’s team has developed a technique that they say doesn’t cause discomfort.) It can also carry technologies that image the entire surface of the digestive tract at the resolution of a single cell or capture three-dimensional cross sections a couple of millimeters deep.

The technology has several applications; at MGH it’s being used to screen for Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. For EED, Tearney’s team has developed an even smaller version for use in infants who can’t swallow a pill. It’s been tested on adolescents in Pakistan, where EED is prevalent, and infant testing is planned for 2019.

The little probe will help researchers answer questions about EED’s development—such as which cells it affects and whether bacteria are involved—and evaluate interventions and potential treatments. —Courtney Humphries

Custom cancer vaccines

Paper Boat Creative | Getty

Custom Cancer Vaccines
  • Why it matters

    Conventional chemotherapies take a heavy toll on healthy cells and aren’t always effective against tumors

  • Key players

    BioNTech
    Genentech

  • Availability

    In human testing

The treatment incites the body’s natural defenses to destroy only cancer cells by identifying mutations unique to each tumor

Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. If it works as hoped, the vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers.

By using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapies, limits damage to healthy cells. The attacking immune cells could also be vigilant in spotting any stray cancer cells after the initial treatment.

The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008, five years after the Human Genome Project was completed, when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumor cell.

Soon after, investigators began to compare the DNA of tumor cells with that of healthy cells—and other tumor cells. These studies confirmed that all cancer cells contain hundreds if not thousands of specific mutations, most of which are unique to each tumor.

A few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided compelling evidence that a vaccine containing copies of these mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T cells primed to seek out, attack, and destroy all cancer cells harboring them.

In December 2017, BioNTech began a large test of the vaccine in cancer patients, in collaboration with the biotech giant Genentech. The ongoing trial is targeting at least 10 solid cancers and aims to enroll upwards of 560 patients at sites around the globe.

The two companies are designing new manufacturing techniques to produce thousands of personally customized vaccines cheaply and quickly. That will be tricky because creating the vaccine involves performing a biopsy on the patient’s tumor, sequencing and analyzing its DNA, and rushing that information to the production site. Once produced, the vaccine needs to be promptly delivered to the hospital; delays could be deadly. —Adam Piore

The cow-free burger

Bruce Peterson/Styling: Monica Mariano

The cow-free burger
  • Why it matters

    Livestock production causes catastrophic deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions

  • Key players

    Beyond Meat
    Impossible Foods

  • Availability

    Plant-based now; lab-grown around 2020

Both lab-grown and plant-based alternatives approximate the taste and nutritional value of real meat without the environmental devastation.

The UN expects the world to have 9.8 billion people by 2050. And those people are getting richer. Neither trend bodes well for climate change—especially because as people escape poverty, they tend to eat more meat.

By that date, according to the predictions, humans will consume 70% more meat than they did in 2005. And it turns out that raising animals for human consumption is among the worst things we do to the environment.

Depending on the animal, producing a pound of meat protein with Western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, and 6 to 20 times more fossil fuels than producing a pound of plant protein.

The problem is that people aren’t likely to stop eating meat anytime soon. Which means lab-grown and plant-based alternatives might be the best way to limit the destruction.

Making lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors. The end product looks much like what you’d get from an animal, although researchers are still working on the taste. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who are working to produce lab-grown meat at scale, believe they’ll have a lab-grown burger available by next year. One drawback of lab-grown meat is that the environmental benefits are still sketchy at best—a recent World Economic Forum report says the emissions from lab-grown meat would be only around 7% less than emissions from beef production.

The better environmental case can be made for plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor in both companies), which use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, and plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.

Beyond Meat has a new 26,000-square-foot (2,400-square-meter) plant in California and has already sold upwards of 25 million burgers from 30,000 stores and restaurants. According to an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a Beyond Meat patty would probably generate 90% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than a conventional burger made from a cow. —Markkus Rovito

Nico Ortega

Carbon dioxide catcher
  • Why it matters

    Removing CO2 from the atmosphere might be one of the last viable ways to stop catastrophic climate change

  • Key players

    Carbon Engineering
    Climeworks
    Global Thermostat

  • Availability

    5-10 years

Carbon dioxide catcher

Practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air can soak up excess greenhouse-gas emissions.

Even if we slow carbon dioxide emissions, the warming effect of the greenhouse gas can persist for thousands of years. To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.

In a surprise finding last summer, Harvard climate scientist David Keith calculated that machines could, in theory, pull this off for less than $100 a ton, through an approach known as direct air capture. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than earlier estimates that led many scientists to dismiss the technology as far too expensive—though it will still take years for costs to fall to anywhere near that level.

But once you capture the carbon, you still need to figure out what to do with it.

Carbon Engineering, the Canadian startup Keith cofounded in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to ramp up production of its synthetic fuels, using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient. (Bill Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.)

Zurich-based Climeworks’s direct air capture plant in Italy will produce methane from captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen, while a second plant in Switzerland will sell carbon dioxide to the soft-drinks industry. So will Global Thermostat of New York, which finished constructing its first commercial plant in Alabama last year.

Still, if it’s used in synthetic fuels or sodas, the carbon dioxide will mostly end up back in the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to lock greenhouse gases away forever. Some could be nested within products like carbon fiber, polymers, or concrete, but far more will simply need to be buried underground, a costly job that no business model seems likely to support.

In fact, pulling CO2 out of the air is, from an engineering perspective, one of the most difficult and expensive ways of dealing with climate change. But given how slowly we’re reducing emissions, there are no good options left. —James Temple

Bruce Peterson

An ECG on your wrist

Regulatory approval and technological advances are making it easier for people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.

Fitness trackers aren’t serious medical devices. An intense workout or loose band can mess with the sensors that read your pulse. But an electrocardiogram—the kind doctors use to diagnose abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack— requires a visit to a clinic, and people often fail to take the test in time.

ECG-enabled smart watches, made possible by new regulations and innovations in hardware and software, offer the convenience of a wearable device with something closer to the precision of a medical one.

An Apple Watch–compatible band from Silicon Valley startup AliveCor that can detect atrial fibrillation, a frequent cause of blood clots and stroke, received clearance from the FDA in 2017. Last year, Apple released its own FDA-cleared ECG feature, embedded in the watch itself.

The health-device company Withings also announced plans for an ECG-equipped watch shortly after.
Current wearables still employ only a single sensor, whereas a real ECG has 12. And no wearable can yet detect a heart attack as it’s happening.

But this might change soon. Last fall, AliveCor presented preliminary results to the American Heart Association on an app and two-­sensor system that can detect a certain type of heart attack. —Karen Hao

TheDman | Getty

Sanitation without sewers
  • Why it matters

    2.3 billion people lack safe sanitation, and many die as a result

  • Key players

    Duke University
    University of South Florida
    Biomass Controls
    California Institute of Technology

  • Availability

    1-2 years

Sanitation without sewers

Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.

About 2.3 billion people don’t have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. Diarrhea causes one in nine child deaths worldwide.

Now researchers are working to build a new kind of toilet that’s cheap enough for the developing world and can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well.

In 2011 Bill Gates created what was essentially the X Prize in this area—the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Since the contest’s launch, several teams have put prototypes in the field. All process the waste locally, so there’s no need for large amounts of water to carry it to a distant treatment plant.

Most of the prototypes are self-contained and don’t need sewers, but they look like traditional toilets housed in small buildings or storage containers. The NEWgenerator toilet, designed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants with an anaerobic membrane, which has pores smaller than bacteria and viruses. Another project, from Connecticut-based Biomass Controls, is a refinery the size of a shipping container; it heats the waste to produce a carbon-rich material that can, among other things, fertilize soil.

One drawback is that the toilets don’t work at every scale. The Biomass Controls product, for example, is designed primarily for tens of thousands of users per day, which makes it less well suited for smaller villages. Another system, developed at Duke University, is meant to be used only by a few nearby homes.

So the challenge now is to make these toilets cheaper and more adaptable to communities of different sizes. “It’s great to build one or two units,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, who led the NEWgenerator team. “But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.” —Erin Winick

Bruce Peterson

Smooth-talking AI assistants
  • Why it matters

    AI assistants can now perform conversation-based tasks like booking a restaurant reservation or coordinating a package drop-off rather than just obey simple commands

  • Key players

    Google
    Alibaba
    Amazon

  • Availability

    1-2 years

Smooth-talking AI assistants

New techniques that capture semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.

We’re used to AI assistants—Alexa playing music in the living room, Siri setting alarms on your phone—but they haven’t really lived up to their alleged smarts. They were supposed to have simplified our lives, but they’ve barely made a dent. They recognize only a narrow range of directives and are easily tripped up by deviations.

But some recent advances are about to expand your digital assistant’s repertoire. In June 2018, researchers at OpenAI developed a technique that trains an AI on unlabeled text to avoid the expense and time of categorizing and tagging all the data manually. A few months later, a team at Google unveiled a system called BERT that learned how to predict missing words by studying millions of sentences. In a multiple-choice test, it did as well as humans at filling in gaps.

These improvements, coupled with better speech synthesis, are letting us move from giving AI assistants simple commands to having conversations with them. They’ll be able to deal with daily minutiae like taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online.

Some are already here. Google Duplex, the eerily human-like upgrade of Google Assistant, can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. It can also make calls for you to schedule restaurant reservations or salon appointments.

In China, consumers are getting used to Alibaba’s AliMe, which coordinates package deliveries over the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.

But while AI programs have gotten better at figuring out what you want, they still can’t understand a sentence. Lines are scripted or generated statistically, reflecting how hard it is to imbue machines with true language understanding. Once we cross that hurdle, we’ll see yet another evolution, perhaps from logistics coordinator to babysitter, teacher—or even friend? —Karen Hao

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Technology

How Google took on China—and lost

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612601/how-google-took-on-china-and-lost/

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Google’s first foray into Chinese markets was a short-lived experiment. Google China’s search engine was launched in 2006 and abruptly pulled from mainland China in 2010 amid a major hack of the company and disputes over censorship of search results. But in August 2018, the investigative journalism website The Intercept reported that the company was working on a secret prototype of a new, censored Chinese search engine, called Project Dragonfly. Amid a furor from human rights activists and some Google employees, US Vice President Mike Pence called on the company to kill Dragonfly, saying it would “strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers.” In mid-December, The Intercept reported that Google had suspended its development efforts in response to complaints from the company’s own privacy team, who learned about the project from the investigative website’s reporting.

Observers talk as if the decision about whether to reenter the world’s largest market is up to Google: will it compromise its principles and censor search the way China wants? This misses the point—this time the Chinese government will make the decisions.

Google and China have been locked in an awkward tango for over a decade, constantly grappling over who leads and who follows. Charting that dance over the years reveals major shifts in China’s relationship with Google and all of Silicon Valley. To understand whether China will let Google back in, we must understand how Google and China got here, what incentives each party faces—and how artificial intelligence might have both of them dancing to a new tune.  

The right thing to do?

When www.google.cn launched in 2006, the company had gone public only two years before. The iPhone did not yet exist, nor did any Android-based smartphones. Google was about one-fifth as large and valuable as it is today, and the Chinese internet was seen as a backwater of knockoff products that were devoid of innovation. Google’s Chinese search engine represented the most controversial experiment to date in internet diplomacy. To get into China, the young company that had defined itself by the motto “Don’t be evil” agreed to censor the search results shown to Chinese users.

Central to that decision by Google leadership was a bet that by serving the market—even with a censored product—they could broaden the horizons of Chinese users and nudge the Chinese internet toward greater openness.

At first, Google appeared to be succeeding in that mission. When Chinese users searched for censored content on google.cn, they saw a notice that some results had been removed. That public acknowledgment of internet censorship was a first among Chinese search engines, and it wasn’t popular with regulators.

“The Chinese government hated it,” says Kaiser Kuo, former head of international communications for Baidu. “They compared it to coming to my house for dinner and saying, ‘I will agree to eat the food, but I don’t like it.’” Google hadn’t asked the government for permission before implementing the notice but wasn’t ordered to remove it. The company’s global prestige and technical expertise gave it leverage. China might be a promising market, but it was still dependent on Silicon Valley for talent, funding, and knowledge. Google wanted to be in China, the thinking went, but China needed Google.

Google’s censorship disclaimer was a modest victory for transparency. Baidu and other search engines in China soon followed suit. Over the next four years, Google China fought skirmishes on multiple fronts: with the Chinese government over content restrictions, with local competitor Baidu over the quality of search results, and with its own corporate leadership in Mountain View, California, over the freedom to adapt global products for local needs. By late 2009, Google controlled more than a third of the Chinese search market—a respectable share but well below Baidu’s 58%, according to data from Analysys International.

In the end, though, it wasn’t censorship or competition that drove Google out of China. It was a far-­reaching hacking attack known as Operation Aurora that targeted everything from Google’s intellectual property to the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The attack, which Google said came from within China, pushed company leadership over the edge. On January 12, 2010, Google announced, “We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”

The sudden reversal blindsided Chinese officials. Most Chinese internet users could go about their online lives with few reminders of government controls, but the Google announcement shoved cyberattacks and censorship into the spotlight. The world’s top internet company and the government of the most populous country were now engaged in a public showdown.

“[Chinese officials] were really on their back foot, and it looked like they might cave and make some kind of accommodation,” says Kuo. “All of these people who apparently did not give much of a damn about internet censorship before were really angry about it. The whole internet was abuzz with this.”

But officials refused to cede ground. “China welcomes international Internet businesses developing services in China according to the law,” a foreign ministry spokeswoman told Reuters at the time. Government control of information was—and remains—central to Chinese Communist Party doctrine. Six months earlier, following riots in Xinjiang, the government had blocked Facebook, Twitter, and Google’s YouTube in one fell swoop, fortifying the “Great Firewall.” The government was making a bet: China and its technology sector did not need Google search to succeed.

Google soon abandoned google.cn, retreating to a Hong Kong–based search engine. In response, the Chinese government decided not to fully block services like Gmail and Google Maps, and for a while it allowed sporadic access from the mainland to the Hong Kong search engine too. The two sides settled into a tense stalemate.

Google’s leaders seemed prepared to wait it out. “I personally believe that you cannot build a modern knowledge society with that kind of [censorship],” Google chairman Eric Schmidt told Foreign Policy in 2012. “In a long enough time period, do I think that this kind of regime approach will end? I think absolutely.”

Role reversal

But instead of languishing under censorship, the Chinese internet sector boomed. Between 2010 and 2015, there was an explosion of new products and companies. Xiaomi, a hardware maker now worth over $40 billion, was founded in April 2010. A month earlier Meituan, a Groupon clone that turned into a juggernaut of online-to-offline services, was born; it went public in September 2018 and is now worth about $35 billion. Didi, the ride-­hailing company that drove Uber out of China and is now challenging it in international markets, was founded in 2012. Chinese engineers and entrepreneurs returning from Silicon Valley, including many former Googlers, were crucial to this dynamism, bringing world-class technical and entrepreneurial chops to markets insulated from their former employers in the US. Older companies like Baidu and Alibaba also grew quickly during these years.

The Chinese government played contradictory roles in this process. It cracked down on political speech in 2013, imprisoning critics and instituting new laws against “spreading rumors” online—a one-two punch that largely suffocated political discussion on China’s once-raucous social-media sites. Yet it also launched a high-profile campaign promoting “mass entrepreneurship and mass innovation.” Government-funded startup incubators spread across the country, as did government-backed venture capital.

That confluence of forces brought results. Services like Meituan flourished. So did Tencent’s super-app WeChat, a “digital Swiss Army knife” that combines aspects of WhatsApp, PayPal, and dozens of other apps from the West. E-commerce behemoth Alibaba went public on the New York Stock Exchange in September 2014, selling $25 billion worth of shares—still the most valuable IPO in history.

Amidst this home-grown success, the Chinese government decided to break the uneasy truce with Google. In mid-2014, a few months before Alibaba’s IPO, the government blocked virtually all Google services in China, including many considered essential for international business, such as Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Scholar. “It took us by surprise, as we felt Google was one of those valuable properties [that they couldn’t afford to block],” says Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous cofounder of GreatFire, an organization that tracks and circumvents Chinese internet controls.

The Chinese government had pulled off an unexpected hat trick: locking out the Silicon Valley giants, censoring political speech, and still cultivating an internet that was controllable, profitable, and innovative.

AlphaGo your own way

With the Chinese internet blossoming and the government not backing down, Google began to search for ways back into China. It tried out less politically sensitive products—an “everything but search” strategy—but with mixed success.

In 2015, rumors swirled that Google was close to bringing its Google Play app store back to China, pending Chinese government approval—but the promised app store never materialized. This was followed by a partnership with Mobvoi, a Chinese smart-watch maker founded by an ex-Google employee, to make voice search available on Android Wear in China. Google later invested in Mobvoi, its first direct investment in China since 2010.

In March 2017, there were reports that authorities would allow Google Scholar back in. They didn’t. Reports that Google would launch a mobile-app store in China together with NetEase, a Chinese company, similarly came to naught, though Google was permitted to relaunch its smartphone translation app.

Then, in May 2017, a showdown between AlphaGo, the Go-playing program built by Google sibling company DeepMind, and Ke Jie, the world’s number one human player, was allowed to take place in Wuzhen, a tourist town outside Shanghai. AlphaGo won all three games in the match—a result that the government had perhaps foreseen. Live-streaming of the match within China was forbidden, and not only in the form of video: as the Guardian put it, “outlets were banned from covering the match live in any way, including text commentary, social media, or push notifications.” DeepMind broadcast the match outside China.

During this same period, Chinese censors quietly rolled back some of the openings that Google’s earlier China operations had catalyzed. In 2016, Chinese search engines began removing the censorship disclaimers that Google had pioneered. In 2017, the government launched a new crackdown on virtual private networks (VPNs), software widely used for circumventing censorship. Meanwhile, Chinese authorities began rolling out extensive AI-powered surveillance technologies across the country, constructing what some called a “21st-century police state” in the western region of Xinjiang, home to the country’s Muslim Uighurs.

Despite the retrograde climate, Google capped off 2017 with a major announcement: the launch of a new AI research center in Beijing. Google Cloud’s Chinese-born chief scientist, Fei-Fei Li, would oversee the new center. “The science of AI has no borders,” she wrote in the announcement of the center’s launch. “Neither do its benefits.” (Li left Google in September 2018 and returned to Stanford University, where she is a professor.)

If the research center was a public symbol of Google’s continued efforts to gain a foothold in China, Google was also working quietly to accommodate Chinese government restrictions. Dragonfly, the censored- search-engine prototype, which has been demonstrated for Chinese officials, blacklists key search terms; it would be operated as part of a joint venture with an unnamed Chinese partner. The documents The Intercept obtained said the app would still tell users when results had been censored.

Other aspects of the project are particularly troubling. Prototypes of the app reportedly link users’ searches to their mobile-phone number, opening the door to greater surveillance and possibly arrest if people search for banned material.

In a speech to the Dragonfly team, later leaked by The Intercept, Ben Gomes, Google’s head of search, explained Google’s aims. China, he said, is “arguably the most interesting market in the world today.” Google was not just trying to make money by doing business in China, he said, but was after something bigger. “We need to understand what is happening there in order to inspire us,” he said. “China will teach us things that we don’t know.”

In early December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a Congressional committee that “right now we have no plans to launch in China,” though he would not rule out future plans. The question is, if Google wants to come back to China, does China want to let it in?

China’s calculus

To answer that question, try thinking like an advisor to President Xi Jinping.

Bringing Google search back certainly has upsides. China’s growing number of knowledge workers need access to global news and research, and Baidu is notoriously bad at turning up relevant results from outside China. Google could serve as a valuable partner to Chinese companies looking to expand internationally, as it has demonstrated in a patent-sharing partnership with Tencent and a $550 million investment in e-commerce giant JD. Google’s reentry would also help legitimize the Communist Party’s approach to internet governance, a signal that China is an indispensable market—and an open one—as long as you “play by the rules.”

But from the Chinese government’s perspective, these potential upsides are marginal. Chinese citizens who need to access the global internet can still usually do so through VPNs (though it is getting harder). Google doesn’t need to have a business in China to help Chinese internet giants gain business abroad. And the giants of Silicon Valley have already ceased their public criticism of Chinese internet censorship, and instead extol the country’s dynamism and innovation.

By contrast, the political risks of permitting Google to return loom large to Xi and his inner circle. Hostility toward both China and Silicon Valley is high and rising in American political circles. A return to China would put Google in a political pressure cooker. What if that pressure—via antitrust action or new legislation—effectively forced the company to choose between the American and Chinese markets? Google’s sudden exit in 2010 marked a major loss of face for the Chinese government in front of its own citizens. If Chinese leaders give the green light to Project Dragonfly, they run the risk of that happening again.

A savvy advisor would be likely to think that these risks—to Xi, to the Communist Party, and to his or her own career—outweighed the modest gains to be had from allowing Google’s return. The Chinese government oversees a technology sector that is profitable, innovative, and driven largely by domestic companies—an enviable position to be in. Allowing Google back in would only diminish its leverage. Better, then, to stick with the status quo: dangle the prospect of full market access while throwing Silicon Valley companies an occasional bone by permitting peripheral services like translation.

Google’s gamble

Google does have one factor in its favor. If it first entered China during the days of desktop internet, and departed at the dawn of the mobile internet, it is now trying to reenter in the era of AI. The Chinese government places high hopes on AI as an all-purpose tool for economic activity, military power, and social governance, including surveillance. And Google and its Alphabet sibling DeepMind are the global leaders in corporate AI research.

This is probably why Google has held publicity stunts like the AlphaGo match and an AI-powered “Guess the Sketch” game on WeChat, as well as taking more substantive steps like establishing the Beijing AI lab and promoting Chinese use of TensorFlow, an artificial-intelligence software library developed by the Google Brain team. Taken together, these efforts constitute a sort of artificial-intelligence lobbying strategy designed to sway the Chinese leadership.

This pitch, however, faces problems on at least three battlegrounds: Beijing; Washington, DC; and Mountain View, California.

Chinese leaders have good reason to feel they’re already getting the best of both worlds. They can take advantage of software development tools like TensorFlow and they still have a prestigious Google research lab to train Chinese AI researchers, all without granting Google market access.

In Washington, meanwhile, American security officials are annoyed that Google is actively courting a geopolitical rival while refusing to work with the Pentagon on AI projects because its employees object to having their work used for military ends.

Those employees are the key to the third battleground. They’ve demonstrated the ability to mobilize quickly and effectively, as with the protests against US defense contracts and a walkout last November over how the company has dealt with sexual harassment. In late November more than 600 Googlers signed an open letter demanding that the company drop the Dragonfly project, writing, “We object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable.” Daunting as these challenges sound—and high as the costs of pursuing the Chinese market may be—they haven’t entirely deterred Google’s top brass. Though the development of Dragonfly appears to have, at the very least, paused, the wealth and dynamism that make China so attractive to Google also mean the decision of whether or not to do business there is no longer the company’s to make.

“I know people in Silicon Valley are really smart, and they’re really successful because they can overcome any problem they face,” says Bill Bishop, a digital-media entrepreneur with experience in both markets. “I don’t think they’ve ever faced a problem like the Chinese Communist Party.”

Matt Sheehan is a fellow at MacroPolo and worked with Kai-Fu Lee on his book AI Superpowers.

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All the reasons 2018 was a breakout year for DNA data

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612688/all-the-reasons-2018-was-a-breakout-year-for-dna-data/

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Genetic IQ tests. DNA detective work. Virtual drug trials. These were some of the surprising new uses of DNA information that emerged over the last 12 months as genetic studies became larger than ever before.

Think back to 2003. We had just decoded the first human genome, and scientists still spent their time searching for very specific gene errors that cause quite serious inherited problems, like muscular dystrophy. Now, though, we’re dealing with information on millions of genomes. And the gene hunts are not only bigger—they’re fundamentally different. They’re starting to unearth the genetic roots of common illnesses and personality traits, and they’re making genetic privacy all but impossible.

Here are the trends you need to know, from MIT Technology Review’s own coverage over the last year.

Consumers: It’s all about genetic data. Now it’s being collected on millions of people, in national efforts and commercial ones too.

Last February, we reported that 12 million people had already taken consumer DNA tests. Since that figure has been reliably doubling every year, it’s probably up to 25 million by now. In fact, DNA reports are now a mass-appeal item. During the Thanksgiving weekend, the gene test from AncestryDNA, which tells people where their ancestors are from, was among the top-selling items.

Big data: To understand the genome, scientists say, they need to study as many people as they can, all at once. In 2018, several gene hunts broke the million-person mark for the first time. These included searches for the genetic bases of insomnia and educational success. To do it, researchers tapped national biobanks and also got help from 23andMe, the popular gene test company, whose users can sign up to participate in research.

Polygenic scores: Some diseases are due to a single gene that goes wrong. But big killers like heart disease aren’t like that—instead, they’re influenced by hundreds of genetic factors. That’s why a new way of predicting risks from a person’s entire genome was the most important story of the year (see polygenic scores on our 10 Breakthrough Technologies list). The new scores can handicap a person’s odds of breast cancer, of getting through college, or even of being tall enough for the NBA. In 2019, keep an eye on gene-test companies like 23andMe and Color Genomics to see if they launch such gene predictions commercially.

Genetic IQ tests: Genes don’t affect just what we look like, but who we are. Now some scientists say these same DNA scores can offer a decent guess at how smart a kid will be later in life. The unanswered question: how we should use this information, if at all?

Testing embryos: Yes, it’s probably going to be exactly like that sci-fi movie Gattaca, the one about a world where parents pick their kids from a petri dish. Already, IVF centers run gene tests and let parents pick embryos to avoid certain serious disease risks. Now Genomic Prediction, a New Jersey company we exclusively covered in 2017, says it’s ready to begin testing embryos to grade their future educational potential. So forget CRISPR babies—designer kids are already here.

Racial bias: Here’s something that’s not so great: about 80% of the DNA ever analyzed is from white people of European ancestry. It means some new discoveries and commercial tests only work in white people and don’t apply to Africans, Asians, Latinos, or others ancestry groups whose genetic patterns differ. There are good scientific reasons to expand the gene hunt, says Stanford University geneticist Carlos D. Bustamante. We may be missing health breakthroughs by looking too narrowly.

Mimicking clinical trials: Did you know you’re part of a gigantic, random experiment? It’s true. Or at least some geneticists see you that way. And now they’ve come up with a very clever trick called Mendelian randomization that uses people’s medical information to predict which new drugs will work for them and which won’t.

Crime fighters: The more DNA data is out there, the easier it is to find out who a drop of blood or a hair follicle belongs to. That’s what the Golden State Killer learned in April, when he was caught by sleuths employing an informal collection of DNA profiles and genealogical trees. In fact, the way the math works out, genetic anonymity is kaput—sine pretty much all of us have a relative in a DNA database already. One genetic genealogist, CeCe Moore, told us that she’s identified 27 murderers and rapists since April. A very good year.

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The day I tasted climate change

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612658/the-day-i-tasted-climate-change/

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In early November, gale-force winds whipped a brush fire into an inferno that nearly consumed the town of Paradise, California, and killed at least 86 people.

By the second morning, I could smell the fire from one foot outside my door in Berkeley, some 130 miles from the flames. Within a week, my eyes and throat stung even when I was indoors.

Air quality maps warned that the soot-filled air blanketing the Bay Area had reached “very unhealthy” levels. For days, nearly everyone wore masks as they walked their dogs, rode the train, and carried out errands. Most of those thin-paper respirators were of dubious value. Stores quickly ran out of the good ones—the “N-95s” that block 95% of fine particles—and sold out of air purifiers, too.

People traded tips about where they could be found, and rushed to stores rumored to have a new supply. Others packed up and drove hours away in search of a safe place to wait it out. By the time my masks arrived by mail, I was in Ohio, having decided to move up my Thanksgiving travel to escape the smoke.

Climate change doesn’t ignite wildfires, but it’s intensifying the hot, dry summer conditions that have helped fuel some of California’s deadliest and most destructive fires in recent years.

I’ve long understood that the dangers of global warming are real and rising. I’ve seen its power firsthand in the form of receding glaciers, dried lake beds, and Sierra tree stands taken down by bark beetles.

This is the first time, though, that I smelled and tasted it in my home.

Obviously, a sore throat and a flight change are trivial compared with the lives and homes lost in the Camp Fire. But after I spent a week living under a haze of smoke, it did resonate on a deeper level that we’re really going to let this happen.

Thousands if not millions of people are going to starve, drown, burn to death, or live out lives of misery because we’ve failed to pull together in the face of the ultimate tragedy of the commons. Many more will find themselves scrambling for basic survival goods and fretting over the prospect of more fires, more ferocious hurricanes, and summer days of blistering heat.

There’s no solving climate change any longer. There’s only living with it and doing everything in our power to limit the damage.

And seeing an entire community near one of the world’s richest regions all but wiped out, while retailers failed to meet critical public needs in the aftermath, left me with a dimmer view of our ability to grapple with the far greater challenges to come.

Suffering

Some observers believe that once the world endures enough climate catastrophes, we’ll finally come to our collective senses and make some last-minute push to address the problem. But for many, that will be too late.

Carbon dioxide takes years to reach its full warming effect and persists for millennia. We may well have already emitted enough to sail past a dangerous 1.5 ˚C of warming. And at the rate we’re going, it could take hundreds of years to shift to a global energy system that doesn’t pump out far more climate pollution—every ton of which only makes the problem worse.

President Barack Obama’s top science advisor, John Holdren, once said that our options for dealing with climate change are cutting emissions, adapting (building, say, higher seawalls or city cooling centers), and suffering.

Since we’re utterly failing in the first category, far more of the job will inevitably come down to the latter two. By choosing not to deal with the root cause, we’ve opted to deal with the problem in the most expensive, shortsighted, destructive, and cruel way possible.

We could have overhauled the energy system. Instead we’ll have to overhaul almost every aspect of life: expanding emergency response, building more hospitals, fortifying our shorelines, upgrading our building materials, reengineering the way we grow and distribute food, and much more.

And even if we pay the high price to do all that, we’ll still have worse outcomes than if we had tackled the core problem in the first place. We’ve decided to forever diminish our quality of life, sense of security, and collective odds of living out happy and healthy lives. And we’ve done it not just for ourselves, but for our children and foreseeable future generations.

Uneven and unfair

The devastation from climate change will manifest in different ways in different places, in highly uneven and unfair ways: severe drought and famine across much of Africa and Australia, shrinking water supplies for the billions who rely on the glaciers of the Tibetan Plateau, and the threat of forced displacement for at least tens of millions exposed to rising sea levels in South Asia.

In California, higher temperatures, declining snowpack, and shifting precipitation patterns mean more people already live under the threat of droughts and fires.

I’ve smelled or spotted four major blazes in the last two years. This July, a close friend and her pregnant sister sped down Interstate 580, through the Altamont Pass, as flames raged on both sides. Another friend raced into Paradise to evacuate her father on the morning that the Camp Fire tore through the town. Still another sifted ashes in the remnants of homes a few days later, looking for bone fragments and other human remains as part of a local search and rescue team.

Global warming has already doubled the area scorched by forest fires during the last three decades across the American West, according to an earlier study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By midcentury, that footprint could swell again by a multiple of two to six, according to the recent US National Climate Assessment (see “Cutting emissions could prevent tens of thousands of heat deaths annually”).

Self-preservation

None of this is a defense for throwing up our hands—it’s an argument for redoubling our efforts. Even if we’re not going to “solve” climate change, we’re going to have to work feverishly to manage it, like a chronic disease. We need to learn to live with the symptoms while finding ways to keep them from getting worse.

Every additional gigaton of greenhouse gas we put into the atmosphere from this point forward only increases the economic costs, ecosystem devastation, and human suffering.

So the question is: What’s it going to take to finally bring about the public policies, accelerated innovation, and collective will needed to force rapid change?

One hopes that as climate change becomes increasingly undeniable, and its effects come to feel like real and immediate threats to our well-being, people will demand that our leaders and industries take aggressive action.

Research has found that experiencing higher temperatures and extreme weather events is correlated with greater belief in or concern about climate change. And younger people, who are staring at a much grimmer future, are considerably more likely to believe that climate change is real and action is required—even among millennial Republicans in the US.

Overwhelmed

But as I watched the death count rise from simultaneous infernos across California last month, it struck me that another possibility was just as plausible: the destruction of climate change will overwhelm society in ways that make us less likely to undertake the sacrifices necessary for a safer future.

We’re likely to face a shrinking economy, skyrocketing emergency response costs, and a staggering price tag for adaptions measures like seawalls—all while we still need to race to zero emissions as quickly as possible.

People may dig deep for certain adaptions that promise to improve their security immediately—but the perceived return on investments into cutting emissions could shrink as extreme weather becomes more common and costly. That’s because, again, carbon dioxide works on a time delay, and the problem only stops getting worse—doesn’t disappear—once we’ve reached zero emissions (unless we figure out how to suck massive amounts of it from the atmosphere as well).

As more of our money, time, and energy gets sucked up by the immediate demands of overlapping tragedies, I fear people may become less willing to invest increasingly limited resources in the long-term common good.

Put another way, one paradoxical impact of climate change is that it could make many even more reluctant to take it on.

Worse to come

When I started writing seriously about climate change a little more than five years ago, the dangers largely seemed distant and abstract. Without realizing it, most of this time I’ve carried along an assumption that we will somehow, eventually, confront the problem in a meaningful way. We don’t have a choice. So sooner or later, we’ll do the right thing. 

But after two years closely reporting and writing on clean energy technologies here, it has slowly dawned on me that, well, maybe not. While we absolutely could accomplish much of the necessary transformation with existing or emerging technologies, the sheer scale of the overhaul required and the depth of the entrenched interests may add up to insurmountable levels of inertia.

So the Camp Fire and its aftermath didn’t singlehandedly push me from optimism to pessimism. The more I’ve come to understand the true parameters of the problem, the more I’ve tilted toward the dire side of the spectrum.

But the surreal scene of high-paid workers walking through the murky yellow air of downtown San Francisco, masks inadvertently color-coordinated with their earbuds in the capital of techno-utopianism, certainly widened my frame of the possible—and felt like a taste of things to come.

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