A new year is a great time to both reflect and look forward. In past years, I’ve written about how the cloud is reshaping industry, how interfaces are evolving and the emergence of new ecosystems. We always seem to be in the midst of some great new trend that is reshaping how we live and work.
Yet this year I can’t think of anything truly new that is having a major impact. Yes, there is a sharing economy that’s emerging, robots are taking our jobs and we seem to be in the middle of a new industrial revolution, but those things have been going on for some time. They are, essentially, the continuation of previous trends.
Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t big things underway. In fact, we’re on the cusp of some transformational changes. Namely, we are entering a new era in the fight against cancer, closing in on a major breakthrough in energy storage and open sourcing artificial intelligence. Those aren’t your typical hot trends, but represent new paradigms of enormous significance.
A New Era In The Fight Against Cancer
For the past generation, we’ve been making steady progress against cancer, improving survival rates by about 1% per year. Over time, that’s made an impact. Today, survival rates are nearly 70% and, for the most common types, such as breast and prostate cancer, survival rates can be as high as 90% and 100%, respectively.
Yet now, we seem to have hit a new gear, due to two major breakthroughs. The first is targeted cancer therapies based on genomic testing. Rather than relying on trial and error, in which a doctor cycles through primary, secondary and tertiary procedures, tumors are identified genetically and the most effective treatment can be identified much earlier in the treatment process.
That’s had a dramatic effect in not only patient survival rates, but also in reducing harmful side effects. An even more promising development is the emergence of new immunotherapies, which help our own bodies attack cancer cells. These have extended the life of even the most terminal patients. Some, who were given only months to live are now cancer free years later.
There’s still a long way to go. We need a more complete cancer map to guide targeted therapies more effectively and immunotherapies only have a success rate of around 25%, but we may very well be on the brink of significantly better outcomes. The prospect is real enough that Vice President Biden has called for a moonshot program for cancer to accelerate progress.
The Search For A Battery That Can Power The 21st Century
Renewable energy, once the bastion of treehuggers and wide-eyed dreamers, has earned some new fans. Major investment banks such as Lazard and Barclays are predicting that both wind and solar will reach grid parity by the end of the decade. Citibank released a report that described the current gas boom as merely a “bridge fuel to a low carbon future.”
Yet despite the enthusiasm, there is a yawning gap between us and our energy utopia: intermittency. Unlike fossil fuels, we can’t access renewables on demand. We need a cheap way to store energy when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. The only way to do that is through much more efficient batteries.
There has been some progress. Using existing technologies Tesla’s Powerwall has been able to achieve a $200/kWh manufacturing cost, but that’s still a far cry from the $100/kWh that the DOE expects we need to achieve to make utility scale storage economical. That’s why the agency launched the Joint Center For Energy Storage Research (JCESR) to bridge the gap.
The effort, a consortium of national laboratories, universities and private enterprises modeled on SEMATECH, which revived the US semiconductor industry, has the ambitious goal of making batteries 5 times more powerful, 5 times cheaper within 5 years. Achieving anything even close to that would be truly revolutionary.
The JCESR is about halfway through its chartered timeline and George Crabtree, the consortium’s Director, recently stated in a report that he expects to have working prototypes within the next two and a half years. We’ll have to wait and see.
Open-Sourcing Artificial Intelligence
The dream of artificial intelligence began nearly sixty years ago at a series of conferences at Dartmouth, which included luminaries such as Marvin Minsky, and Claude Shannon and John McCarthy. At the time, they thought they were embarking on a twenty year project. That vastly underestimated the complexity and difficulty of the endeavor.
Today though, it is clear that their efforts have borne fruit. From industrial scale systems like IBM Watson to consumer level apps like Google Maps and voice search, we’ve come to expect our machines to intelligently advise us on where to go, what to do and how best to do it. It’s hard to remember that even a decade ago we would have considered much of this science fiction.
Yet now artificial intelligence has entered a new phase. IBM, Google and Facebook have all open-sourced important machine learning technologies so that anybody who wants to can access and improve on them. As Rob Thomas, IBM Vice President of Development, told me, this has the potential to shift artificial intelligence into a much higher gear.
“Everyone needs insights into their business in order to make good decisions,” he says. “Automating the analytics process helps executives do that in real time. Open sourcing our machine learning engine allows us to expand the number of people improving its capabilities from thousands of internal engineers to tens of thousands—and eventually to hundreds of thousands—in the open source community.”
“This is a major acceleration. It democratizes artificial intelligence,” says Randy Terbush, CTO of Lifeguard Health Networks. “It transforms machine learning from a very high end, exclusive club, to something just about every CEO should be thinking about in terms of how it will impact their business.”
Despite The Headlines, We Have A Lot To Look Forward To
Most of the news we hear these days is bad news. Stagnating economies, global terrorist networks, climate change and the occasional specter of a global pandemic from Ebola or some antibiotic resistant bacteria. Yet that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we’ve overcome greater challenges before and continue making enormous strides today.
Perhaps even more importantly, rising to challenges often results in the emergence of new general purpose technologies that define the future. The steam engine led to an industrial revolution that markedly raised living standards. Curing smallpox led to the field of immunology that continues to protect us from a variety of ailments to this day.
And that’s precisely why these breakthroughs, if achieved, will be so transformational. Curing cancer will give us enormous insight into our general biology and may accelerate medical science for decades. A battery under $100/kWh, paired with low cost renewable energy will be an important paradigm shift in how we power our economy. Ubiquitous artificial intelligence will significantly enhance human capabilities.
So while the next year will surely bring its share of new business models, viral apps and other hot trends, what we should really be watching for is the emergence of truly new paradigms. It is they that have the potential to genuinely transform our lives.
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Greg Satell is a US based business consultant. You can find his blog at Digital Tonto and you can follow him on Twitter.