News & Views

The 10 Coolest Things At EmTech 2014

by Chris Barth

Earlier this week, some of the world's best and brightest technologists descended on MIT for the annual EmTech conference – a cross-disciplinary look at invention and innovation in technology put on by the MIT Technology Review. From laboratory advancements toward 3D-printed organs to thought-provoking presentations on water politics, the conference was a sneak peek at how technology will play a role in the increasingly near future. Here are the ten coolest things I saw and heard:

1. Google Loon will ring the globe by the end of 2015

In the first keynote of the conference, Google [x]'s so-called 'Captain of Moonshots', Astro Teller, shared an update on his team's secretive efforts to create huge solutions to the problems of the future. According to Teller, Google [x] looks for enormous problems with radical solutions that require breakthroughs in science and technology.

One such problem? Global internet access. Google Loon, one of Teller's six publicly announced projects (and the cover star of Contagious Issue 36) hopes to bring internet to billions of people without internet via a network of high-altitude weather balloons that beam signal down to earth. Since the project's launch last year, Loon balloons have travelled a total of 2.4 million kilometres around the globe (roughly the same distance as going to the moon and back three times). In the next year or so, Teller announced, Google will have a semi-permanent ring of balloons in the Southern Hemisphere, beaming internet directly to handsets without necessitating ground stations.

2. Wifi signals can see through walls

Everyone has heard of X-Ray vision, but Fadel Adib, one of MIT Technology Review's 35 Innovators under 35, is more interested in wifi vision. He and his team are using wireless signals to track movement, control appliances and even see through walls. Reading wifi signals like a submarine might read SONAR (different objects absorb or reflect portions of the signal) the technology can sense form and motion even through solid walls.

Devices can be programmed to respond to movement; in a video, Adib demonstrated a person walking into another room and raising his arm to turn off a lamp. His work reminds us of WiSee, a technology developed at the University of Washington, which we first reported on last June.

3. Lab-grown leather is on its way

Inspired by medical laboratories' success in growing human tissues, Andras Forgacs asked himself a couple of questions: 'If we can grow skin, can we grow leather? If we can make muscle, can we make meat?' Those questions led him to found Modern Meadow, one of the coolest and/or creepiest future technologies on display at EmTech. Starting with leather, and eventually setting its sights on meat, Modern Meadow wants to develop animal-based products that are less resource intensive and have functional advantages over their naturally grown predecessors. 'Rather than growing the entire animal, why don't we actually grow the products that we need directly from the cells themselves?'

Fargacs, who envisions a future with carneries (think craft breweries for meat) says the lab-grown products are numerous: limited waste material, short supply chain, shorter tanning process for leather, humane and sustainable sourcing, and enhanced performance and design possibilities. Though Modern Meadow has targeted the leather goods market as an easier entry point from a consumer perspective, cultured 'steak chips' have already been created and served to hungry potential investors.

4. Community-run cell towers could connect a billion people currently off the cell grid

Although 6 billion people worldwide have access to the cellular network, a full billion more still lack connectivity, mostly in hard-to-access rural areas. Kurtis Heimerl and his company Endaga have developed what they call a community cellular network, which is installed and run by a local operator. The small-scale networks take advantage of localized knowledge to bring in equipment efficiently and operate supporting local goals – advantages large, regulated companies don't have. Endaga has piloted the technology in Papua, Indonesia, supporting 500,000 connections over the last 18 months and earning $15,000 in revenue for its operator, a local primary school.

5. Transparent photovoltaics could boost your battery when you're on the go

Calculators have operated without battery power for decades, thanks to nifty photovoltaic strips. Yet we find ourselves tethered to the grid by our cell phone charging cord. Ubiquitous Energy co-founder Miles Barr showed off his company's breakthrough technology that could change the latter condition. ClearView Power, a transparent photovoltaic, creates energy by absorbing only solar energy outside the visible spectrum – UV and near-infrared light – allowing it to remain see-through to the human eye. The transparent coating could serve as a supplemental power source for mobile devices, and could also be used as an energy producer for buildings, generating energy on the outside of windows while simultaneously absorbing light rays that would, for example, raise cooling costs in the summer time.

6. Building blocks for the Internet of Things are here, and they're awesome

We've written about littleBits, the awesome little electronic building blocks, a few times in the past. But that doesn't make them any less cool. Founder Ayah Bdeir ran the EmTech crowd through the technology's potential, showcasing some of the innovative uses developed by the littleBits community. The company recently unveiled the cloudBit, which enables makers to turn their DIY electronics into connected, Internet of Things devices. Thus far, says Bdeir, the Internet of Things has largely consisted of, 'large companies coming up with prescribed products and behaviours, which doesn't leave room for innovation.'

'Transformative technologies,' Bdeir argued, 'need to be democratized.'

7. Our robot overlords have never been closer to taking over

Perhaps the most impressive and intimidating presentation of EmTech came from Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert. If you're not familiar with Boston Dynamics, take a minute to check out some of their robots in action – it's impressive stuff.

Alpha Dog, the latest DARPA-funded robot from Raibert's shop, integrated perception and autonomy into the already-impressive Big Dog, resulting in a robot that can follow a leader and make navigation decisions semi-autonomously. Oh, and it can carry a 400-pound payload, walk 20 miles, and is 100 times quieter than its somewhat noisy predecessor. But it's not all SkyNet possibilities – Boston Dynamics, which was acquired by Google in late 2013, has been looking into using its robots to help in dangerous situations like Ebola virus treatment or nuclear meltdowns. A number of universities around the world are working to develop programs for Boston Dynamics' humanoid Atlas robot.

8. Your heartbeat could become the password for your identity

Did you know that your heartbeat is as distinct as your fingerprint? Toronto-based Bionym plans to use that distinct heart signature as the foundation for an identification platform. Its connected Nymi bracelet authenticates by taking your index finger's pulse and can then be used to do everything from pay for your morning coffee to login in to your email account. Founder Andrew D'Souza, who had earlier in the day announced a $14m round of Series A funding, demonstrated the Nymi technology live on stage, giving the audience a peek at his racing heart rate.

9. Q: What is Watson? A: Technology that will change industries from healthcare to finance.

Mike Rhodin, senior vice president of IBM's Watson Group, walked the EmTech crowd through the developments that have been made to the cognitive system since its much-heralded Jeopardy win. 'What I needed to do was take the research technology, build a small team, isolate it, put an entrepreneurial CEO in charge of it and to take it through the same steps that a startup would go through,' said Rhodin. 'I built a moat around them to keep the rest of IBM out.'

The Watson Group is currently exploring applications for the system in financial services, healthcare and education – among other areas – where, according to Rhodin, 'the amount of information produced has overwhelmed the professional's ability to absorb it.' Over the next decades, IBM hopes Watson will transform industries and expand human capabilities through cognitive computing.

10. Images and voices will be the search terms of the future

Former founder of the Google Brain project, Andrew Ng, has joined up with Chinese giant Baidu, where he's spearheading the company's deep learning initiative. Late in EmTech's second day, he gave attendees a glimpse of what Baidu sees as the future of internet search technology. 'AI will transform the internet,' promised Ng.

Already in China, 10% of Baidu searches are conducted via spoken queries – and not your typical terms, either, thanks China's large computer illiterate population. A typical query, said Ng, might be 'Hi Baidu. I had noodles from the corner store last week and they were very, very delicious. Is there a sale on those noodles at the same store this week?' Parsing that sort of query requires advanced speech recognition. Also on Baidu's horizon: advanced image recognition. The company estimates that a full 50% of searches done in five years will be done either via speech or image rather than the text that dominates today.