This list is by no means all-encompassing, but in a year full of groundbreaking scientific and technological advancements, here are some of the top contenders of 2015.
Automakers are seeking to transform the nature of the industry by slowly implementing automated vehicles over the next five to ten years. Although this process will be long and potentially fraught with legal and regulatory obstacles, the first major transition took place this year: Electric car maker Tesla provided some vehicle owners with a simple software update that included a new autopilot feature, allowing vehicles to autonomously take control on some highways.
While this may not be a novel technological advance for the vast majority of those reading this article, nearly half the planet remains offline. Google, Facebook, SpaceX, and a plethora of other large companies took steps in 2015 to deliver connectivity to remote locations in China, India, and Africa. The commercial and societal impacts of this change will be profound, and will likely occur faster than most of our readers realize.
Wearables increased in popularity and moved into the mainstream early in 2015. The Apple Watch was one of many new devices designed to keep us more apprised of factors which contribute to better health. Because the cost of microchips and sensors is falling so rapidly, industry analysts believe we will soon have easy access to increasingly sophisticated devices–some of which may even be stealthily hidden in our clothes.
A mega-scale desalination plant in Tel Aviv, Israel completed construction in 2013, and is finally running at full capacity. It provides clean water to about 20% of the country’s residents. In another year or two, new desalination facilities are scheduled to open up and provide 50% of the country’s water. What makes this desalination plant so unique is its cost–the lowest in the world. The need for clean water is expected to rise substantially over the next decade, and this technology could help mitigate that need.
Pinpointing a specific type of cancer in the human body is a costly and time-consuming process, but new simple blood tests could vastly improve our ability to detect cancer without the need for invasive testing. Right now, even the blood test is expensive. As the technology improves and becomes more widely implemented, prices will diminish and combating cancer will occur faster with greater success rates.
Cheaper, more streamlined approaches to sequencing the human genome were devised in 2015. The more we study, the more we learn about the genes that make up our DNA. We’re learning more about which genes are connected to longevity, age-related illnesses, cancer, etc. Through a technique called CRISPR editing, we can add or remove genes at will. This could drastically increase how long we stay healthy even in old age. We could even use the technology to improve the food-bearing potential and nutrient density in plants and animals.
The FAA finally delivered preliminary commercial drone regulations in the U.S., but overseas the progress is much more rapid. There’s a reason, for example, why Amazon’s most recent video update regarding its yet-to-be-released futuristic Prime Air service was developed for a British audience. It’s because much of Amazon’s drone testing occurs overseas, where regulations are much more relaxed. The U.S. is far enough behind other countries that we could incur severe economic consequences if we don’t pool our resources to speed up the process. This is a big deal, and we haven’t realized it yet.
Vehicles now have the ability to communicate with one another, and even similarly connected traffic lights. This will be a major factor in the transition to complete automation, but until then it has a broad set of benefits for vehicles already on the road. Imagine a car that can notify you when a light will be green or red, and let you know exactly how fast to drive in order to hit that green light. Hint: that car already exists. This could allow us to reduce emissions by cutting the amount of gas we burn, and even start to transition to roads completely free of traffic. More importantly, cars could detect one another and prevent drivers from making decisions that could cause a collision.
It didn’t make the list because aside from Tesla’s autopilot feature, no mind-shattering advancements in automation were made in 2015. Instead, many items on the above list will have a far-reaching impact on automation in the future, which will likely increase the number of jobs machines can do and reduce the number of jobs humans need to do. Many people speculate this will leave us in a dangerous place economically, with huge swaths of the population unable to find work.
The Toyota Mirai uses a hydrogen fuel cell technology as a source of power. More people are turning to electric and hybrid vehicles in place of traditional gas guzzlers. Solar panels are popping up on the side of the road and rooftops everywhere. These trends are speeding up exponentially, and we could see these technologies meet or exceed the world’s energy demands by 2030. This year was noteworthy not because of the technology developed, but because the obstacles impeding future developments were uniformly smashed. The Paris climate talks resulted in a worldwide effort to reduce carbon emissions and cap the increase in global temperature. Here in the U.S., extended tax credits for some renewable energies an additional five years.