1. Self-Driving Trucks

Tractor-trailers without a human at the wheel will soon barrel onto highways near you. What will this mean for the nation’s 1.7 million truck drivers?

Availability: 5 to 10 years

self drive truck

 

Roman Mugriyev was driving his long-haul 18-wheeler down a two-lane Texas highway when he saw an oncoming car drift into his lane just a few hundred feet ahead. There was a ditch to his right and more oncoming cars to his left, so there was little for him to do but hit his horn and brake. “I could hear the man who taught me to drive telling me what he always said was rule number one: ‘Don’t hurt anybody,’” Mugriyev recalls.

But it wasn’t going to work out that way. The errant car collided with the front of Mugriyev’s truck. It shattered his front axle, and he struggled to keep his truck and the wrecked car now fused to it from hitting anyone else as it barreled down the road. After Mugriyev finally came to a stop, he learned that the woman driving the car had been killed in the collision.

Could a computer have done better at the wheel? Or would it have done worse?

We will probably find out in the next few years, because multiple companies are now testing self-driving trucks. Although many technical problems are still unresolved, proponents claim that self-driving trucks will be safer and less costly. “This system often drives better than I do,” says Greg Murphy, who’s been a professional truck driver for 40 years. He now serves as a safety backup driver during tests of self-driving trucks by Otto, a San Francisco company that outfits trucks with the equipment needed to drive themselves.

2. Paying with Your Face:

Face-detecting systems in China now authorize payments, provide access to facilities, and track down criminals. Will other countries follow?

Availability: Now

 

Shortly after walking through the door at Face++, a Chinese startup valued at roughly a billion dollars, I see my face, unshaven and looking a bit jet-lagged, flash up on a large screen near the entrance.

Having been added to a database, my face now provides automatic access to the building. It can also be used to monitor my movements through each room inside. As I tour the offices of Face++ (pronounced “face plus plus”), located in a suburb of Beijing, I see it appear on several more screens, automatically captured from countless angles by the company’s software. On one screen a video shows the software tracking 83 different points on my face simultaneously. It’s a little creepy, but undeniably impressive.

Over the past few years, computers have become incredibly good at recognizing faces, and the technology is expanding quickly in China in the interest of both surveillance and convenience. Face recognition might transform everything from policing to the way people interact every day with banks, stores, and transportation services.

Technology from Face++ is already being used in several popular apps. It is possible to transfer money through Alipay, a mobile payment app used by more than 120 million people in China, using only your face as credentials. Meanwhile, Didi, China’s dominant ride-hailing company, uses the Face++ software to let passengers confirm that the person behind the wheel is a legitimate driver. (A “liveness” test, designed to prevent anyone from duping the system with a photo, requires people being scanned to move their head or speak while the app scans them.)

The 360-Degree Selfie:

Inexpensive cameras that make spherical images are opening a new era in photography and changing the way people share stories.

Availability: Now

360 degree camera

Seasonal changes to vegetation fascinate Koen Hufkens. So last fall Hufkens, an ecological researcher at Harvard, devised a system to continuously broadcast images from a Massachusetts forest to a website called VirtualForest.io. And because he used a camera that creates 360° pictures, visitors can do more than just watch the feed; they can use their mouse cursor (on a computer) or finger (on a smartphone or tablet) to pan around the image in a circle or scroll up to view the forest canopy and down to see the ground. If they look at the image through a virtual-reality headset they can rotate the photo by moving their head, intensifying the illusion that they are in the woods.

Hufkens says the project will allow him to document how climate change is affecting leaf development in New England. The total cost? About $550, including $350 for the Ricoh Theta S camera that takes the photos.We experience the world in 360 degrees, surrounded by sights and sounds

Gene Therapy 2.0

Scientists have solved fundamental problems that were holding back cures for rare hereditary disorders. Next we’ll see if the same approach can take on cancer, heart disease, and other common illnesses.

Availability: Now

gene therapy

Researchers have been chasing the dream of gene therapy for decades. The idea is elegant: use an engineered virus to deliver healthy copies of a gene into patients with defective versions. But until recently it had produced more disappointments than successes. The entire field was slowed in 1999 when an 18-year-old patient with a liver disease, Jesse Gelsinger, died in a gene-therapy experiment.

But now, crucial puzzles have been solved and gene therapies are on the verge of curing devastating genetic disorders. Two gene therapies for inherited diseases—Strimvelis for a form of SCID and Glybera for a disorder that makes fat build up in the bloodstream—have won regulatory approval in Europe. In the United States, Spark Therapeutics could be the first to market; it has a treatment for a progressive form of blindness. Other gene therapies in development point to a cure for hemophilia and relief from an incapacitating skin disorder called epidermolysis bullosa.

Fixing rare diseases, impressive in its own right, could be just the start. Researchers are studying gene therapy in clinical trials for about 40 to 50 different diseases, says Maria-Grazia Roncarolo, a pediatrician and scientist at Stanford University who led early gene-therapy experiments in Italy that laid the foundation for Strimvelis. That’s up from just a few conditions 10 years ago. And in addition to treating disorders caused by malfunctions in single genes, researchers are looking to engineer these therapies for more common diseases, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart failure, and cancer. Harvard geneticist George Church has said that someday, everyone may be able to take gene therapy to combat the effects of aging.

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News Reporter

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