One of the most respected technical journals, MIT Technology Review, polled experts and in February published a list of the most promising technologies of the year. Some of them are already being applied, others are at the stage of successful experiments. Let’s talk in more detail about what we are talking about.
Rejection of passwords
Hacks and leaks of personal data have become a real epidemic in cyberspace. Under these conditions, relying on a regular password becomes increasingly dangerous. It can be stolen, obtained with the help of spoof sites and extorted with the help of cunning manipulations. Password managers like Dashlane and 1Password are half the solution. Especially when it comes to the security of global systems on which companies and states depend. A more radical solution is to completely eliminate passwords.
Now companies are increasingly moving to biometric identification methods. Apple’s facial recognition system was one of the first to be introduced en masse. In March 2021, Microsoft announced that some of its customers could opt out of passwords entirely, and in September suggested that users remove the option altogether.
There are already about a dozen options for a unique signature that are in use or are under development. In addition to the face, this is the iris of the eye, voice, fingerprint or palm print, vein pattern, or even DNA. However, not everything is perfect here. Firstly, such a password cannot be transferred to another if necessary. Secondly, there are already programs that can reliably imitate voice or facial features. Thirdly, attackers can switch from hunting for passwords to direct blackmail of a person – the owner of the necessary biometric data.
Another concern concerns how the collected data will be used by governments. In the fall of 2021, the European Parliament called for law enforcement to be banned from using facial recognition systems in public places. The main argument of parliamentarians is that the introduction of such systems can lead to the establishment of total control over people, including their loyalty.
Machine determination of protein structure
Almost all processes in our body are carried out with the participation of proteins. And what a particular protein does is determined, among other things, by its three-dimensional shape. A protein is made up of a ribbon of amino acids that folds into a complex knot. An improperly folded protein can trigger pathological processes in the body, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
By understanding how a particular protein works, scientists can develop precisely targeted drugs and study the effects of diseases. But in the past, determining the three-dimensional structure, and therefore the function, of a protein took months of painstaking work in the lab. It was the most accurate way.
Everything changed at the end of 2020 when DeepMind introduced AlphaFold2. It is an AI-based software capable of predicting the shape of proteins down to the atom. This is the first time a computer has managed to outdo a human. The results of the program were considered “amazing” by the experts.
Research teams around the world have begun using AlphaFold2 for cancer research, antibiotic resistance, and COVID-19. DeepMind has also created a public database that is populated with protein structures predicted by the program. Now it has about 800 thousand records, and DeepMind promises to add more than 100 million already in 2023. It’s almost every protein known to science.
The true meaning of AlphaFold2 will become clear only in a year or two, but this year may be decisive..
Economical cryptocurrency mining
Cryptocurrencies work on blockchain, a system for recording and distributing digital information that allows you to exchange data anonymously and without intermediaries. This is its advantage over traditional currencies. But there is a catch: cryptocurrencies are not issued by the bank, they appear as a result of the computational work of computers. This is very energy intensive. For example, bitcoin mining now requires more than 120 terawatt-hours per year – almost as much as the whole of Norway consumes. Therefore, the blockchain industry is looking for ways to reduce energy consumption.
The most energy-intensive part of cryptocurrency mining involves the operation of an algorithm known as proof of work. Each transaction on the blockchain begins with data entry, which is copied to all computers on the network. The transaction is confirmed by each individual computer, as a result of which it is impossible to falsify data or change an already made record. Proof-of-work provides protection against abuse, but increases the cost of the entire process. The need for energy is growing along with the growing popularity of bitcoin.
One of the ways to optimize the energy consumption of the blockchain infrastructure was proposed by the programmer Vitalik Buterin, the creator of the Ethereum network. He believes that proof of work can be abandoned in favor of proof of stake. In this case, the miners do not have to compete by spending large sums on energy and computing equipment. Instead, depending on the units of cryptocurrency in their account, they can participate in a lottery. Winners get the right to verify a set of transactions (and thus earn more cryptocurrency).
Critics believe that this may adversely affect the decentralization of the network, but a more energy-efficient procedure has not yet been invented. So far, proof-of-stake from major networks has only been using Ethereum. But if successful, other networks can implement it.
New batteries for renewable energy
Countries around the world are becoming increasingly dependent on solar and wind energy rather than fossil fuels. However, the supply of this energy is uneven. The sun is setting and the wind is dying down. Existing energy storage devices last from two to four hours. Utilities need systems capable of delivering current for eight hours or more.
One of the promising solutions is flow batteries based on iron electrolytes. They bear little resemblance to batteries in the sense we are accustomed to. These are gigantic structures that are powered by powerful pumps. The liquid electrolyte is passed through a core consisting of positive and negative electrodes separated by a membrane. When solar panels or wind turbines generate electricity, pumps pump the spent electrolyte through the electrodes, causing it to charge and return to a storage tank.
Unlike the lithium-ion batteries common today, flow batteries use cheaper, more readily available, and non-toxic materials: iron, salt, and water. Another difference: While lithium-ion battery manufacturers strive to make them small enough to fit into ever-shrinking smartphones and laptops, each version of the iron battery is bigger than the last.