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5 techs that will rock your world

On the first day of the New Year, Cade Metz rounds up the technologies that will change the way we live

Boston-based startup Neurable is using its newly-developed brain-computer interface to build a virtual reality game that can be played with the mind

After the Russian hacking of the 2016 US election, many people worry that technology has gone too far. And yet it continues to evolve rapidly. There is reason for concern, but also for optimism. Here are five areas where tech companies, large and small, will change the way we live.

AI healthcare

Over the last half decade, with help from complex algorithms' deep neural networks, computers have learned to see. Loosely based on the web of neurons in the human brain, a neural network can learn tasks by identifying patterns in vast amounts of data. By analysing millions of bicycle photos, for instance, it can learn to recognise a bicycle.

This means that Facebook and Google Photos can instantly recognise faces and objects in images uploaded to the Internet. Using these same techniques, machines can also learn to identify signs of disease in medical scans. By analysing millions of retinal photos, a neural network can learn to recognise early signs of diabetic blindness. By analysing CT scans, it can learn to spot lung cancer.

Google is already running tests inside two hospitals in India, and the start-up Infervision has deployed similar technology in hospitals across China.

In the longer term, similar methods promise to rapidly accelerate drug discovery and many other aspects of healthcare. "Everything from the nature of the food that we grow and eat to the drugs that we give ourselves to how we monitor the impact of these things is all being transformed by AI in deeply profound ways," said Matt Ocko, a managing partner at DCVC, a San Francisco venture capital firm that has invested heavily in this area.

Conversational computing

Neural networks are not limited to image recognition. Far from it. These same techniques are rapidly improving coffee-table gadgets like the Amazon Echo, which can recognise spoken commands from across the room, and online services like Skype, which can instantly translate phone calls from one language to another. They may even, eventually, produce machines that can carry on a conversation.

Recently, said Luke Zettlemoyer, a University of Washington professor, there has been a "huge phase shift" in the area of natural language understanding - technology that understands the natural way people talk and write. Companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft are at the forefront of this movement, which promises to fundamentally change how we interact with phones, cars and, potentially, any machine.

With help from machine learning, Replika, a San Francisco start-up, offers a smartphone "chatbot" that acts as a kind of personal confidante, chatting with you in moments when no one else is around. But the hope is that these techniques will improve to where they serve you in many other ways. What if Alexa was truly conversational, if you could have a back and forth dialogue? Right now, it is about basic questions and commands. Today, it "recognises" words very well. But truly "understanding" complex English sentences is beyond machines at this point.

Mind control

Some people argue there are even better ways of interacting with computers by using brain waves. Rather than telling a computer what you want, many companies say they believe you could just think it.

Using electroencephalography, or EEG - a long-standing means of measuring electrical brain activity from sensors placed on the head - the start-up Neurable is building a virtual reality game that can be played with the mind. Other researchers, including at Facebook, aim to build a far more powerful system using optical sensors. Facebook hopes that, in a few years, this technology will let people type with their minds five times faster than they can with a smartphone keyboard.

These techniques will also face physical limits, and that may bar the way to Facebook's goal. But various start-ups, including Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, are going several steps further, hoping to read brain activity from chips implanted inside the skull. At first, they will limit this technology to people with disabilities. But ultimately, Musk and others hope to also implant chips in healthy people.

The flying car

As entrepreneurs like Musk work to put a chip in your head, others are working to put cars in the skies.

Even as he sets the pace in the race to autonomous cars, Larry Page, a founder of Google, is backing Kitty Hawk, a start-up that wants to move commuting into the air. Many others, including Uber and Airbus, are working on vehicles capable of flying above congested roads.

At first, Kitty Hawk will sell its vehicles to hobbyists. But the company hopes to eventually convince the general public, and regulators, that flying cars make sense. That is no easy task. These cars will require a new kind of air traffic control.

The quantum computer

Even more outlandish? It's the prospect of a quantum computer. Drawing on the seemingly magical properties of quantum physics, such a machine would be exponentially more powerful than computers of today. Think of it this way: A quantum computer could instantly crack the encryption that protects the world's most private data.

The problem is that these machines are enormously difficult to build. Google, IBM and Intel are investing heavily in this push, as are start-ups like Rigetti Computing.

Researchers believe that quantum machines eventually could accelerate drug discovery, streamline financial markets, solve traffic problems and more.

"It is a completely different paradigm for processing information," said Robert Schoelkopf, who helped invent the techniques that are driving quantum computing research. "We think that known applications are just the tip of the iceberg."

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