On a recent day at a hospital in western Beijing, a cancer radiologist named Chongchong Wu loaded a suspicious-looking lung scan into a computer program resembling Photoshop. A neural network trained on thousands of example scans highlighted nodules in red squares, which she examined carefully. She corrected two false positives where the network mistakenly identified blood vessels as potential malignancies. But she also found a nodule that she'd previously overlooked, perhaps indicating an early sign of disease. China is embarking on a big initiative to add AI to health care with tools like this one.
When David Graham wakes up in the morning, the flat white box that's Velcroed to the wall of his room in Robbie's Place, an assisted living facility in Marlborough, Massachusetts, begins recording his every movement. It knows when he gets out of bed, gets dressed, walks to his window, or goes to the bathroom. It can tell if he's sleeping or has fallen. It does this by using low-power wireless signals to map his gait speed, sleep patterns, location, and even breathing pattern. All that information gets uploaded to the cloud, where machine-learning algorithms find patterns in the thousands of movements he makes every day.
China isn't just investing heavily in AI--its experts aim to set the global standards for the technology as well. Academics, industry researchers, and government experts gathered in Beijing last November to discuss AI policy issues. The resulting document, published in Chinese recently, shows that the country's experts are thinking in detail about the technology's potential impact. Together with the Chinese government's strategic plan for AI, it also suggests that China plans to play a role in setting technical standards for AI going forward. Chinese companies would be required to adhere to these standards, and as the technology spreads globally, this could help China influence the technology's course.
The ticket kiosks at Shanghai's frenetic subway station have a mind of their own. Walk up to one and state your destination, and it'll automatically recommend a route before issuing a ticket. In the interest of reducing the rush-hour stampede, the system is set up to let you find information and buy tickets without pushing a button or talking to a person. More impressive still, all this happens successfully in the middle of a crowded, noisy station. Each kiosk has to figure out who is speaking to it; zero in on that person's voice within the crowd; transcribe the incoming speech; parse its meaning; and compare the person's face against a massive database of photos--all within a few seconds.
But consider this: every day, US companies tease apart chemicals in billions of reactions to make food and beverages, drugs, and fuel. In fact, this process is so common in industrial settings that it uses as much energy as all US cars and trucks combined. "It represents 12 percent of all US energy consumption," says Shreya Dave, cofounder of the year-old startup Via Separations.
On Toronto's waterfront, where the eastern part of the city meets Lake Ontario, is a patchwork of cement and dirt. It's home to plumbing and electrical supply shops, parking lots, winter boat storage, and a hulking silo built in 1943 to store soybeans--a relic of the area's history as a shipping port.
Every year since 2001 we've picked what we call the 10 Breakthrough Technologies. People often ask, what exactly do you mean by "breakthrough"? It's a reasonable question--some of our picks haven't yet reached widespread use, while others may be on the cusp of becoming commercially available. What we're really looking for is a technology, or perhaps even a collection of technologies, that will have a profound effect on our lives.