Five tech­nolo­gies that will rock your­world

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can learn to recog­nise early signs of di­a­betic blind­ness. By analysing CT scans, a neu­ral net­work can learn to spot lung can­cer. Such tech­nol­ogy will im­prove health care in places where doc­tors are scarce. But even­tu­ally, it will stream­line care in the de­vel­oped world as well. 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 so many other as­pects of health care. “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 A.I. 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. Neu­ral net­works are not lim­ited to im­age recog­ni­tion. Far from it. These same tech­niques are rapidly im­prov­ing cof­fee-ta­ble gad­gets like the Ama­zon Echo ( pic­tured left), 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. Many com­pa­nies are mov­ing down the same path, in­clud­ing Rep­lika, a San Fran­cisco start-up.

With help from ma­chine learn­ing, Rep­lika 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 so 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 very well. But truly “un­der­stand­ing” com­plex English sen­tences is be­yond ma­chines at this point. What if ma­chines could carry on a di­a­logue like Hal in 2001? Want more sci­ence fic­tion in your ev­ery­day re­al­ity? 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, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Al­pha­bet and a founder of Google, is back­ing Kitty Hawk, a startup that wants to move com­mut­ing into the air. And many oth­ers, in­clud­ing the start-up Joby Avi­a­tion, Uber and Air­bus, are work­ing on ve­hi­cles ca­pa­ble of fly­ing above con­gested roads. These ve­hi­cles take

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