The 10 edgiest innovation ideas of 2016

The 10 edgiest innovation ideas of 2016

At the end of every year, Edge reaches out to the smartest people on the planet and asks them a single question in an attempt to find the ideas and concepts that are changing the world of science. This year’s two-part question was: “What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?”

Not surprisingly, this year’s set of 197 responses converged around a few key themes – the human brain, the human genome, space exploration and artificial intelligence. Based on these responses, here are 10 of the edgiest innovation buzzwords that have the greatest potential to change the trajectory of innovation in 2016.

1. The wisdom race

Given all the apocalyptic scenarios we’ve been hearing about artificial intelligence over the past year, it’s not surprising that there’s been a lot of thinking about how to prevent one of those scenarios from actually occurring. Max Tegmark — the MIT physicist and cosmologist who has used mathematics to explore whether humanity might be living inside the equivalent of a Matrix-style computer simulation — calls this the “wisdom race.” What he has in mind here is a counterpart to the AI arms race, a “race between the growing power of technology and the growing wisdom with which we manage it.”

With the introduction of most new technologies, humans are reactive rather than proactive, says Tegmark. Think of how the invention of fire led to fire alarms and fire extinguishers, or the invention of the automobile led to seat belts and air bags. What’s needed with AI is a more proactive approach so that we aren’t forced to learn from our mistakes later. “Either win the wisdom race and enable life to flourish for billions of years,” says Tegmark, “Or lose the race and go extinct.”

2. Reusable rockets

At the end of 2015, both SpaceX and Blue Origin demonstrated the ability to return rockets safely to earth after use. That could be big for the future of space exploration, opening up a New Space Age fueled by cheaper costs and reusable rockets. As science historian George Dyson points out, “The launch business has been crippled, so far, by a vicious circle that has limited the market to expensive payloads — astronauts, military satellites, communication satellites, and deep space probes—consigned by customers who can afford to throw the launch vehicle away after a single use.”

From this perspective, says Dyson, “Reusable rockets are the best hope of breaking this cycle and moving forward on a path leading to low-cost, high-duty-cycle launch systems where the vehicle carries inert propellant, and the energy source remains on the ground.”

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