After reading the morning news, you would be forgiven for pronouncing 2017 a low moment for the world. Whether the rise of uncivil politics, the insecurity of one’s personal data, the continued threat of terrorism and nuclear weapons or yet another example of those in power abusing their station, it’s been a downer of a year.
In times like these, it helps to look forward to a more optimistic future we might still realize. My colleagues and I at A.T. Kearney’s Global Business Policy Council have done just that in our year-ahead predictions for 2018. Yes, there are some definite challenges ahead, but we also identified two especially bright spots.
First, we expect 2018 will witness a breakthrough in quantum computing, beating expectations about its development timeline. Bill Gates has described quantum computing as one of the few areas he doesn’t fully grasp, and even Albert Einstein was never quite comfortable with quantum mechanics, despite laying the groundwork for the field. So you’re in good company in wondering what exactly quantum computing is.
Put simply, while a traditional computer uses either a zero or a one as basic processor inputs and outputs, quantum “super-positioning” allows for both a zero and a one to be in use simultaneously, significantly expanding computational power to solve certain types of problems.
Still confused? That’s okay; there really are a handful of physicists on the planet who fully grasp quantum computing. In fact, one of the principal challenges after actually building a quantum computer has been figuring out how to program for it and even what to use it for.
That said, we expect more successful quantum use cases this year, and unlocking quantum computing will enable researchers to make substantial progress on current efforts and lead to new areas of scientific discovery.
This will range from speeding up the complex tasks required to power artificial intelligence (AI) — in particular the continuous machine learning that must occur to “train” AI to do new tasks. Quantum will prove useful in solving incredibly complex challenges in pharmaceutical development, such as mapping amino acids and DNA.
To no one's surprise, quantum has the attention of spy agencies worldwide, who salivate over the potential for quantum computers to nearly instantly break even the most impossible current cryptography.
2018 is also likely to see remarkable breakthroughs in the fight against cancer, pushing us to a tipping point in favor of humanity. Cancer is the world’s second-leading cause of death, responsible for almost one in six deaths. The World Health Organization expects a 70-percent increase in the number of new cancer cases over the next 20 years.
A host of new technologies have already sparked developments in cancer research. Researchers are using AI to analyze and identify genetic variations and markers of cancers more accurately. Gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR-Cas9 are now being tested to treat patients with lung cancer.
Immunotherapy, guiding the body’s natural immune system to fight cancer, has had a string of recent successes. In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first “pan-cancer” medicine, Keytruda, which targets patients’ biomarkers, or cellular pathways, instead of just the specific location of a tumor in the body.
So, next time you unlock your phone and scan the day’s headlines, know that something better surely looms on the near-term horizon. We are living in a moment of history that is at once supremely disruptive and remarkably transformative.
In this age of innovation and discovery, we may have arrived at a step-change in unlocking nearly unlimited computational power and turning the tables on one of the most scurrilous diseases we face.
Samuel Brannen is a director on A.T. Kearney’s Global Business Policy Council. Previously he worked in government for the Department of Defense, and at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a senior fellow.