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3 Big Things To Look Out For In 2016

2016 January 3

A new year is a great time to both reflect and look forward. In past years, I’ve written about how the cloud is reshaping industry, how interfaces are evolving and the emergence of new ecosystems. We always seem to be in the midst of some great new trend that is reshaping how we live and work.

Yet this year I can’t think of anything truly new that is having a major impact. Yes, there is a sharing economy that’s emerging, robots are taking our jobs and we seem to be in the middle of a new industrial revolution, but those things have been going on for some time. They are, essentially, the continuation of previous trends.

Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t big things underway. In fact, we’re on the cusp of some transformational changes. We are entering a new era in the fight against cancer, closing in on a major breakthrough in energy storage and open sourcing artificial intelligence. Those aren’t your typical hot trends, but represent new paradigms of enormous significance.

A New Era In The Fight Against Cancer

For the past generation, we’ve been making steady progress against cancer, improving survival rates by about 1% per year. Over time, that’s made an impact. Today survival rates are nearly 70% and, for the most common types, such as breast and prostate cancer, survival rates can be as high as 90% and 100%, respectively. Yet now, we seem to have hit a new gear, due to two major breakthroughs.

The first is targeted cancer therapies based on genomic testing. Rather than relying on trial and error, in which a doctor cycles through primary, secondary and tertiary procedures, tumors are identified genetically and the most effective treatment can be identified much earlier in the treatment process. That’s had a dramatic effect in not only patient survival rates, but also in reducing harmful side effects.

An even more promising development is the emergence of new immunotherapies, which help our own bodies attack cancer cells. These have extended the life of even the most terminal patients. Some, who were given only months to live, are now cancer free years later. Yet despite the progress, there’s still important work to do.

We need a more complete cancer map to guide targeted therapies more effectively and immunotherapies only have a success rate of around 25%, but we may very well be on the brink of significantly better outcomes. The prospect is real enough that Vice President Biden has called for a moonshot program for cancer to accelerate progress.

The Search For A Battery That Can Power The 21st Century

Renewable energy, once the bastion of treehuggers and wide-eyed dreamers, has earned some new fans. Major investment banks such as Lazard and Barclays are predicting that both wind and solar will reach grid parity by the end of the decade. Citibank released a report that described the current gas boom as merely a “bridge fuel to a low carbon future.”

Still, despite the enthusiasm, there is a yawning gap between us and our energy utopia: intermittency. Unlike fossil fuels, we can’t access renewables on demand. We need a cheap way to store energy when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. The only way to do that is through much more efficient batteries.

There has been some progress. Using existing technologies Tesla’s Powerwall has been able to achieve a $200/kWh manufacturing cost, but that’s still a far cry from the $100/kWh that the DOE expects we need to achieve to make utility scale storage economical. That’s why the agency launched the Joint Center For Energy Storage Research (JCESR) to bridge the gap.

The effort, a consortium of national laboratories, universities and private enterprises modeled on SEMATECH, which revived the US semiconductor industry, has the ambitious goal of making batteries 5 times more powerful, 5 times cheaper within 5 years. Achieving anything even close to that would be truly revolutionary.

The JCESR is about halfway through its chartered timeline and George Crabtree, the consortium’s Director, recently stated in a report that he expects to have working prototypes within the next two and a half years. We’ll have to wait and see.

Open-Sourcing Artificial Intelligence

The dream of artificial intelligence began nearly sixty years ago at a series of conferences at Dartmouth, which included luminaries such as Marvin Minsky, and Claude Shannon and John McCarthy. At the time, they thought they were embarking on a twenty year project. That vastly underestimated the complexity and difficulty of the endeavor.

Today though, it is clear that their efforts have borne fruit. From industrial scale systems like IBM Watson to consumer level apps like Google Maps and voice search, we’ve come to expect our machines to intelligently advise us on where to go, what to do and how best to do it. Even a decade ago we would have considered much of this to be science fiction.

Yet now artificial intelligence has entered a new phase. IBM, Google and Facebook have all open-sourced important machine learning technologies so that anybody who wants to can access and improve on them. As Rob Thomas, IBM Vice President of Development, told me, this has the potential to shift artificial intelligence into a much higher gear.

“Everyone needs insights into their business in order to make good decisions,” he says. “Automating the analytics process helps executives do that in real time. Open sourcing our machine learning engine allows us to expand the number of people improving its capabilities from thousands of internal engineers to tens of thousands—and eventually to hundreds of thousands—in the open source community.”

“This is a major acceleration. It democratizes artificial intelligence,” says Randy Terbush, CTO of Lifeguard Health Networks. “It transforms machine learning from a very high end, exclusive club, to something just about every CEO should be thinking about in terms of how it will impact their business.”

Despite The Headlines, We Have A Lot To Look Forward To

Most of the news we hear these days is bad news. Stagnating economies, global terrorist networks, climate change and the occasional specter of a global pandemic from Ebola or some antibiotic resistant bacteria. Yet that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that we’ve overcome greater challenges before and continue making enormous strides today.

Perhaps even more importantly, rising to challenges often results in the emergence of new general purpose technologies that define the future. The steam engine led to an industrial revolution that markedly raised living standards. Curing smallpox led to the field of immunology that continues to protect us from a variety of ailments to this day.

And that’s precisely why these breakthroughs, if achieved, will be so transformational. Curing cancer will give us enormous insight into our general biology and may accelerate medical science for decades. A battery under $100/kWh, paired with low cost renewable energy, will be an important paradigm shift in how we power our economy. Ubiquitous artificial intelligence will significantly enhance human capabilities.

So while the next year will surely bring its share of new business models, viral apps and other hot trends, what we should really be watching for is the emergence of truly new paradigms. It is they that have the potential to genuinely transform our lives.

– Greg

17 Responses leave one →
  1. January 3, 2016

    I was reviewing a bit, wondering what this year produced that was truly novel and I had two thoughts you might want to add to your list. … Hmmmm. Even if I was looking back, I think they will define the forward some.
    I think we take it for granted a bit, but the Falcon 9 represents a quantitative step in space exploration hardware. There is a sea change going on in space “exploration”, but that technology is qualitatively different than what has gone before..
    Another thing of interest is that no matter who wins the 2016 election, we have seen a push back against the oligarchy and established political powers. Dark money is failing to win elections. This says something about Americans. Something good I think.

  2. January 3, 2016

    Happy New Year Greg!

    Just a note of gratitude for inspiring me to create my own blog and post to it weekly. Today marks my 1st anniversary in blogging.

    Sundays are my day to soak up your knowledge and inspiration and, hopefully, share some of my own.

    Thank You for Digital Tonto.


  3. January 3, 2016

    Good points. Thanks Mikey.

    – Greg

  4. January 3, 2016

    That’s very kind of you Dick. Have a great 2016!

    – Greg

  5. Pascal permalink
    January 3, 2016

    Happy New Year, Greg!

  6. James Morran permalink
    January 3, 2016

    As always, your points are well made. Energy storage is crucial, but without a true commitment from government and capital to build the infrastructural foundation to manage and transmit the non carbon energy stored in these new batteries they will never reach consumers. This is even more crucial in the developing world that needs energy so they can develop into some form of plural democracy and not fall deeper into the cancerous rage of radicalism. In the end, the world will need to address the projected 9 billion people on the planet and how we/they will produce food and water to a level beyond survival. As for today’s needs, what you mention will certainly be welcomed, but I believe what’s more crucial is dealing with a lack of intelligence and leadership in how to address the political threat of isolationism and nationalism that seems to be spreading hatred and fear across the world.

    And, Happy New Year to you. Thanks for another year of your writing and thoughts.


  7. January 3, 2016

    Thanks Pascal. To you too!

    – Greg

  8. January 3, 2016

    Thanks for sharing James. Happy New Year to you too.

    – Greg

  9. daniel permalink
    January 4, 2016

    Happy New Year Greg. Cheers from Brasil.

    You have a loyal reader here and act as great inspiration to blog.

    Keep going on in 2016.

  10. January 4, 2016

    Thank you for the excellent view forward. You have captured some key points here. There is my cynic self that wants to say “You are such a pollyanna, we are all doomed.” But hope falls external. Ha Ha.

    One addition I think we may be seeing this year is going to be more new evidence based studies on the benefits of medical cannabis though I will add that the growers and dispensaries are not approaching this medical market in a strong clinical and scientific fashion. There remains a large Cheech & Chong element to the market but that is changing. I and some partners are taking our 45+ years of pharma marketing and offering that expertise to the medical cannabis market

    It is a slog.

  11. January 4, 2016

    Thanks Daniel. I appreciate it!

    Have a great year!

    – Greg

  12. January 4, 2016

    Thanks Mark. Good luck with your new venture!

    – Greg

  13. January 4, 2016

    Thanks Mark. Good luck with your new venture!

    – Greg

  14. January 4, 2016


    I couldn’t agree more with BIG THINK #1: A New Era In The Fight Against Cancer

    I’m (literally & fortunately!) living proof of the success of targeted therapy: Having been diagnosed with stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer last January, I’ve been taking a relatively new drug (Crizotinib) that specifically targets the chromosomal rearrangement that I (and 4% of the patients with this type of lung cancer) have.

    My story is here: , but to your point, there will be a lot more of these stories appearing in 2016 and beyond.

    Keep up the prescient reporting, and thanks!

    Jim Watson

  15. January 4, 2016

    Thanks Jim. Glad to hear you’re feeling better!

    – Greg

  16. Ed Colin permalink
    January 10, 2016


    Great ideas,

    I would another game changer – Autonomous Vehicles. I believe this will initiate a major change in how we view transportation, vehicle ownership, land use and finally air pollution and global warming.

  17. January 10, 2016

    Yes, that’s an important trend. However, at this point, autonomous vehicles are mainly an engineering and adoption problem. I wanted to highlight problems where solutions are still under development.

    In any case, I completely agree with your point. Autonomous vehicles will certainly be a game changer. Personally, I see a future in which I can go out and drink all I want!

    Thanks for bringing them up.

    – Greg

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