By Robert Hickson 02/03/2021

Technology lists, what’s this thing called “Deep Tech”, and thinking beyond the tech.

Top “x” lists of technology developments, breakthroughs and trends aren’t hard to find. But how useful are they?


MIT’s “Breakthrough Technologies”

This time every year MIT’s Technology Review magazine produces a “10 breakthrough technologies” list. This showcases what it sees as the year’s most important technologies.

For 2021 their breakthroughs are:

  1. mRNA vaccines
  2. GPT-3 (a system that uses deep learning to produce human language-like text)
  3. Tik Tok’s recommendation algorithm (which doesn’t just reflect what’s popular)
  4. Lithium metal batteries
  5. Data trusts (legal entities that collect and manage people’s personal data on their behalf)
  6. Green hydrogen (produced using renewable energy)
  7. Digital contact tracing
  8. Hyper accurate positioning (going from metres down to centimetres or millimetres)
  9. Remote everything
  10. Multi-skilled AI (where the artificial intelligence is competent in at least two things, such as vision and audio)

A subscription is required to read more about each one. Previous years’ breakthroughs are accessible.

MIT doesn’t have clear criteria for what gets on the list. Some have already “broken through”, such as mRNA vaccines. But others, like GPT-3 still have some way to go.

Some aren’t even technologies, such as “data trusts”.

The articles on the technologies do often discuss some of their challenges, as well as recent progress. So, eclectic but informative.


CB Insights’ “Game changing technologies”

Firms like CB Insights also produce technology lists – “game changing technologies” in their corporate lingo. (Registration required for the report).

  1. Intelligent tutoring
  2. Cookie-busting ads
  3. Creator platforms
  4. Differential privacy
  5. Protein fermentation
  6. Own-a-piece of everything
  7. Space-based R&D
  8. Green hydrogen
  9. Bioprinting
  10. Ambient intelligence

Their “report” (more a set of slides) is also thin on methodology. One aspect CB Insights reports on is the amount of investment into the technology, another is news headlines. So they are often reporting on hype rather than feasibility.

But such lists generate interest and attention. Their usefulness, apart from signalling that the publisher is in the know, is in highlighting some recent developments and what is seen as “hot” or hyped at the moment.

But they can be distracting because they give undue attention to technological developments.


Five Forces of Disruption

Other lists do focus on a broader set of disrupters (real or imagined). The “Re_Set Forecast” report selected five forces of disruption that will, they confidently claim, bring about “real, positive and sustained change”:

  1. Rise of the activist brand – where companies address (potential) customer values and societal impacts
  2. Digital acceleration – widespread adoption of digital business models
  3. Sustainability & biodiversity – the increasing influence of a “green agenda”
  4. Workplace & culture – reflecting more agile and inclusive work environments, and a greater focus on wellness
  5. Shifting strategies – to develop flexible long-term strategies that can deal with change


The report emphasises the opportunities for innovation that such disruptions provide. Another weakness is the overly confident prediction of what will be influential.


Deep Tech

We’ve had steam tech, information technology, biotech, nanotech, cleantech, and now there’s “Deep Tech”. The term has been around for some time but is now being used more widely. For example, Rocket Lab describes itself as a deep tech company.

At a simplistic level deep tech refers to where science meets advanced engineering. The hard stuff, moon shot-like programmes, not new dating apps or online game engines.

Those involved in it describe deep tech as being problem oriented rather than solution oriented.  It’s not one discipline or technology, deep techers claim. They design, build, test, learn, and repeat (this sounds like any IT company though).

A recent report on deep tech (registration required), from promoters of it, emphasise that it’s an approach not a technology.  What disrupts, they say, isn’t usually a technology, but the applications and business models. Still, its a technology-centric perspective.

It also seems like a label constructed, in part, to attract attention and funding (like previous technology descriptors).

You can’t deny, though, that there are some very interesting deep tech companies out there – space-based services & exploration, synthetic biology, geoengineering.


Techo Chambers

As a recent article in The Atlantic points out, reports like the ones above often reflect in part a “mercantile approach” in foresight, where “… readers can not only prepare for what’s coming, but also profit from it.”

On the other hand, they also help raise awareness of particular developments and trends.

Too often though they seem to become “Techo chambers”. Technology as destiny, and people techno-dropping terms into discussions – VR, IoT, hydrogen, deep tech – without any meaningful explorations of how they could and couldn’t affect the now and near term.

More value comes from considering the consequences of these types of developments and disruptions, and the context within which they sit.

An example is Edison International’s “Reimagining the grid”, which considers how the power grid needs to evolve due to a variety of technological and non-technological factors. Here it’s less about prediction and more about preparing for changes.


Old tech and social systems

A different discussion of technologies can be found in an essay by Genevieve Bell called “Touching the future”. (Thanks to Andrew Curry’s “Just two things” newsletter for highlighting this).

After discussing the early days of artificial intelligence and post-war computing Genevieve reflects on technologies through the example of the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps in Australia. These river traps, built using stones, date back thousands of years.

She reflects that their importance is less about the traps as a technology and more about the system the traps helped create, and are embedded in.

When thinking about technologies we need, she suggests, to think about the cultural and ecological elements too. Along with the people and the places involved, and the ideas that build and sustain the system.

This mirrors concepts in Mātauranga Māori, highlighting that more recent western technological developments can separate rather than connect people from their environment and society.

“The technical, cultural and ecological elements cement the significance of this place, not only as a heritage site but as a knowledge base on which contemporary systems could be built. Ideas about sustainability; ideas about systems that are decades or centuries in the making; ideas about systems that endure and systems that are built explicitly to endure. Systems that are built to ensure the continuities of culture feel like the kind of systems that we might want to be investing in now.” Genevieve Bell


So, read the lists of technologies, but think about the systems that they sit within. Involve different perspectives and ask different questions about the futures we need.


Featured image: ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash