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Drawing lessons from the past to inspire the future of tech

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The writer is an investor in technology start-ups at Samos Investments

I was recently asked by the Institution of Engineering and Technology to help shortlist the 15 best inventions of the past 150 years.

As a tech investor and founder of Mums in Technology, a coding school, I have plenty of experience in the sector.

As I began whittling down the list, I was struck by how long it took for some inventions, such as the fridge, to be adopted. Manufacturers even devised new recipes for housewives to “cook” in the fridge to encourage their use.

It would have been impossible to predict how critical the fridge would become, going from a means to store perishable foods to playing a vital role in medical research and enabling a global vaccine rollout.

After co-chairing the IET panel, I began to wonder which of today’s new technologies will become the bedrock of humanity’s future.

I wonder if we are looking in the wrong places for breakthroughs

The most obvious is artificial intelligence.

AI has evolved into something that touches all aspects of our lives. Most companies I see have incorporated an element of machine learning into their business.

Professor Jon Crowcroft, researcher at large at the Alan Turing Institute, predicts that in the next few years biotech will converge with computing and AI. This is already the case with mRNA, or messenger RNA, vaccines, which teach our cells how to make a protein so we can develop an immune response.

Without AI and computational tools to assess large volumes of data, researchers would not have been able to understand and predict protein structures as quickly. This is key in the design of Covid-19 vaccines.

Indeed, with AI and machine learning we have the potential to accelerate understanding of how the body works, as well as to modify or develop treatments for diseases.

But I wonder if we are looking in the wrong places for breakthroughs.

Many of the tools we use today will evolve into solutions that we cannot yet imagine. Sir Francis Ronalds’s discovery of the electric telegraph was initially dismissed as unnecessary. But without it, we would not have the internet.

I worry that much of the hype around breakthroughs focuses on the frivolous, such as sending tech titans into space

Breakthroughs start very slowly, according to Azeem Azhar, author of the forthcoming book Exponential: How to bridge the gap between technology and society. They can look incomplete or like toys — few people use them, and they tend to be niche. 

This seems to be the case for sustainability-focused technologies such as apps that help us understand our carbon footprint. At the moment few use them, but I think that will change as we embrace tools to tackle climate change. 

And while I worry that much of the hype around breakthroughs focuses on the frivolous, such as sending tech titans into space, it is reassuring that a huge amount of resource is spent on solutions that benefit society.

One company I am excited about is Kheiron Medical, which Samos Investments has backed. Kheiron has developed a breast-screening AI called Mia (mammography intelligent assessment), which helps radiologists when deciding whether to recall a patient for further investigation.

This technology is already being tested in the NHS and the company has made a conscious effort to include data sets of African-American women.

Not all technologies will succeed. There have been many flops in the augmented and virtual reality sector. Since this technology did not make a comeback in the pandemic, when we were all desperate for experiences at home, I think it may be gone for good. 

But thinking of these efforts as failures is not right, says Danielle George, a professor of radio frequency engineering at the University of Manchester. Learning from mistakes to build something better in future is a vital skill for life and work. 

The government has a role to play in supporting new technology, particularly in funding moonshot ideas. In February, the UK government announced it had set up the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a funding body to support ambitious scientific research.

It will need a high tolerance for failure. If the past is anything to go by, we will be learning lessons long after these projects end, and it may take decades before we know which breakthroughs will become the 21st-century’s electric lightbulb or X-ray.

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