Technology is often overhyped, but sometimes there are honest-to-goodness technological innovations that have the ability to truly change the world. Consider that artificial intelligence (AI) is getting a lot of attention right now, but did you know that some scientists are working on ways to implant AI into human brains to try to cure brain diseases like epilepsy. And, eventually, some think we could use that technology to then upload and download information into our brains.
Some of the technologies listed here come from MIT Technology Review's list of 10 breakthrough technologies for 2017, and others simply have too much transformative potential not to include.
1. Autonomous vehicles
Adding self-driving vehicles to a list of tech trends that will change the world is nearly a cliche these days. But driverless car technology is already available and has so much potential that it's almost impossible at this point for it not to transform our world in the coming years.
Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) Autopilot system -- one of the most well-known semi-autonomous systems -- can control the car by itself for most freeway driving. The company is even expected to show a fully autonomous trip across the country by the end of the year. All new Teslas come equipped with fully autonomous driverless hardware (like ultrasonic sensors, cameras, and radar) and the company plans to continually roll out new levels of automation as its vehicles learn more.
Tesla certainly isn't the only automaker betting on this. Ford and General Motors are both leading in the semi-autonomous space by developing their own self-driving technologies and experimenting with car-sharing services that could be at the center of an autonomous vehicle world.
Autonomous vehicles are much more important than just having a new way to get around town, though. These vehicles have driving abilities superior to humans' because of their on-board supercomputers, sensors, and artificial intelligence. These vehicles will be far less prone to accidents than ones driven by humans and once they become ubiquitous, they are estimated to result in 300,000 lives saved per decade, in the United States alone.
2. Augmented reality for surgeries
Augmented reality (AR) started receiving a lot of attention last year with the release of the popular Pokemon Go game, but the true potential for this tech that overlays information from a computer onto your real life is only now just coming to light.
AR glasses are already being tested by surgeons to give them better visibility into a human body and increase their proficiency. Augmented reality headsets can provide surgeons with a detailed perspective of the inside of a patient's body that's overlaid on top of the actual body they're looking at -- which creates a kind of X-ray vision for the doctor.
3D imaging is already used for some surgeries, but AR could improve techniques even further. An AR navigation technology was recently designed by Royal Philips (NYSE:PHG) to allow surgeons to view a patient's internal 3D X-ray combined with external body images provided by cameras. The mesh of these images creates a real-time and comprehensive view of both the inside and outside of a body during surgery.
An early feasibility study (on cadavers) completed earlier this year found that the use of augmented reality for some types of spinal surgery increased the surgeon's proficiency to 85%, up from 64% for free-hand techniques. The technology could eventually become ubiquitous for spinal, cranial, and trauma surgeries.
3. Adding AI to human brains
Many of us are still just getting used to the idea of our computers, cars, and smartphones using artificial intelligence, but some scientists and entrepreneurs are already trying to figure out how to add AI into the human brain.
The CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk, recently helped start a company called Neuralink Corp., which plans to add electrodes into the human brain to help cure diseases like epilepsy. The brain-machine interfaces use electrodes implanted in a brain to access information by wirelessly connecting to computers. Musk calls this a "neural lace" between computers and humans and it could eventually be used not just to cure diseases, but also enhance the cognitive abilities of humans.
That may be a long way off, but Musk isn't alone in his pursuits. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- a research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense -- launched a program last year to develop an implantable neural interface in the brain that could easily communicate with computers. The program is called the Neural Engineering System Design (NESD) and it will create devices that act as a translator to convert electrochemical signals in the brain to the zeros and ones that computer use, according to DARPA.
Through Neuralink, DARPA, and others, scientists may soon be able to cure brain injuries and diseases, improve sight and hearing impairments, and even allow us to send commands to computers with just our thoughts.
4. Quantum computers
Quantum computers use the laws of quantum mechanics in a way that allows computers to calculate information on a much broader and faster scale. The University of Waterloo explains quantum computing like this: "Think of it this way: whereas a classical computer works with ones and zeros, a quantum computer will have the advantage of using ones, zeros and 'superpositions' of ones and zeros," which means they could be both ones and zeros at the same time.
The vast computing power of quantum computers will allow scientists to create intricate models of disease-fighting drugs that would be impossible with traditional computers. IBM believes quantum computing could be used to better predict weather patterns, improve artificial intelligence learning, and create computer encryption that is nearly impenetrable.
Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google has already created several quantum computing processors and plans to have its most advanced one finished by the end of this year. Google wants to use its advances in quantum computing to sell additional services through its cloud computing platform, though it's allowing researchers and governments to use it for free.
There's still a lot of debate surrounding quantum computing and its current usefulness, but as this technology develops over the coming years it has the potential to make computers exponentially more powerful.
5. Worldwide satellite internet
Aside from its ambitions to send people to Mars, Elon Musk's SpaceX released plans a few months ago explaining how the company wants to deploy a fleet of 4,425 satellites that could provide internet connectivity to the entire world.
The company said that the satellites would provide "broadband and communications services for residential, commercial, institutional, governmental and professional users worldwide" and that they'll begin launching in 2019, with everything coming online by 2024.
Bringing satellite internet to every part of the globe is a huge endeavor that's estimated to cost at least $6 billion and comes with more than a few regulatory hurdles. But if SpaceX is able to get the system up and running, then reliable, ubiquitous satellite internet may be just around the corner -- no matter where you are. Think of it this way, if SpaceX succeeds, internet connectivity could become more widespread than even electricity, reaching the most remote parts of the word and connecting people like never before.
Of course, none of these tech innovations are a sure thing, and some of them are still in their nascent stages. But each of them has the potential to change our world in some very tangible ways in the coming years. That's great news for the companies that are pursuing them -- and their investors -- and could eventually be a benefit to us all.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Ford, and Tesla. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.