Advances in science and technology move at an insane pace these days--and luckily, many of the great minds leading the charge are using their innovations for good.
Here are six ideas that wowed us in 2015.
1. Beaming the internet to the entire world.
Most people laugh nostalgically at the sound of a modem dialing up, but it might be easy to forget that more than half the world still isn't connected to the internet at all. This October, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook is teaming up with a French satellite company to beam the internet to remote areas of the Sahara starting in 2016. It's the next step in the CEO's plan to bring the entire world online.
Zuckerberg is not the only one looking to make the world wide web truly world wide: In June, Elon Musk's SpaceX asked the FCC for permission to create a constellation of 4,000 satellites that would serve as an internet service provider. As an added bonus, Musk said, SpaceX would provide an alternate option in developed areas "where people are stuck with Time Warner or Comcast." Meanwhile, Google's Project Loon, which will deliver the internet from hot air balloons cruising at 70,000 feet, looks poised to begin testing over the United States. In this arms race, everybody wins.
2. 3-D-printed body parts.
Additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, uses lasers to create objects of any size from powdered metal or liquid resin. Hospitals and some cutting-edge medical companies have begun using the technology to manufacture limbs and appendages--a more affordable option, especially for children who will quickly outgrow their prosthetics. Printed materials can be used to replace bones: A woman in the Netherlands had much of her skull replaced by a printed plastic one, and a cancer patient in Spain received a printed titanium rib cage. While 3-D-printed organs are still a ways off, some scientists say they're coming eventually. And the benefits aren't limited to humans: A group in Brazil 3-D printed a prosthesis for a toucan with a mutilated beak.
3. Powering the earth entirely by battery.
Back in April, Musk presented the world with the Tesla Powerwall, a battery that collects energy from the power grid or from solar panels and stores it for later use. The lithium-ion battery can be mounted on a wall and costs $3,500, a price that some experts believe will be cut in half over the next few years. The larger Powerpack battery is designed for commercial buildings and, when used in bundles, can replace polluting power plants. Musk says it would take two billion Powerpack batteries to provide energy for the entire world. If sales are any indication, he's on his way--the batteries are sold out through 2016. And the power grid isn't all that Tesla's targeting: With the announcement of a $35,000 battery-powered Model 3, Musk has made it clear batteries are the way of the future.
4. Knowing what's going on everywhere at any given time.
Social media platforms like Twitter ushered in an era of getting news in real time 24/7. But there's never been a great way to sort this information by location--until now. Banjo, a California-based company founded by Damien Patton, combs through public social media posts and uses algorithms to identify deviations from the normal activity at a given location. The company divided the globe into 35 billion football-field-size squares and spent years determining baseline activity levels for each portion of the virtual grid. Now, any deviation from this baseline triggers an alert to the Banjo team. The technology detected a shooting at Florida State University--based on what was being tweeted and Instagrammed from that location--before news outlets did.
The implications are huge: Patton says he's been contacted by the National Weather Service about designing an alert system, and it isn't hard to imagine how the technology could become a valuable tool for emergency responders. Meanwhile, Meerkat and Periscope, rival video services launched in March, allow users to livestream events from their mobile devices, turning every user into an independent journalist or live-blogger. We've been in the age of information for a long time, but now that information is moving a lot faster than ever before.
5. Bringing augmented reality to the masses.
Virtual reality has long been hyped as the future of entertainment. But what really made a splash in 2015 was augmented reality--what happens when you add virtual elements to the world around you, usually by way of funky-looking glasses or goggles. And while the entertainment value is high--imagine fighting off a zombie apocalypse in your backyard--AR isn't just for games. Workers out in the field can have instructions or other important information appear in front of them, which, in some professions can massively reducing the amount of money spent on training. Doctors can easily monitor a patient's vitals during surgeries. And construction crews equipped with an Android-powered hard hat can experience a 360-degree views of their work site.
In October, Google-backed company Magic Leap revealed an impressive teaser of what its still-in-progress AR product is capable of, and the heavily hyped device could be ready for public view soon. Google itself is currently revamping its shuttered Glass into a version designed specifically for the workplace. It's not surprising, then, that big players like Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft have invested in developing augmented reality and taking it mainstream.
6. Making life interplanetary.
Once a possibility only for trained astronauts, then for the insanely rich, space travel is getting closer to becoming a reality for everyday people. In November, Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin became the first to successfully land a rocket that had launched into space--a feature that will significantly reduce the cost of space navigation.
SpaceX, which Musk has long said exists for the purpose of one day colonizing Mars, is on the verge of breaking through with its own reusable rocket technology. Musk said recently he'll reveal the first details of SpaceX's Mars-colonization plan by early 2016--a venture that he maintains is necessary for the sake of mankind. "You back up your hard drive," he said. "Maybe we should back up life, too?"