Seven technology trends to watch 2017-2020

Just over a week ago, risual held its bi-annual summit at the risual HQ in Stafford – the whole company back in the office for a day of learning with a new format: a mini-conference called risual:NXT.

I was given the task of running the technical track – with 6 speakers presenting on a variety of topics covering all of our technical practices: Cloud Infrastructure; Dynamics; Data Platform; Unified Intelligent Communications and Messaging; Business Productivity; and DevOps – but I was also privileged to be asked to present a keynote session on technology trends. Unfortunately, my 35-40 minutes of content had to be squeezed into 22 minutes… so this blog post summarises some of the points I wanted to get across but really didn’t have the time.

1. The cloud was the future once

For all but a very small number of organisations, not using the cloud means falling behind. Customers may argue that they can’t use cloud service because of regulatory or other reasons but that’s rarely the case – even the UK Police have recently been given the green light (the blue light?) to store information in Microsoft’s UK data centres.

Don’t get me wrong – hybrid cloud is more than tactical. It will remain part of the landscape for a while to come… that’s why Microsoft now has Azure Stack to provide a means for customers to run a true private cloud that looks and works like Azure in their own datacentres.

Thankfully, there are fewer and fewer CIOs who don’t see the cloud forming part of their landscape – even if it’s just commodity services like email in Office 365. But we need to think beyond lifting and shifting virtual machines to IaaS and running email in Office 365.

Organisations need to transform their cloud operations because that’s where the benefits are – embrace the productivity tools in Office 365 (no longer just cloud versions of Exchange/Lync/SharePoint but a full collaboration stack) and look to build new solutions around advanced workloads in Azure. Microsoft is way ahead in the PaaS space – machine learning (ML), advanced analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) – there are so many scenarios for exploiting cloud services that simply wouldn’t be possible on-premises without massive investment.

And for those who still think they can compete with the scale that Microsoft (Amazon and Google) operate at, this video might provide some food for thought…

(and for a similar video from a security perspective…)

2. Data: the fuel of the future

I hate referring to data as “the new oil”. Oil is a finite resource. Data is anything but finite! It is a fuel though…

Data is what provides an economic advantage – there are businesses without data and those with. Data is the business currency of the future. Think about it: Facebook and Google are entirely based on data that’s freely given up by users (remember, if you’re not paying for a service – you are the service). Amazon wouldn’t be where it is without data.

So, thinking about what we do with that data: the 1st wave of the Internet was about connecting computers, 2nd was about people, the 3rd is devices.

Despite what you might read, IoT is not about connected kettles/fridges. It’s not even really about home automation with smart lightbulbs, thermostats and door locks. It’s about gathering information from billions of sensors out there. Then, we take that data and use it to make intelligent decisions and apply them in the real world. Artificial intelligence and machine learning feed on data – they are ying and yang to each other. We use data to train algorithms, then we use the algorithms to process more data.

The Microsoft Data Platform is about analytics and data driving a new wave of insights and opening up possibilities for new ways of working.

James Watt’s 18th Century steam engine led to an industrial revolution. The intelligent cloud is today’s version – moving us to the intelligence revolution.

3 Blockchain

Bitcoin is just one implementation of something known as the Blockchain. In this case as a digital currency.

But Blockchain is not just for monetary transactions – it’s more than that. It can be used for anything transactional. Blockchain is about a distributed ledger. Effectively, it allows parties to trust one another without knowing each other. The ledger is a record of every transaction, signed and tamper-proof.

The magic about Blockchain is that as the chain gets longer so does the entropy and the encryption level – effectively, the more the chain is used, the more secure it gets. That means infinite integrity.

(Read more in Jamie Skella’s “A blockchain explaination your parents could understand”.)

Blockchain is seen as strategic by Microsoft and by the UK government and it’s early days but we will see where people want to talk about integrity and data resilience with integrity. Databases – anything transactional – can be signed with blockchain.

A group of livestock farmers in Arkansas is using blockchain technology so customers can tell where their dinner comes from. They are applying blockchain technology to trace products from ‘farm to fork’ aiming to provide consumers with information about the origin and quality of the meat they buy.

Blockchain is finding new applications in the enterprise and Microsoft has announced the CoCo Framework to improve performance, confidentiality and governance characteristics of enterprise blockchain networks (read more in Simon Bisson’s article for InfoWorld). There’s also Blockchain as a service (in Azure) – and you can find more about Microsoft’s plans by reading up on “Project Bletchley”.

(BTW, Bletchley is a town in Buckinghamshire that’s now absorbed into Milton Keynes. Bletchley Park was the primary location of the UK Government’s wartime code-cracking efforts that are said to have shortened WW2 by around 2 years. Not a bad name for a cryptographic technology, hey?)

4 Into the third dimension

So we’ve had the ability to “print” in 3 dimensions for a while but now 3D is going further.Now we’re taking physical worlds into the virtual world and augmenting with information.

Microsoft doesn’t like the term augmented reality (because it’s being used for silly faces on photos) and they have coined the term mixed reality to describe taking untethered computing devices and creating a seamless overlap between physical and virtual worlds.

To make use of this we need to be able to scan and render 3D images, then move them into a virtual world. 3D is built into next Windows 10 release (the Fall Creators update, due on 17 October 2017). This will bring Paint 3D, a 3D Gallery, View 3D for our phones – so we can scan any object and import to a virtual world. With the adoption rates of new Windows 10 releases then that puts 3D on a market of millions of PCs.

This Christmas will see lots of consumer headsets in the market. Mixed reality will really take off after that. Microsoft is way ahead in the plumbing – all whilst we didn’t notice. They held their Hololens product back to be big in business (so that it wasn’t a solution without a problem). Now it can be applied to field worker scenarios, visualising things before they are built.

To give an example, recently, I had a builder quote for a loft extension at home. He described how the stairs will work and sketched a room layout – but what if I could have visualised it in a headset? Then imagine picking the paint, sofas, furniture, wallpaper, etc.

The video below shows how Ford and Microsoft have worked together to use mixed reality to shorten and improve product development:

5 The new dawn of artificial intelligence

All of the legends of AI are set by sci-fi (Metropolis, 2001 AD, Terminator). But AI is not about killing us all! Humans vs. machines? Deep Blue beating people at Chess, Jeopardy, then Google taking on Go. Heading into the economy and displacing jobs. Automation of business process/economic activity. Mass unemployment?

Let’s take a more optimistic view! It’s not about sentient/thinking machines or giving human rights to machines. That stuff is interesting but we don’t know where consciousness comes from!

AI is a toolbox of high-value tools and techniques. We can apply these to problems and appreciate the fundamental shift from programming machines to machines that learn.

Ai is not about programming logical steps – we can’t do that when we’re recognising images, speech, etc. Instead, our inspiration is biology, neural networks, etc. – using maths to train complex layers of neural networks led to deep learning.

Image recognition was “magic” a few years ago but now it’s part of everyday life. Nvidia’s shares are growing massively due to GPU requirements for deep learning and autonomous vehicles. And Microsoft is democratising AI (in its own applications – with an intelligent cloud, intelligent agents and bots).

NVIDIA Corporation stock price growth fuelled by demand for GPUs

So, about those bots…

A bot is a web app and a conversational user interface. We use them because natural language processing (NLP) and AI are here today. And because messaging apps rule the world. With bots, we can use Human language as a new user interface; bots are the new apps – our digital assistants.

We can employ bots in several scenarios today – including customer service and productivity – and this video is just one example, with Microsoft Cortana built into a consumer product:

The device is similar to Amazon’s popular Echo smart speaker and a skills kit is used to teach Cortana about an app; Ask “skillname to do something”. The beauty of Cortana is that it’s cross-platform so the skill can show up wherever Cortana does. More recently, Amazon and Microsoft have announced Cortana-Alexa integration (meanwhile Siri continues to frustrate…)

AI is about augmentation, not replacement. It’s true that bots may replace humans for many jobs – but new jobs will emerge. And it’s already here. It’s mainstream. We use recommendations for playlists, music, etc. We’re recognising people, emotions, etc. in images. We already use AI every day…

6 From silicon to cells

Every cell has a “programme” – DNA. And researchers have found that they can write code in DNA and control proteins/chemical processes. They can compile code to DNA and execute, creating molecular circuits. Literally programming biology.

This is absolutely amazing. Back when I was an MVP, I got the chance to see Microsoft Research talk about this in Cambridge. It blew my mind. That was in 2010. Now it’s getting closer to reality and Microsoft and the University of Washington have successfully used DNA for storage:

The benefits of DNA are that it’s very dense and it lasts for thousands of years so can always be read. And we’re just storing 0s and 1s – that’s much simpler than what DNA stores in nature.

7 Quantum computing

With massive data storage… the next step is faster computing – that’s where Quantum computing comes in.

I’m a geek and this one is tough to understand… so here’s another video:

Quantum computing is starting to gain momentum. Dominated by maths (quantum mechanics), it requires thinking in equations, not translating into physical things in your head. It has concepts like superposition (multiple states at the same time) and entanglement. Instead of gates being turned on/off it’s about controlling particles with nanotechnology.

A classical 2 bit on-off takes 2 clock cycles. One quantum bit (a Qubit) has multiple states at the same time. It can be used to solve difficult problems (the RSA 2048 challenge problem would take a billion years on a supercomputer but just 100 seconds on a 250-bit quantum computer). This can be applied to encryption and security, health and pharma, energy, biotech, environment, materials and engineering, AI and ML.

There’s a race for quantum computing hardware taking place and China sees this as a massively strategic direction. Meanwhile, the UK is already an academic centre of excellence – now looking to bring quantum computing to market. We’ll have usable devices in 2-3 years (where “usable” means that they won’t be cracking encryption, but will have initial applications in chemistry and biology).

Microsoft Research is leading a consortium called Station Q and, later this year, Microsoft will release a new quantum computing programming language, along with a quantum computing simulator. With these, developers will be able to both develop and debug quantum programs implementing quantum algorithms.

Predicting the future?

Amazon, Google and Microsoft each invest over $12bn p.a. on R&D. As demonstrated in the video above, their datacentres are not something that many organisations can afford to build but they will drive down the cost of computing. That drives down the cost for the rest of us to rent cloud services, which means more data, more AI – and the cycle continues.

I’ve shared 7 “technology bets” (and there are others, like the use of Graphene) that I haven’t covered – my list is very much influenced by my work with Microsoft technologies and services. We can’t always predict the future but all of these are real… the only bet is how big they are. Some are mainstream, some are up and coming – and some will literally change the world.

Credit: Thanks to Rob Fraser at Microsoft for the initial inspiration – and to Alun Rogers (@AlunRogers) for helping place some of these themes into context.

Last Orders at The Fantastic Tavern (#TFTLondon)

About a year ago, I wrote about a fantastic concept called The Fantastic Tavern (TFT), started by Matt Bagwell (@mattbagwell) of EMC Consulting (ex-Conchango – where I also have some history). Since then I’ve been to a few more TFTs (and written about them here) and they’ve got bigger, and bigger. What was a few people in a pub is now a major logistical challenge and Matt’s decided to call it a day. But boy did it go out with a bang?!

Last night’s TFT was at Ravensbourne (@RavensbourneUK) – a fantastic mixture of education and business innovation hub on London’s Greenwich peninsula. I was blown away by what Chris Thompson and the team at Ravensbourne have achieved, so I’ll write about that another day. Suffice to say, I wish my university had worked like that…

Last night’s topic was 2012 trends. Personally, I thought the Top Gear-style cool wall (“sooo last year, tepid, cool, sub-zero”) was way off the mark (in terms of placing the trends) but that doesn’t really matter – there were some great pitches from the Ravensbourne students and other invited speakers – more than I can do justice to in a single blog post so I’ll come back and edit this later as the presentations go online (assuming that they will!)

The evening was introduced by Mike Short, VP of Innovation and R&D at O2/Telefonica who also sits on the board of governors at Ravensbourne and so is intimately involved in taking an institution with its rooms in Bromley College of Art (of David Bowie fame) from Chiselhurst to provide art, design, fashion, Internet and multimedia education on Greenwich Peninsular, next to the most visited entertainment venue in the world (The O2 – or North Greenwich Arena). Mike spoke about O2’s plans for an new business incubator project that O2 is bringing to London in the next 3 months as O2 looks at taking the world’s 6bn mobile device subscribers (not just phones, but broadband, payment systems, etc.) to connect education, healthcare, transport and more. In an industry that’s barely 25 years old, by the end of the year there will be more devices than people (the UK passed this point in 2006) and the market is expected to grow to more than 20bn customers by 2020.

Matt then spoke about the omni-channel world in which we live (beyond multi-channel) – simultaneously interacting on all channels and fuelling a desire “to do things faster”.

Moving on to the 2012 trends, we saw:

  • A. Craddock talking about smart tags – RFID and NFC tokens that can interact with our mobile devices and change their behaviour (e.g. switch to/from silent mode).  These can be used to simplify our daily routine to simply enable/disable functionality, share information, make payments, etc. but we also need to consider privacy (location tracking, etc. – opt in/out), openness (may be a benefit for some), ecology (printable tags using biodegradable materials) and device functionality (i.e. will they work with all phones – or just a subset of smartphones).
  • Riccie Audrie-Janus (@_riccie) talking about how, in order to make good use of technology, we need to look at the people element first.  I was unconvinced – successful technology implementation is about people, process and technology and I don’t think it matters that kids don’t understand the significance of a floppy disk icon when saving a document – but she had some interesting points to make about our need to adapt to ever-more-rapidly developing technology as we progress towards an ever-more complex world where computing and biology combine.
  • @asenasen speaking about using DIY healthcare to help focus resources and address issues of population growth, economics and cost. Technology can’t replace surgeons but it can help people make better healthcare decisions with examples including: WebMD for self-diagnosis; PatientsLikeMe providing a social network; apps to interact with our environment and translate into health benefits (e.g. Daily Burn); peripheral devices like FitBit [Nike+, etc.] that interact with apps and present challenges. It’s not just in the consumer space either with Airstrip Technologies creating apps for healthcare professionals. Meanwhile, in the developing world SMS can be used (ChildCount), whilst in Japan new toilets are being developed that can, erhum, analyse our “output”.  Technology has the potential to transform personal health and enable the smart distribution of healthcare.
  • Matt Fox (@mattrfox) talked about 2012 becoming the year of the artist-entrepreneur, citing Louis CK as an example, talking about dangerous legislation like SOPA, YCombinator’s plans to “Kill Hollywood”, Megabox (foiled by the MegaUpload takedown) and Pirate Bay’s evolution of file sharing to include rapid prototype designs. Matt’s final point was that industry is curtaining innovation – and we need to innovate past this problem.
  • Chris Hall (@chrisrhall) spoke about “Grannies being the future” – using examples of early retirement leaving pensioners with money and an opportunity to become entrepreneurs (given life expectancy of 81 years for a man in the UK, and citing Trevor Baylis as an example). I think hit onto something here – we need to embrace experience to create new opportunities for the young, but I’m not sure how many more people will enjoy early retirement, or that there will be much money sloshing around from property as we increasingly find it necessary to have 35 year and even multi-generation mortgages.
  • James Greenaway (@jvgreenaway) talked about social accreditation – taking qualifications online, alongside our social personas. We gain achievements on our games consoles, casual games (Farmville), social media (Foursquare), crowdsourcing (Stack Overflow) etc. – so why not integrate that with education (P2PU, eHow and iTunes U) and open all of our achievements to the web. James showed more examples to help with reputation management (spider  graphs showing what we’re good at [maybe combined with a future of results-oriented working?]) and really sees a future for new ways of assessing and proving skills becoming accepted.
  • Ashley Pollak from ETIO spoke about the return of craft, as we turn off and tune out. Having only listened to Radio 4’s adaptation of Susan Maushart’s Winter of Our Disconnect the same day, I could relate to the need to step back from the always connected world and find a more relevant, less consuming experience. And as I struggle to balance work and this blog post this morning I see advantages in reducing the frequency of social media conversations but increasing the quality!
  • Ravensbourne’s Chris Thompson spoke about virtual innovation – how Cisco is creating a British Innovation Gateway to connect incubators and research centres of excellence – and how incubation projects can now be based in the cloud and are no longer predicated on where a university is located, but where ideas start and end.
  • The next pitch was about new perspectives – as traditional photography dies (er… not on my watch) in favour of new visual experiences. More than just 3D but plenoptic (or light field) cameras, time of flight cameras, depth sensors, LIDAR and 3D scanning and printing. There are certainly some exciting things happening (like Tesco Augmented Reality) – and the London 2012 Olympics will e filmed in 3D and presented in interactive 360 format.
  • Augment and Mix was a quick talk about how RSA Animate talks use a technique called scribing to take content that is great, but maybe not that well presented, and make it entertaining by re-interpreting/illustrating. Scribing may be “sooo last year” but there are other examples too – such as “Shakespeare in 90 seconds” and “Potted Potter”.
  • Lee Morgenroth’s (@leemailme‘s) pitch was for Leemail – a system that allows private addresses to be used for web sign-ups (one per site) and then turned on/off at will. My more-technically minded friends say “I’ve been doing that for years with different aliases” – personally I just use a single address and a decent spam filter (actually, not quite as good since switching from GMail to Office 365) – but I think Lee may be on to something for non-geeks… let’s see!
  • Finally, we saw a film from LS:N profiling some key trends from the last 10 years, as predicted and in reality (actually, I missed most of that for a tour of Ravensbourne!)

There were some amazing talks and some great ideas – I certainly took a lot away from last night in terms of inspiration so thank you to all the speakers. Thanks also to Matt, Michelle (@michelleflynn) and everyone else involved in making last night’s TFT (and all the previous events) happen. It’s been a blast – and I look forward to seeing what happens next…

[I rushed this post out this morning but fully intend to come back and add more links, videos, presentations, etc. later – so please check back next week!]

Brave new world

One of the advantages of spending most of yesterday in bed nursing a dose of man-flu was that I got to catch up with some tech-related TV including Channel 4’s Brave New World with Stephen Hawking (via the 4oD app for iPad). The episodes I watched focused on Machines, Health, Technology[,] and the Environment (the final episode in the series is focused on biology and will be broadcast next week) [and biology] – with each one including five new technologies that have the potential to change our world, presented by prominent scientists like professors Kathy Sykes and Lord Robert Winston.

As someone who spends a good chunk of his time thinking about the future application of technology (in an enterprise IT context), it was good to see the application of technology to much broader problems and here are the topics I saw covered:

  • Machines:
  • Health:
    • 75% of new human diseases cross from the animal/plant world to humans and the effect is exacerbated by increased communications (for example, it’s thought that HIV crossed over from SIV in the 1880s but was effectively contained until the 1980s). In Cameroon and elsewhere, the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative is looking to find new diseases before they cross over, potentially alleviating the greatest threat to mankind.
    • At St Thomas’ Hospital in London, biorobotics are being used to provide a less invasive approach to cardiac surgery. Advanced X-ray/MRI scanning is used to build a three-dimensional “roadmap” which can then guide a catheter to act on difficult-to-reach areas of the body with high frequency radio waves. Eventually, it is hoped that software can replace surgeons in the operation/guidance of the robotic procedure, increasing the number of operations that may be performed.
    • Some scientists are experimenting with optogenetics to take photo-sensitive properties from some cells and apply them to others then control them with light. It’s hoped that this ability to target and control parts of the brain may be used to treat brain disorders and even common mental illnesses such as anxiety and stress, where treatments based on drugs are less than ideal.
    • Every 30 seconds, somewhere in the world, a child dies from Malaria and, whilst insecticides and drugs are available, they are expensive and often its an easily-damaged net that forms the first line of defence. At Columbia University in New York, scientists have found that they can use a light barrier to repel mosquitoes that might lead to the creation of a high-tech laser mosquito net. Elsewhere, scientists are experimenting with genetic modification of mosquito so that they can’t even carry the Malaria parasite.
    • Current forms of cancer treatment affect not just the cancerous cells but healthy ones too. At the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, scientists are working towards a new era of personalised medicines and smart-drugs that act on cancer at the genetic level. Unfortunately, not all mutations have drugs so it’s not a universal cure for cancer but treatments like this can be used to help people to live with cancer.
  • Technology:
    • At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists studying Reality Mining believe that that, by understanding our behaviour, they may help us to live happier, healthier or easier lives. The key to this is the data about our personal movements and activities – but people are generally not too keen on the idea of “big brother” watching. The scientists at MIT believe that, by treating our information like a commodity, we may each own the data about ourselves and this presumption of ownership leads to a different balance of power.
    • Most manufacturing involves shaping raw materials to create the desired object, typically hewn out of a solid block. Additive manufacturing (commonly known as 3D printing) takes a design and builds it layer by layer. This allows more complex/efficient shapes to be created with minimum material use. One day maybe we will be able to just pop into our local 3D print shop to create spare parts for our washing machine, car, computer, etc.?
    • With the closure of NASA’s Shuttle programme, it’s hoped that private space exploration may provide the means to transport people and cargo into space. Founded by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is the first private company to put a craft into orbit and return it intact and hopes to be the next step in enabling humans to move towards a multi-planetary existence.
    • Abu Dhabi is both built on, and dependant upon, oil but on the outskirts of this city a new city is being created. At a cost of $18bn, Masdar will house 40,000 people and aims to be the most sustainable city on earth. Transportation is sub-surface, with driverless electric capsules (personal rapid transport), not unlike the pods at London’s Heathrow Airport guided by GPS and running on pre-determined routes/speed. Street level is reserved for pedestrians, with traditional Arab low-rise buildings and narrow shady streets. Wind towers catch air and bring it down to street level (no need for air conditioning) and the largest solar power plant in the middle east (with 88,000 solar power panels – and a new “beam down” solar concentrator project in development) creates all the electricity that is required, and more. The aim is that the technologies showcased at Masdar can be taken to other cities around the world.
    • Neutrinos or “ghost particles” flow around and through us at around the speed of light as a product of the sun’s nuclear fusion. The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) has been created 2km below ground in order to avoid interference from cosmic rays, studying their reaction with heavy water and to help us understand how the sun is working.
  • Environment:
    • The Frozen Ark is aiming to save the genomes of endangered species of wildlife, 10,000 examples of which are expected to become extinct overt the next 30-50 years.
    • As out ever-growing population places new demands on the planet, around a third of our land mass is used for livestock production. At Maastrict University, scientists are “growing” in-vitro “meat”. As it’s more than 70% meat, it can be used as a processed meat product and consumed by humans under existing regulations but it’s still expensive and lacks the favour, texture and taste of real meat. Nevertheless, it could provide a method to produce meat for processed foodstuffs in the near future.
    • It’s expected that our energy usage will double by 2050 but with fossil fuels running out, nuclear under the spotlight and renewables unlikely to fill the gap, we need a new power source. Scientists believe that source may come from nuclear fusion. Unlike fission (splitting the atom), which requires the burning of heavy metals, available in limited supply, and creating radioactive waste products, fusion combines lightweight atoms (e.g. hydrogen) and, whilst it needs a lot of energy it releases more. The US National Ignition Facility has the world’s largest laser, split into 192 beams that can be fired onto a tiny pellet to generate tremendous amounts of energy.
    • Many of our planet’s problems are man-made but there are also natural forces at work – such as those when solar winds interact with the earth’s magnetic field (“space weather”). We our society based on complex electrical networks, we’re more vulnerable than ever but a new NASA satellite allows us to view the sun’s activity using different wavelengths of light and develop an early warning system.
    • Just as the Frozen Ark is storing animal genomes, the Millennium Seed Bank is aiming to store the seeds of plant life facing extinction. Each seed is cleaned, dried, x-rayed to check for an embryo, damaged seeds are discarded and healthy seeds are stored in a glass container at -20°C along with growing instructions for future generations (e.g. some seeds do not grow in soil/water but need smoke to trigger germination).
  • [Biology:
    • In central America, scientists from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups are looking to harness the power of bacteria to help defeat one of humanity’s greatest killers. By taking the toxins created by a bacterium that grows in the ocean, they have successfully killed breast cancer cells and it’s thought that the ocean could provide scope to further expand the frontier of medical science.
    • By combining biology and engineering, we can harness natural processes to work for us in what is known as synthetic biology. In the past this has been used to create paints, petrochemicals and plastics but now it could be used for fuel and medicines. In one example, at the Joint Bioenergy Institute, scientists are successfully altering the genetic make-up of e-coli bacterium before feeding them with plant cellulose, to create sugars that are then metabolised into biodiesel.
    • Medical research is also pushing the boundaries to allow our bodies to heal themselves. At the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, scientists are researching the use of extra cellular matrix (ECM) – a structure that can be used for the body to build/rebuild itself. Used as a “scaffold” upon which bodies are built in the worm, ECM also helps small children to heal but then stops working. By using ECM to recruit stem cells and build healthy tissue instead of scar tissue, it’s possible to overcome horrific injuries. In another example, regenerative cardiologists at the University of Texas have performed open heart surgery on mice, removing part of the heart and watching it grow back, after observing that heart cells continue to beat (and multiple) outside the body (in the first few days of life). Whilst this is still some way off a human application, in the future it may provide the key to new treatments for human cardiac diseases.
    • Much of the research performed by geneticists is concerned with fixing what’s wrong but advances can also come from looking at what’s right with our bodies. In San Diego, scientists are examining why some people (dubbed the “welderly”) are living into their 70s and 80s without encountering any serious diseases, regardless of their lifestyle. It appears that, whilst there is no gene to help us live longer, there may be one that controls dying sooner and that manipulation of this may provide opportunities to prevent age-related damage to our bodies, although with a growing population there are some moral issues to address around increasing human lifespans.
    • It also appears that our lifestyle can affect not just ourselves but also our children and our childrens’ children. Studies into epigenetics have shown that there is a correlation between early (pre-pubescent) smoking fathers and obesity in sons, regardless of social circumstances. Furthermore, overeating in pre-adolescence can impact the next generation. In females, stress during pregnancy has been shown to negatively impact cognitive ability and to increase emotional difficulties encountered by children. It seems that the lifestyle we choose not only sets and example but can also have a biological effect on health – i.e. that our environment controls us, not the other way around.]

If you think these topics sound interesting, you may just catch the programmes on 4oD but the whole series is also available to download from iTunes.

[Updated 21 November 2011: including details from the last programme in the series]