Brave new world

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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]