The Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, which brings together the best “futurologists” in the world, has drawn up a map of biology and science in 2021. Here’s what we should expect in ten years.
The job of the futurologist is not easy: the risk of being proven wrong by the facts is quite high. Not only. Many predictions about the future of the 2000s predicted, fifty years ago, flying cars and men on Mars, but none of this happened, while very few had imagined the information revolution, the Internet and the interconnected world that resulted from it. But to try this time are not just any people: “The Institute for the future”, despite its somewhat sci-fi name, is an American think-tank that brings together the best experts in trends and forecasts over the medium and long term.
Its headquarters are in Palo Alto, California, in the Silicon Valley that created the digital revolution and promises to give us new wonders. Born in 1968 as a spin-off of the RAND Corporation, the very powerful organization that has guided American scientific, technological and economic development from the post-war period to today, the Institute has today produced a futuristic map of the state of scientific discoveries in 2021.
The map has as a background the universe and six great “regions” highlighted, corresponding to as many large areas of science that will be affected by rapid evolution over the next ten years. The work is the result of the opinions of more than a dozen scientists from the University of Berkeley, Stanford, California – Santa Cruz, Scripps Research Institute, SETI and private industries.
The Wonders of the Human Brain
The first macro-area concerns the brain. The latest frontiers in this field are many. For example, the ‘machine learning: a branch of artificial intelligence studies that seeks to mimic human learning and has already led to encouraging developments such as speech text recognition systems or the ability to train a computer to drive a vehicle on a road frequented by motor vehicles human-led (as such, unpredictable). In the future, experts assure, machine learning will be able to merge with cognitive science, with the possibility of creating artificial intelligences capable of imitating the human learning system. Consciousness, the great mystery of neurology, can be revealed thanks to the application of quantum physics: a field explored by several frontier scholars.
The brain will thus become an open book, also thanks to the possibility of using scanners capable of “reading” our mind and reproducing memories, images, dreams and real “mental films”. A research just published in Current Biology designed by some of Berkeley scientists showed that already today it is possible to reconstruct, in broad terms, the processed images from the brain of a person through functional magnetic resonance imaging. Another possible major discovery will enable specific neurons to be turned on or off through optogenetics, a new field of research that studies the brain through optical techniques. By applying a LED in the brain, it will be possible to “suffocate” depression or other more severe neurological problems.
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Another promising sector is those of “Massively Multiplayer Data”. You know the massively multiplayer games? These are sophisticated online computer games that support the participation of tens of thousands of players at the same time. Well, scientists believe they can also apply this method to data sharing. The possibility is to make a large amount of data from different sources interact with each other: data that can be manipulated and lead to the discovery of new branches of science. Instead of an increasingly sectoral and specialized science, we will have new interdisciplinary sectors that connect together scientific data and knowledge from different sectors – physics, biology, chemistry, computer science – to make new discoveries.
Genetic Engineering and New Materials
Human evolution will be driven by genetic engineering. In this field, the applications of the new research sectors are truly science fiction: they range from the possibility of creating new artificial life forms to that of programming organisms as software is programmed today. Those who fear nightmarish developments, on the Frankenstein model, will have to change their mind: in this way it will be possible to cure almost all known diseases. This will also be possible thanks to the mapping of the microbiome , that is the set of microorganisms that live in our body, such as those of the intestinal tract, which could be the cause of various diseases, but above all thanks to epigenetics.
In fact, in recent years, the most revolutionary discovery in genetics has been the one that has shown how our genetic heritage can be modified by the external environment. Longevity, for example, can be influenced by the lifestyle of our parents: an unregulated diet or a life subjected to severe stress can even modify our DNA with unpredictable consequences. The epigenetics will allow in the near future, provide scientists, real-time disclose any changes made by the external environment to our genes. This will make it possible to act quickly to prevent these changes from compromising our health and that of our descendants.
Materials of the Future
And what about the chemistry of the new materials? The most sci-fi application will be that of metamaterials on which several laboratories are working, and which will make invisibility possible. A technology with great military applications, of course, so perhaps very unappetizing: do not expect to find invisibility cloaks on the market. Teleportation will make a qualitative leap: from the current teleportation of atoms we will pass to that of complex molecules.
The possibility of teleporting human beings from one part of the world to another will probably remain impossible, but in the future we may be able to send objects of a certain complexity from one end of the planet to the other. The so-called “DNA origami” will not be used to create cute paper boats, but to develop nano-chips the size of a DNA molecule capable of processing the information of a silicon chip, further reducing the size of our processors and increasing their speed. That is, we will have “DNA computers”!
From the Depths of the Ocean to the Depths of the Cosmos
Great discoveries will also come from the oceans. The sea will be the new frontier of the near future: we will learn to know it better by concluding the classification of animal species present in the ocean depths and the millimeter mapping of the seabed. But above all, the fuel will come from the sea to produce the energy of the future. If and when nuclear fusion becomes a reality, the main fuel for clean nuclear reactions will be deuterium. Where to find it? Nothing could be easier: each liter of water contains 33 mg of deuterium; the terrestrial oceans guarantee us a reserve of deuterium equal to 10,000,000,000 Q, where Q represents the current annual world energy requirement. So, we’ll be fine for the next ten billion years …
And finally, space. According to the Institute for the Future, within the next ten years we will discover the existence of extraterrestrial life. A prediction shared by many scientists, according to which the improvement of radio astronomy, exobiology and the discovery of extra-solar planets will allow us to ascertain within a few years whether life outside the Earth exists or is much rarer than we imagine. Important results will come from the International Space Station in the field of zero gravity biology: new medicines and discoveries made in zero gravity may be useful for our health. Space will become more and more accessible to everyone: the development of new launch technologies will make access to Earth’s orbit easier and will allow the creation of “customized” satellites, at a cost of just 1,000 euros.
Will this really be the world we’ll live in ten years from now? To find out, we just have to wait.