The year 2010 doesn’t seem like it was a long time ago, but technology is constantly evolving. Ten years ago, Tinder, Uber, and Instagram didn’t even exist. No one wore wearables, no one talked to their gadgets at home, and Tesla was just a concept. Back then, scientists were still searching for the Higgs Boson, Pluto was a mysterious blur orb just out of sight, and genetic editing was still just a theoretical idea, not a realistic one.
The next decade is likely to move even faster. So here’s our tour of new trends in science and technology to look out for this decade.
1. Synthetic media will undermine reality
You probably know about deepfake technology by now, where someone’s face is transformed into an existing video scene. But deep fakes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to synthetic media –a much larger phenomenon of super-realistic, artificially generated photos, text, sound, and video that were created to shake our notions of what is actually ‘real’ over the next decade.
Take a look at thispersondoesnotexist.com. Hit the refresh button a couple of times. None of the faces you see are real. Shockingly realistic, they are entirely synthetic–generated by generative adversarial networks, the same kind of artificial intelligence behind many deepfakes.
Such fake images demonstrate just how far digital technologies have come over the last few years. Elsewhere, China’s Xinhua State News Agency offered insight into potential uses of synthetic media –computer-generated news anchors. While the results are a bit clunky, they indicate a direction where things might be heading. Although these synthetic media have the potential for an explosion in innovation, they also have the potential for harm by supplying fake news sources and state-sponsored propaganda with fresh, highly malleable means of communication.
2. There will be a revolution in cloud robotics
Until now, robots have been carrying their feeble brains inside them. They’ve been given instructions–such as rivet this, or move this –and they’ve done it pretty well. Not only that, but they worked in places such as factories and warehouses specially built or modified for them.
Cloud robotics is offering something completely new; superbrain robots stored in the online cloud. The idea is that these robots, with their intellectual clout, will be more versatile in the jobs they do, and in the locations they can work, and may even speed up their arrival in our homes. Both Google Cloud and Amazon Cloud have robot brains that are learning and developing inside them. The dream behind cloud robotics is to build robots that can see, hear, understand natural language, and understand the world around them.
Robo Brain, a research project led by researchers at Stanford and Cornell University in the US, is one of the leading players in cloud robotics research. Funded by Google, Microsoft, government agencies, and universities, the team is developing a robot brain on the Amazon cloud, studying how to combine different software systems and various data sources.
Another one to watch is the Everyday Robot Project, X, the Moonshot Factory at Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The project focuses on developing robots that are smart enough to make sense of where we live and work. They ‘re also making headway – testing cloud robots at Alphabet offices in Northern California. So far, the tasks are basic, such as sorting recycling but it’s the form of the robots to come.
3. Diseases will be edited out of our DNA
The birth of the first gene-edited children in the world sparked controversy back in 2018. The twin girls whose genomes were tampered with during IVF procedures had modified their DNA using the CRISPR gene-editing technology to protect them from HIV. CRISPR uses a bacterial enzyme to target and break down certain DNA sequences. The Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, who led the work, was sent to prison for failing to comply with safety guidelines and for failing to obtain informed consent.
But in ethically sound experiments, CRISPR is prepared to treat life-threatening conditions. Before the controversy, Chinese scientists implanted CRISPR-edited immune cells into a patient to help them fight lung cancer. By 2018, two US trials using similar techniques were up and running in different types of cancer patients, with three patients confirmed to have received their modified immune cells back. Gene-editing is still being tested as a cure for inherited blood sickle cell anemia, and an ongoing trial will collect and edit stem cells from patients’ own blood.
4. We will begin to see living machines
Synthetic biologists have been redesigning their lives for decades now, but so far they have mostly been messing about with single cells–a kind of souped-up version of genetic modification. In 2010, Craig Venter and his team developed the first synthetic cell based on a bug able to infect goats. Four years later, one of the first products of the synthetic biology era entered the market when the drug company Sanofi started distributing malaria drugs made from re-engineered yeast cells.
Nowadays, however, biologists are beginning to find ways to organize single cells into collectives able to perform simple tasks. They are tiny machines, or ‘xenobots,’ as the biologist Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont refers to them. The aim is to ‘piggyback’ on the hard work of nature that has been building tiny machines for millions and millions of years.
Bongard’s team is currently developing xenobots with ordinary skin and heart cells from frog embryos, creating machines based on prototypes etched on a supercomputer. It was only by mixing these two types of cells that machines were designed capable of crawling across the bottom of the petri dish, pushing a small pellet around, and even cooperating.
“If you build a bunch of these xenobots and sprinkle the petri dish with pellets, in some cases they act like little sheepdogs and push these pellets into neat piles,” Bongard says.
Their computer runs a simple evolutionary algorithm that originally generates random designs and rejects more than 99 percent of them – selecting only those designs that are able to perform the required task in a virtual version of a petri dish. As Bongard confirms, scientists still need to turn the fully completed designs into reality, layering and sculpting the cells by hand. This part of the process could ultimately be automated using 3D printing or techniques to manipulate cells using electrical fields.
We can’t yet call these xenobots living organisms, though, for instance, they don’t eat or reproduce. Since they cannot use food, they also ‘die,’ or at least decompose, and quickly, which means that there is no obvious danger to the environment or people. Pairing this approach with more conventional synthetic biology techniques could, however, lead to the development of new multicellular organisms able to perform difficult tasks. For example, they could behave as biodegradable drug delivery machines and, if made from human cells, they would also be biocompatible, avoiding adverse immune reactions.
But that’s not all. “In future work,” says Bongard, “we’re looking at adding additional cell types, maybe like nervous tissue, so these xenobots would be able to think.”
5. Silicon Valley will try to go carbon negative
A rapid transition away from using fossil fuels is what is required if we’re going to maintain the average global temperature increase within the 1.5°C window required to avoid the worst effects of climate change. But that’s not all we can do. Rather than trying to reduce our carbon emissions, there is scope to effectively remove them from the atmosphere.
That’s what Microsoft officially confirmed it would start doing when the software giant launched 2020 by unveiling its intention to be carbon-negative by 2030. But that’s not all; Microsoft also said that by 2050, it plans to “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975.”
Achieving this goal will take more than just switching to renewable energy sources, electrifying its fleet of vehicles, and planting new forests. Microsoft is, therefore, monitoring the development of negative emission technologies, including carbon capture and storage bioenergy (BECCS) and direct air capture (DAC).
BECCS uses trees and crops for carbon capture as they grow. Trees and plants are then burnt to produce electricity, but carbon emissions are captured and stored deep underground. DAC utilizes fans to draw air through filters that remove carbon dioxide, which can then be stored underground or potentially transformed into a type of low-carbon synthetic fuel.
Both methods appear promising but have yet to reach a point where they are functional or cost-effective on a scale that is essential for them to have a significant effect on climate change. Microsoft’s desire, as well as that of everyone else looking to change the tide of the climate crisis, is that these innovations, and others, will continue to evolve in the years to come to a point that makes them effective.
6. Pests will be driven off without cruelty
The elimination of pests is another potential use for gene-editing. Dubbed “gene drives,” self-replicating edits based on CRISPR technology could have devastated entire populations. In laboratory trials, the recently introduced DNA often makes one sex sterile, duplicating itself to infect both copies of the animal’s chromosomes so that it is passed on to all its offspring.
Some mosquitoes have developed resistance to gene-driven mutations, but researchers believe that they will be able to remove the technique as long as they identify the right genes. For safety, scientists are designing ‘override’ drives capable of reversing the edits.
In a 2018 paper, researchers at the Edinburgh Roslin Institute, which created the first cloned sheep (“Dolly”), suggested that gene drives could humanely address the Australian cane toad issue. Toxic toads were introduced from Hawaii in 1935 and have killed almost anything that has tried to eat them since then. The same scientists are proposing to control grey squirrels with gene drives in order to save the native reds of the United Kingdom.
7. We will take mushrooms with us to space
If we’re going to have to leave Earth and take up residency elsewhere in the world, do you know what we need to take with us? Mushrooms. Yes, you’ve heard right. Or to be more specific, fungal spores. Not to feed us on the flight over there, but to grow our houses with them. This is the thinking behind NASA ‘s project of myco-architecture.
The Space Agency is planning a plan to create buildings made of Mars fungi. According to astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild, who works on the project, it’s a no-brainer when you take into account the cost of launching a full-size building into space, versus some virtually weightless life-forms that happen to be natural builders. “We want to take as little as possible with us and be able to use the resources there,” she says.
Many fungi, such as mushrooms, grow and spread using mycelia – networks of thread-like tendrils that form robust materials capable, with minimal encouragement, of growing to fill any container. On Earth, fungi-manufactured structures are already used to make packaging for bottles of wine and as particle board-like materials, and Rothschild suggests that they may also be used for growing refugee shelters. On Mars, the species will need a little water to get going, which could come from melting ice, plus a source of food.
The researchers foresee that they will be deployed in large bags that would be inflated upon landing to provide a container to fill. These bags would contain a dried food source and would deliver the added benefit of preventing the contamination of alien fungi in the atmosphere. Once the structures were finished growing, the heating element would be activated and the mycelium network would be baked like bread to harden it.
Yet if you picture organic-looking buildings with walls sprouting toadstools and orchids, think again. Rothschild ‘s existing materials are more “like whole-wheat bread left out,” but she claims they could be brightened by introducing color pigments by genetic modifications. Rothschild already has a myco-made stool in her office, which took her students about two weeks to grow up, and the team has plans for full-scale constructions. But for future space missions, they would like to send an advanced robots party to do the work for them.
“When I travel, I want a hotel to go to,” says Rothschild. “I don’t want to arrive at an airport and they say ‘we’re going to build the hotel tonight’ and so I think the ideal situation would be to send precursor missions where these things were erected.”
8. Paralyzed patients will walk again
Paralyzed patients who are lucky enough to have been registered in clinical trials are already walking again thanks to fast-moving neurotechnology. In 2018, Swiss and UK scientists announced that they had placed nerve signal-boosting implants in the spines of three men paralyzed in road and sports accidents. All of them are now able to walk a small distance.
And only last year, in a genuinely science-fiction-style example, researchers at the Grenoble University Hospital in France used an exoskeleton to give a 28-year-old man back the use of his lower limbs after he fell and broke his neck. The man uses two 64-electrode brain implants to power the robot suit.
9. Natural language gadgets will get weird
The idea of controlling our devices through speech is becoming a reality, even though they can only process basic commands or inquiries and their speech patterns sound robotic. The next step is to get them to understand and respond in natural language–the kind of conversational exchanges people use.
Google appeared to have made strides by launching the Duplex system in 2018. An add-on to the Assistant app, Duplex uses more advanced forms of AI to understand and use natural language to book restaurant tables and hair appointments, or to inquire about business opening hours. If the booking could not be made online, the Assistant would be handed over to Duplex, who would call the restaurant.
According to reports, people talking to Duplex said they didn’t realize they were talking to a machine. The trouble was that Duplex often had difficulties and needed someone to step in. Despite this setback, Google and other developers are still working on ways to add natural language to our devices.
10. The human brain will be mapped
Understanding the human brain is a daunting job, but it has not prevented neuroscience from rising up to meet the goal. The Human Brain Project is one of the largest projects ever financed by the EU, the US $5 billion BRAIN initiative, and the more recently announced China Brain Project. One of the objectives of the US initiative launched in 2013 is to map all neurons in the brain as well as their connections. Starting with the brain of the mouse, the concept is to keep moving towards the same goal in humans.
It could “help us crack the code the brain uses to drive behavior,” says Joshua Gordon, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) project directors. However, he recognizes it won’t happen overnight. Take the Human Genome Project , for example, a simple map will not provide all the responses, and it may take many years to find out how the physical features of the brain correspond to memories, thoughts, actions, and emotions.
For starters, the ‘code’ of the brain cannot be written in a sequence of letters. According to Gordon, the first step is to develop a ‘parts list’ made up of various types of neurons, and then to map each of those parts in physical space. Apparently, the part list for mice is well underway, while the human version could take another 5 to 10 years. Yet understanding how these pieces generate actions is much more complicated.
“Each of those parts also then has a constellation of functions,” Gordon says. Sooner or later, there should be enough information on the map to understand how neurons function at the molecular level in certain brain circuits to produce behavior patterns. The technologies being developed along the way will also have a broader impact on neuroscience, including research into a wide range of brain disorders from epilepsy to Parkinson’s.
Rapid single-cell sequencing now allows scientists to quickly gather information from hundreds of thousands of individual neurons, highlighting the DNA that is switched on in each of them. In the meantime, imaging methods to study neurons in exquisite detail and monitor their behaviors in real-time are moving forward.
11. We will go to war with deepfakes
Deepfake videos have exploded online in the last two years. It’s where artificial intelligence ( AI) is used to swap one person’s image for another in a photo or video. Deeptrace, a company set up to fight this, says that between April and December 2019 in just eight months, deep fakes rocketed by 70 per cent to 17,000. Most of the fakes, around 96 percent, are pornography. Here, the face of a celebrity replaces the original. In its 2019 study, The State of Deepfakes, Deeptrace reports that the top four dedicated deep-fake porn sites produced 134,364,438 views.
Just as recently as five years ago, realistic video manipulation required expensive software and a lot of skill, so it was mainly the preserve of film studios. Now freely available AI algorithms, which have learned to make highly realistic fakes, will do all the technical work. All you need is a laptop with a graphics processing unit ( GPU).
The AI behind the fakes has been getting more sophisticated too. “The technology is really much better than last year,” says Associate Professor Luisa Verdoliva, part of the Image Processing Research Group at the University of Naples in Italy. “If you watch YouTube deepfake videos from this year compared to last year, they are much better.”
Extensive efforts are now being made within universities and business start-ups to counter deep vulnerabilities by perfecting AI-based detection systems and turning AI on its own. In September 2019, Facebook, Microsoft, Oxford University and a host of other universities teamed up to launch the Deepfake Detection Challenge with a view to supercharge research.
They pooled a large resource of deep-seated videos for researchers to challenge their detection systems. Facebook even stumped up $10 million for prizes and awards. Verdoliva is part of the Advisory Group on the Challenge and is conducting its own detection study. Her strategy is to use AI to detect the tell-tale signs –imperceptible to the human eye–that the images have been mixed with.
Each camera, including smartphones, leaves invisible patterns in the pixels when a picture is processed. “If a photo is manipulated using deep learning, the image doesn’t share these characteristics,” says Verdoliva. Each camera, including smartphones, leaves invisible patterns in the pixels when a picture is processed. Similar models have different patterns. So, when these invisible markings are gone, chances are it’s a profound flaw.
Many researchers have used different detection techniques, and while many of them can detect deep fakes produced in a similar way to those produced in their training data, the real challenge is to build a stealthy detection system that can detect deep fakes created using completely different techniques. The level to which deep fakes will invade our lives in the next few years will depend on how this AI arms race plays out. Right now, the detectors are playing catch-up.
12. Brain-machine interfaces will change the way we work (and walk)
Part of the promise of technology is that it will allow us to surpass our natural abilities. One of the places where this promise is most evident is the brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), devices implanted in your brain that detect and interpret neural signals to regulate computers or machines through thinking.
What is currently holding back BMIs, however, is the number of electrodes that can be safely inserted to detect brain activity and that, being metal, electrodes can damage brain tissue and ultimately corrode and stop working. But last July, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk announced that his company, Neuralink, could provide a solution. Not only does the Neuralink BMI claim that it uses more electrodes, it carries flexible polymer threads that are less likely to cause damage or corrode.
But it’s difficult to say for sure how realistic these claims are, as the company’s technology has remained tight-lipped. In fact, it has yet to be tested in humans. Exoskeletons are already being used, even without BMIs, to increase human capacity, particularly for people whose capacity may be limited due to illness or injury. At Hobbs Rehabilitation in Winchester, specialist physiotherapist Louis Martinelli uses an exoskeleton that straps on the patient’s back, hips, legs, and legs to help them stand and step.
“If the patient has had a really severe spinal cord injury, this is the only way to get them up and stepping sufficiently across the room,” he says. “It’s been shown to be really beneficial, particularly for blood pressure management, reducing the risk of vascular diseases, and bladder and bowel function.”
For the exoskeleton, only one or two physiotherapists are required to assist the patient, rather than a team of four or more. But this also helps the patient to do a lot more – taking a few hundred steps during a session instead of 10-20 in traditional therapy. Potential applications elsewhere–upper-body exoskeletons are being tested at the US Ford manufacturing plant to help individuals carry heavy car parts.
But as useful as low-body exoskeletons are, they are unlikely to replace wheelchairs anytime in the near future. That’s mainly because they’re struggling with uneven surfaces and can’t match walking speed, but it’s also because they’re so much more expensive. Wheelchair prices start at £ 150, while the exoskeleton can set you back anywhere between £90,000-£125,000. That’s why Martinelli would like technology to be a little easier and faster in the years to come.
“What I’d like to see is the availability of these pieces of equipment increase because they’re very expensive. For individuals to get access to an exoskeleton is really difficult, maybe a simpler version that was half the price would allow more centers or more places to have them.”
13. Machines will track your emotions
The aim of Emotion AI is to peer into our innermost feelings –and the tech is already here. Marketing firms are using it to gain extra insight into job applicants. Computer vision identifies facial expressions, while machine learning predicts underlying emotions. Progress is exciting, even though it’s definitely not easy to read someone’s emotions.
Professor Aleix Martinez, who was involved in the research, sums it up neatly, “not everyone who smiles is happy, and not everyone who is happy smiles.” It is examining whether emotional AI can determine motive–something crucial to many criminal cases. “The implications are enormous,” he says.
14. Your AI psychiatrist will see you now
Social and health systems are under pressure wherever you are in the world. As a result, physicians are interested primarily in how smartphones can be used to diagnose and monitor patients. Of course, a smartphone won’t replace a doctor, but given that we carry these devices are with us almost every moment of the day and they can track our every action, it would be a shame to use this ability for good.
There are already several trials underway. MindLAMP can compare a battery of psychological tests with health tracking apps to keep an eye on your well-being and mental ability. The screenome project wants to see how the way you use your phone impacts your mental health, while the Mindstrong app says it can diagnose depression just by swiping and scrolling around your phone.
15. We will set foot on the Moon (and maybe Mars)
Are we going to see astronauts set foot on the Moon in the next decade? It’s likely. What’s about Mars? Definitely not. But if NASA ‘s plans come to an end, astronauts will be visiting the Red Planet by the 2030s. There is no question about NASA ‘s intention to plant the astronaut’s feet on Mars. In one of its reports, NASA’s Journey to Mars, they explain that the mission would represent “the next tangible frontier for expanding the human presence.”
The aim is to use the Moon and a small space station in orbit around the Moon, the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, as a stepping stone, to allow the space agency to establish technologies that will support the 34 million-mile journey to the Red Planet. An independent study on NASA’s Martian aspirations sets out a timeline that involves astronauts setting foot on the Moon by 2028 and a mission to visit Mars less than a decade later, by 2037.
16. Privacy will really matter
Having spent much of the last decade handing over our data to the likes of Apple, Facebook, and Google via our smartphones, social media, and searches, it seems like people around the world, and the governments that represent them, are aware of the risks that these corporations know so much about us. The next 10 years do not seem to be any different, only now can we add fingerprints, genetic profiles, and facial scans to the list of data that we give to them.
With the number of data breaches – businesses failing to keep the data they hold safe–increasing every year, it’s only a matter of time before governments step in, or, as in the case of Apple, tech giants are beginning to sell us back the concept of personal privacy itself.
17. The internet will be everywhere
Among 5 G networks and the internet from Elon Musk’s StarLink satellites, the mobile internet will be much quicker and more widely distributed over the next decade. These new networks will empower entirely new fields of technology, from driverless cars, drone air traffic control to peer-to-peer virtual reality. But it’s not without disadvantages.
SpaceX intends to launch 12,000 satellites over the next few years to build its StarLink constellation, with thousands more deployed by other companies. More satellites mean more possibilities of collision and more space debris as a result. Satellites have also been shown to interact with astronomical observations and weather forecasting.
18. Underground cities will rise
With urban space so limited, sometimes the only option for those who can afford to expand their property is to go underground. Luxury basements are already a feature in several homes in London, but with urban populations expected to continue to expand, subterranean projects are starting to appear on a much larger scale.
One idea, still in the concept stage, is the ‘Earthscraper’ proposed for Mexico City. This 65-storey inverted pyramid was suggested as a means to provide office, retail, and residential space without having to destroy the historic buildings of the city or breach its 8-storey height restriction.
Nevertheless, several concerns remain as to the viability of such a project, such as how you provide energy, eliminate waste and protect people from fire or floods. Some of these questions could have been addressed with the development of an Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland hotel in China.
This 336-room luxury resort was built on the rock face of the 88m-deep, abandoned quarry that opened for business in November 2018. Singapore’s island city-state is also exploring its underground possibilities. Not only are its Jurong Rock Caverns in the process of becoming a subterranean storage facility for the nation’s oil reserves, but there are also plans to build a ‘Underground Science City’ for 4,200 scientists to carry out research and development.
The Lowline Project in New York is turning an abandoned subway station into a park. Expected to be opened in 2021, it uses a system of overground light-gathering dishes to bring enough light into underground space to grow plants, trees and grass.
19. We will continue to search for extra-terrestrial life
If all goes as planned, the first major mission of its Cosmic Vision program will be launched by the European Space Agency in May 2022. The JUpiter ICy Moons Explorer (or JUICE) will sling around Earth, Venus and Mars to pick up the speed it needs to elevate it to Jupiter. JUICE is expected to arrive at the gas giant in 2029, where the most extensive analysis of the planet is likely to begin to date.
“There are two goals,” explains Dr Giuseppe Sarri, the JUICE project manager. “One is to study Jupiter as a system. Jupiter is a gas giant with over 70 moons, and for our understanding of the formation of the Solar System, studying [what amounts to] a mini solar system is scientifically useful. We’ll study the atmosphere, magnetosphere and satellite system.”
It is important to remember that JUICE will not be looking for signs of life on these moons, just the right conditions to support it. In other words, to prove the presence of salty, liquid water below the surface of the ice.
“The second goal is to explore the three icy moons, Callisto, Ganymede and Europa. Because on those moons there could be conditions that can sustain life, either in the past, present or maybe in the future.”
“It’s a little bit like below Antarctica. In the water below the ice there are very primitive forms of life so conditions could be similar to what we have below our poles,” says Dr Sarri.
“If there’s a chance to have life in our Solar System, Europa and Ganymede are the places. Unfortunately JUICE won’t be able to see the life but it’ll take the first step in looking for it.”
JUICE may also shed light on the mystery of rings. “It looks as if all the giant planets have rings,” Dr Sarri explains. “In the past, astronomers only saw Saturn’s rings but then rings were found at Uranus, Jupiter, and Neptune. Understanding the dynamic of rings will help us understand the formation of these planets.”
20. Quantum computers will gain supremacy over supercomputers
Fantasies of manipulating the mysterious field of quantum mechanics to build super-powerful computers have been around since the 1980’s. But in 2019, something happened that made a lot of people sit down and take quantum computers more seriously. Google’s quantum computer, Sycamore, resolved a problem that would take conventional computers much, much longer.
By doing so, Sycamore had achieved ‘quantum supremacy’ for the first time –something beyond conventional capabilities. The Sycamore task completed, checking that a set of numbers had been randomly distributed, took 200 seconds. Google estimates that IBM ‘s Summit, the most efficient modern supercomputer, would have taken 10,000 years. IBM begs to differ, saying that it would only take 2.5 days.
This landmark event, however, has given the quantum computer research community a shot in the arm. A blog post from the developers of Sycamore gives a sense of this. “We see a path clearly now, and we’re eager to move ahead.”
But don’t expect a quantum computer to be used at home. It is more likely to run simulations in chemistry and physics, perform complex tasks such as modeling interactions between molecules, and therefore accelerate the development of new drugs, catalysts, and materials. In the long run, quantum computers promise significant advancements from weather forecasting to AI.