Global Challenge 14: How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
(c) 2021 The Millennium Project
The speed of scientific breakthroughs and technological applications to improve the human condition is being accelerated by computational science and engineering, artificial intelligence, common database protocols, Moore’s law, and Nielsen’s law of internet bandwidth (50% speed increase per year). Future synergies among synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, atomically precise fabrication and other forms of nanotechnology, tele-everything, drones, augmented and virtual reality, falling costs of renewable energy systems, and collective intelligence systems will make the last 25 years seem slow compared with the next 25.
China has demonstrated quantum entanglement between an orbital satellite and Earth and is creating a quantum communications network between Beijing and Shanghai. The HP Laser Fusion 3D printer can print 30 million voxels (3D pixels) per second. Hyperloop feasibility studies are under way in Czechia, France, Indonesia, Slovakia, UAE, and the U.S. IBM’s Watson already diagnoses cancer better than doctors, robots learn to walk faster than toddlers, and Google’s AlphaGo beat the champion Go player. China is expected to have nearly 40% of all robots in the world by 2019, up from 27% in 2015.
International R&D spending is forecast to be 1.71% of global GDP in 2017, while the U.S. and South Korea forecast 2.83% and 4.29% of their GDP respectively. WIPO received 233,000 international patent applications in 2016, a 7% increase from 2015, led by the U.S., Japan, China (which increased 44%), and Germany.
As of June 2017, China’s TaihuLight (93 petaflops) and Tianhe-2 (33.9 petaflops) are the two fastest computers, followed by Switzerland’s Piz Daint (19.6 petaflops). The U.S. has the next three fastest computers. However, Japan may pass all with a new 130 petaflops computer quite soon, and the U.S. has just added more funds into supercomputer development. Meanwhile D-Wave, the quantum computer systems and software company in Canada, is exploring the coverage of quantum computing and machine learning to create quantum AI. Data storage in single molecules promises to increase data storage density by factors of 100. By 2050 everyone could have access to cloud quantum/AI anywhere at any time for nearly anything to help experience the best use of one’s time each moment.
However, this also means that everything is potentially vulnerable—from hacking driverless cars, planes, and ships to brain/computer interfaces and nanomedicine. Synthetic biology inventions could escape their environments, causing massive damage to nature. Solutions to the nanotech “gray goo” problem (endless self-replicating nano machines) are not yet convincing. Future artificial general intelligence could evolve beyond human control and understanding. Some science/philosophers think that AI is a natural next step in evolution.
E-waste pollution is growing worldwide, with the potential to poison groundwater. Nanoparticles might bio-accumulate in the body, causing health problems. The industrial and information ages produced more jobs than they eliminated; but the speed, capacity, synergies, scope, and global dynamics of the coming technological changes may make it different this time. The sooner the world has serious and systematic conversations about these issues, the more likely the acceleration of S&T can benefit humanity. (See Chapter 4 on Future Work/Technology 2050.)
In the meantime, computer-mediated elementary brain-to-brain communications have been demonstrated; autonomous (and semi-autonomous) robots have conducted surgery; AI has been used to erase painful memories; experiments with gene editing of gamete cells and human embryos have the potential for eliminating inherited diseases and tendenciesto get other diseases; stem cells are being used to repair tissue, potentially altering the aging process; and genetic code has been transmitted in digital form to print viruses, demonstrating the ability to teleport life forms to remote locations, even distant planets.
Norway is ready to launch the first robot battery-powered crewless cargo ship, massive artificial photosynthesis is in development for new forms of energy and materials and to absorb atmospheric CO2 more efficiently than nature to help reverse climate change, and NASA’s Kepler telescope has detected nearly 1,300 exoplanets, upping the odds of future contact with extraterrestrial life.
So, what else is next? New combinations and manipulations of genetic molecules and life forms will be developed to create the biological revolution, as new combinations of matter and energy created the industrial revolution. Atomically precise fabrication will build machines to revolutionize efficiency of physical production. Implantable biosensors in micro-robots in the body will diagnose and provide therapies while transmitting virtual reality imagery outside the body. Space elevators between Earth and orbit may give low-cost access to space, and longer-range options for space travel are being explored, such as matter-antimatter reactions, fusion, ion drive, photonic propulsion, plasma ejection, and solar sails. However, over 750,000 pieces of debris (one centimeter in diameter or more) traveling at 27,400 kilometers per hour (17,000 mrh) are orbiting Earth, threatening future access to outer space.
There is little relationship between some of the accelerating advances in S&T and what is covered in the conventional news, discussed by politicians, taught in schools, or filling the public mind around the world. The history of S&T demonstrates that advances can have unintended negative consequences as well as benefits. We need a global collective intelligence system to track S&T advances, forecast consequences, and document a range of views so that all can understand the potential consequences of new and possible future S&T and from this develop policies that create incentives for S&T to address our global challenges.
As a result of all these changes, and others not yet on the horizon, far more individuals will have far more access to far more powerful means to access more capacities worldwide at far lower costs with far less control by power elites than in the past.
Actions to Address Global Challenge 14:
·Create global means to link research agendas to human needs and threats.
Establish some kind of international S&T organization to improve the human condition more as an online public access global collective intelligence system rather than as an intergovernmental body like UNESCO.
Support research to prevent future artificial super intelligence evolving against human interests.
Encourage scientist to take an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians to “do no harm.”
Pass laws to prosecute “patent trolls” (firms that don’t produce anything but simply file patent lawsuits for extortion) to drop deceitful patent law cases.
Create systems to remove space debris, or else access to space may become too hazardous.
Explore ways to limit access to materials and S&T information that can be used by individuals for destructive purposes.
Short Overview and Regional Considerations
Computational chemistry, computational biology, and computational physics are changing the nature and speed of new scientific insights and technological applications. This speed is accelerating as its use of computers is accelerated by Moore’s law. This will be further accelerated with future forms of artificial intelligence and the advent quantum computing. IBM has created a qubit circuit building block for chips for quantum computers; MIT can direct a single photon on an optical chip; D-Wave plans to release a quantum processor with more than 1,000 qubits, and qubits have been embedded into nanowires—all important steps toward the development quantum computers. Hence quantum computing could be in our foreseeable future. In addition to computational science and quantum computing, future synergies among synthetic biology, 3D and 4D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, tele-everything, drones, falling costs of renewable energy systems augmented reality, and collective intelligence systems will make the last twenty-five years seem slow compared to the volume of change over the next twenty-five years. The continued acceleration of S&T is fundamentally changing what is possible.
Progress in atomically precise fabrication in the molecular sciences is laying the foundations for building machines that can guide the assembly of molecular building blocks. This is a step on the way to high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing that could bring a revolution to physical production as profound as the revolution in information technologies brought by today’s nanoelectronic computer chip technologies.
Chinese scientists have altered the genome of a human embryo, robots staff a hotel in Japan, a zero-fuel solar plane is flying (with stops) around the world, scanning electron microscopes can see 0.01 nanometers (the distance between a hydrogen nucleus and its electron), and the Hubble telescope has seen 13.2 billion light-years away. Photons have been slowed and accelerated. A small scale magnetic wormhole has been demonstrated. External light has been concentrated inside the body for photodynamic therapy and powering implanted devices. DNA scans open the possibility of customized medicine and elimination of hereditary diseases. MRI brain imaging shows primitive pictures of real-time thought processes. Paralyzed people have controlled computers with their thoughts alone, and will eventually control robots as well. Elementary brain to brain communications have be demonstrated; thought in one brain electronically transferred to anther caused physical response of the second person. Scientists have delayed the aging process in mice by restoring intra-cell molecular communications. Undreamed thousands of new life forms are likely to be invented by synthetic biology from everything from clearing water pollution to eating plaque in the brain. Access to this knowledge is becoming universally available, yet the general public that elects political leaders seems unaware of the extraordinary changes and consequences that need to be discussed.
Free online university courses proliferate; open source hardware and software are sharing the means of production; and a crowd-sourced international computer game called Foldit solved a complex protein folding problem opening the door to global participatory citizen science connecting thousands and millions of personal computers into ah hoc instant super computers. Singularity University is bringing together top experts on advanced accelerating technology, business leaders, investors, and students to create and implement businesses from medicine to agriculture to affect billions of people. The ability to learn this knowledge is also improving, with Web-based asynchronous highly motivational educational systems, adaptive learning models such as cellular automata, genetic algorithms, neural networks, and emerging capabilities of collective intelligence systems. The “Internet of Things,” international collaborations, and big data analysis and are also emerging factors accelerating scientific breakthroughs and technological applications.
China’s Tianhe-2 supercomputer is the world’s fastest computer at 33.86 petaflops (quadrillion floating point operations per second)—passing the computational speed of a human brain (not cognition). A team in Japan is creating a multi-layered frequency fractal brain-like computer that creates its own programs and increases its power by maximizing the density of operations. Watson, the IBM computer that beat the top knowledge contestants on a TV quiz show, is now used for speeding far more precise diagnosis and therapy for cancer and other applications. The IBM Watson Group is investing more than $1 billion to bring Watson-powered cloud-delivered cognitive applications to the world including poorer regions of Africa.
A new gene sequencing system can produce tens of thousands of human genomes per year under $1000/genome brings the promise of individual genetic medicine closer to reality. Human human cells have been converted from one cell type to another. For example, skin cells have even been converted into functioning neurons that integrate into neuron networks of the sort found in the human brain. Tiny cameras can be swallowed and steered by an MRI machine for more precise diagnosis. Self-propelled devices can float through the blood stream to deliver drugs. With these advances, synthetic biology, nano-medicine, and various forms of computational science, it is reasonable to assume we will live longer, healthier lives than seem possible today. If so, the concept of retirement and financial planning will change. Even technology to detect lying promises to make a more honest world.
Synthetic biology is assembling DNA from different species in new combinations to create lower-cost biofuels, more precise medicine, healthier food, new ways to clean up pollution, and future capabilities well beyond what is currently envisioned. The newer form of synthetic biology is based on XNA (xeno nucleic acid) which is created from new combinations of molecules without DNA. Craig Venter created a synthetic genome by placing a strand of synthetic DNA into a bacterium that followed the synthetic DNA’s instructions to replicate. So,e have called for a moratorium on this research until regulations are in place, since the future behavior and interactions of new lifeforms have not been assessed. How will this change the nature of nature? Venter forecasts that as computer code is written to create software to augment human capabilities, so too will genetic code be written to create life forms to augment civilization. This new biological age could have greater impact on our lives than the industrial age that brought both human advance and environmental destruction.
HP plans to release a 3D printer in 2016 capable of printing over 30 million drops per second across each inch of the working area. the cost of simpler 3D printers have fallen to less than $500, allowing individuals and micro-businesses to become industrial producers. 3D printing also opens possibilities for counterfeiting, and reducing international trade, especially in simple plastic items. Open source digital designs at Thingiverse and and Shapewayscan be downloaded and printed. Future 3D printers with stem cells serving as “ink” are being considered for manufacturing personalized organs and limbs.
Improved efficiency and reduced cost are making renewable energy systems less expensive than fossil carbon systems. The majority of new installed energy capacity is from non-carbon renewable sources and that volume is should continue to increase. Distributed generation is increasing and storage is also improving rapidly, including the prospect of metal air batteries and seasonal thermal storage.
With future autonomous robotics, advanced 3D manufacturing, globally connected artificial intelligence, employment-less economic growth could become the new normal. The industrial age and much of the information age has produced more jobs than eliminated; but the speed, capacity, synergies, scope, and global dynamics of the coming changes will be unprecedented. The sooner the world has serious and systematic conversations about these issues, the more likely the acceleration of S&T can benefit humanity.
A new “smart dust” of millions of wireless sensors is being developed to monitor chemicals, biologicals, and radiologicals. Each dust particle is an autonomous computer and communications device in a swarm connecting the “dust particles.” Another program plans to embed up to a trillion pushpin-size sensors around the world to detect problems in urban systems. These programs involve self-organizing networks that interconnect almost everything to improve system resilience.
Nano robots have the ability to roam inside eyes in tests to deliver drugs for conditions such as age-related macular degeneration. At an even smaller scale, nanometer robots have been demonstrated and appear able to link with natural DNA. Nanobots the size of blood cells may one day enter the body to diagnose and provide therapies while transmitting virtual reality imagery outside the body. Although nanotechnology promises to make extraordinary gains in efficiencies needed for sustainable development, its environmental health impacts are a concern. For example, do they bio-accumulate certain in parts of the body causing health problems?
There are about 2.65 million industrial robots working at the beginning of 2015; 200,000 were added in 2014, up from 160,00 sold in 2012. South Korea has 4.4 robots per hundred human workers and Japan has 3.2 robots per hundred workers. While some are remarkably human-like, with emotive facial expressions, others are remote-controlled surgeons with better than human precision, and some are being tested to provide elderly care in Japan.
There is a huge gap between what can done with space technology and political-economic decisionmaking. For example, solar power satellites could supply electricity without nuclear waste or GHG emissions 24/7 to any part of the earth, and to switch between one region and another to follow demand (or emergencies), at a documented best cost estimate of 9 cents per kwh. Reusable space planes that can make that possible could also complete the satellite communions networks to help connect the rest of the world to the Internet.
Advance, seeming esoteric scientific research provides the pool of basic knowledge from which applied science and engineers will make the technologies to improve the human condition of tomorrow. For example, The CERN confirmed their discovery of the Higgs boson particle that theoretically exists along with countless others in a field that permeates the universe in which their interaction and attraction gives mass to particles that make up the known universe—of which scientists only know about 4%. If this could indeed explain the fundamental ability of particles to acquire mass, how might that be applied to far more efficient management of matter and energy? Some speculate that a second particle called the Higgs singlet might be discovered that should have the ability to jump into a fifth dimension where they can move either forward or backward in time and reappear in the future or past.
In another area, CERN has generated a beam of at least 80 antimatter hydrogen atoms (antihydrogen) by combining positrons and antiprotons and projected them to a spectroscopic detector outside their original magnetic containment that interferes with analysis of antimatter. All this work at CERN and related advanced scientific centers creates new physics that provides insights for inventions for more efficient energy production, transportation, construction, and medicine.
On another frontier, scientists are attempting to entangle billions of particle pairs (quantum entanglement is the simultaneous change of entangled objects separated in space) that could revolutionize communications and possibly transportation. Quantum theory includes the possibility of the controversial “many worlds interpretation” of our existence. In the MWI, every event is a branch point that may go in any number of directions, creating an almost infinite set of branches, each of which describes a simultaneously existing alternate world, a remarkable and counterintuitive reality. Although seemingly remote from improving the human condition, basic science of the past lead to electricity, wireless communications, and countless other technologies that we take for granted to day. Global spending on basic science is expected to increase by 20% in 2018 over 2017.
There is little relationship between some of the accelerating advances in S&T and what is covered in the news, discussed by politicians, taught in schools, or what fills the public mind around the world. We need a global collective intelligence system to track S&T advances, forecast consequences, and document a range of views so that all can understand the potential consequences of new and possible future S&T. The history of S&T demonstrates that advances can have unintended negative consequences as well as benefits. We need innovative business models and policies to enable more intelligent use of new technologies. Challenge 14 will have been addressed seriously when the funding of R&D for societal needs reaches parity with funding for weapons and when an international science and technology organization (ISTO) is established that routinely connects world S&T knowledge for use in R&D priority setting and legislation.
Africa: Over 30% of Kenya’s GDP is transferred through mobile telephones. IBM is investing $100 million in a ten-year initiative to engage Africa in the next generation cognitive (“Watson”) computer applications. The focus of African R&D is shifting from agriculture to medicine and related fields. The African Development Bank organized the first Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovations in Nairobi to stimulate investments into sustainable development, human capital development, and employment. The Inter-Parliamentary Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation promises to increase the percent of GDP for S&T. Low levels of R&D investment, weak institutions, brain drain, and poor access to markets continue to impede Africa’s S&T innovation potential. Primary commodities continue to dominate Africa’s exports; S&T innovation is needed to create added value to exports and to leapfrog into future biotechnology, nanotech, and renewable energy prospects.
Asia and Oceania: In 2011, China’s patent office became the world’s largest. China launched the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, China’s fourth manned space launch — this time with three astronauts, including the first Chinese woman astronaut for the first rendezvous with Tiangong 1, China’s space lab. Japan has launched a Venus probe that also carried a space sail that derives its energy from solar pressure in space. Japan’s R&D as a percent of GDP is about 3%. Although China’s is slightly less, at 2%, its annual R&D budget has been growing about 12% per year and is the second largest government R&D budget in the world. Chinese patent filings have increased 500% in the last five years and it has invested more in clean energy technology than the U.S. Other Asian countries with double-digit economic growth have also experienced double-digit growth in R&D expenditures. India graduates 20 engineers for every law graduate, and Australia is investing heavily in its National Nanofabrication Facility.
Europe: Europe adopted an electronics strategy in 2013 to facilitate industry investments of €100 billion into the nanotechnology electronics industries and to help create 250,000 new jobs in Europe up to 2020 (currently an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people are directly employed in the nanomaterial sector in Europe). Galileo, the operational nucleus of Europe’s satellite navigation constellation is the world’s first civil-owned and operated satnav system. Although Virgin Galactic had a test flight disaster it is still the leading European space tourism company with more than 500 individuals willing to pay the $200,000 ticket to space. The EU’s multiannual financial framework 2014-2020 includes an increase of the expenditure ceiling for “competitiveness” by more than 37% compared to the MFF 2007-2013. Horizon 2020, the main S&T funding program, is allocated €70.96 billion (lower than the €80 billion proposed by the EC, and €100 billion proposed by the EP); the Galileo global positioning satellite system €6.3 billion; the ITER fusion reactor €2.7 billion; and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth-observing program €3.79 billion. The European Patent Office became effective in 2014, allowing inventors to apply for a patent valid in 25 of the bloc’s 27 member states (Spain and Italy remain outside the patent regime.) Although the Lisbon Strategy expired in 2010, succeeded by Europe 2020, the EU target of 3% of GDP for R&D has been kept. In 2013, the average R&D expenditure of the EU27 was 2.02% of GDP, with three EU member states having achieved the 3% target (Finland 3.87 %; Sweden 3.42 %; and Denmark 3.06 %), while eight Member States reported R&D expenditure of less than 1% of their GDP. Russia has lost over 500,000 scientists over the last 15 years; however it is experiencing a reversal in this trend as salaries have risen, innovation is encouraged, and there is increased support for high tech. Russian investments in nanotechnology R&D and corporations have been substantial, even during the recent recession. Russia is building the Skolkovo Innovation Center with multinational corporations to accelerate R&D and applications, and budgeted 2.1 trillion rubles (about $70 billion) under a state program for the development of the national space industry in 2013-2020.
Latin America: Mexico’s National Center for Genetic Resources is a leader for genetic resources for developing countries in agriculture, livestock, aquaculture, forestry, and microbial research. OECD, UNESCO, EU, the U.S., and China are helping countries in the region with innovation systems. Chile has started a scientific news network for Latin America in order to reverse some of the lagging indicators in the region. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico account for almost 90% of university science in the region, and half of the 500 higher education institutes produce no scientific research. University S&T courses could be required to focus some attention on helping the poorest communities. Mexico is leading the Innovation Network for Latin American and the Caribbean. Peru’s R&D support has grown over $300 million, mainly led by companies, with support from its local universities and research centers..
North America: The U.S. National Institutes of Health remains the largest source of non-military scientific research funding in the world; however federal R&D research and facilities fell 9% in fiscal year 2013. Privately built systems are lowering launch costs in order to open space to more people and applications such as SpaceX’s Dragon, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Also Bigelow is pursuing inflatable orbital stations. Boeing has proposed low-earth orbit fuel depots. Blue Origin is working on reusable rockets and spacecraft to launch astronauts to suborbital and orbital space. Stratolaunch plans to use a huge airplane to air launch space capsules. In 2011, three AI courses were offered free online by well-known Stanford University professors. Over 150,000 students registered and 35,000 actually handed in homework. Other universities that offer free access to courses are MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Research by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine is available for free downloads. About 35% of world R&D is in the U.S. Each week the U.S. Patent Office makes thousands of new patents freely available online; however, increasing numbers of false patent infringement cases are costing companies billions of dollars to settle out of court instead of paying much higher legal fees; a new kind of legal extortion. The Innovation Act was introduced in the US Congress to counter this kind of organized crime, but has yet to become law.
Writer: The Millennium Project of USIA Council Member Jerome C. Glenn
NOTE: USIA People have their own views and opinions that are not necessarily the USIA, and vice versa.