Comprehensive coverage

Futurism - what's next?

On the other side of every end is a new beginning. We asked the visionary scientists on Scientific American's advisory board what new trends will shape the coming decades

The science system was able to predict that in the future we will be able to predict the future
The science system was able to predict that in the future we will be able to predict the future


The era of digital interweaving / Danny Hillis

On November 19, 2009, a single-circuit board stopped working in one computer router in Salt Lake City. The fault grew wider and wider and disabled the communication between all air traffic control computers in the United States. Hundreds of flights were cancelled. On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones Industrial Average inexplicably plunged nearly 1000 points within minutes and rose just as mysteriously toward the end of the day. Had this flash crash not reversed, the world economy could have collapsed.

We humans leave our fate to the machines. Our technology is so complex that we do not fully understand it and do not have full control over it. We have entered the era of entanglement.
When humans lived in the jungle they attributed the natural phenomena to hidden forces. In the Middle Ages, people blamed the gods for unexpected events that turned people's lives upside down. But the Enlightenment brought logic; Scientific analysis deepened and perfected the understanding of the world. We began to feel that we were in control of things, and through the power of understanding we were able to build the complex technological environment in which we live.

The Internet is a good example. Most people may not realize that they are relying on the Internet when they call someone on the phone or when they board a plane. In our complicated world it is more and more difficult to understand the systems we have built and to know how to standardize. Weeks after the economic collapse, supervisors added more regulatory mechanisms in the hope that they would prevent another crash, but they did not know for sure that they would actually work.

In the 20th century, the programmers could still tell the computer exactly what to do. They completely mastered the systems and understood them on Borean. Today, programmers connect complicated modules developed by other programmers without fully understanding how each and every part works. Let's take for example a software designed to send trucks to warehouses to refresh stocks. Suppose this software needs to locate the trucks and the warehouses, contain maps and addresses and know the stock status in each warehouse. To track this information and keep up to date, the software communicates with other software via the Internet. It may also support systems that track packages, systems that issue payment to drivers, and systems that oversee maintenance operations.

Let's enlarge this picture and include factories and power plants as well as salespeople, advertisers, insurers, inspectors and stock traders, and here we have this intertwined system that stands behind so many daily decisions.

We did create this system, but we didn't really plan it. She has evolved. We depend on her, but she is not completely independent of us. Each expert knows a different part of this attachment, but the big picture is too big to fully understand.

It's time to start a counter trend. We need to start building simple backup systems that one person can understand face to face, and thus defend against serious system failures. In years gone by radio amateurs could maintain worldwide communication if commercial communication collapsed. We must develop simple communication systems that do not depend on the Internet so that civilization will continue to function even if cyberspace is down due to an Internet attack, virus, or unexpected action.

When people realize that we are in the jungle again, and this time it is a digital jungle that we created ourselves, some will return to mysticism, and the majority will simply accept the complexity and learn how to get along. Others will try to live "off the grid", although few will be willing to give up internet access, mobile phones, electric lighting or penicillin.

Whether we want to or not, the dependence is too strong for us to detach. Our destinies are intertwined with each other and our technologies.

Hillis, one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation, predicted outright that the "Bug 2000" would pass with nothing.

Biological engineering

Life by order / Arthur Kaplan

In May 2010, J. Craig Venter announced that he and his colleagues had created a living bacterium of a new species from a genome that they had cracked, artificially recreated, and implanted into the depleted remains of another type of bacterium. When the hybrid bacterium began to multiply, it was the first artificial organism and simply dispelled the old and persistent belief that only a deity or some miraculous power could ignite the spark of life.

The power of synthetic biology has never been demonstrated so dramatically. This is a new field, which may solve many of the most urgent and serious problems before us. The researchers want to grow bacteria that will digest oil and chemical pollution after leaks and spills, bacteria that will produce hydrogen or liquid fuel from sunlight, and bacteria that will eat cholesterol and other harmful substances that accumulate in our bodies.

Although the field is still in its infancy, this technology must be carefully monitored already. Bad groves conspire to produce malicious bacteria, and careless good groves can also greatly endanger our health and our environment. Venter and his research group made sure to make small molecular changes to mark what they had created. Every scientist and company using synthetic biology techniques should be required to mark the organisms they create in this way for identification. Handling the problems involved in the field will require extensive action both on the national level and on the international level.

It is possible that some believe that the creation of new organisms involves the degradation of the animal world. I don't think so. Basically, it is an achievement of knowledge. The value of life is only established when we do our best to understand it.

Caplan is the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Endowed Professor of Biotechnology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Information technology

The Age of Unlimited Volume / Edward Pelten

Imagine that all the recorded music in the world was stored in a device that you could put in your pocket. By the end of the decade it will be possible. If you insist on also storing in it all the movies and TV shows that have ever existed, it will be possible a few years later. Imagine an audio recording of your entire life, from the day you were born to the day you die: it can already be done. Video recording will be possible in a few years. Data storage devices, such as hard disks and flash memory devices, have become so dense and cheap that they are far from unlimited in almost any practical respect. The era of unlimited volume is upon us.

Today, the price of memory is dropping sharply, and the proliferation of various devices, such as mobile phones, and their distribution make it easier to collect data. Add to that indexing software and a good search engine, and here you have a compilation containing everything you've seen and done since your days. Add tools for data analysis, and here is a new way to look at your life.

Our access to information is also changing. Instead of debating what to save and what not, you can save everything. Instead of choosing what to record, you can record everything.

We will no longer have to struggle to remember the name of a restaurant where we ate three years ago in Cleveland. We can go into the video archive of our lives and find out her name in seconds. Already today there are some technology freaks who record every detail of their lives, no matter how mundane, and identify trends in them with the help of analysis software. This is how they improve their nutrition, monitor their physical activity and identify the factors that affect their mood.

Unlimited storage would undermine our perception of privacy. Each will almost constantly appear on the other's recordings. Every mistake and every awkward moment will be immortalized, unless they are deliberately erased. There will be a need for a new social consensus, and possibly also new rules, for the storage and use of the information. And this need will arise soon.

Felten is the director of the "Center for Information Technology Policy" of Princeton University.

Brain science

Answer to the awareness question / Christoph Koch

The mind-body question has haunted the great thinkers since the days of Plato and Aristotle. How is it possible for a lump of matter buried inside a skull to develop consciousness? Does consciousness need something that is not physical, some soul that is not material? Is it possible to create a golem and pour emotions into it? For hundreds of years, scholars could only turn a point without evidence, but not anymore. Today, scientists are discovering the material foundations of consciousness. In the following years, the picture will be filled with details, and the theoretical thinking will lose much of its validity.

There are several directions of research that yield convincing results. Neurologists use functional brain imaging and EAG to gauge the weight of mental life and emotions, if they exist at all, in brain-damaged patients who are awake and unresponsive to their surroundings. The scientists isolate certain patterns of signal firing in defined groups of neurons, which are behind every conscious recognition of a sensory stimulus, be it small yellow squares or a well-known movie star. The new technological hit is optogenetics: researchers insert genes into an animal's brain that encode the production of light-sensitive proteins in nerve cells. Then they can turn off the cells and turn them on with short flashes of colored light. This way you can both examine the brain in its action and influence it. Neuroscientists know today not only how to observe the brain, but also how to intervene in its fine tissue.

From these studies, a new theory of consciousness is already emerging, based on information theory and mathematics, and which makes it possible to define a list of necessary characteristics for some physical system (such as a network of nerve cells) in order for it to be considered conscious. Such theories will provide quantitative answers to the questions that plague us already: Can a person who has suffered a serious injury be conscious? When does a baby become conscious? Does the fetus have consciousness? Is a dog aware of being a thinking creature? And what about the Internet, about the billions of computers connected through it to each other? We will have answers soon. And that would be a great blessing.

Koch is a professor of cognitive and behavioral biology at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).


Lost the ice on oil / Michael Weber and Daniel Kamen

Crude oil has been the primary basis for transportation fuels for more than 100 years. It is possible that he will soon fall from his position due to several forces combining together. The new oil deposits are found in less and less accessible places. The environmental protection regulations are getting stricter and it is possible that they will get even worse following the great BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Cars powered by electricity or gas take the stage. And the US Congress has mandated that by 2022, a fifth of all liquid fuels used for transportation must be non-petroleum biofuels. These factors guarantee almost certainly that the demand for gasoline will reach a peak (or has already reached) and that a decrease in the demand for light and low-sulfur crude oil will not be long in coming.
It is assumed that he will start switching to other fuels. The answer to the question of whether the transition will benefit our economy and environment depends on the decisions we make today. It is not a necessity that we use alternative fuels that pollute less than gasoline, because there are relatively cheap alternatives that pollute a lot as well. Heavy and solid fuels such as oil shale, asphaltic oil sand and liquids produced from coal can fill the gap and may exacerbate the damage to the environment. The temptation to use these solid fuels will be strong, because their deposits are huge compared to the light and low-sulfur oil deposits, and the methods to convert them into liquid are becoming more and more cheap.

The trouble is, of course, that refining each barrel of liquid fuel produced from these sources will require more energy than refining a barrel of light, low-sulfur oil. In other words, the amount of carbon emitted per unit of energy produced will be higher, unless we apply methods to capture carbon extensively. Since the mining and processing techniques are completely different from the techniques used for oil, large areas of land and water may be affected.

It is also possible to describe a more desirable scenario, in which electricity, natural gas, advanced biofuels and other relatively clean energy sources will slowly reduce the value and usefulness of light and low-sulfur oil, and increased fuel savings will also contribute to this. But to realize this preferred scenario we must manage the transition properly. A new and comprehensive energy policy can help us establish, in the end, a clean, safe, cheaper and more durable energy system.

If we succeed in enacting and enforcing this policy, our grandchildren will look on from their quiet, clean cars powered by domestic fuel and laugh that nations actually fought over these useless oil deposits.

Webber is co-director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. Kammen is the founding director of the "Renewable and Adequate Energy Laboratory" of the University of California at Berkeley.


Energy that is not harmful to health / James Woolsey

The age of oil in transportation may be coming to an end, but according to the current rate of consumption, its end is still far away. In the meantime, our consumption will continue to destroy the environment and cause enormous strategic and economic difficulties. The United States can facilitate the transition to other fuels and realize it if it improves the efficiency of internal combustion engines, encourages the use of electric vehicles and the use of natural gas in vehicle fleets and in interstate transportation, opens the fuel market to competition with existing biofuels such as ethanol and ethanol, and funds research on fuels New biologicals from waste and algae.

Such decisive steps require the will of the American political system, which is a rare commodity in Washington. But maybe the desire will increase if the leaders in the US emphasize the health benefits of reducing the use of oil: less cancer, disease and obesity.

Oil is harmful to public health in several ways. Due to the lack of enforcement and supervision according to the American "Clean Air Act", the oil companies continue to use known carcinogens, such as the aromatic substances benzene, toluene and xylene, to increase the octane number in the fuel. This is what K. Boyden Gray, former special envoy of the US government for energy in Europe and Asia, and Andrew Warko, a lawyer from Washington, claim.

In the US, the costs associated with the health problems and shortened life expectancy resulting from the harmful effects of oil amount to more than one hundred billion dollars a year, the two state.

The transition to biofuels will also be good for our health. One of the common criticisms is that the crops used for biofuel are taking the place of food crops. But 95% of the corn that is grown for eating is used for fodder and not for human nutrition. It is customary to add the starchy component of the corn to the feed of the cows so that their meat will be fatter and therefore, apparently, tastier. But this fat raises our cholesterol level considerably.

Furthermore, the corn starch is not the natural food of the cattle, it is difficult for them to digest, and it may cause morbidity and lead to a lot of use of antibiotics. This may sometimes cause the development of drug-resistant bacteria, and these can reduce the effectiveness of drugs against infectious diseases in humans. It is possible to produce biofuel from corn starch, use corn proteins to feed livestock and avoid the negative health effects.

Flooding the market with corn starch (corn flour) instead of using it for biofuel also cheapens fructose and thus reduces the cost of producing junk food, which is the main cause of the obesity epidemic, especially among children.

The oil not only causes strategic and environmental problems, it also increases the risk of getting cancer and helps to cultivate artery blockages, infectious diseases and childhood diabetes. Isn't that enough?

Woolsey is the chairman of Woolsey Partners and former head of the CIA.


A new view on the origin of man / Leslie Aiello

For years, researchers of the evolution of the human species have been relying on fossilized bones and remains of ancient cultures, in addition to the biology and behavior of humans and monkeys living today, in their attempt to reconstruct the past. The determination of the genome sequence of our closest relative, Neanderthal man, completed in May 2010, opens a new window into the prehistory of all of us.

Now that scientists have both the human and Neanderthal genomes in their hands, they can study not only the physical, external manifestations of the evolutionary changes, the changes immortalized in bones and stones, but also the genetic information itself, which encodes these traits. In this way we will learn what exactly distinguishes us from the other creatures from the genetic point of view and how and when these distinguishing characteristics developed. These understandings will yield a detailed description of the development of the human species, more detailed than what most paleontologists imagined until a few years ago, before the science of genetics developed the technology that makes it possible to compile a genome of a long-extinct human species.

By comparing the Neanderthal sequence to the sequences of contemporary people, Svante Fabo and his colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany discovered 200 regions in the modern human genome that have undergone adaptive evolution since the split between the species. In these DNA segments, which include genes related to metabolism, cognitive development and skeletal development, lies the secret that distinguishes humans from other species. Geneticists still don't know how late changes affected the functions of those regions of the genome, but sooner or later these connections will be revealed.

My field of research, metabolism and thermoregulation, is one of many areas that stand to be enriched by this new dataset. Neanderthals lived in cold conditions in Europe during the Ice Age. Many researchers have asked if thanks to physiological adaptation they were able to maintain their body heat without needing much clothing. Once scientists understand the genetics of thermoregulation we can look for evidence of such adaptation. Many anthropologists speculate that modern man was able to beat the Neanderthal in the race for survival also because his energy utilization was better. A feature that gives an advantage when resources are temporary or scarce. The Neanderthal genome offers a new way to test this hypothesis. It will also help us understand why modern man has a lighter skeleton and a different skull than the Neanderthal, and if we are really more developed than our big-brained relatives from a cognitive point of view, as some researchers claim.
The genomes of other extinct human species may provide further clues. Pabo's team of researchers is now determining the DNA base sequence from a 30 to 50 thousand year old finger bone found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. It is possible that this is a species new to science. This may also indicate that the migration of ancient human species from Africa to Europe and Asia was wider than previously thought. At the same time as new research groups join the enterprise of determining ancient human DNA sequences and analyzing them, the discoveries of paleogenetics will surely shape our understanding of the journey of human development for decades to come.

Aiello is the president of the "Wener-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research" in New York.


My Own Personal Medicine / George Church

Since 2003, when the Human Genome Project was officially completed after a $3 billion investment, the cost of sequencing a person's genome has dropped a millionfold. The technology to activate genes and manage them has become very accessible. Therefore, there is now a proliferation of spontaneous activity in the world of biology, similar to the beginning of the 80s of the 20th century, when all kinds of "nerds", largely self-taught, sat in their rooms and worked hard until they brought us the age of the personal computer.

During this democratization of biotechnology, the one-dimensional medicine that we have known for the past 100 years will give way to medicine that is tailored to each and every one according to their size.

The doctors will build personalized prevention plans and do a comprehensive diagnosis according to the genes, bacteria, allergens, fungi, viruses and the immune system of each patient. Just as remote villages today benefit from the power and complexity of the Internet, so they will also be able to solve health problems in a manner appropriate to their customs, their geographic location and the details of the community. The study of the particular combinations of genetics and environmental factors can produce a change in diet, medication and behavior and help us live longer in good health.

Soon the doctors will be able to treat each and every one as a unique and special individual thanks to a complex ecosystem of healthcare services and software. Our stem cells will be used to treat various problems as needed. Everyone's genes will be sequenced once a year to check that there is no appearance of cancer cells, autoimmune cells, inflammation and so on. Determining the sequence will help find the most effective treatment in case any disease appears. In the future we will not only know our biology, but also design it.

Church is the director of the Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School.


The next agricultural revolution / John Ragnold

Since the world's population is expected to reach nine billion people in the middle of this century, some experts claim that only conventional agriculture can produce enough food for everyone. But if we go this way, the environment will suffer irreversible damage. Fortunately, there are other options. If we switch from resource-intensive methods to knowledge-intensive methods, we can eliminate unsustainable agriculture and enjoy healthy food for all and a healthy environment.

Conventional agriculture leads to soil erosion and depletion. The production of the artificial fertilizers used in it consumes a lot of energy and often involves the pollution of waterways, lakes and seas, and the use of pesticides endangers the health of farmers. The techniques of organic farming, whether in declared organic farms or in combination with conventional approaches, can eliminate or reduce the need for chemicals. Growing cereals and legumes alternately, for example, can help replenish the nitrogen stock in the soil and reduce the need for fertilizers. It is also possible to add a third or fourth crop to the rotation, to leave more plant residues in the field after the harvest, and to convert land into pasture land. The US needs to change the federal agricultural subsidies, which mainly reward the cultivation of corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and rice, and encourage longer crop rotations.

Also, to maintain soil health and reduce drift, many farmers can use no-till or no-till methods. And on top of everything, we have to save. We waste 30% to 40% of all food both in developing countries (where the food rots and spoils during transportation due to dilapidated roads and inadequate storage systems) and in rich countries (where we throw away food that does not look perfect, leftovers and food that has expired but is still good to eat).
If we make these changes, we can still provide 2,350 calories of healthy food per person per day, as recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To succeed in this we must focus global attention on the issues of food and ecosystems and add and research. And, of course, we need political will to drive this agricultural revolution.
Reganold is a senior professor of soil science at Washington State University.

8 תגובות

  1. Yaffe Tamir - I really wondered if anyone heard about it here... lol - science is developing and the scientists remain at the same level of development as they were 5000 years ago... food for thought. And before all the "creators" jump for joy - even if it is finally proven that the universe is intelligent, I promise you that it will not be angry if you go for a walk on Shabbat...

  2. Ahla wrote
    By the way, there was recently the first futurism conference at Un Bar Ilan chaired by Prof. David Pasig
    Shale oil in Israel is going to be a stronger thing than gas.
    And we have reserves like Saudi Arabia in oil...
    We gained a wonderful and not boring time to live in

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