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The next decade in science

TV Jayan | Updated on January 03, 2020 Published on January 02, 2020

Close-up Of Researcher Inspecting Meat Sample In Laboratory   -  AndreyPopov

The next 10 years are going to be an exciting period of innovation

The roaring twenties are upon us — once again. Like the decade a hundred years ago, which witnessed a spurt in scientific research and maturing of technologies used in daily life, the next 10 years are going to be an exciting period of innovation.

Emerging from a devastating World War, the 1920s saw scientists and technologists focussing their energies more productively and working on path-breaking scientific discoveries and inventions that gave us vitamins, antibiotics and insulin. More important, many household items that are a part of our daily lives today were all developed in the 1920s. Think of the refrigerator or air conditioner or the television, to say nothing of the maturing of automobile and aeroplane technologies.

It is no different today. Science and technology are making leaps in many directions: Chips are being implanted in the brain, human organs are being printed, and the 100-year-long dependence on fossil fuels is being snapped. Technologists are also working overtime on flying cars and driverless vehicles. A plethora of exciting discoveries is awaited in the microscopic world of atoms, cells and nano-materials. One of the plausible outcomes would be the creation of actual ultra-fast quantum computers, whose theoretical possibilities have already been worked out.

A look at some potential developments in the 2020s:

Printing your own organ

Have a heart: The long organ transplant waiting list may vanish once scientists perfect 3-D printing technology   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

The long wait-list for organ transplant may vanish once scientists perfect 3-D printing technology. Several hundred people die every day waiting for a much-needed organ. But, in the not-so-distant future, technology will allow you to 3-D print your organs. Scientists have been working on such bioprinting technologies for some time now. Using a patient’s own stem cells as the starting point, they hope to regenerate a whole gamut of organs ranging from the less complex blood vessels to the more intricate hearts and livers, before the turn of the next decade. Just last month, researchers in Brazil managed to 3-D print “mini livers” in a lab, and found they work like a regular liver. This is nothing less than a revolutionary feat in regenerative medicine.

Quantum supremacy

For decades, physicists had dreamt of building a quantum computer that could solve problems faster than its conventional counterpart. When they do come up with it, the most powerful computer of today will look like a toy in comparison. The computers we use now are based on a binary logic of 1s and 0s; the quantum computer, a practical version of which is still to be built, will exploit a number of possibilities that fall between 1 and 0, enabling it to solve the most complex of problems in a jiffy. Many technology behemoths such as IBM and Google are already investing billions of research dollars in their quest for making quantum computers a reality.

Cars that drive themselves

The technology has already been demonstrated, but can they become as ubiquitous as the fossil fuel-driven cars on the street today? Not just automakers, even technology giants such as Tesla and Google are putting together teams to make self-driving cars a reality. Campuses of many technology companies in the world already have such driverless cars ferrying passengers around. But can they jostle for space on a road teeming with other vehicles and pedestrians? For that, scientists need to clear some major hurdles: Such as making these cars speak to one another without human intervention. A wireless infrastructure that makes this possible can come up in a matter of years. Honk, if you agree.

An enigma called the human brain

Technologists have for long sought to use brainwaves to control and operate devices such as computers, television sets and cell phones. This would require making the enigmatic human mind “talk” to these gadgets. While scientists have shown that it is possible to use a chip implanted in the brain for neural activity, we still do not understand the brain well enough to make it send out signals that will, for instance, switch a TV off or on, or dial a number by simply thinking about it. But you never know — it can become a reality, at least in a limited way, if scientists decipher the workings of the human brain — one of biology’s unconquered areas — with the help of the world’s most powerful computers.

Fuel that’s not so foul

Human dependence on fossil fuels is wearing down, no doubt. Over the decades, consistent attempts have been made to create unconventional energy sources that are as cheap as oil and coal, the reserves of which are fast-depleting. Tapping renewable sources such as the sun and wind are promising but riddled with practical difficulties — such as the need for huge tracts of land, as required in solar farms, or the detrimental impact on other life forms, which is the problem with wind energy. But solutions are around the corner — scientists have, for instance, come up with a solar cell which converts 44 per cent of the solar radiation falling on it into electricity. Renewable energy can become cheaper than fossil fuel in the years to come.

Tapping nuclear energy

The word nuclear continues to evoke fear. Though more than 10 per cent of electricity generated in the world comes from atomic power plants, there is always a dread of impending danger. Scientists have been working on making nuclear energy as safe as other forms. Nuclear fusion, which works by combining two or more atomic nuclei, can harness energy safely, but a breakthrough eluded scientists for nearly 60 years. In the last week of December, two small British companies claimed that they were on the verge of finding a solution. The companies said they were confident to have nuclear fusion plants functioning before 2030.

Lab-grown meat

One of the major spin-offs of stem cells research is meat grown in the laboratory. While real meat is tasty, no doubt, it is also extremely wasteful, requires a lot of water, plants and energy and is, well, deemed cruel to animals. But considering that the lab meat breakthrough was achieved a few years ago, why don’t we still have cell-cultured bacon or sausages on our breakfast table? The reason is the cost. They are a lot more expensive than what we spend on buying farmed meat. But the concern for the environment and further improvement in technology may make lab meat available commercially in a few years from now. One major bottleneck is the cost of growth medium (a liquid in which these cells are cultivated) and currently it accounts for 80 per cent of the price of the lab-grown meat. A UK-based start-up recently claimed that its technology brings down the cost of the growth medium — around $100 a litre — by 80 per cent. Soon, you may well be able to pick up packets of lab-grown chops from your neighbourhood supermarket.

Safer GM foods

Genetically modified crops need not worry you anymore. Scientists now have a better arsenal of gene technologies that can deliver crops that are safe for human health as well as the environment. Unlike transgenic technology, where genes from other organisms are inserted in the crop to improve yield or fight diseases and adverse weather conditions, the new gene technologies such as CRISPR-CAS (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) ensure that problem genes are edited out, offering improved crop traits. Scientific groups all over the world are already at it, even though it is still a work in progress. The coming decade may see many such genetically modified crops entering the food system.

In your DNA: CRISPR-CAS gene editing may help babies with single-gene defect disorders live longer   -  ISTOCK.COM

No baby blues

Genetic disorders, the handiwork of faulty genes passed from parents to offspring, can be heart-wrenching. Most babies with such inherited diseases — several millions of them are born every year — do not live long in normal conditions. But CRISPR-CAS gene editing and other such emerging technologies may help affected babies live longer — at least in the case of those with single-gene defect disorders. Medical scientists are already exploring ways to edit out such defective genes in foetuses. The technology may also work in the case of diseases such as AIDS, which may be transmitted from mother to baby.

Up above the world

Tired of going to Ooty or Nainital during the summer break? How about a trip to outer space? Don’t scoff, for this may become a reality in the 2020s. With the American National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA) deciding to open up the International Space Station (ISS) for tourism and other commercial ventures, we could expect a spurt in recreational space activities. But the biggest roadblock for the success of space tourism could be the prohibitive cost. At $35,000 a day, the cost of a two-night stay at ISS may be a bit steep, and a return ticket can set you back by $60 million! Still, watch this space!

Published on January 02, 2020
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