At the end of every year, Edge reaches out to the smartest people on the planet and asks them a single question in an attempt to find the ideas and concepts that are changing the world of science. This year’s two-part question was: “What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?”
Not surprisingly, this year’s set of 197 responses converged around a few key themes – the human brain, the human genome, space exploration and artificial intelligence. Based on these responses, here are 10 of the edgiest innovation buzzwords that have the greatest potential to change the trajectory of innovation in 2016.
1. The wisdom race
Given all the apocalyptic scenarios we’ve been hearing about artificial intelligence over the past year, it’s not surprising that there’s been a lot of thinking about how to prevent one of those scenarios from actually occurring. Max Tegmark — the MIT physicist and cosmologist who has used mathematics to explore whether humanity might be living inside the equivalent of a Matrix-style computer simulation — calls this the “wisdom race.” What he has in mind here is a counterpart to the AI arms race, a “race between the growing power of technology and the growing wisdom with which we manage it.”
With the introduction of most new technologies, humans are reactive rather than proactive, says Tegmark. Think of how the invention of fire led to fire alarms and fire extinguishers, or the invention of the automobile led to seat belts and air bags. What’s needed with AI is a more proactive approach so that we aren’t forced to learn from our mistakes later. “Either win the wisdom race and enable life to flourish for billions of years,” says Tegmark, “Or lose the race and go extinct.”
2. Reusable rockets
At the end of 2015, both SpaceX and Blue Origin demonstrated the ability to return rockets safely to earth after use. That could be big for the future of space exploration, opening up a New Space Age fueled by cheaper costs and reusable rockets. As science historian George Dyson points out, “The launch business has been crippled, so far, by a vicious circle that has limited the market to expensive payloads — astronauts, military satellites, communication satellites, and deep space probes—consigned by customers who can afford to throw the launch vehicle away after a single use.”
From this perspective, says Dyson, “Reusable rockets are the best hope of breaking this cycle and moving forward on a path leading to low-cost, high-duty-cycle launch systems where the vehicle carries inert propellant, and the energy source remains on the ground.”
3. Blockchain technology
If you thought blockchain technology was only for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, you’d be wrong. As Melanie Swan of the New School for Social Research suggests, we’re on the cusp of a new “Crypto Enlightenment” driven by blockchain technology. It’s an entirely new paradigm driven by value rather than information: “Blockchain technology (the secure distributed ledger software that underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin) connotes the Internet II: the transfer of value, as a clear successor position to the Internet I: the transfer of information.”
The implementation of blockchain technology across financial assets such as currencies or mortgages is just the beginning, says Swan, “This means that all human interaction regarding the transfer of value, including money, property, assets, obligations, and contracts could be instantiated in blockchains for quicker, easier, less costly, less risky, and more auditable execution.” Blockchain technology, says Swan, could even lead to new models for governance, given its focus on distributed consensus. In fact, investor Marc Andreessen thinks the blockchain could be the biggest invention since the Internet itself.
Optogenetics is a relatively new field of biotechnology that gives researchers the ability to transform brain activity into light and light into brain activity. Optogenetics made headlines at the end of 2015, when Karl Deisseroth and Edward Boyden won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the life sciences for their pioneering work in the field.
Using optogenetics, suggests Christian Keysers, a Dutch neuroscientist, it could be possible to use light to trigger feelings or emotions, to change what’s happening inside the brain, to treat depression, or perhaps even to wipe out or implant memories in others (along the lines of Total Recall). The potential for optogenetics is just now being understood: “Being able to record and manipulate brain activity will change who we are. It will serve as an interface through which computers can become part of our brain, and through which our brains could directly interface with each other.”
Neuroprediction, which is the use of human brain imaging data to predict how a person will feel or behave in the future, almost sounds like something straight out of Minority Report. Thought crimes, anybody? If you accept the fact that human thoughts and choices are based on underlying biological processes, though, it might be possible to predict future behaviors by being able to measure and monitor those processes. In some cases, says Abigail Marsh, an associate professor at Georgetown University, neuroprediction could be used in the criminal justice system to handle problems of sentencing and probation.
One study cited by Marsh found that predictions about whether paroled offenders would commit another crime were improved using a brain scan that measured brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. It’s still too early to use neuroprediction as a tool, but at some point, it might eventually lead to substantial gains for society, in the form of less crime and fewer resources spent on needless detentions.
6. Synthetic learning
The real breakthrough in AI, says Kevin Kelly of Wired, is not in teaching machines how to become more intelligent – it’s in teaching them how to learn. He illustrates that concept with the example of the AI company DeepMind, which recently taught machines how to learn to play 49 simple video games. There’s a very important distinction, says Kelly, between teaching machines “how to play video games” and “how to learn to play video games.” In the latter case, you’re actually giving the computer the ability to learn in an unsupervised environment, building up rules from scratch.
“Once learning can be synthesized it can be distributed into all kinds of ordinary devices and functions,” says Kelly. “It can be used to enable self-driving cars get better, or for medical diagnosing programs to improve with use.” In the future, “smart” objects will become even smarter. “Now that we know how to synthesize learning, we’ll expect all things to automatically improve as they are used, just as DeepMind’s game learner did.”
The possibility of one day cloning a wooly mammoth, once only a science fiction dream along the lines of Jurassic Park, could become a reality thanks to rapid advances in genetic engineering. By extracting Paleo-DNA (the degraded DNA recovered from bones or hair of extinct species) and then amplifying and sequencing this DNA, says W. Tecumseh Fitch of the University of Vienna, it might be possible to engineer living organisms bearing genes recovered from extinct species. Think passenger pigeons at first; however, as the technology improves, we might even be talking about extinct hominids like Neanderthals.
8. Gene drive
Imagine eradicating certain diseases such as malaria and dengue forever by eliminating the mosquitoes that carry them. Imagine altering the genetic composition of invasive species that cause specific diseases so that they can no longer carry these diseases. That’s the power of a new biotech tool called gene drive, which enables humans to forever change the genetic makeup of a wild population with the help of gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR. Basically, you force a gene to “drive” through a population, even if that gene is harmful to that population. It’s Darwin in reverse.
“Gene drive is not a new kind of power,” explains Stewart Brand, “But it is a new level of power. And a new level of responsibility.” While gene drive has been proven to work in yeast, fruit flies and mice, there are a whole host of ecological and ethical issues to confront once you start playing God with the surrounding environment. At the very least, you’d better have an “undo” capability around in case you’ve picked the wrong gene and need to countermand your genetic order.
9. Kinematic fingerprints
If 2016 is the year that virtual reality tips into the consumer mainstream, then it could also be the year that we hear about “kinematic fingerprints” — all the experiences and interactions that we leave behind when entering these virtual worlds. Thomas Metzinger, a fellow at Gutenberg Research College, predicts a future in which we will toggle effortlessly between the worlds of virtual reality, augmented reality and substitutional reality using an assortment of devices — the Microsoft HoloLens, the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive or the Samsung Gear VR.
But what happens to our selves when we’re in these worlds? Given the current debate over the “right to be forgotten” and the use of data on the Internet, it’s easy to see how similar types of debates will occur once more people delve into the world of virtual reality. Who owns your consciousness or experiences in these virtual worlds? “Kinematic fingerprints generated by motion capture systems or avatar ownership and individuation will become important questions for regulatory agencies to consider,” says Metzinger.
10. Designer humans
The ultimate use of new gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR will be the creation of “designer humans” with traits made to order, says Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at Britain’s Reading University. “Just imagine, no more Huntington’s, chorea, no more sickle-cell anemia, no more cystic fibrosis, or a raft of other heritable disorders,” says Pagel. “But what about desirable traits — eye and hair color, personality and temperament, and even intelligence?”
That’s where things get interesting, since traits such as eye and hair color are theoretically within the reach of today’s CRISPR gene-editing technology. As a result, Pagel suggests, the current moratorium on using CRISPR technologies in humans “won’t last long.” Once our moral repulsion at the idea dissipates, change could come faster than anyone thinks: “The first truly and thoroughly designed humans are more than just the subjects of science fiction: they are on our doorsteps, waiting to be allowed in.”
While those are some of the edgiest innovation concepts of 2016, it’s clear that there’s a lot percolating in nearly every field of scientific endeavor. This year, there were also thought-provoking responses on Edge.org ruminating on the future of crime, the changing dynamics of religion, the growing inequality of wealth and income on a global scale, the future of cities, and even the future of the human race itself.