Irish Times BANG - Feel The Future
Forget science fiction, what do scientists think will be the big breakthroughs by 2020? From aliens to new energy sources, they tell CLAIRE O’CONNELL (from the Irish Times BANG Science Mag) their big ideas – and how likely they are to happen.
Talking to your computer - Prof Barry Smyth, digital chair at UCD and director of the Clarity Centre for Sensor Web Technologies
HOW? This will require the combination of improved speech-recognition systems and more powerful so-called natural-language interfaces that are capable of dealing with the complexities of human language. This revolution is well underway. Even today most computers can accept voice commands and do a very good job when it comes to understanding simple instructions; many popular car makers are even building voice-recognition interfaces into their standard builds, and my iPod allows me to control music playback through a voice interface.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? I think that this type of interface will fundamentally change the way that we interact with computers and information service. Most likely computing devices will increasingly fade into the background of life so that we are no longer confronted with physical boxes called computers. Instead we will access online information and services through a variety of different devices (phones, TVs, tablets) with voice commands providing a far more natural interface to these services.
Using bacteria to keep us thin and healthy - Prof Cliona O’Farrelly, professor of comparative immunology, Trinity College Dublin
HOW? Fairly soon we’ll be able to get profiles of the thousands of species of bacteria in your gut that make up your own personal “microbiome”. We’ll have learned which bacteria are good for metabolising fat, carbohydrates and protein, which ones produce essential nutrients and which ones keep pathogens (disease-causing organisms) at bay. We will even know how they regulate immune responses in the gut. We will also need to learn how to promote the growth of one species over another.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? By manipulating individual microbiomes, we should be able to make fat people thin, help thin people put on weight, replace deficiencies in people who are running short on vitamins and minerals, prevent gastrointestinal disease and even treat allergies and autoimmune diseases. Work in farm animals is helping drive forward this research.
As you can imagine, food producers would like to rear animals with microbiomes which will consume almost none of the expensive calories ingested by their charges, leaving them all to be put on as edible muscle.
Using a drop of blood to find cancer - Prof Brian MacCraith, president of DCU and former director of the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute
HOW? I would like to see a breakthrough around disease detection, that with a simple blood test we can detect all major cancers at the very earliest opportunity. Using diagnosis that looks at a genetic signature or antibody signature, we are learning more, and getting more sensitive. We are getting down to smaller concentrations of messengers of disease, which means we are picking up on it earlier.
That has to be coupled with nanotechnology-enabled chemotherapy, so you have a very targeted attack on those cancers once they start. It’s like a silver bullet customised for the cancer, where we can use nanoparticles that go to a specific location and they release their payload of the drug there, which kills off the particular emerging cancer.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? The combination of sensitive detection and targeted chemotherapy means we would have this two-pronged attack on cancer. You detect cancer so early and you kill it off as it’s emerging, so that it becomes much less of a burden on society and doesn’t wreck as many lives.
LIKELIHOOD? At least 8/10
The sun being our main source of energy - Dr Brenda Long, post-doctoral researcher at Tyndall National Institute in Cork
HOW? We are running out of fossil fuels, which have been the main source of energy since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century. An alternative route is required to satisfy the world’s energy requirement in the future. The amount of solar energy that reaches Earth in one year is about twice the total energy of all the combined non-renewable energy sources (coal, oil, uranium etc).
But currently we cannot store this energy efficiently and cheaply for use at night and in countries where there is little sunshine. Unfortunately, until we can, it is not a viable solution to the world’s energy problem, so we need to find an efficient and cheap method to store it. Breakthroughs are constantly being made and it is inevitable that scientists will eventually discover a solution to this problem.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? Economically, environmentally and politically the provision of all our energy from the sun will certainly have an enormous impact on planet Earth and our society. It will change the world we live in, in a significant way.
LIKELIHOOD? If solar energy storage becomes viable in the next 10 years, then 7/10
Finding aliens - Dr Niall Smith, astrophysicist, Cork Institute of Technology, co-founder of Blackrock Castle Observatory
HOW? We already have the technology to find planets around other stars – in fact we’ve found more than 400 already. The thing that would be really cool is if we could find a planet roughly the size of the Earth and with a similar orbit, and then we go into space to take pictures of its surface. There’s nothing in principle to stop us building the instruments to look for things such as ozone, methane, carbon dioxide, water and molecules such as chlorophyll.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? Young Irish today could be involved in this in 2020. They could be part of the big teams needed to carry out these missions to analyse the surfaces of other planets for proof that we are not alone in the universe. If that proof were found, the initial impact would be very much a cultural one and there would be a religious element to it. A lot of people would be sceptical of the scientific data and it would require a lot of convincing. But I don’t believe that people would be terribly frightened or feel hugely threatened, and I think there’s a growing feeling that the universe has a significant amount of life.
LIKELIHOOD? If I’m being honest, 2/10
Live 40 years longer - Prof Luke O’Neill, professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin
HOW? There has recently been progress in our understanding of how our bodies age. This has been a great mystery, since there is no obvious mechanism in our bodies that causes us to get older. Why do different animals have different life spans? Might we be able to live longer?
Scientists have been able to manipulate genes in a worm called a nematode, increasing its life span 10-fold. Might it be possible to increase the life span of humans? Last year scientists fed middle-aged mice a drug called rapamycin and amazingly extended the life of the mouse by one-third. This means that if this drug worked in humans we could expect to live to be 110. The drug seems to work by slowing down the metabolism of food. When we burn food to make energy, we generate a small amount of toxic molecules called reactive oxygen species. These oxygen molecules are thought to cause ageing.
This is one reason why creams that contain so-called anti-oxidants might have anti-ageing effects. Rapamycin seems to act in a similar way – by limiting the production of these toxic oxygen molecules. All of this research brings us a step closer to the holy grail of the elixir of youth . . .
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? Recent research suggests that if you are 15 years old today, you might have a good chance of living to be more than 100, if not older.
LIKELIHOOD? ?/10 (We won’t know until towards the end of the century!)
Getting clean energy from water - Prof Pat Guiry, professor of synthetic organic chemistry at University College Dublin
HOW? I think that trying to develop a “carbon-free” source of energy for mankind is a major and worthwhile challenge. We need to be able to look outside of oil and natural gas for our energy needs as we have a limited supply of fossil fuels, and the solution to the problem needs to be environmentally friendly in order to address climate change. Many of our top scientists worldwide are working on this problem and an attractive solution would be to develop a “hydrogen economy”, as hydrogen gas is a clean and energy-rich fuel. Advances have already been made to this effect in the motor industry to power cars, with most work being done in trying to generate hydrogen gas in an effective and cost-efficient manner. Water is the cheapest and most abundant source, so the key chemical reaction is to split water into hydrogen gas and oxygen gas. Nature already does this splitting of H2O in photosynthesis, so we can attempt to mimic nature in developing this technology.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? Developing an environmentally friendly technology to make energy available will decrease our greenhouse gas generation and ultimately help to solve the climate-change problem. This is important for all of our futures.
LIKELIHOOD? 8/10 that the technology will be available
A really light material that’s as tough as steel - Dr David J Brown, senior lecturer in materials science and engineering, University College Dublin
HOW? It could happen through careful research into the alloying and processing of metals and composites.
HOW WILL THAT CHANGE MY LIFE? Well, such a “light steel” would make all forms of transport much lighter and therefore more fuel-efficient. When you drive around today you are maybe 70kg being ferried around in a device that weighs 1,000kg – that’s a tonne. It would be great if the weight of the car could be reduced to be about the same as that of the passengers. This would ease our carbon dioxide emissions and our conscience. If we continue making cars (and planes, trains, etc) lighter with today’s materials we make them inherently weaker and less safe. If our new super-alloy is five times lighter than steel but still as strong, then you get the weight saving and maintain your safety. Whoever makes such a breakthrough should file a patent straight away – you’ll make a fortune. Here at UCD we’re working on developing advanced materials such as metallic glass which have very exciting properties – just Google the term and you’ll see what I mean!
LIKELIHOOD? It is very likely that progress will be made towards this goal, but a significant breakthrough in terms of a eureka discovery will be needed to get there, so 1/10