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What scientific discoveries will 2017 bring? What technological innovations? Probably not time travel — or time-shares on Mars. But no one really knows for sure, and when we asked some of the biggest names in in science and technology to share their predictions for the coming year, there was a bit of pushback.
“I normally don’t make predictions for anything less than two trillion years in the future,” Arizona State University cosmologist Lawrence Krauss told NBC MACH. It’s easier to make predictions that far out, he added jokingly, when “no one will be around to check them.”
Ultimately, Krauss came through with some fascinating forecasts. Read on to see them, along with predictions from legendary astronaut Buzz Aldrin and nine more thought leaders in science and tech (the submissions have been lightly edited).
A New “Race for Space”
Dr. Buzz Aldrin, the second human to walk on the moon, is a leading advocate of space science and planetary exploration. He is the co-author of several books, including "Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration" and "No Dream Is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon." He lives in Satellite Beach, Florida.
Given President-Elect Trump’s interest in putting in place a space council, I envision a more unified approach to shaping and overhauling aspects of America’s civil, military, and industrial space sectors. And get ready for intense competition in the development of human spaceflight systems, not only for use in low Earth orbit but also outward from our home planet. This commercial “race for space” will lead to technical and business innovations we don’t yet appreciate or understand.
I think the year ahead will see Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin group wring out its New Shepard reusable suborbital launch vehicle and press forward on its New Glenn booster. Similarly, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo will hasten the pace of testing to create suborbital passenger service. And keep an eye on the maiden flights of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsules — stepping stones to restore our nation’s capabilities for human spaceflight.
I expect Elon Musk and his SpaceX rocketeers will fly their Falcon Heavy launcher from the refurbished Launch Complex 39 pad A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. That’s the same site that I rocketed from with my Apollo 11 colleagues, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, to achieve the first human landing on the Moon in July 1969!
China is headed for several milestone achievements. For one, they will use their new Long March 5 and Long March 7 boosters to advance their goal of building their own space station. In addition, look for China to fly to the moon the robotic Chang'e 5 spacecraft and attempt the first lunar sample return to Earth in more than 40 years.
Lastly, look for surprises from mysterious Mars! Now orbiting the Red Planet is the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter that in 2017 will “sniff out” whether methane detected on that world is a product of Martian microbes.
Personally, I’ll be working as hard as ever to rally public and political willpower to hasten the day when those first footfalls on the Red Planet lead to permanent inhabitation of Mars.
Virtual Reality Reset
Dr. Julie Brefcynski-Lewis is assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology in the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute at West Virginia University in Morgantown. She has studied higher order brain functions such as attention, emotions, social interactions, and meditation.
The scientific method is rooted in objectivity and has relied on government and public confidence that scientists are well trained and dedicated to accurate results. I think the big question of 2017 will be how science will adapt to a changing cultural landscape in terms of public attitudes, funding, global participation, and more.
In my field of neuroscience, we are a little lucky that many lawmakers making political and funding decisions have direct experiences with neurological and mental health needs of loved ones. In terms of disruptive technology, I predict virtual reality will have a major influence on how science is performed and communicated. In my research, for example, we are adapting novel PET (positron emission tomography) brain imager technology so that it is wearable and allows imaging of someone moving and responding in a virtual environment, such as an addict in a cue-laden setting. Other laboratories are using VR to explore the shapes and functions of neurons and molecules, and it’s likely to become a haven for social interactions such that exciting new studies on human behavior will emerge.
Gee-Whiz Gene Editing
Dr. George Church is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of personalgenomes.org. He is the author of "Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves."
Next year will see great strides in reading and writing genomes, organs, and ecosystems. We’ll move beyond small genome “edits” to large-scale “writing,” with huge practical consequences, including resistance to all viruses. For organs, new microscopy methods will enable molecular atlases of whole bodies during normal development from eggs to adults and pathological states like cancer. Leveraging such body atlases will be recipes for constructing any tissue type and transplanting it successfully between species. For ecosystems, we will see growing numbers of tests of safety and effectiveness of genetic strategies for controlling agents (mosquitoes, worms, mice) of deadly diseases like malaria, filariasis, and Lyme disease.
We will also see great progress in the use of genetic engineering to reverse processes that had seemed irreversible: aging and extinction. And super-compact encoding of data into DNA-storage will transform our ability to record video and interface with brains.
Artificial Intelligence Heads Home
Dr. Kate Darling, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, investigates social robotics and conducts experimental studies on human-robot interaction. Her work explores the emotional connection between people and life-like machines.
I’m excited about the rise of personal assistant robots. We won’t be seeing Rosie from the Jetsons anytime soon, but we will see more and more cloud-based artificial intelligence (AI) products in the home — in particular, voice-activated speaker systems that sit on tables and countertops.
These robots are at a primitive stage, have few capabilities, and are full of flaws. But there’s a lot of demand for them. That’s because they can perform some useful tasks (turning on music and lights, reading out loud, answering trivia) and because people enjoy interacting with a digital “other.” In some ways the flaws and limitations are part of these assistants’ charm, and 2017 will definitely see more of these in people’s lives.
Dark Matter Answer?
Dr. Katherine Freese is professor of physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a noted expert on dark matter. She is the author of "The Cosmic Cocktail: Three Parts Dark Matter."
My work seeks to understand what the universe is made of. Ordinary atomic material makes up only five percent of the universe. Most of the mass in the universe is made of dark matter, and we want to know what it is.
Right now, only one experiment has detected a hint of dark matter: the Italian Dark Matter Experiment (DAMA). The technique the DAMA scientists use is based on a paper I wrote, and so I am dying to know if their results are right. In 2017 three other experiments will be in a position to show once and for all whether or not DAMA has actually discovered dark matter. It is possible that the 80-year-old dark matter puzzle will finally be solved.
Quantum Computing Breakthroughs
Dr. Lawrence Krauss is professor of earth and space exploration and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University in Tempe. He is the author of nine books, including "A Universe from Nothing" and "The Physics of Star Trek." His latest book, "The Greatest Story Ever Told," is scheduled for publication in 2017.
It seems to me that quantum computing is evolving very fast. I expect that some breakthroughs this this area, or in the related areas of quantum teleportation or encryption, may occur in 2017.
Also in 2017, we may have new, definitive data from the South Pole on the possibility that gravitational waves from earliest moments of the Big Bang might be detectable. If so, this would have utterly profound implications for our understanding of our own universe, and maybe the existence of other universes.
I don’t hold out much hope for any definitive developments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in 2017 (maybe in 2018). But then I never expected them to discover the Higgs boson when they did. If they observe new particles, it will completely determine the future of particle physics. If not, will another accelerator be built to help us continue to push the frontiers of knowledge?
“Gene Drives” Get Real
Dr. Jennifer Kuzma is professor of social sciences at the School of Public and International Affairs and co-founder and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
Natural scientists have discovered new biology-based tools that can precisely edit existing genes in living organisms, or insert new genes at particular locations in the genome. These “gene editing” tools (e.g. “CRISPR”) are being used to change multiple genes in plants, animals, and microorganisms for industrial production of medicines or chemicals, agricultural productivity, or environmental goals such as pollution remediation. Based on gene editing, biologists have discovered ways to engineer wild populations in the environment using “gene drives.” With gene drives, it is theoretically possible to release just a few individuals of a species and an engineered gene can then spread throughout the wild population. Gene drives could be used to protect endangered species against disease or to reduce populations of unwanted species, such as invasive pests.
Gene-edited products are already in the marketplace. Genetically engineered insects with population-reduction genes have been cleared by government agencies for environmental release in certain areas. Although gene drives have only been tested in the laboratory, we will see the first releases of organisms with gene drives in the near future, possibly 2017. The ability to engineer populations in the wild necessitates a broader public discussion about whether we want to pursue this as a society. I would like to predict this dialogue will happen, but the political will to engage the public on these topics is currently lacking.
The Circular Economy Expands
Dr. Janet Hering is director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dubendorf and professor of environmental biogeochemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
Industry developed the concept of the circular economy to “extract the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing Green House Gas emissions.” This concept is increasingly being taken up by cities around the world as they recover heat from domestic sewage (Paris), reclaim water from wastewater to recharge aquifers (Orange County, California) and produce water for industrial wafer fabrication (Singapore), produce agricultural fertilizers from source-separated urine (Durban, South Africa), and produce fuel pellets from fecal sludge (Kampala, Uganda).
Since 2010, over half of the world’s population has been living in cities, expanding both the opportunity and the need to redefine municipal wastewater and waste as a resource. Establishing the circular economy in cities holds great promise for increasing urban sustainability. The number of cities pursuing this approach will grow rapidly in 2017.
Better Weather Prediction
Dr. Tracey Holloway is professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences in Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and leader of NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team.
This coming year will bring a huge advance in the monitoring of Earth from space. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA worked together on a new geostationary satellite, called GOES-16, that launched in November 2016. Starting in 2017, GOES-16 will provide data almost continuously, improving weather predictions and environmental management.
Satellites are already able to "see" our life-supporting atmosphere in a way that has transformed weather prediction, emergency response and public health. But for measurements of smoke, dust, lightning and other features, GOES-16 will be the first time we have nearly minute-by-minute data. For example, the new satellite will allow us to track forest fire smoke so that people can take measures to protect their health. This near-real-time data will be a huge step forward from current satellites that provide snapshots of these important features only once or twice a day.
Each new satellite offers a treasure trove of data, publicly available to support decision-making of communities and businesses. I’m working with scientists across the country to help ensure that cities, health professionals, weather forecasters — even kids for the science fair — get the maximum benefit from these amazing eyes in the sky.
One Amazing Eclipse
Dr. Ainissa Ramirez is a materials scientist and author in New Haven, Connecticut. She hosts the podcast Science Underground and is writing a book on the impact of materials on history and culture.
One of the biggest science events of 2017 will be a total solar eclipse. On August 21, a diagonal swath of the U.S. from Oregon to Kansas to South Carolina will go dark. More than 300 million Americans live within a two-day drive from seeing this heavenly event.
How the sky blackens in the middle of the day is a bit like getting a bad seat at the movies. If a tall person seated in front of you blocks your view of the screen, then you are experiencing what happens to the Earth on a cosmic scale. In this movie drama, you are the Earth, the tall person is the moon, and the movie screen is the sun.
During an eclipse, the darkness lasts only a few minutes. But it is a reminder that we are all part of something big. Eclipses also connect us to history. In ancient times, eclipses stopped wars. In 1919, an eclipse helped prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Even Thomas Edison got inspiration for his light bulb in 1878 while on a trip to Wyoming to see an eclipse.
This August, all of us get a chance to be connected to nature, to science, and to each other. Perhaps we’ll find other ways to connect when the darkness passes.
Self-Driving Vehicles Come of Age
Dr. Carlo Ratti is a professor at MIT, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He is co-author of "The City of Tomorrow: Sensors, Networks, Hackers, and the Future of Urban Life."
Forget about the difficulties we saw with Uber’s fleet of self-driving vehicles in San Francisco. This is soooo 2016! 2017 will be the year of self-driving, and of the exploration of its impact on our cities.
Self-driving vehicles promise to blur the distinction between private and public modes of transportation. “Your” car could give you a lift to work in the morning and then, rather than sitting idle in a parking lot, give a lift to someone else in your family — or, for that matter, to anyone else in your neighborhood, social-media community, or city.
This implies a city in which we could travel on demand with just a fraction of the number of cars in use today. Such reductions in car numbers are just theoretical. However, they could potentially lower the cost of our mobility infrastructure and the embodied energy associated with building and maintaining it.
Furthermore, driverless cars could have a big impact on our lifestyle and daily activities: They could be transformed into extensions of our homes. While travelling, we might be able to do lot of activities we use to do at home — read a book, take a nap, eat, text, or make love (more than what already happens today).
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