Global Challenges Facing Humanity
14. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
The acceleration of S&T continues to fundamentally change the prospects for civilization, and access to its knowledge is becoming universal. The ability to learn this knowledge is also improving with Web-based asynchronous highly motivational educational systems, adaptive learning models such as cellular automata, genetic algorithms, neural networks, and emerging capabilities of collective intelligence systems. Computing power and lowered costs predicted by Moore's Law continues with the world's first three-dimensional computer chip introduced by Intel for mass production. Computational chemistry, computational biology, and computational physics are changing the nature of science, and its acceleration is attached to Moore's law. China currently holds the record for the fastest computer with Tianhe-1, which can perform 2.5 petaflops per second; IBM's Mira, ready next year, will be four times faster. Watson is the IBM computer that beat the top knowledge contestants on a TV quiz show; it is a massively parallel processing computer capable of reading an essentially unlimited number of documents, digesting the information, and answering questions posed in natural language. It is now being readied to use vast amounts of medical data to accelerate improvements in health knowledge and decisionmaking. Watson supports the idea that intelligent computer systems can be smarter than humans.
Craig Venter created a synthetic genome by placing a long strand of synthetic DNA into a bacterium that followed the synthetic DNA's instructions and replicated. A U.S. Presidential Commission concluded that it was not yet the invention of "life" but that synthetic biology research should continue with scientific self-regulation. Venter forecasts that as computer code is written to create software to augment human capabilities, so too genetic code will be written to create life forms to augment civilization. In a process known as transdifferentiation, scientists have manipulated human cells, converting pancreatic cells into liver cells and skin cells into heart cells; skin cells were converted into functioning neurons that could integrate into neuron networks of the sort found in the human brain. A new anti-virus strategy is being pursued to develop artificial "proto-cells that can lure, entrap and inactivate a class of deadly human viruses."
Nano robots now roam inside the eyes in tests to deliver drugs for conditions such as age-related macular degeneration. Swarms of manufacturing robots are being developed that should be able to manage nano-scale building blocks for novel material synthesis and structures, component assembly, and self-replication and repair. At an even smaller scale, nanometer robots have been demonstrated and appear able to link with natural DNA. Nanobots the size of blood cells may one day enter the body to diagnose and provide therapies and internal virtual reality imagery. Although nanotech promises to make extraordinary gains in efficiencies needed for sustainable development, its environmental health impacts are in question.
Scanning electron microscopes can see 0.01 nanometers (the distance between a hydrogen nucleus and its electron), and the Hubble telescope has seen 13.2 billion light-years away. Photons have been slowed and accelerated. External light has been concentrated inside the body for photodynamic therapy and powered implanted devices. DNA scans open the possibility of customized medicine and eliminating inherited diseases. MRI brain imaging shows primitive pictures of real-time thought processes. Paralyzed people have controlled computers with their thoughts alone.
Anti-matter has been trapped (in the form of 309 atoms of antihydrogen) in electro-magnetic containment and observed for an astonishing 17 minutes in CERN's particle physics laboratory. This may facilitate research into how gravity and time affect antimatter. Some scientists predict that if the Large Hadron Collider succeeds in producing the Higgs boson, it may also create a second particle called the Higgs singlet that should have the ability to jump into an extra, fifth dimension where they can move either forward or backward in time and reappear in the future or past. On another frontier one group is attempting to entangle billions of particle pairs (quantum entanglement is the simultaneous change of entangled objects separated in space). Quantum building blocks, qubits, have been embedded into nanowires, important steps toward quantum computers. Quantum theory also encompasses the "many worlds interpretation" of our existence. In the MWI, every event is a branch point that may go this way or that, creating an almost infinite set of branches. Follow any one and it describes a simultaneously existing alternate world, a remarkable and counterintuitive reality. Although seemingly remote from improving the human condition, such basic science is necessary to increase knowledge that applied science and technology draws on to improve the human condition.
We need a global collective intelligence system to track S&T advances, forecast consequences, and document a range of views so that politicians and the public can understand the potential consequences of new S&T. Challenge 14 will have been addressed seriously when the funding of R&D for societal needs reaches parity with funding for weapons and when an international science and technology organization is established that routinely connects world S&T knowledge for use in R&D priority setting and legislation.
Africa: The first Inter-Parliamentary Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation promises to increase the percent of GDP for S&T. African Innovation Outlook 2010 found S&T for medicine has passed agriculture, but Africa's share of global science continues to decrease. These low levels of R&D investment, weak institutions, and poor access to markets are among the key challenges in actualizing Africa's innovation potential. The UN Economic Commission for Africa is supporting science training via collaboratories to connect African scientists with counterparts overseas to use S&T more efficiently. Primary commodities account for 80% of Africa's exports; S&T innovation is needed to create added value exports and to leapfrog into future biotechnology, nanotech, and renewable energy prospects. UNESCO's 2010 World Social Science Report found a 112% increase in Africa's publications in social studies and humanities between 1987 and 2007.
Asia and Oceania: Chinese patent filings have gone up 500% in the last five years; China is investing more in cleaner energy technology than the U.S. does and it has the second largest R&D budget in the world. Asian countries with double-digit economic growth also have double-digit growth in R&D expenditures. Energy and environment is the focus of U.S. and China relations. Japan has launched a Venus probe that also carried a space sail that gains its energy from solar "wind" pressure in space.
Europe: The 2012 EU budget increases research by 13%. The EU is establishing a single European system for registering patents. Although the Lisbon Strategy expired in 2010, succeeded by Europe 2020, the EU target of 3% of GDP for R&D has been kept. Only two EU member states have achieved the 3% target so far, while the average R&D expenditure of the EU27 stood at 2.01% of GDP in 2009. The newer members' R&D expenditure remains low, with many under 1%. Russia has lost over 500,000 scientists over the last 15 years, but a reverse trend is beginning, salaries have increased, innovation is encouraged, and high tech is being supported. Russian investments in nanotechnology R&D and corporations have been substantial, even during the recent recession. Russia is building the Skolkovo Innovation Center with funding from multinational corporations to accelerate R&D and applications.
Latin America: OECD, UNESCO, EU, the U.S., and China are helping countries in the region with innovation systems. Chile has started a scientific news network for Latin America in order to reverse some of the lagging indicators in the region. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico account for almost 90% of university science in the region, and half of the 500 higher education institutes produce no scientific research. University S&T courses could be required to focus some attention on helping the poorest communities. Mexico is leading the Innovation Network for Latin American and the Caribbean.
North America: Research by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine is available for free downloads. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology makes 2,000 courses online–many the top S&T course in the world–available at no cost with videos, lecture notes, and references. The U.S. Peace Corps has created Information Volunteers to help developing countries access science and technology information in the classroom. The space shuttles made their last flights in 2011. About 35% of world R&D is in the U.S. Each week the U.S. Patent Office makes thousands of new patents freely available online. Prizes can speed the distribution of technology that benefits humanity, such as the Tech Awards from the Tech Museum in San Jose, California, or Richard Branson's new prize for a plan to remove a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, as can tech sports like MIT's robot competitions.
Graph: Patents Issued in the U.S. (per year)
Source: U.S. Patent Statistics
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