Global Challenges Facing Humanity

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14. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?

The continued acceleration of S&T is fundamentally changing what is possible, and access to the S&T knowledge that is changing the prospects for the future is becoming universal. Free online university courses proliferate; open source hardware and software are sharing the means of production. 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.

IBM’s Sequoia system became the world’s fastest supercomputer, at 16.32 petaflops (quadrillion calculations per second)—passing the computational speed of a human brain (not cognition). Watson, the IBM computer that beat the top knowledge contestants on a TV quiz show, is now planned for use in 2013 for cancer detection, diagnosis, and therapy. Computational chemistry, computational biology, and computational physics are changing the nature of science, and its acceleration is attached to Moore’s law.

Synthetic biology is assembling DNA from different species in new combinations to create lower-cost biofuels, more precise medicine, healthier food, a way to clean up pollution, and future capabilities beyond current belief. The newer form is of synthetic biolology is based on XNA (xeno nucleic acid) which is created from new combinations of molecules without DNA. Craig Venter, who completed human genome project in cooperation with the U.S. NIH, 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. Others call for a moratorium on the research until regulations are in place. Venter forecasts that as computer code is written to create software to augment human capabilities, so too will genetic code be written to create life forms to augment civilization.

The cost of 3D printers has fallen to under $2,000, allowing micro-businesses and individuals to become industrial producers. Open source digital designs at Thingiverse.com can be downloaded and printed—something like YouTube for 3D printing. Future forms of 3D printers with stem cells serving as “ink” are being considered for manufacturing personalized organs and limbs.
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.” Tiny cameras can be swallowed and steered by an MRI machine for more precise diagnosis. Self-propelled devices can float through the blood stream to deliver drugs. With these advances, synthetic biology, nano-medicine, and various forms of computational science, it is reasonable to assume we will live longer, healthier lives that seem possible today.

Swarms of nano 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. A new “smart dust” of millions of wireless sensors is being developed to monitor chemicals, biologicals, and radiologicals. Each dust particle is an autonomous computer and communications device in a swarm connecting the “dust particles.” Another program plans to embed up to a trillion pushpin-size sensors around the world. These programs involve self-organizing networks that interconnect almost everything to improve system resiliency. Nano robots now roam inside the eyes in tests to deliver drugs for conditions such as age-related macular degeneration. At an even smaller scale, nanometer robots have been demonstrated and appear able to link with naturalDNA. 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.

Approximately 150,000 industrial robots were sold worldwide in 2011. Some are becoming extremely human-like, with facial emotion-like expressions; others are remote-controlled surgeons with better than human precision, and some will provide old age care in Japan. 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.DNAscans open the possibility of customized medicine and eliminating inherited diseases.MRIbrain imaging shows primitive pictures of real-time thought processes. Paralyzed people have controlled computers with their thoughts alone, and eventually robots as well.

CERN announced that it discovered a Higgs-like boson particle that might be a Higgs boson particle. Theoretically, Higgs bosons exist in a field that permeates the universe, and their interaction and attraction gives mass to particles that make up the known universe—of which scientists only know about 4%. The Higgs would explain the fundamental ability of particles to acquire mass. Some speculate that a second particle called the Higgs singlet might be discovered 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.
In another area, CERN has also trapped antimatter (in the form of 309 atoms of antihydrogen) for an astonishing 17 minutes in an electro-magnetic containment. All this work at CERN can lead to new physics that allows for the inventions of more efficient production of energy, transpiration, construction, and medicine.

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 all can understand the potential consequences of new S&T. The history of S&T clearly shows that advances have unintended negative consequences as well as benefits. 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 (ISTO) is established that routinely connects world S&T knowledge for use in R&D priority setting and legislation.

Regional Considerations

Africa: The focus of African R&D is shifting from agriculture to medicine and related fields. The African Development Bank organized the first Africa Forum on Science, Technology and Innovations in Nairobi to stimulate investments into sustainable development, human capital development, and employment. The Inter-Parliamentary Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation promises to increase the percent of GDP for S&T. Low levels of R&D investment, weak institutions, brain drain, and poor access to markets continue to impede Africa’s S&T innovation potential. Primary commodities continue to dominate Africa’s explorts; S&T innovation is needed to create added value to exports and to leapfrog into future biotechnology, nanotech, and renewable energy prospects.

Asia and Oceania: In 2011, China's patent office became the world's largest. China launched the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, China’s fourth manned space launch—this time with three astronauts, including the first Chinese woman astronaut for the first rendezvous with Tiangong 1 China's space lab. Japan has launched a Venus probe that also carried a space sail that gains its energy from solar pressure in space. Japan’s R&D as a percent of GDP is about 3%. Although China’s is a little under 2%, its annual R&D budget has been growing about 12% per year, and it has the second largest R&D government budget in the world. Chinese patent filings have gone up 500% in the last five years; it is investing more in cleaner energy technology than the U.S. does. Other Asian countries with double-digit economic growth also have double-digit growth in R&D expenditures. India graduates 20 engineers for every law graduate. Australia is investing heavily into its National Nanofabrication Facility.

Europe: Europe announced in November 2012 it will invest €100 billion into the nanotechnology electronics industries. Virgin Galactic is planning tourist trips to space and has already collected deposits from more than 500 people willing to pay the $200,000 ticket price. The EU’s proposed 2014-2020 budget (yet to be approved by the EP) includes a 37% increases for research spending over the current Framework 7 funding program. Horizon 2020, the main S&T funding program, is allocated €70.96 billion (lower than the €80 billion proposed by the EC, and €100 billion proposed by the EP); the Galileo global positioning satellite system €6.3 billion; the ITER fusion reactor €2.7 billion; and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth-observing program €3.79 billion. The European Patent Office will become effective in 2014, allowing inventors to apply for a patent valid in 25 of the bloc's 27 member states (Spain and Italy will remain outside the patent regime.) 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 multinational corporations to accelerate R&D and applications, and budgeted 2.1 trillion rubles (about $70 billion) under a state program for the development of the national space industry in 2013-2020.

Latin America: Mexico’s National Center for Genetic Resources is a leader for genetic resources for developing countries in agriculture, livestock, aquaculture, forestry, and microbial research. 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: The U.S. National Institutes of Health remains the largest source of scientific research funding in the world. NASA is supporting privately built launch systems to lower launch costs in order to open space to more people and applications. SpaceX’s “Dragon” rocket successfully sent a cargo module to the International Space Station in spring 2012. Bigelow is pursuing inflatable orbital stations. Boeing has proposed low-earth orbit fuel depots. Blue Origin is working on reusable rockets and spacecraft to launch astronauts to suborbital and orbital space. Stratolaunch plans to use a huge airplane to air launch space capsules. In 2011, three AI courses were offered free online by well-known Stanford University professors. Over 150,000 students registered and 35,000 actually handed in homework. Other universities that offer free access to courses are MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Research by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine is available for free downloads. 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.

Graph using Trend Impact Analysis; it is part of the 2012 State of the Future Index computation (See Chapter 2, SOFI 2012)

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