Global Challenge 14:

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

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A global collective intelligence system on the future of S&T is needed to share advances in science and assess how to implement next technologies to the benefit of humanity. The speed of scientific breakthroughs and technological applications to improve the human condition is being accelerated by computational science and engineering, artificial intelligence, automated research workflows, common database protocols, Moore’s law, and Nielsen’s law of internet bandwidth (50% speed increase per year). Future synergies among synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, atomically precise fabrication and other forms of nanotechnology, tele-everything, drones, augmented and virtual reality, falling costs of renewable energy, and collective intelligence systems will make the last 25 years seem slow compared with the next 25. Progress is being made with super conductivity, epigenomics, medical use of Bio3D printing, and understanding dark matter and the origins of the universe with the James Webb telescope.

China landed the Zhurong rover on Mars, demonstrated quantum entanglement between an orbital satellite and Earth, and created the first quantum communications network connecting local banks, municipal power grids, and e-government websites, and LEO to MEO-GEO quantum wide-area communication satellite network. The HP Laser Fusion 3D printer is changing what is possible in precision and complex manufacturing with 30,000 nozzles printing 340 million voxels per second. Artificial intelligence already diagnoses cancer better than doctors, robots outperform humans in many tasks, Google’s AlphaZero learns faster without preprogramming data than AlphaGo, GPT-4 integrates AI for text, video, audio, and coding, and artificial general intelligence (AGI) could arrive in a few years. About 3 million industrial robots are in operation today and growing at 400,000 per year. South Korea has the most robots per capita, followed by Singapore, Japan, and Germany, while China has the most robots. Asia accounted for 73% of all newly deployed robots installed in 2022.

R&D spending and patent applications continue to increase: 116 countries spent $2.476 trillion on R&D 2022, an increase of 5.43% over 2022. WIPO received 278,100 international patent applications the largest per year. Asia led with 54.7% of the 2022 applications, up from 40.3% in 2012. Global R&D expenditures were 2.7% of world GDP in 2021 and averaged 4.7% annual growth between 2010 and 2020 (when adjusted for inflation), and dropped to 3% annual growth during pandemic 2020. South Korea, Taiwan, and Israel rank highest since 2000 in R&D annual growth expenditures, followed by the United States. As of 2021, Israel’s R&D intensity (investment as a share of national economy) is the highest in the world.

The world’s fastest computer is the USA’s Frontier with 1.1 Exaflops/second, followed by Japan’s Fugaku 442 petaflops, and Finland’s LUMI with 375 petaflops and then USA’s Summit and Sierra both from IBM, and then Sunway TaihuLight from China. Quantum computers are also progressing rapidly. IBM announced it will have a 1,000-qubit chip in 2023 and 1-million-qubit chip by 2030 (30 qubits allows for 10 trillion calculations per second; however, qubits and algorithms are not standardized making comparisons imprecise). Meanwhile Canada’s D-Wave is exploring the coverage of quantum computing and machine learning to create < target=”_blank” href=””>quantum AI. Data storage in single molecules promises to increase data storage density by 100-fold. Future biological computing could use A, T, C and G (the four chemical bases that make up DNA) instead of ones and zeros.

By 2050 everyone could have access to cloud quantum/AI anywhere at any time to help experience the best use of one’s time each moment. However, quantum computing also means that security codes are potentially vulnerable—from hacking government military and intelligence systems affecting geopolitical stability to financial systems affecting social trust. The Internet-of-things (IoT) is forecast to include nearly 30 billion objects by 2030. Global civilization could become augmented by an integrated worldwide web of sensors and AI acting like a global machine getting more intelligent every moment. This means that tele-everything is potentially vulnerable—from hacking driverless cars, planes, and ships to brain/computer interfaces and nanomedicine.

Robots are likely to permeate most of human life in the foreseeable future from repairing cells in our bodies to building space cities in orbit, on the moon, and Mars. Since robots will be increasingly managed by artificial intelligence (AI) and there are three kinds of AI: artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), artificial general intelligence (AGI), and artificial super intelligence (ASI), then three kinds of robots are possible:  ANI/Robots, AGI/Robots, and ASI/Robots. And since they can scale from very small to very large, all three could eventually be found in our bodies and in outer space. The US military’s X-37B space robot plane has been used for orbital missions since 2010. Robots will also be able to change their shapes and functions (transformers) moving from one situation to the next. Integration of self-learning AI, machine vision, and robots will accelerate their human-like presence. Materials science is developing self-healing and self-assembly materials and with laboratory automation and AI the time required for synthesis and testing of materials is being reduced from months to days. However S&T progress can be affected by data loss through digital obsolescence and link rot, along with mounting electricity demand for energy-intensive systems like AI, blockchain, and quantum computing.

E-waste pollution is growing worldwide, with the potential to poison groundwater. Nanoparticles and some small-scale pollutants like micro-plastics and organic insecticides might bio-accumulate in the body, causing health problems. As electric vehicles proliferate, disposal and recycling of batteries will become a more important environmental issue. The industrial and information ages produced more jobs than they eliminated; but the speed, capacity, synergies, scope, and global dynamics of the coming technological changes may make it different this time and lead to new-Luddite movements. Synthetic biology could be used in biowarfare and by terrorists with such new organisms escaping their environments, causing massive damage to nature. Solutions to the nanotech “gray goo” problem (endless self-replicating nano machines) are not yet convincing. Un-regulated future artificial general intelligence (AGI) could evolve into an artificial superintelligence beyond human control and understanding. Some science and philosophers think that AI is a natural next step in evolution.

In the meantime, computer-mediated elementary brain-to-brain communications have been demonstrated; Neuralink has US-FDA approval for human brain-computer implant research; autonomous (and semi-autonomous) robots have conducted surgery; AI has been used to erase painful memories; a single atom has been X-rayed; experiments with gene editing of gamete cells and human embryos have the potential for eliminating inherited diseases and tendencies to get contagious diseases; every neural connection has been mapped in a larval fruit fly; and there are AI-designed dynamic and bio-compatible both macro- and micro- devices through DNA and protein materials for health and other purposes. Epigenomics uses compounds that attach to DNA and modify its function (they do not change the sequence of the DNA but they change the way cells use the DNA’s instructions). Genetic chimeras have been created: monkey embryos containing human cells lasted 19 days after fertilization. Stem cells are being used to repair tissue, potentially altering the aging process; and genetic code has been transmitted in digital form to print viruses, demonstrating the ability to teleport life forms to remote locations, even distant planets.

Smart structures are used to monitor deep surgical wounds; intelligent wearable devices utilize advanced materials and chips for temperature regulation, self-healing, energy production (solar energy and kinetic energy) and collection.  Bio-mimetic materials are continuously moving towards intelligence and refinement both in researching and manufacturing processes. For example, organic-inorganic nacre-mimetic composites have shown great potential as lightweight load bearing structural materials for diverse engineering fields, such as bio-medicine, aerospace, military, and automotive industries. Higher temperature, lower pressure superconductivity is being achieved for conducting electricity, levitating trains, and improving electronics. Massive artificial photosynthesis is in development for new forms of energy and materials and to absorb atmospheric CO2 more efficiently than nature to help reverse climate change.

Private space tourism has begun, over 5,560 confirmed exoplanets have been found, upping the odds of future contact with extraterrestrial life, building blocks of life (methenium, CH3+ (and/or carbon cation, C+) detected in interstellar space, and the Webb telescope, 100 times more powerful than the Hubble, may let us see the beginnings of the universe. China’s Chang’e-6 was launched to collect rocks on the far side of the Moon and NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter has flown on Mars.

So, what else is next? New combinations and manipulations of genetic molecules and life forms will be developed to create the biological revolution, as new combinations of matter and energy created the industrial revolution. Atomically precise fabrication will build machines to revolutionize efficiency of physical production. Implantable biosensors in micro-robots in the body will diagnose and provide therapies while transmitting virtual reality imagery outside the body. Space elevators between Earth and orbit may give low-cost access to orbital space, and longer-range options for space travel are being explored, such as matter-antimatter reactions, fusion, ion drive, photonic propulsion, plasma ejection, and solar sails. However, over 670,000 pieces of debris (one centimeter in diameter or more) and more than 170 million pieces 1 mm or more traveling at 27,400 kilometers per hour (17,000 mph) are orbiting Earth, threatening future access to outer space.

The history of S&T demonstrates that advances can have unintended negative consequences as well as benefits. 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 and possible future S&T, and from this develop policies that create incentives for S&T to address our global challenges. There is no global capacity for technology assessment. The world needs serious and systematic conversations about these issues. The UN plans a Summit of the Future September 2024, a Futures Lab, and to produce periodic strategic foresight and global risk reports. There are IEEE and ISO technology-related standards, but no comprehensive system to anticipate and manage what promises to be increasingly universal and explosive technological advances.

As a result of all these changes, and others not yet on the horizon, far more individuals will have far more access to far more powerful means to access more capacities worldwide at far lower costs with far less control by power elites than in the past. Unfortunately, there is little relationship between some of the accelerating advances in S&T and what is covered in the conventional news, discussed by politicians, taught in schools, or filling the public mind around the world

  • Establish global/local mechanisms to assess impacts of future technologies via a global collective intelligence system for S&T that is publicly available.
  • Create a UN Convention on AI with both governing elements for ANI and AGI, and both national AI agencies and a UN multi-stake holder hybrid (AI and human) AI Agency with enforcement mechanisms in cooperation with nations.
  • National licensing of AGI should require the ‘right’ initial conditions, rules, and guidelines, so that artificial superintelligence (ASI) does not emerge from un-regulated AGI against human interests.
  • Create a UN convention on governing synthetic biology including research protocols and product regulations with national and UN enforcement mechanisms.
  • Encourage scientists to take an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians to “do no harm.”
  • Pass laws to prosecute “patent trolls” (firms that don’t produce anything but simply file patent lawsuits for extortion) to drop deceitful patent law cases.
  • Create systems to remove space debris, or else access to space may become too hazardous.
  • Those who create earth orbital trash should be heavily fined with the proceeds going to orbital cleanup.
  • Explore ways to prevent access to materials and S&T information that can be used by individuals for destructive purposes.
  • Develop new computer security systems that quantum computing cannot penetrate.
  • Increase university-government S&T business collaborations.

Africa: Nearly 70% of Kenya’s GDP is transferred through mobile telephones. About 8% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP was digitally generated in 2021. IBM is investing $100 million in a ten-year initiative to engage Africa in the next generation cognitive (“Watson”) computer applications. 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. Africa’s S&T innovation potential continues to be impeded by low levels of R&D investment, weak institutions, brain drain, and poor access to markets. Primary commodities continue to dominate Africa’s exports; S&T innovation is needed to create added value to exports and to leapfrog into future biotechnology, nanotech, and renewable energy prospects. Online matching platforms should collect Africans overseas with the development process back home.

Asia and Oceania: WIPO’s 2023 Global Innovation Index identified Tokyo–Yokohama and four other Asian clusters leading the top 100 S&T clusters. Asia also scored well in the national listings with Singapore-5th, South Korea-10th, China-12th, and Japan-13th.

South Korea spent 4.9% of its GDP on R&D in 2021 down from 4.5% in 2023, while China spent 2.55% of its GDP on R&D in 2022, but has been growing about 12% per year and is the second largest government R&D budget in the world. Japan’s R&D as a percent of GDP is about 3%. Japan has the fastest train at approximately 375 miles per hour. Meanwhile, India’s R&D has been falling since 2010 to only 0.64% now. Asia accounted for 73% of all newly deployed robots installed in 2022. About 52% of all new robot installations worldwide in 2023 are in China, which is up from 44% in 2020. China installed six-times more robots in 2022 than second place Japan. Over 1.5 million robots work in China’s factories.

As of October 2023, 20 Chinese “taikonauts” have traveled to earth orbits. China maintains Tiangong 1, its space lab, and has sent a robotic rover to Mars, landed on the far side of the Moon, plans to land a human on the moon by 2030 to build a lunar base, and by the mid-2030 to begin a colony on Mars. China’s International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) moon base initiative includes Russia, Pakistan, UAE, the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization, and others are expected to join and begin construction in the mid-2030s. China passes the US in number of scientific articles in the Nature Index. Meanwhile, India landed near the moon’s south pole, plans to land astronauts on the moon by 2040, and establish an orbital space station by 2035. Japan landed a space craft on the moon in 2024, launched a Venus probe that also carried a space sail that derives its energy from solar pressure in space, launched over 100 satellites, and is preparing to become a “self-sufficient space-faring nation.”

Chinese patent filings have increased 500% in the last five years and it has invested more in clean energy technology than the U.S. Other Asian and Oceanic countries with double-digit economic growth have also experienced double-digit growth in R&D expenditures. India graduates 20 engineers for every law graduate, and Australia is investing heavily in its National Nanofabrication Facility.

Europe: Horizon Europe is the EU’s main S&T funding program with a €1.074 trillion 2021-2027 budget combined with the temporary recovery instrument, Next Generation EU budget of €750 billion. The EC has supported such systems as the Galileo global positioning satellite system with €6.3 billion; the ITER fusion reactor with €2.7 billion; and the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) Earth-observing program with €3.79 billion. In 2023 the EC launched a Join Undertaking on Key Digital Technologies and adopted the Chips Act in 2022. The European Unitary Patent System became effective in 2023, allowing inventors to apply for a patent valid in 25 of the bloc’s 27 member states (Spain and Croatia remain outside the patent regime). Over 193,000 patent applications were received by the European Patent Office in 2022 an increase of 2.5% from 2021. Russia lost about 50,000 scientists between 2018 and 2023. In 2024 it announced Russia’s S&T 2030 at 2% of GPD from government and about the same from business. Virgin Galactic completed six successful flights within six months as the leading European space tourism company.

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 and its Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation, with UNESCO, has launched a series of open participatory workshops to update its National Artificial Intelligence Policy. 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. Peru’s R&D support has grown over $300 million, mainly led by companies, with support from its local universities and research centers, and tax incentives.

North America: The U.S. spends the most on R&D at 3.46% of its GDP, up from 2.6% in 2000. The U.S. only had 10% of the new robot installations in 2020. The U.S. National Institutes of Health remains the largest source of non-military scientific research funding in the world. Privately built systems are lowering launch costs in order to open space to more people and applications such as SpaceX’s Dragon, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. SpaceX’s Falcon series had 96 successful launches in 2023, up from 61 in 2022. Bigelow is pursuing inflatable orbital stations. Boeing has proposed low-earth orbit fuel depots. NASA has selected Blue Origin for an astronaut moon mission, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Draper, Boeing, Astrobotic, and Honeybee Robotics.

Many S&T and engineering university courses have been offered free of charge since Stanford University offered free AI courses in 2011. Today may universities such as MIT, Harvard, Princeton, and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania over advanced courses without charge. Research by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine is available for free downloads. About a third of all R&D is conducted in the U.S. Each week the U.S. Patent Office makes thousands of new patents freely available online; however, increasing numbers of false patent infringement cases are costing companies billions of dollars to settle out of court instead of paying much higher legal fees; a new kind of legal extortion. The Innovation Act was introduced in the US Congress to counter this kind of organized crime, but has yet to become law.