Continuing to Imagine the Next 100 Years of Science and Technology
Published November 07, 2017
In the latest issue of the New York Academy of Sciences Magazine we invited the extraordinary young and senior scientists who are Members of the World’s Smartest NetworkTM to write about what the next 100 years will bring in terms of scientific discovery and challenges. Due to space constraints we were not able to publish all the deserving entries we received in the Magazine. The following is a selection of some of the additional responses we received. The selections have been edited to fit space restrictions. All opinions cited are those of the authors named and do not necessarily reflect those of the editorial or scientific staff of the New York Academy of Sciences. We thank all those who contributed content and hope you enjoy reading these “imaginings.”
I IMAGINE: THE FUTURE OF TECH AND PRIVACY
Devi Acharya, Next Scholars program mentee, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA
As we rush headlong into the future, we let our personal space vanish bit by bit every day. The future of technology will be a war for privacy. Tech companies are building themselves on unsustainable ground, serving up free products and services in an attempt to monetize a large swath of the populace.
This greater commercialization of tech will lead to pushback, both from organizations and tech-savvy individuals and from those hoping to profit from the fighting. More and more people will push against data collection and tracking, with paid and open-source services competing with corporations.
Government will finally catch up with tech. Privacy and tracking will become transparent as a matter of law. We will still be able to make and share our data with the world — but we can control when and how we do it.
The future promises technology that will change our lives for the better. But as we use these new technologies we must also be mindful of what we give away.
I IMAGINE: THE ROLE OF BACTERIA IN THE NEXT 100 YEARS
Urooj Ansari, Next Scholars program mentee, CUNY Hunter College, New York, NY
During the past 100 years, the scientific and medical community have seen immense improvements in treatment methods and technologies. More recently researchers have identified the gut-brain axis, which consists of a communication link between the central and enteric nervous systems.[i] Several studies have shown a link between microbiota in the gut and conditions that mimic anxiety, depression and autism in mice.[ii]
Currently these mental health conditions are treated with therapy and medication. In the next 100 years, they will cease to exist. Rather than require treatment, our bacteria will prevent these conditions from developing. The microbiota will identify what foods result in conditions like depression and anxiety in the host. The gut bacteria will send a message to the hosts’ smart watch, informing them of their diet’s consequences on their physical and mental health. If the host chooses to “snooze” this notification, the bacteria will send a later notification that will list methods to counteract the damage. For example, if diets high in fat trigger anxiety and depression, the first notification will tell the individual to stop eating or to eat smaller amounts.
The second notification will list foods low in fat and exercises to help fight the possible development of depression and anxiety. The role of bacteria won’t stop there. Along with mental health, the gut bacteria will work to prevent conditions like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and cancers that have resulted from unhealthy eating. If the host has a family history of such conditions, the bacteria will encourage the consumption of foods that won’t let the condition develop. As Desiderius Erasmus once said, “Prevention is better than a cure”.
I IMAGINE: WILL WE FIND OUR FUTURE IN OUR PAST
Reese Caldwell, Junior Academy Student, Conestoga High School, Berwyn, PA
Modern life is complex, and its origins are only partially understood. But, if we go back billions of years to the early earth, life (or a close approximation of it) was much simpler. Protocells — tiny droplets of water surrounded by a lipid membrane — had very simple inner workings, with only a few types of biomolecules. They were a blank slate, subsequently filled by evolution over billions of years to hold the complex pathways that exist in modern cells. Protocells don’t exist anymore, but scientists are able to synthesize cell-like compartments similar to early protocells. Inside of these tiny compartments, we can potentially take the very basic pieces of life — and then build them up.
One potential use is to rework complex biological pathways inside the controlled environment of a protocell. This makes it easier to understand some of the fundamental (yet still unanswered) questions in cell biology, like those surrounding cell size regulation. On the other hand, an exciting proposition is to engineer and adapt synthetic pathways to accomplish any number of programmable tasks. In 100 years, synthetic protocells will be ubiquitous. They’ll produce biofuels, chemicals and food supplements. In the environment, they’ll suck up oil spills, munch on plastic and clean our wastewater. In the body they’ll deliver drugs, fight infections and repair wounds. Protocells will allows us to make great leaps forward — we may just have to move back first.
I IMAGINE: DISEASE PREVENTION THROUGH PERSONALIZED MEDICINE
Dr. Robin Clugston, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada
As the so-called genetic revolution continues unabated, we are on the threshold of a future that will see the application of this knowledge to improve human health. We are already making gains in the field of personalized medicine, with medical centers across the world developing tailor-made treatment strategies based on one’s unique genetic composition. While this burgeoning field focuses on the treatment of disease, I also imagine the next 100 years will see significant gains in disease prevention through personalized nutrition.
As an extension of the field of nutrigenomics, the emphasis would be on the impact of genetic variation (such as single nucleotide polymorphisms [SNPs]) on nutrient metabolism. Personalized nutrition embraces the notion that one’s genetic makeup impacts the body’s ability to digest, absorb, or metabolize dietary nutrients. In this sense, it is tempting to speculate that one could formulate daily recommended intakes of specific nutrients based on genetics. For example, a significant source of vitamin A in the human diet comes from complex molecules called carotenoids. Dietary provitamin A carotenoids (e.g. β-carotene) must be enzymatically cleaved by the body to yield vitamin A. This cleavage reaction is catalyzed by an enzyme called BCO1 (beta-carotene oxygenase 1). It is becoming clear that SNPs in the gene encoding BCO1 impair the body’s ability to metabolize β-carotene. Thus, in the future, an individual carrying such a SNP may be advised to consume more provitamin A carotenoids, or more preformed vitamin A (which does not need to be cleaved by BCO1), to prevent vitamin A deficiency.
Today, we are only getting a taste of the benefits that personalized nutrition might bring us, but the next 100 years hold great promise. Through the Sackler Institute of Nutrition Science, one can rest assured that Academy Members will be at the forefront of this exciting future.
I IMAGINE: A FUTURE WITH PERSONALIZED MEDICINE
Kimberly S. Hamroff, MS, Clinical Laboratory Scientist, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY
I imagine a world where scientists know how genes work and the role they play in personalized medicine. The scope of this is using one’s unique genetic makeup to manipulate one’s own cells to self- heal; in essence exploiting one’s unique genetics to re-engineer their cells to heal what has gone awry.
As an example of what is possible, in July, 2017, the FDA panel advisory committee announced it backed Novartis’ new gene therapy treatment for patients with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL),
called chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy (CAR-T)[iii], where patients’ own unique T-cells are removed from the body and genetically engineered in vitro to target and kill cancerous cells. Once re-introduced into the individual, these CART-cells seek out and kill cancer protein cells within the body, correcting back to the natural state of health and (cell) proliferation attainable for each of us in the future.
I IMAGINE: VACCINES FOR CANCER
Annie Ikemoto, Junior Academy Student, John P. Stevens High School, Edison, NJ
I wonder what my life will be like 50 years from now in the year 2067. Will I be healthy, mobile and independent? Or will I be bedridden, a burden to my family? As people live longer, they suffer more from diseases associated with old age.
Vaccines have made a huge impact in the health of children around the world by preventing diseases including chicken pox, polio and measles. However, what if vaccines were available for adults with breast, prostate and colon cancer? Injecting a vaccine that helps prevent the formation of cancer cells would be less invasive and have fewer side effects than current treatment options including surgery or chemotherapy.
Our immune system offers us a wonderful defense against a multitude of foreign organisms that cause infectious diseases. With these vaccines, our immune system would be better able to recognize cancer cells so they could be eliminated before the cancer spreads. As scientific research progresses and we learn more about cancer and other malignant diseases, our knowledge of differentiating diseased cells from normal ones will eventually lead us to the eradication of the disease. From designing and discovering effective vaccines the world will become better health-wise in the coming decades. Just imagine of a future in which people can have both longer and healthier lives without having to worry about the pain and cost associated with the diseases that come with old age.
I IMAGINE: THE UNFORESEEN EFFECTS OF OUR (DNA’S) CAPABILITIES
Mrunali Manjrekar, Junior Academy Student, Leigh High School, San Jose, California
In the past 50 years, we’ve discovered much about the structure of the biological unit of the cell, and have only begun to understand its capabilities. Take the DNA molecule, which can be found in the center of the cell. This biological code for organisms contains every organism’s personal characteristic and is made of four chemical bases (adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine), that can be rewritten using gene editing technology, allowing us to potentially add desired or remove undesired traits. Our society could see a world flooded by altered human beings, who may be smarter, less vulnerable and more productive — leading to a lesser dependency on healthcare, less strain on resources, longer life spans and perhaps a new surge in scientific discovery. The unmatched density of DNA is also under consideration for encoding information in base pairings to optimize storage. This may prove useful in introducing biotic, or technological systems with biological parts, creating better nanotechnology for understanding diseases and disorders at the submolecular level. The sooner more people — potentially you! — recognize the scientist and innovator in themselves and take advantage of these opportunities, the sooner we’ll find ourselves in a world revolutionized for the better.
I IMAGINE: A QUANTUM REVOLUTION
Leonardo Henrique Martins Florentino, Junior Academy Student, University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil
We have passed three revolutions in the physical sciences, which have led to technology breakthroughs.
The first was the mechanical revolution. Newton’s discoveries enabled engineers to create machines like steamboats that provided motion without an external agent.
The second revolution was in electromagnetism. Maxwell, Ørsted and others taught us the unknown properties of matter. Later, ingenious minds such as Edison used this knowledge to lay the groundwork for today’s ever present electronic wonders.
Now, the quantum revolution is underway. Thanks to the efforts of brilliant minds like Feynman and Schrödinger the last century witnessed a radically different way to understand the most fundamental physics. Although we do not know exactly what might come, we can expect great changes in how we manipulate information and interact with the universe.[iv]
This revolution is being carried out in the world’s most advanced laboratories as they develop the quantum computer.[v] Unlike current computers, a quantum computer can assume more than one state in the same bit, allowing it to perform calculations exponentially faster than current computer technology.[vi]
With this increased processing power a future with quantum computer seems limitless, it will help advance nanotechnology, developing nanomachines resembling chloroplasts that produce energy from the sun’s light. With precise simulations at the molecular level, we will develop treatments[vii] to destroy any cells or viruses that cause disease. Quantum computers may also accelerate machine learning development, making perfectly safe self-driving cars a reality.[viii] Through the quantum entanglement phenomenon we may even be able to develop a communications network that is “unhackable”.
Though only appreciable on a tiny scale, the quantum world will have a macroscopic impact. Once this technology is available, we will experience exponentially deeper transformations than occurred during the previous technological revolutions.
I IMAGINE: THE FUTURE OF DATA IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Sandhya Prabhakaran, PhD, Research Scholar in Applied Statistics / Machine Learning, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
We are living in a data-driven world and are heavily dependent on data-predictions — be it from the weather forecasts that we always check before stepping out, to cars that can brake before the driver can brake, to surgical robots assisting a remotely located doctor. Data has many stories to tell. What makes telling this story challenging in fields ranging from banking, retail, fashion, pharmaceuticals, and cancer and genetics research, is the umpteen amounts of data and the difficulty in mining data’s stories correctly for better prediction. This calls for clever statistical algorithms and models. There are many questions that are unsolved and most times, we don’t know if we’re asking the right questions. This opens unchartered territories and will make data science and modeling fun and challenging in the years to come. This will also require adequate storage and increased computing power.
Along with data telling stories, data also tells ”intelligent” stories i.e. “why” we see ”what” we see. The “why” we see is at the moment answered as part of post-processing techniques needing hours of human intervention and thought. This next wave in data mining is called “machine intelligence” and subsumes, to a generous extent, the post-processing into itself. For example, why did we see a spike in the stock market for a certain stock in a particular year, or why does one protein makes for a better drug target than another protein are the kinds of questions that will be “automatically” answered via “machine intelligence.” For many computational sciences, the future looks promising with data abundance and techniques being developed. As responsible humans, we should remember that in this chase to hear stories we do not allow the data to control our lives.
I IMAGINE: NEW STANDARDS IN HEALTH SURVEYS
Byron Rogers, M.A. Retired Senior (health) Policy Advisor/Analyst at Health Canada (federal department) on tobacco control, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada
I predict that big data analytics will transform sociology into a more empirical and calculable science, while sidestepping the excessive mathematization that afflicts what is considered by many as the only scientific social science – economics. A related trend in genomics will make genetic epidemiology the new standard for health surveys, leading to a causal understanding of and treatments for many diseases and chronic conditions that are currently not manageable or curable. In addition, later in this century there will still be smokers, but most nicotine addicts will be vaping, with consequently much less harm to the health of those around them, although it should be said that the personal health risks of vaping are yet to be determined.
I IMAGINE: INTERGRATING THE FIELDS OF SCIENTIFIC INQUIRY
Janki Tailor, Next Scholars program mentee, New York University, New York, NY
The future of science is integrative, globalized and dynamic. Science will open new paths of inquiry, give rise to a more advanced standard for understanding the world and challenge the human imagination at its core. By integrating research from fields such as immunology, virology, stem cell research and applying them in clinical trials, scientists will help create integrative immunotherapy treatments for cancer and HIV patients. The future will see selective forms of treatment for terminal illnesses, mounting attacks only against the tumor cells or cells infected by viral reservoirs, focusing not on destroying the illness itself but rather on augmenting the immune system. We will reduce the incidence of cancer and other terminal illnesses such as HIV, and will treat such illnesses with clinical trials specific to the immune profile of the patient in question. I believe immunotherapy, combined with the globalized research efforts of scientists, will pave the way for a cure to such terminal illnesses.
This century will also allow us to capitalize on our long study of the physical sciences and combine them with our current burgeoning study of the natural sciences. For example we will combine environmental studies, with how humans perceive space and the passage of time. Not only would such a combination of thought allow us to realize the magnitude of our actions on the environment, but it will also reshape our political and economic landscapes, giving rise to new political perspectives, environmentally friendly yet effective economic practices, and a new lens through which to perceive the third dimension.
Imagine what we can accomplish together in the next century by advancing science today!
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[i] Carabotti, M., Scirocco, A., Maselli, M. A., & Severi, C. (2015). The gut-brain axis: interactions between enteric microbiota, central and enteric nervous systems.
[iii] Humphrey, M. (2017). Engineered Cell Therapy for Cancer Gets Green Light from FDA.