New Technology Trends to Heads Up for in this Decade

The year 2010 doesn’t sound like it was that long ago, but technology moves fast. A decade ago Tinder, Uber, and Instagram didn’t exist. No one wore wearables, nobody talked to their gadgets at home and Tesla was just an idea.

Back then, scientists were still looking for the Higgs Boson, Pluto was a mysterious blurry orb just out of sight and genetic editing was still just a theoretical concern, not a practical one.

The next decade looks set to move even faster. So here’s our tour of the new science and tech trends to look out for this decade.

1. Synthetic media will undermine reality

The entertainment world will literally create the next generation of stars.

You know about deepfake technology, where someone’s face is switched into an existing video scene. But deepfakes are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to synthetic media – a much wider phenomenon of super-realistic, artificially generated photos, text, sound, and video that seems destined to shake our notions of what is actually ‘real’ over the next decade.

Take a look at thispersondoesnotexist.com. Hit refresh a few times. None of the faces you see are real. Uncannily realistic, they are entirely synthetic – generated by generative adversarial networks, the same type of artificial intelligence behind many deepfakes.

These false photos show just how far synthetic media has come in the past few years. Elsewhere, China’s Xinhua state news agency has provided an insight into possible uses of synthetic media – computer-generated news anchors. While the results are a little clunky, it suggests a direction where things may be heading.

While such synthetic media has potential for an explosion in creativity, it also has the potential for harm, by providing purveyors of fake news and state-sponsored misinformation new, highly malleable channels of communication.

2. There will be a revolution in cloud robotics

A global network of machines talking and learning from one another (sound familiar?) could create Robo-butlers.

Until now, robots have carried their pretty feeble brains inside them. They’ve received instructions – such as rivet this, or carry that – and done it. Not only that, but they’ve worked in environments such as factories and warehouses specially designed or adapted for them.

Cloud robotics promises something entirely new; robots with super-brains stored in the online cloud. The thinking is that these robots, with their intellectual clout, will be more flexible in the jobs they do and the places they can work, perhaps even speeding up their arrival in our homes.

Google Cloud and Amazon Cloud both have robot brains that are learning and growing inside them. The dream behind cloud robotics is to create robots that can see, hear, comprehend natural language, and understand the world around them.

The Fetch Cloud Robotics Platform is a cloud-driven Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) solution that addresses material handling and data collection for warehouses © Getty Images
The Fetch Cloud Robotics Platform is a cloud-driven Autonomous Mobile Robot (AMR) solution that addresses material handling and data collection for warehouses.

One of the leading players in cloud robotics research is Robo Brain, a project led by researchers at Stanford and Cornell universities in the US. Funded by Google, Microsoft, government institutions, and universities, the team is building a robot brain on the Amazon cloud, learning how to integrate different software systems and different sources of data.

Another one to watch is the Everyday Robot Project, by X, the ‘moonshot factory’ at Alphabet, Google’s parent company. The project aims to develop robots intelligent enough to make sense of the places we live and work. They’re making headway too – testing cloud robots in Alphabet offices in Northern California. So far, the tasks are simple, such as sorting the recycling (pretty slowly says X), but it’s the shape of robots to come.

 

3. Diseases will be edited out of our DNA

The gene-editing tool CRISPR could finally treat disease at the genetic level.

The birth of the world’s first gene-edited babies caused an uproar in 2018. The twin girls whose genomes were tinkered with during IVF procedures had their DNA altered using the gene-editing technology CRISPR, to protect them from HIV. CRISPR uses a bacterial enzyme to target and cut specific DNA sequences.

Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, who led the work, was sent to prison for disregarding safety guidelines and failing to obtain informed consent.

But in ethically sound studies, CRISPR is poised to treat life-threatening conditions. Before the controversy, Chinese scientists injected CRISPR-edited immune cells into a patient to help them fight lung cancer.

By 2018, two US trials using similar techniques in different kinds of cancer patients were up and running, with three patients reported to have received their edited immune cells back.

Gene-editing is also being tested as a treatment for inherited blood disease sickle cell anaemia, an ongoing trial will collect and edit stem cells from patients’ own blood.

4. We will begin to see living machines

Biological robots could start solving our problems.

Synthetic biologists have been redesigning life for decades now, but so far they’ve mostly been messing about with single cells – a kind of souped-up version of genetic modification.

In 2010, Craig Venter and his team created the first synthetic cell, based on a bug that infects goats. Four years later, one of the first products of the synthetic biology era hit the market, when the drug company Sanofi started selling malaria drugs made by re-engineered yeast cells.

Today, though, biologists are starting to find ways to organize single cells into collectives capable of performing simple tasks. They’re tiny machines, or as biologist Josh Bongard at the University of Vermont refers to them, ‘xenobots’. The idea is to ‘piggyback’ on the hard work of nature, which has been building tiny machines for billions of years.

AI automatically designs candidate lifeforms in simulation (top row), then a cell-based construction toolkit is used to create the living systems
AI automatically designs candidate lifeforms in simulation (top row), then a cell-based construction toolkit is used to create the living systems.

Currently, Bongard’s team makes its xenobots with ordinary skin and heart cells from frog embryos, producing machines based on designs etched out on a super-computer. Just by combining these two types of cells, it designed machines capable of crawling across the bottom of a petri dish, pushing a small pellet around, and even cooperating.

“If you build a bunch of these xenobots and sprinkle the petri dish with pellets, in some cases, they act like little sheepdogs and push these pellets into neat piles,” Bongard says.

Their computer runs a simple evolutionary algorithm that initially generates random designs and rejects over 99 percent of them – selecting only those designs capable of performing the required task in a virtual version of a petri dish.

As Bongard explains, the scientists still have to turn the finished designs into reality, layering and sculpting the cells by hand. This part of the process could eventually be automated, using 3D printing or techniques to manipulate cells using electrical fields.

You couldn’t yet call these xenobots living organisms, though, as they don’t, for example, eat or reproduce. Since they can’t utilize food, they also ‘die’, or at least decompose, and quickly, meaning there’s no obvious hazard to the environment or people.

However, combining this approach with more traditional synthetic biology techniques could lead to the creation of new multicellular organisms capable of performing complex tasks. For example, they could act as biodegradable drug delivery machines, and if made from human cells, they would also be biocompatible, avoiding triggering adverse immune reactions.

But that’s not all. “In future work,” says Bongard, “we’re looking at adding additional cell types, maybe like nervous tissue, so these xenobots would be able to think.”

5. Silicon Valley will try to go carbon negative

The tech world is hoping it can turn back the clock on climate change by removing carbon emissions.

A rapid shift away from using fossil fuels is what’s required if we’re going to keep the average global temperature rise within the 1.5°C window needed to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

But that’s not all we can do. Instead of trying to limit our carbon emissions, there is scope to actually remove them from the atmosphere. That’s what Microsoft announced it would start doing when the software giant kicked off 2020 by revealing its intention to be carbon negative by 2030. But that’s not all; Microsoft also said that by 2050, it plans to “remove from the environment all the carbon the company has emitted since it was founded in 1975.”

Achieving that goal will take more than simply switching to renewable energy sources, electrifying its fleet of vehicles, and planting new forests. Hence, Microsoft is monitoring the development of negative emissions technologies that include bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), and direct air capture (DAC).

© James MacDonald/Bloomberg via Getty Images
© James MacDonald/Bloomberg via Getty Images

BECCS uses trees and crops to capture carbon as they grow. The trees and plants are then burnt to generate electricity but the carbon emissions are captured and stored deep underground.

DAC uses fans to draw air through filters that remove the carbon dioxide, which can then be stored underground or potentially even turned into a type of low-carbon synthetic fuel.

Both methods sound promising but have yet to reach a point where they are practical or affordable on a scale necessary for them to have a significant impact on climate change. Microsoft’s hope, as well as those of everyone else looking to turn the tide of the climate crisis, is that these technologies, and others, will develop further over the years to come to a point that makes them viable.

6. Pests will be driven off without cruelty

Labs investigate gene drives to fend off invasive species like grey squirrels and cane toads

Another potential use for gene-editing is wiping out pests. Dubbed “gene drives”, self-replicating edits based on CRISPR technology could ravage through entire populations. In lab trials, the newly-introduced DNA often makes one sex sterile, duplicating itself to infect both copies of an animal’s chromosomes so that it’s passed on to all its offspring.

Some mosquitoes have developed resistance against gene drive mutations, but researchers believe they’ll be able to pull off the technique as long as they target the right genes. For safety, scientists are designing ‘override’ drives capable of reversing the edits.

© Getty Images
Close up of Mosquito.© Getty Images

In a 2018 paper, researchers from Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, which created the first cloned sheep (“Dolly”), suggested gene drives could deal humanely with the Australian cane toad problem. The toxic toads were introduced from Hawaii in 1935 and have killed almost anything that has tried to eat them ever since. The same scientists propose controlling grey squirrels with gene drives, in order to save the UK’s native reds.

7. We will take mushrooms with us to space

Space missions test growing buildings out of fungus.

If we have to flee Earth to take up residence elsewhere in the galaxy, you know what we need to take with us? Mushrooms. Or rather, fungal spores. Not to feed us on the flight over there, but to grow our houses with.

That’s the thinking behind NASA’s myco-architecture project. The space agency is concocting a plan to grow buildings made out of fungi on Mars. According to astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild, who works on the project, it’s a no-brainer when you consider the cost of launching a full-size building into space, versus some practically weightless life-forms that happen to be natural builders. “We want to take as little as possible with us and be able to use the resources there,” she says.

Many fungi, like mushrooms, grow and spread using mycelial – networks of thread-like tendrils that form sturdy materials capable, with minimal encouragement, of growing to fill any container.

On Earth, fungi-fabricated structures are already used to make packaging for wine bottles and as particle board-like materials, and Rothschild suggests they could even be used for growing refugee shelters. On Mars, the organisms would need a little water to get started, which could come from melted ice, plus a food source.

The researchers envisage them being deployed in large bags that would be inflated on landing to provide a container to fill. These bags would contain the food source in dried form and offer the added benefit of preventing contamination of the atmosphere with alien fungi. Once the structures were fully grown, a heating element would be activated, baking the mycelium network like bread to harden it.

NASA are exploring ideas that involve sending large 3D printers to Mars, that will use material sourced from Mars, but using fungal spores will significantly reduce the payload weight © NASA
NASA is exploring ideas that involve sending large 3D printers to Mars, that will use material sourced from Mars, but using fungal spores will significantly reduce the payload weight © NASA

If you’re imagining organic-looking buildings with walls sprouting toadstools and orchids, though, think again. Rothschild’s current materials are more “like wholewheat bread that’s been left out”, although she says they could be brightened up by adding colour pigments, through genetic modifications.

Rothschild already has a myco-made stool in her office, which took her students about two weeks to grow, and the team has plans for full-scale structures. But for future space missions, they’d like to send an advance party of robots to do the work for them.

“When I travel, I want a hotel to go to,” says Rothschild. “I don’t want to arrive at an airport and they say ‘we’re going to build the hotel tonight’ and so I think the ideal situation would be to send precursor missions where these things were erected.”

8. Paralyzed patients will walk again

© Jamani Caillet
© Jamani Caillet

Paralyzed patients lucky enough to be enrolled in clinical trials are already walking again thanks to rapidly advancing neurotechnology.

In 2018, Swiss and UK scientists announced they had placed nerve signal-boosting implants into the spines of three men paralyzed in the road and sporting accidents. All are now able to walk a short distance.

And just last year, in a truly sci-fi-style demonstration, researchers at the Grenoble University Hospital in France used an exoskeleton to give a 28-year-old man back the use of his lower limbs after falling and breaking his neck. The man uses two 64-electrode brain implants to control the Robo-suit.

9. Natural language gadgets will get weird

Speech-enabled tech, like Alexa, Siri or Google Voice, will start to shape our own speech

Natural language gadgets will get weird © Getty Images
© Getty Images

The fantasy of controlling our devices through speech is becoming a reality, even though they can only handle simple commands or inquiries and their speech patterns sound robotic. The next step is getting them to understand and respond in natural language – the sort of conversational exchanges humans use.

Google seemed to have made progress when it unveiled its Duplex system in 2018. An add-on for its Assistant app, Duplex employs more sophisticated types of AI to understand and use natural language to book restaurant tables and hair appointments or ask about a business’s opening hours. If the booking couldn’t be made online, Assistant would handover to Duplex, which would call the restaurant and speak to the staff to book you in.

According to reports, people that spoke to Duplex said they didn’t realize they were talking to a machine. The trouble was, Duplex often ran into complications and needed someone to step in. Despite this setback, Google and other developers are still working on ways to bring natural language to our devices.

10. The human brain will be mapped

The plan to write a set of instructions for the human brain takes shape.

Understanding the human brain is a monumental task, but that hasn’t stopped neuroscience from stepping up to meet the challenge. There’s the Human Brain Project, one of the largest ever EU-funded projects, the $5 billion BRAIN Initiative in the US, and the more recently announced China Brain Project.

One of the aims of the US initiative, launched in 2013, is to map all the neurons in the brain as well as their connections. Starting with the mouse brain, the view is to move towards the same goal in humans.

It could “help us crack the code the brain uses to drive behavior,” says Joshua Gordon, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) project directors. But he admits it won’t happen overnight.

White matter fibres of the human brain © Getty Images
White matter fibers of the human brain © Getty Images

Take the Human Genome Project, for example, a simple map won’t provide all the answers and it may take many years to figure out how the physical features of the brain relate to memories, thoughts, actions, and emotions.

For a start, the brain’s ‘code’ can’t be written in a sequence of letters. According to Gordon, the first step is building a ‘parts list’ composed of different types of neurons and then mapping each of those parts in physical space.

Currently, the parts list for mice is well underway, whilst the human equivalent could take another five to 10 years. But understanding how these parts produce behavior is trickier still.

“Each of those parts also then has a constellation of functions,” Gordon says. Eventually, there should be enough detail in the map to explain how neurons in certain brain circuits function at a molecular level, to produce specific behaviors.

The technologies being developed along the way will have a wider impact on neuroscience too, including research into a broad spectrum of brain disorders from epilepsy to Parkinson’s.

Rapid single-cell sequencing now allows scientists to quickly gather data from hundreds of thousands of individual neurons, highlighting the DNA that is switched on in each one. Meanwhile, imaging tools for studying neurons in exquisite detail and tracking their activities in real-time are advancing.

 

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