Future Trends in Scientific Research

Updated: Jul 29

The world of Science is advancing at a rapid pace. Often, scientific articles that we read are allocated to or embedded within a post about health or medical advancements, but today we're going to look at some of the work being done through a Science-specific lens. Given the nature of scientific exploration, most of these touch on or are fully incorporated into other fields such as engineering and robotics. The categories for our articles today are:

  • The Latest in Biology

  • Advances in Energy

  • Human/Science Integration

  • Completely New Science

  • The Future of Science

Thank you for joining us here at The Future Learning Project, and don't hesitate to reach out to sean@futurelearningproject.com if you have something you would like to know to more about.

The Latest in Biology


Synthetic Biology allows scientists to create new living things, and the field is advancing rapidly. The term itself has been around since the 1970s from the early days of genetic engineering, but modern advances in the reading and writing of DNA are opening new avenues of research. Fast and cheap genomic sequencing is allowing researchers to examine how living organisms are constructed at the molecular and cellular level, and enables them to test whether this 'machinery' can be repurposed. A 'skies the limit' mentality exists in this field, with every new discovery opening up whole new avenues of research and opportunity.


Continuing with biology, scientists have built the world's first living 'robots' through bio-engineering cells from frogs. Named 'Xenobots', these cell-based robots have been engineered from the frogs' skin and heart cells (specially chosen for their unique properties) and then running these through an evolutionary algorithm on a supercomputer. The AI designed and tested cell configurations for movement and other tasks, and the scientists then 'built' the Xenobots based on the results from the AI. The Xenobots can move, work together and are programmable. The process is far more complicated than I've described here, but do watch the video link above - it's pretty incredible, and so we're not just sharing Youtube videos here's the research.

Advances in Energy


Efficient energy storage remains one of the greatest obstacles to renewables transforming the energy market. As you will likely be aware, the generation of renewable energy is not consistent in the same way that nuclear, coal and hydro energy is, due to the fact that they can't produce energy 24 hours a hour. Solar can only generate electricity during the day, and wind only when there's enough wind, and excess capacity can't be stored efficiently when generation is high. Therefore, scientists and engineers are working on various ways of storing surplus energy, and this one has caught our eye this week. A lot of research is going into flow batteries, fuels cells and even compressed air, but this is the first we've seen of using gravity to store energy, and it seems that with a lower marginal cost, huge potential storage capacity and the ability to instantly provide the grid with energy we may see this deployed in the coming years.


But there may be some competition. An Australian energy company named HB11 is developing what might possibly be the world's first true fusion reactor, one that can provide the planet with unlimited clean energy. This article explains how the process works in theory, and briefly consists of enabling and controlling hydrogen-born fusion through the use of incredibly powerful lasers and magnets. However, the technical challenges appear to be significant, and these are described in some detail within the article. HB11 founder Professor Heinrich Hora thinks that a working prototype can be developed for about $100 million, which sounds a lot but actually isn't that much at all when it comes to fusion reaction.


This cost is best illustrated by the 30-year, $23 billion, 25,000 tonne International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). ITER is a magnetic fusion device that's being built in France, and it will finally be turned on in 2025. However it might still take until 2035 for fusion to be achieved, in this case through running massive amounts of current through the isotopes deuterium and tritium until fusion occurs at 149,999,982.22 degrees C with the whole thing contained by enormous magnets weighing thousands of tonnes.


Fusion energy has been twenty years away for a long time, but it finally appears that we do have potentially unlimited clean energy within our grasp and it may be realised within the next 15 years. This would be hugely significant for the world and how we live.

Human/Science Integration


Facebook is working on brain-interfacing devices, and it looks as though wearables are going to be happening before implants. The idea is for the user to be able to think and control a device, and Mark Zuckerberg wants these devices to be operating in virtual or augmented reality. Facebook's acquisition of CTRL-Labs was one of their largest-ever, and provides a good indication of the potential value that the company sees. This technology places wearables on a person's wrist that detect brainwaves destined for muscles in a person's hand, and has potential benefits for those who are movement or speech impaired. Watch this space.


A brain implant has allowed a disabled man to regain some movement and sense of touch. The implant is about the size of a grain of rice, and allows for the monitoring of electrical signals in the part of the brain responsible for voluntary movement. The implant is used to decode signals from the brain, and the researchers have essentially run a bypass around the man's spinal cord directly to his limbs, enabling some movement and sensation. The process requires connection to a computer and a lot of training, but is an essential in developing a solution for everyday use.

Completely New Science


This is a complicated read, but it appears that scientists have created an unusual new metal in which electrons act as a unit rather than interacting independently. In doing so, the researchers have observed something called quantum entanglement, which is the basis for storage and processing of quantum information, along with superconductivity. The potential is apparently outstanding, and opens up whole new areas of research.


A scientist from Wuhan University has developed a new type of plasma thruster that uses electricity and air for propulsion. The researchers have found a way to not only get the technology working, but believe it's possible to scale up the technology so that the thrusters rival jet engines. If true, this would be ground-breaking and open up completely new avenues for transport.

The Future of Science


We finish today's post with a thoughtful and insightful article from The Atlantic. Patrick Collison (co-founder of Stripe) and Tyler Cowen (professor and author of The Great Stagnation) argue that we need a new science of progress, one that advances "the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement(s) that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries." They suggest a new field of research titled 'Progress Studies', which would examine why progress has been unevenly distributed historically and study evidence of successful progress in people, organisations and policy in order to provide a 'prescription' for how progress might optimally realised in future.


This would involve a coherent global effort to pool resources, examine current research funding practices, identify the best talent and research potential and examine organisational practices through a lens of how people should be acting, with a view to treating and actually solving humanities' problems and challenges, not just understanding them. It's a comprehensive, hopeful article and an inspiring read. As we see again, today's rapid progress is opening so many new avenues of research and opportunity. The potential is huge.


Thank you for joining us this week. We welcome any and all feedback and comments, and please contact me with any questions or suggestions you have.


Sean

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