As we ease into 2012, some people might be wondering just when things will start to feel, well, more future-y. Sure, we’ve got camera phones and clones, but what about the flying cars? Teleporters? Shopping malls on the moon? What exactly can we expect in the coming decade, as we wade even deeper into the 21st century?
The Silicon Valley-based think tank, the Institute for the Future, helps technology and health organizations plan for the long-term future. Earlier this month, IFTF announced a list of predictions for the next three-to-10 years, at the Technology Horizons Program. These forecasts run the gamut from biological innovations like creating new life forms from scratch, to invisibility cloaks. Read on for a summary of IFTF's prophecies.
Reverse-engineering the human brain becomes more advanced
In 2011, IBM's robot "Watson" demonstrated on the quiz show "Jeopardy!" that a machine can use human logic to rapidly dispense a brain's worth of information in a competitive setting. In the coming years, IFTF thinks that we'll continue to see machines melding learning with human cognitive abilities. Brain scans with higher resolutions and other emerging imaging technologies can make way for neural switchboards. Scientists are already using computers to simulate rats brains, for example.
Public interest in an accelerating space age
The end of the American space shuttle program won't stymie progress into the final frontier, IFTF says. Billionaire visionaries like Richard Branson will replace governments as space exploration's primary funders, as with Branson's brainchild, Virgin Galactic, and space tourism will attract more attention. Cosmic commercialization will galvanize more grassroots interest in space, perhaps leading to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, or at least the sale of personal satellites (IFTF predicts a price tag of $1000).
'Gameification' of science; human-data interaction reigns supreme
The Internet, especially the Googles and Wikipedias of the world, have made the relationship between humans and data more intimate than ever. The IFTF says, "Science will seek contributions from the networked public to tag raw data and make connections, seek patterns, and draw links between datasets." The think tank says science will become more "massively multiplayer" and even "gameified," and predicts wiki-created science models. There’s already Foldit, an online-puzzle/research project in which players work together to fold protein structures, like AIDS-related enzymes. IFTF also points to Galaxy Zoo, an online astronomy project that enlists citizen scientists to use data from the Hubble Telescope to help classify galaxies.
Oceans' increasingly important role in technology, climate studies
They cover over two-thirds of our planet's surface and they're home to a kaleidoscope of biodiversity. Earth's oceans serve as a bellwether for the effects of global warming, and IFTF says geoengineers will more closely monitor the levels of heat and carbon dioxide the oceans absorb. We'll also find more uses for seawater as a renewable fuel, and kick our underwater-exploration efforts into high gear. The Institute foresees "the majority of ocean species inventoried," and millions of marine species will be studied within the next decade.
Technology made of strange new material may lead to invisibility, teleportation
Harry Potter's famed Invisibility Cloak may have been the stuff of a fiction series' fanciful wizardry, but IFTF thinks even the most magical objects could very well be within our reach. The Institute says advances in certain metamaterials may lead to "such extraordinary possibilities as invisibility and even a space-time cloak that camouflages entire events." IFTF backs up such claims by pointing to recent technological advancements such as switchable materials that "change from brittle to ductile and back." It's also thought that certain metals can have their properties altered by devices that can "fold" DNA, blazing possible trails in the field of nanoscience. And, yes—IFTF even says teleportation may very well be a reality within the next decade. "As we continue to learn more about the nature of matter at the smallest scales, and how to manipulate it, we will be on a better path to develop materials with less environmental impact at the macro level," the think tank says.
"Mother Nature has a collaborator," IFTF says. With our advancements in cloning, mapping the human genome, and now mapping the microbes in human bodies, as in the Human Microbiome Project, the Institute's prognosticators believe that manipulating biology will become a more feasible, widely used scientific practice. Scientists will further study how life came to be, and researchers theoretically will be able to speed up evolution, tweak our own biology, and manufacture new life forms out of thin air. Some paleontologists have already taken the steps needed to make "Jurassic Park" technology reality. We've also begun experimenting with synthetic biology -- creating microbes to convert materials like sugarcane into a type of renewable energy. As we learn more about microbes, genomes and biomes, IFTF says we could steer evolution from the bottom up.
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