Change is Coming: Six Predictions for Technology in 2018

Rising support for geoengineering

We’re predicting President Trump will continue to make foolish statements on climate change. No shit, I hear you say, but while Trump drags his feet on the subject, the planet is getting warmer and extreme weather events are becoming more and more common. Perhaps, then, 2018 will be the year we see increased support for more controversial methods of reversing climate change, such as geoengineering.

Geoengineering refers to different techniques that could be used to artificially engineer the climate’s temperature. The concept isn’t a new one – the ideas were first kicked around in the 1960s – but given the current political climate and the pessimism over whether we can meet the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement, it’s certainly a term we’ll be hearing a lot more in 2018.

CRISPR-driven medical breakthroughs

Gene editing technology CRISPR has already had a dramatic impact on the bioscience community, and has shown promising medical results in Chinese trials, but 2018 will be the year it truly comes to humans, with the first in-human trials in Europe and the US set to start this year.

With the ability to make precise adjustments to genes in living humans, the technology will likely initially be used to transform the treatment of rare but lifelong conditions, paving the way for large-scale treatment of more common ailments several years down the line. However, the technology will also present deep moral questions, and will no doubt see some form of backlash as its possibilities become more widely discussed.

Image courtesy of Impossible Foods

Meat that isn’t meat goes mainstream

The efforts to minimise our environmental impact will continue in 2018, with an ever-greater focus on what we eat. One area that is set to see increasing discussion is meat consumption, with increased efforts to get us to ditch beef and other meats in favour of more sustainable protein sources. Which is why 2018 will be the year that foods that look, cook, taste and bleed like real meat but are really made from plants are going to enter the mainstream consciousness and food supply.

Leading the way will be Impossible Foods’ Impossible Burger, which saw a limited launch last year and is likely to be available in many more places over the next 12 months, but other food manufacturers are no doubt working to develop their own rival products.

On the way towards artificial general intelligence

Artificial intelligence had a good 2017, putting the game Go in the same category as chess and Jeopardy, as games AIs are now better than humans at. Unfortunately, while we now have AI that can excel at a specific task, they’re not so good at multitasking, and to paraphrase Matthew Mcconaughey in the coming-of-age movie Dazed and Confused, ‘it’d be a lot cooler if they did’.

Sorry to burst your bubble, especially in a list of 2018 predictions, but this won’t happen in 2018. The days when AI can call itself an expert in Go, Russian theatre and why Marvel can make films but not TV shows is decades away, but we’ll see momentum shift towards making this a reality in 2018, so expect AI to appear a little smarter by the end of the year.

Image courtesy of Waymo

Driverless cars get real

2017 was a fantastic year for driverless cars, with Waymo announcing the start of tests without a driver behind the wheel on public roads and companies such as Audi announcing the inclusion of partial AI on current models. 2018, however, will see the driverless car race go into overdrive, with many counties beginning to seriously tackle the legal side of the technology in readiness for a full rollout in the early 2020s.

However, more of a legal focus will bring more public discussion, and a fair amount of it won’t be positive. Automotive companies will need to step up their efforts to ensure a positive image for driverless cars in 2018.

Image courtesy of Virgin Galactic

Richard Branson’s New Year planning for space travel

Hopefully you’ve all made your New Year’s resolutions that you fully intend to stick to. What are they? Go to the gym more? Make more of effort with your friends? Do some centrifuge g-force training so you can be as acclimatised as possible for the journey to space?

That last one probably only applies to Richard Branson, who wants to get as fit as possible before his private space program Virgin Galactic goes into space. Last October, Branson said he was about six months away from going to space, which would take him up to around March, so hopefully he has a few more resolutions to tide him over until 1st January 2019.

Additional reporting by Daniel Davies

Cloning did not cause Dolly the sheep to get arthritis, scientists confirm

A new study has dismissed concerns that cloning caused early-onset osteoarthritis (OA) in Dolly the sheep.

Scientists from the University of Nottingham and the University of Glasgow have published a radiographic assessment of the skeletons of Dolly, Bonnie (Dolly’s naturally conceived daughter) and Megan and Morag (the first two animals to be cloned from differentiated cells) that shows no abnormal OA.

The study follows the team’s research last year into the Nottingham ‘Dollies’, a quartet of sheep cloned in 2007 from the same line as Dolly, that showed the cloned sheep to age the same as naturally born sheep.

According to their assessment of the skeletons, the OA observed within the skeletons is similar to that naturally conceived sheep and Nottingham’s healthy aged clones.

Professor Sandra Corr, Professor of Small Animal Orthopaedic Surgery who has since moved to Glasgow University, said: “We found that the prevalence and distribution of radiographic-OA was similar to that observed in naturally conceived sheep, and our healthy aged cloned sheep.

As a result we conclude that the original concerns that cloning had caused early-onset OA in Dolly were unfounded.”

The new study arose after the findings regarding the Nottingham ‘Dollies’.

Derived from the same cell line that produced Dolly, the four sheep originated from Professor Keith Campbell’s attempts to improve the efficiency of the cloning method somatic-cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) and were left as his legacy to the University of Nottingham.

Studying the ‘Dollies’, Kevin Sinclair, Professor of Developmental Biology, in the School of Biosciences, along with Corr and David Gardner, Professor of Physiology at Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, found radiographic evidence of only mild or, in one case, moderate OA.

Images courtesy of the University of Nottingham.

Given that the ‘Dollies’ had aged so apparently normal, the team felt that their findings stood in too stark a contrast to reports that cloning had caused Dolly to suffer from early-onset OA. First emerging in 2003, reports stated that at the age of 5½ Dolly was suffering from OA.

However, the only formal record of any OA in Dolly was a brief mention in a conference abstract, stating that Dolly had OA of the left knee.

In the absence of the original records however, the team were compelled to travel to Edinburgh, where the skeletons are stored in the collections of National Museums Scotland.

With special permission from Dr Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Vertebrates at National Museums Scotland, the team then performed the X-rays on Dolly and her contemporary clones to reassess that 2003 diagnosis.

Sinclair said: “Our findings of last year appeared to be at odds with original concerns surrounding the nature and extent of osteoarthritis in Dolly – who was perceived to have aged prematurely. Yet no formal, comprehensive assessment of osteoarthritis in Dolly was ever undertaken. We therefore felt it necessary to set the record straight.”