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

The ocean is the answer to future food security but we’re not using it: scientists

The vast majority of coastal countries on Earth are missing out on a valuable resource to ensure future food security, according to newly published research.

Published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, the research has found that the world’s oceans contain numerous “hot spots” for marine aquaculture, or ocean-based fish farms, which could produce 15 billion tonnes of fish every year: over 100 times current seafood consumption globally.

“There are only a couple of countries that are producing the vast majority of what’s being produced right now in the oceans,” said lead author Rebecca Gentry, from UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. “We show that aquaculture could actually be spread a lot more across the world, and every coastal country has this opportunity.”

However, an unwillingness by governments to seriously explore aquaculture could seriously jeopardise this.

“There is a lot of space that is suitable for aquaculture, and that is not what’s going to limit its development,” said Gentry. “It’s going to be other things such as governance and economics.”

A fish farm in Dugi Otok, Croatia

At present, many countries choose to import much of their seafood, despite significant potential to meet their own needs.

The US, for example, imports over 90% of its fish, resulting in a trade deficit for seafood alone that tops $13bn. However, it could produce its entire domestic supply using just 0.01% of its ocean territory.

Worldwide, the story is similar: aquaculture could match the entire seafood production of every wild-caught fishery using a combined area the size of Lake Michigan: less than 1% of the total ocean surface.

And with food security under increasing threat, it is only a matter of time before countries take aquaculture seriously.

“Marine aquaculture provides a means and an opportunity to support both human livelihoods and economic growth, in addition to providing food security,” said co-author Ben Halpern, executive director of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). “It’s not a question of if aquaculture will be part of future food production but, instead, where and when. Our results help guide that trajectory.”

Cages used in marine aquaculture

With such potential, it is no surprise that aquaculture is already on the increase.

“Aquaculture is expected to increase by 39% in the next decade,” said study co-author Halley Froehlich, a postdoctoral researcher at NCEAS. “Not only is this growth rate fast, but the amount of biomass aquaculture produces has already surpassed wild seafood catches and beef production.”

However, if aquaculture is going to be a core part of future food production, it needs to be managed properly, something that hasn’t always happened in the past. In the 90s, the poor management of shrimp farming in Thailand led to a boom and bust that left vast coastal areas barren.

“Like any food system, aquaculture can be done poorly; we’ve seen it,” said Froehlich. “This is really an opportunity to shape the future of food for the betterment of people and the environment.”