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

Biologists discover earthworms are able to reproduce in Mars-like soil

If we’re going to keep ourselves alive on Mars then we need to create a sustainable agricultural ecosystem, and the news that earthworms have managed to reproduce in a Mars soil simulant could be an important step towards that.

During the Food for Mars and Moon experiment at Wageningen University & Research, which was looking at how to stimulate growth in Mars-like soil, the biologists added adult worms and pig slurry (in place on human excrement) to a Mars soil simulant provided by NASA.

But, unexpectedly, as well as allowing the biologists to grow over a dozen crops, the experiment also produced two young worms.

“Clearly the manure stimulated growth, especially in the Mars soil simulant, and we saw that the worms were active. However, the best surprise came at the end of the experiment when we found two young worms in the Mars soil simulant,” said Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen University & Research.

Images courtesy of Wieger Wamelink, Wageningen Environmental Research

Worms are very important for a healthy soil, not only on Earth but also in future indoor gardens on Mars or the moon.

They thrive on dead organic matter such as old plant remains, which they eat, chew and mix with soil before they excrete it. This poo still contains organic matter that is broken down further by bacteria, thus releasing nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium for use by the plants.

By digging burrows the worms also aerate and improve the structure of the soil, making watering the plants more effective. The latter proved to be very important in earlier experiments where water would not easily penetrate the soil. Wamelink confirmed that, “The application of worms will solve this problem.”

The soil stimulants, delivered by NASA, originate from a volcano in Hawaii, which simulates Mars, and a desert in Arizona, which simulates the Moon.

Since staring the experiments in 2013, the biologists has had success in growing crops such as green beans, peas, radish, tomato, potato, rucola, carrot and garden cress, which have all been tested to make sure they are safe for human consumption.

The biologists organised a dinner based on the harvested crops for the people that supported their research via a crowdfunding campaign.