The debate on whether we've eaten all the low-hanging fruit of technological innovation shows no sign of ending any time soon. While I've got opinions on this subject it occurs to me that if you want to look at the future and ponder what's important then rising labor productivity isn't the most important thing to think about.
What I want out of the future that I think will be possible some time in the 21 century:
Radically better health. This is by far the biggest. Suppose I offer you a choice between two futures and you could get one or the other. The first one is one where productivity and living standards go up about 3% per year, the environment gets cleaner, world peace breaks out, and there is no mass unemployment. Sound great? One catch: We still grow old and die. Maybe we make it to 90 rather than 80. But we grow old and die.
Okay, here's your other choice: Our houses don't get any bigger, Moore's Law for faster computers hits the wall of small device types, we don't find a way to get productivity to keep rising indefinitely. Byut we have mass unemployment of manual laborers because manual laborers get their jobs automated. The rest of us keep working. Plus, world peace does not break out. There's still the threat of war. But here's the biggie in your second choice: We get full body and brain rejuvenation. I'm taking that choice in a heart beat.
Suppose in 20 years time full body rejuv becomes possible. But your job is kinda lousy and your wages stagnate for the next 20 years while you wait for biotech to advance. The reward is great. Rejuvenation is better than flying cars. Rejuvenation is better than L5 colonies or Mars colonies. Rejuvenation lets you live long enough to see the more conventional science fiction future happen.
Higher functioning humans: Another great thing is in store for the future: genetic re-engineering of humans that will make the average human of 100 years from now higher functioning than someone 3 standard deviations above average intelligence of today. Humans will all be beautiful (which is so not the case today - all feel-good nonsense to the contrary). Genetic tinkering will make future humans be born with great intelligence, beauty, high energy, great immune systems, and very robust in the face of stress and challenges.
Enhancing humans will be way more rewarding than bigger houses or bigger cars or longer distance vacation trips.
Granted, none of this stuff is happening now. I can understand why someone can focus on all sorts of short term trends and find all sorts of problems. I sometimes do this myself. But if I'm still alive 30 years from now I'm expecting I'll be getting rejuvenation therapies as well as cognitive enhancement therapies. That's the future I want to live in.
Estimates in the press claim 3000-4000 microcephaly babies have been born in Brazil alone due to Zika virus infections in women while pregnant. Maybe. You might be surprised to learn that the Zika-microcephaly link has not yet been proven. Here are rough calculations on whether the threat is real. The scientific jury is still out. Do not panic.
Suppose the threat is real. A BBC story puts a vaccine a decade away: Zika virus: US scientists say vaccine '10 years away' But a Reuters story has Inovio Pharmaceuticals ready to start testing an emergency vaccine in several months for use before year's end. Faced with the prospect of tens of thousands of microcephaly babies how will governments respond? Will they pull out all the stops and remove roadblocks so that a vaccine can come to market in many countries in less than a year?
Zika cases in humans were first identified in Africa in 1952. What enabled its spread? Globalization. Humans carried the Aedes Aegypti mosquito (which evolved to live off of humans) eggs around the globe. Well, Aedes Aegypti carries a number of pathogens that harm humans including Dengue Fever, Chikungunya, Zika Fever and Yellow Fever viruses, as explained by my previous link to a Wikipedia page on Aedes Aegypti. Given that this particular mosquito carries 4 harmful pathogens I think we ought to give its spread special attention.
Luckily, a company called Oxitec has developed genetically modified male mosquitoes which mate with wild females to make offspring that die before maturation. As they point out mosquitoes pass diseases into 350-500 million people each year. Their approach has been met with opposition from those who oppose genetic modification of organisms. In that (quite excellent) article note the problems the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District has hit trying to reduce mosquito populations. They've managed to cut numbers 50%. Brazil needs Oxitec's approach on a massive scale.
The human health damage caused by mosquitoes has led to calls to completely wipe out mosquitoes, to literally drive them to extinction. Some scientists claim it is possible to wipe out mosquitoes. Some oppose this idea. But consider that there are hundreds of mosquito species and they exist in many habitats. A more limited scale of wipe-out could be done. Both Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus carry human diseases and both are invasive in most areas they are found. If we wiped out both these species in the Americas we'd just be restoring the mosquito status quo to where it was before Europeans found the New World. So in the Western Hemisphere I say wipe out these two species. Extermination. As for the rest of the world: Side effects of wiping out mosquitoes might be minimal. Then again, an entomologist thinks mosquitoes have an important ecological role to play:
If mosquitoes went extinct: Mosquito larvae are very important in aquatic ecology. Many other insects and small fish feed on them and the loss of that food source would cause their numbers to decline as well. Anything that feeds on them, such as game fish, raptorial birds, etc. would in turn suffer too.
My guess is this role could be filled by mosquito species that do not bite humans. We can safely wipe out mosquito species that bite humans that are in areas we've spread them to. That gives us a lot of potential to scale back the amount of disease caused by mosquitoes.
Got high blood pressure and obesity? Garlic might cut your risk of a heart attack.
LOS ANGELES - The supplement Aged Garlic Extract can reverse the buildup of deadly plaque in arteries and help prevent the progression of heart disease, according to a new study scheduled for publication in the Journal of Nutrition.
The research, conducted at LA BioMed, found a reduction in the amount of low-attenuation plaque, or "soft plaque," in the arteries of patients with metabolic syndrome who took Aged Garlic Extract. Metabolic syndrome is characterized by obesity, hypertension and other cardiac risk factors.
The research was funded by a garlic extract maker.
My advice: fix your diet first. Cut out sugar and refined foods. Eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. Maybe garlic extract helps. But it is not a substitute for healthy eating. Also, do weight lifting. More muscle mass will raise the rate at which you burn calories even when sitting still. Pumping iron provides other benefits too. Pills aren't a substitute for a healthy lifestyle.
Garlic extract (aged or otherwise) is a heavily researched topic. Have a look at the results of that PubMed search if you are interested in it. Aged garlic extract might have a number of beneficial effects.
If life on a planet does not evolve fast enough it doesn't get powerful enough before natural changes in climate wipe it out. Australian researchers present the Gaian Bottleneck hypothesis:
"The mystery of why we haven't yet found signs of aliens may have less to do with the likelihood of the origin of life or intelligence and have more to do with the rarity of the rapid emergence of biological regulation of feedback cycles on planetary surfaces," he said.
Wet, rocky planets, with the ingredients and energy sources required for life seem to be ubiquitous, however, as physicist Enrico Fermi pointed out in 1950, no signs of surviving extra-terrestrial life have been found.
A plausible solution to Fermi's paradox, say the researchers, is near universal early extinction, which they have named the Gaian Bottleneck.
"One intriguing prediction of the Gaian Bottleneck model is that the vast majority of fossils in the universe will be from extinct microbial life, not from multicellular species such as dinosaurs or humanoids that take billions of years to evolve," said Associate Professor Lineweaver.
Take Mars for example. Over 3.5 billion years ago Mars had much more atmosphere and water. But the solar wind stripped away its atmosphere away. Earth's magnetic field protects our atmosphere from solar wind but Mars lacks that protective layer. Imagine that highly intelligent Martians had evolved before it lost its atmosphere. Perhaps they could have done climate engineering to build up protections for their atmosphere. But absent a sufficiently intelligent life form to intervene to protect it Mars life was doomed. Though perhaps some microorganisms still survive there underground.
Keyless door access control systems are part of a wider movement of computers acting for us. If a computer can detect it is you approaching your own home it can not only unlock your door but also, with additional actuators, open it.
The same can be done with cars. You walk up to it in the morning on a work day and the door pops open, you get in, it tells you it is taking you to work, and without even a response on your part it pulls out of your driveway and turns toward work.
Computer prediction models will act in your life to cook your food in advance of your asking, start the water running on your shower, and pull clothes out of your closet to wear. The Nest thermostat is already trying to figure out when to heat and cool your house. The predicting will get much more all-encompassing. Once you've left for the day the house computer will decide whether and where your autonomous vacuum should clean.
Computers will predict your food needs, order home delivery of groceries, and the house robot will accept delivery from the delivery truck robot.
Some forms of prediction will still come with a request that you sanction a choice. Your phone could tell you an hour before you leave work from home what is the recommended meal based on recent meals you liked and what's available in the kitchen. If you accept hte recommendation preparation will start as you walk up to your car and it opens the door to let you in. If you decide to work late the phone could offer to have dinner delivered to you from home or from a nearby robotic restaurant that has the needed supplies to cook any of your favorite recipes.
The home will also medically monitor and diagnose you.
What am I missing? What else will get done for you that you now have to attend to?
Update: I want a coach computer that tells me when I ought to see a dentist, doctor, accountant, or even go to an oil change place. It could check a dentist's calendar for openings, tell me I'm due, and suggest times. It could watch my car's miles driven (the car computer would talk to my cell phone which would talk to a server with my life on it) and let me know when I'm due. Basically, life maintenance activities would all just get prompted. It could even tell me when to change the air filter on my home heater.
So then add an autonomous vehicle to the mix. It could drive itself to a place to get the oil, air filter, belts, and tires changed. It might ask "mind if I drive off at 2 AM this morning and get this work done by robots while you sleep?".
Humans are creating a whole new epoch in Earth history. Click thru and read the ways humans are altering the planet.
This isn't about CO2 emissions. For instance, we've created large quantities of synthetic materials and spewed them all over. Consider the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (aka Pacific trash vortex) in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre in the Pacific ocean. Large quantities of floating trash, especially plastics. The plastics are not biodegradable, though they photodegrade.
Industrialization has also expanded the human capacity to drive species to extinction. We've created a far larger land footprint for our structures, roads, farms, and other uses of land. We've become far more efficient at hunting and killing. Our overfishing has reduced the mass of large fish in the oceans by 90%. Fishing yields peaked in 1989.
We need to develop technologies that reduce our footprint and and we need to restrain our excesses. Take overfishing for example. It is bad from a purely economic standpoint because an overfished zone produces less fish. We need to slash fishing globally and give fisheries time to recover. We also need to cut the flow of pollutants and trash into the oceans.
We also need to take steps to stop the human population explosion in Africa. That population explosion is going to wipe out large numbers of species and also create more damage to the surrounding oceans.
Another worry: genetic editing. It will become really cheap and easy to do. Will malicious or just foolish and careless people create variations on species that devastate some habitats? It seems too plausible.
When humans were less powerful and much fewer in number our mistakes and obliviousness counted for less. We are becoming steadily more powerful and our mistakes count for more. We've got to become wiser and smarter and handling the world. I'm not sure that we will.
Duke researchers overcame a number of problems to deliver CRISPR-Cas9 genetic editing machinery into the muscle cells of living mice and treat a genetic disease.
Another approach, which involves taking CRISPR directly to the affected tissues through gene therapy techniques, also faces challenges, particularly with delivery. In the new study, Duke University researchers overcame several of these obstacles by using a non-pathogenic carrier called adeno-associated virus, or AAV, to deliver the gene-editing system.
Since Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy kills by a person's teens or twenties the high risk of in-place genetic editing would be a risk worth running.
The researchers found a version of CRISPR-Cas9 in Staphylococcus aureus which is small enough to fit in the viral delivery vehicle. To further save space they snipped out the problematic DNA segment rather than replace it. Obviously, this won't work for all problems with genetic diseases. But it will work for some.
In the study, researchers worked with a mouse model that has a debilitating mutation on one of the exons of the dystrophin gene. They programmed the new CRISPR/Cas9 system to snip out the dysfunctional exon, leaving the body's natural repair system to stitch the remaining gene back together to create a shortened -- but functional -- version of the gene.
Besides being much easier and more efficient than replacing the dysfunctional exon with a working copy, simply snipping out the weak link is a strategy that would be effective in a larger swath of the patient population.
Gersbach and his team first delivered the therapy directly to a leg muscle in an adult mouse, resulting in the restoration of functional dystrophin and an increase in muscle strength. They then injected the CRISPR/AAV combination into a mouse's bloodstream to reach every muscle. The results showed some correction of muscles throughout the body, including in the heart -- a major victory because heart failure is often the cause of death for Duchenne patients.
Delivery vehicle size is still going to be a problem for many conditions where gene therapy would help. We need more advances to enable delivery of bigger genetic edits. I think this will especially be the case for rejuvenating aged post-mitotic (no longer dividing) cells, especially nerve cells in the brain. We need to be able to do repair in cells that have accumulated lots of damage with age.