History has a strange relationship with science. Take the instance of electricity for example - humans knew of lightning and static shocks for thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the year 1600 that English scientist William Gilbert actually christened the phenomenon as electricus meaning “of amber” - due to the observed static electrical attraction when amber was rubbed. Even then the phenomenon remained at best a novelty. Something to be studied but of no practical importance to society - after all, they had whale oil and coal and with the discovery of the good old steam engine in 1606, they had all the power they could need. What good was electricity?
History does have a strange relationship with science and curiosities can evolve to become the very foundation of the way we live (take the case of electricity for instance).
With this awareness - the knowledge of the past and the imagination towards the future, we can contextualise the discoveries of today. Keeping that in mind, we’re going to highlight the most recent discoveriers that we believe, will revolutionise the future.
The word telepathy is predominantly used in science fiction. As a concept, it’s simple - the ability to transmit one’s thoughts into another person’s mind and vice versa. But this fantastical ability is no longer confined to the pages of a comic book or mutant movie.
Thanks to the efforts of an international consortium of neuroscientists, roboticists, engineers and researchers, brain-to-brain communication between humans has become possible. The two groups responsible are Starlab in Barcelona, Spain and Axium Robotics in Strasbourg, France.
The project is of course in its early stages but participants located nearly 8,000 kilometers away from each other were successfully able to communicate simple greetings between their minds via the Internet. The direct brain-to-brain interface was created as a series of electrodes attached to the transmitters on a person’s scalp to record specific patterns of brain activity.
They began with a simple greeting such as “ciao” and “hola”. These readings were translated into binary code and then sent across via the Internet from their base in India to a laboratory in France where the binary was decoded back to brain patterns. The participants in France received the patterns as a sequence of light flashes in their peripheral vision. This allowed their brain to successful decode the signal to the original message. This proof-of-principle experiment poses many exciting possibilities for the future of how this technology can be used - from helping impaired people communicate to the ability to reach out to soldiers in war scenarios - the choice is ours.
Unhackable Quantum Internet
With the interconnectedness of the Internet and the sensitivity of personal data online researchers have been working away at using quantum technology to secure the Internet. The technology in question is known as quantum key distribution or QKD.
The method of using quantum keys to encrypt messages is being experimented across the world in places such as China and Switzerland. Using this technique, Internet networks transmit photons in specific quantum states to create a cryptographic key. Using quantum key distribution, data can be encrypted over ordinary, non-quantum networks due to its higher degree of mathematical complexity.
This means that in order to decrypt the message a very powerful computer is necessary. But the beauty of the QKD protocol is that if anyone was to attempt to intercept a quantum key, it would alter the quantum states of the photons and alert users that the key is under attack.
With successful small scale networks in the United States, China and Switzerland proving unbeatable efforts are being made at securing any loopholes such as hardware hacks and social hacks to further reinforce the system. At the present moment, the network range is restricted due to the issues of quantum stability over long distances, but that problem is being addressed with the development of quantum repeaters that would use quantum entanglement to create a globally secure network. The research is underway and we can expect it to be the next iteration of the Internet of today.
Cheap Nanotube Hydrogen Fuel
The world is in an energy crunch. With fluctuating fuel prices, diminishing supplies of fossil fuels, nascent sources of renewable energy and the impact of climate change making the global situation dire. To make matters worse, the need to feed, house and support the seven billion and rising population of the planet makes the discovery of a viable energy alternative a must.
Under these circumstances the invention of the technology that allows the cheap manufacturing of clean burning hydrogen fuel is momentus. Researchers at Rutgers University, New Jersey, have developed a method of using carbon nanotubes to manufacture commercially useful hydrogen fuel from water. The usual method of converting water to hydrogen fuel is extremely expensive as it uses platinum for its electrolysis reactions.
But with the development of the new sustainable chemical catalyst in the form of “noble metal-free nitrogen rich carbon nanotubes”. The bottom line being that with the use of these new carbon nanotube catalysts in electrolysis reactions researchers can set up water to hydrogen fuel conversion systems in a variety of conditions. By simply splitting the water molecules to create clean, commercially viable hydrogen fuels, the system can be adapted to a number of settings and environments, as well as be coupled with existing energy producing systems like solar, hydro, wind and nuclear energy.
This discovery directs the use of nanomaterials towards one of the most important problems of our generations and has the potential to change the way the world fuels itself in the future.
Liquid Data Storage Devices
We are surrounded by data and most of it’s smashable. It can be anything from a cell phone to a cloud server - in the end all the data of the digital world exists in some solid form ready for smashing. But with the recent developments in nanoparticle studies at the University of Michigan and New York University, we may soon find data dripping from every surface. Researchers at these universities have designed a method for storing digital data in liquid form and that too at immensely high densities.
A normal 1TB hard-disk would come in at the size of a small cell phone (47.5 milliliters of volume from Western Digital) while a one terabyte liquid storage would fit in a tablespoon (which is about 15 milliliters of volume). The usage of “wet” or “soft” storage mediums as been an ongoing research objective for data storage and researchers have finally found a working system. By using suspended clusters of nanoparticles in a liquid they have discovered that they can store more data than the typical binary systems computer.
Since these nanoparticles are in the form of one central sphere attached to up to 12 particles in different configurations, the capacity of data storage increases by an exponential factor. A cluster consisting of 12 particles attached to a single sphere can create nearly 8 million unique configurations as compared to the binary format of 1 and 0. This equals 2.86 bytes of data storage per cluster. To put that in context - the tablespoon of storage we mentioned earlier only uses a three percent concentration of these 12 particles in the liquid to attain a terabyte of storage.
Scientists are now working on inventing a fast and reliable method of reading the stored data, which would allow for the successful commercialisation of the technology. It’s not unlikely that in the future all your data would travel along with you in a vial in your pocket or even in your blood. Just don’t sneeze your data on everyone, OK? Manners.
Artificial Blood Supplies
Blood is the life force that keeps the human body going. As the delivery mechanism for oxygen to different organs, it’s also a critical component in a host of other tasks such as immunisation and temperature regulation.
When there is a medical emergency, blood donations become a critical necessity. And given the different blood types and their respective rarities in different parts of the world, we have witnessed the death of untold millions due to lack of blood donations at the right time. Thankfully that will all change given the invention of artificially generated red and white blood cells thanks to stem cell research at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service.
They have successfully used stem cells to create Type O negative blood cells and since it’s a universal donor that blood type can be used by anyone. These types of blood cells are present in only seven percent of the world’s population and are very rarely found in donation camps. The blood is manufactured by de-differentiating fibroblasts from adult donors and reprogramming them to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs).
The iPSCs are then cultured in a bonemarrow like environment (where blood is created in the human body) for a month. The final stage of extraction then yields human ready blood cells. As of now, a careful clinical testing procedure will be implemented in 2016 where three patients suffering from low hemoglobin levels will be tested to see the reliability and safety of the blood substitute.
The idea is to scale up this manufacturing process to industrial levels in the near future when rare blood types and timely donations won’t be an impediment to saving lives thereby securing the health of the whole human race.
Shape Shifting Robots
We’re pretty used to the ideas of robots thanks to science fiction. The idea of human automaton is being advanced with every passing year, but all of them are restrained by one key factor - rigidity. Robots are made of metals and other hard materials that, although they imitate the skeletal structure of humans, remain woefully stiff and inflexible.
However, this might change very soon since researchers at MIT, Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and Stony Brook University in the United States have developed a material that will allow robots to be “soft”. Using a 3D printed phase changing material composed of polyurethane foam and wax researchers can use heat variances to manipulate the softness and hardness of the structure. Taking inspiration from the organic world where skeletal organisms have the benefit of nerves and tendons to operate their hard bones, the new material is being used to create more flexible robotic components.
The prototype model was a snake robot, which is one the most flexible vertebrate creatures, capable of intricate movements and flexibility. Their goal was to allow it to pass through a one centimeter opening and reach the other side, capable of functions. In comparison to any other attempts in soft robotics, this method of using foam and wax makes the whole process very affordable and easy to use. Other applications of the same technology would even allow robots to self-heal, but that research is still in its infancy. Although this new technology doesn’t exactly harken to the liquid chrome elegance of the T-1000 from Terminator 2, it will get the job done. Anyway, those T-1000s were scary, so we’re better off, right?
Cancer Controlling Gene
Cancer kills more than AIDS, TB and malaria combined and with over 22 million expected victims annually by 2030, it’s one of the biggest health perils facing the human race. The most virulent of all the different cancer varieties is lung cancer, that claims 19 percent of all deaths every year.
The most dangerous attribute of lung cancer is its ability to metastasize and spread to other parts of the body, which gives it the terminal advantage in killing people. Hopefully, this trend may now be prevented since scientists at the Salk Institute have discovered the DIXDC1 gene that can stop the movement of cancer from the lungs to the other parts of the body.
By blocking the DIXDC1 gene, cancer cells can no longer anchor other cells together and create metastatic off-shoots to the rest of the body. Scientist are working at understanding more about this unexpected discovery and are looking to adapt it to existing therapies being used to treat cancer patients. This gives us reason to feel hopeful that with more intent research into gene manipulation, the future of humanity will be cancer free in all respects and not just limited to the inhibition of lung cancer metastasis.
Main Image credits: todayifoundout