Science is a truly remarkable thing giving us the ability to fly to the moon and make food packaging that is nearly impossible to open. Because of science we have an understanding of the very furthest reaches of our universe and can connect with millions of people all over the world without ever leaving our house.
Yes, science is a remarkable thing and with every minute of every day a new scientific breakthrough or discovery comes that little bit closer. Sure, there are plenty of discoveries that leave you scratching your head while wondering why anyone would dedicate time and money to study but then there are other discoveries that have the potential to change your life forever.
Believe it or not at any given second there is the potential for someone somewhere to be, quite literally, seconds away from the greatest life changing discovery ever in the history of forever. It is just a shame that we rarely hear of the scientific advancements that are being worked on until they are ready to change our lives.
1 – Building a Brain
The race to develop artificial intelligence is a highly competitive field with huge advancements being made every year. Back in 1984 when James Cameron released his first Terminator movie intelligent machines were very much the works of science fiction but nowadays they are very nearly a reality.
The best known example of artificial intelligence is the Blue Brain Project because of its appearance on a major television documentary. The Blue Brain Project is actually trying to reverse engineer the brain by working backwards from a fully functional human brain towards a fully functional computer model.
An even more promising artificial intelligence project is the Cyc Project (pronounced syke). This project is making huge leaps forward with its quest to assemble a huge database of knowledge so a machine can use it and think like a human. The Cyc Project was created in 1984 with several sections of the project being available on the internet. The people behind the project have estimated 250,000 rules of thinking would need to be observed to generate a thinking machine and that it would take one man a whopping 350 years to assemble enough knowledge for the machine to truly think like us.
This project is the polar opposite of other projects which are trying to develop a computer than can automatically reason from its own first principles. The idea behind the Cyc Project is to tell the machine things such as “dogs are animals” then “all animals will die”. This, in theory, would allow the machine to work out that dogs will die. This approach to artificial intelligence is called an inference engine and it works by mimicking the way humans learn.
The Cyc Project already has more than one million pieces of knowledge, rules of thought and obvious bits of common sense so the main focus now is to develop as many high quality answers in good quality language. It is hoped that they will eventually have a natural language breakthrough which will allow the computer to surf the internet to gather its own usable knowledge.
The project is already connected up to Wikipedia and to a government Terrorism Knowledge Base which gives an indication that this project may well be used to keep us safe when it is finally able to work effectively.
2 – Renewable, Limitless, Clean and Free Energy
The problem with creating a renewable, limitless, clean and free form of energy is not just in developing it but in keeping it free. Unfortunately we live in a world where you can bet your last dollar that someone somewhere will find a way to make huge sums of money should this form of energy ever be found. Basically, we may well soon be able to produce a renewable, limitless and clean form of energy but the chances of us getting it for free are nearly non-existent.
One of the most promising avenues of research is the field of nuclear fusion and in the United States there have recently been some huge breakthroughs. Energy from fusion is the exact way that our sun generates energy and the fuel to do this is practically free. The human race has already used nuclear fusion as the basis of our hydrogen bombs and we know that if we can control that reaction then we will get a vast amount of energy in return.
The latest advancement in the field of nuclear fusion is one of the biggest yet but unfortunately it sounds very unimpressive to the average person on the street. What scientists have done is find a way releasing more energy from a tiny pellet of fuel than was used by lasers used to create the reaction.
These experiments and other fusion research are taking place at the National Ignition Foundation in sunny California. They currently are working on pointing 192 lasers at a deuterium and tritium speck in the hope of turning it into a sun-like fountain of clean, safe and renewable energy. It is estimated that as little as one gram of fuel is capable of powering more than 30,000 100 watt light bulbs for an entire year.
As it stands research into nuclear fusion is advancing only it is advancing very slowly indeed. Some scientists have said that if research into nuclear fusion was being compared to a person trying to learn how to strike the match then they are currently at the stage were the match head is just starting to smoulder a little. This can only mean there are big things to come.
3 – Growing Meat
If estimates are anywhere near correct then the Earth has somewhere in the region of 7 billion people living on it. To put that in to perspective back in 1996 there were 6 billion people living here and in the 1970’s there was only 4 billion. Quite simply, this means the population of the Earth is absolutely exploding and as countries such as China and India develop and get richer there will be more and more of the population who wants to enjoy luxury of fresh and tasty animal flesh.
This may not seem like it is any big deal but as the demand for meat increases so does the demand land for the cows to live on and food for the animals eat. The big problem with this is that using meat as a source of protein is ridiculously inefficient and it suggested by experts that using animals to produce a source of protein is massively contributing towards global warming and climate change. When you combine the fact that there is simply not enough land to produce these animals, make their food and then the impact the whole process has on the environment it is simply impossible to keep up with demand using traditional methods so the race is well and truly on in the race to develop a method of producing meat in a much more efficient and cost effective manner.
The only way to do this is for science to come up with a method of producing meat without the need for the animals so basically the challenge is figuring out an effective way to grow meat in a lab rather than in a field. This does indeed sound like something that won’t become a reality for many decades but we have already made huge advancements in this field and a restaurant in London, UK has already began serving beef that has been grown in a science lab.
This science lab growing beef is the work of Professor Mark Post from the Maastricht University (the Netherlands) who has and still is receiving funding from Sergey Grin, one of the very rich men responsible for bringing us Google. The meat is grown in petri dishes using stem cells, those amazing self-generating cells that are proving to be very important in nearly avenue of medical research. This science lab grown meat requires half the amount of energy that is needed to produce meat the conventional way. It also produces a lot less in the way of greenhouse gases and uses less than 1% of the land.
While this type of research is still in its early days we all know that if scientists have announced they are working on something then they must feel pretty confident that they will be successful. Animal welfare campaigners have been the first to welcome this type of research but there are still plenty of people out there who argue we would all be better off by just becoming vegetarians and developing new ways to distribute our food in better ways. After all we do already produce enough food to feed everyone living on the planet but our distribution methods suck.
4 – Avoiding Asteroid Armageddon
One of the greatest threats to the continued existence of the human race is the threat that an asteroid will smash into the earth. It has happened before, is widely accepted as the reason that the dinosaurs were wiped out, and it will certainly happen again. While we are 100% certain that an asteroid capable of wiping out all life on Earth will hit us we have no idea when this might happen. It could happen 1,000 years from now but it could also happen this afternoon. We just do not know.
Because asteroids pose such a great threat to us there is plenty of research being carried out with the hope of developing a way of protecting us from such an apocalyptic event. Most research is centred on shooting asteroids as they hurtle through space towards us but this is by no means an easy task. After all we are effectively trying to develop a way of shooting a lump of rock at least 10km wide from the sky while it heads towards us at a speed of more than 70,000mph. This is the equivalent of trying to kill a blue whale by throwing grains of sand.
In order to be successful with such an endeavour we will need to be spot on with our calculations and methods. Scientists are already searching the night sky on the lookout for threatening objects and have already discovered more than 10,000 that may pose a threat to us.
Many of these 10,000 threatening lumps of rock are only 100 to 300 meters wide but they are more than big enough to wipe out a large city or region. These objects are considered medium sized and it is hoped that it will be possible to somehow deflect them from their direction of travel especially if they are heading towards us.
What we do know is that in order for us to stand any chance of deflecting one of these potential world killers we would need to launch a probe, missile or other means many years before it was scheduled to impact the planet. This means that any object that is discovered and has a chance of hitting us within the next two years is going to hit us and there is not enough time for us to safely even try to stop it.
5 – Teleportation
Star Trek and movies like The Fly have brought the idea of teleportation to the general public and recently there have been some very exciting advancements being made in the quest for making it a reality. In 2013 scientists announced that they had actually managed to successfully teleport matter from one point to another. Now, before you start reaching for your Star Trek communicator and asking for Scottie to beam you up you need to understand that what scientists are telling you is that they have managed to teleport a couple of atoms and this breakthrough is very unlikely to ever involve the teleportation of real people. Having said that this breakthrough still has the potential to change the world in which we live.
It is the world of quantum physics that is behind much of the research into the world of teleportation. Quantum physics is a study of the ridiculously small things in our universe. These things are so small that they make the tiny atom seem like massive things. This is why a couple of teleported atoms seem like no big deal to you and me but among scientists in the field of quantum physics it is the equivalent of teleporting an entire planet.
When teleporting these atoms scientists are using a little known quantum quirk knowing as entanglement, in which two particles can form a link that allows quantum states (information) to be passed instantaneously between them. This is particular idea and concept is probably never going to lead us to teleporting astronauts from their spaceship to the surface of a planet but it is very likely to completely revolutionise the world of computing. You have probably heard this referred to quantum computing and it offers the possibility of super speed computing. No longer will we be limited by the simple 1/0 on/off duality of current digital computers. Quantum computer chips could actually process a wide range of options and therefore store and process unimaginable amounts of data in a very, very small space. Because of the discovery of entanglement it is very nearly possible to have a computer which is invisibly quantum wired which would make it operate faster than we ever dreamt possible.
The world of quantum computing is still in its early days but those who are working in this field are very excited about the coupe of atoms that they have teleported and believe that in the near future these computers will make your brand new MacBook Pro look like two empty tins connected with a length of string.