Another year has passed, which means we’re another step closer to the tomorrow of our dreams. Here are the most futuristic developments of 2016.
In a tournament that rivaled the historical importance of Deep Blue vs chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1996 and Deep Blue vs the best Jeopardy champs in 2011, Google’s AlphaGo won four of the five games it played against Go world champion Lee Sedol. Going into the tournament, some experts naively presumed that the machine wouldn’t have a chance against a human in a game notorious for its complexity and sophisticated gameplay.
Following his loss, Sedol sheepishly admitted, “ After my experience with AlphaGo, I have come to question the classical beliefs a little bit, so I have more study to do.” Sedol’s defeat was a resounding reminder that machines are quickly catching up to human levels of intelligence, and that no human domain is immune to the powers of AI.
We knew that self-driving taxis were an inevitability, but when Uber deployed a fleet of autonomous vehicles back in October, it still came as a tremendous shock—a moment that marked the beginning of a new era in transportation.
A controversial technique known as mitochondrial nuclear transfer was used to produce a baby boy using genetic material from three distinct parents. This therapy stops serious conditions from being passed down from mother to child—in this case a fatal and debilitating genetic disorder called Leigh Syndrome, which affects the developing nervous system. The technique is not yet legal in the United States, which is why Dr. John Zhang of Manhattan’s New Hope Fertility Center performed the procedure in Mexico, where “there are no rules.”
A 14-year-old girl with terminal brain cancer had her dying wish come true when a British high court approved her request to be preserved at a cryonics facility in the United States. The teen’s estranged father had initially opposed her wishes, but the court decided that her mother was the best person to work on behalf of the girl’s best interests.
The teen has since died, and is now cryopreserved at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. This precedent-setting case showed that the desire to be preserved in a giant vat of liquid nitrogen is not so radical as to influence a judge’s decision about guardianship.
The point of the experiment was to create a baseline genome that scientists can use to study life, and to use as a “chassis” for adding new sets of genes. Called Syn3.0, the 473-gene bacterium could be used to construct virtually any kind of cell with custom-built properties, allowing scientists to create artificial lifeforms that can be used to produce novel medicines, biochemicals, biofuels, and food.
Back in 2015, a team of Chinese scientists became the first to use the CRISPR gene editing tool to modify a human embryo, removing a faulty gene responsible for a fatal blood disorder (the embryos were destroyed after the experiment). But in April of this year, a second team of Chinese researchers used CRISPR to do something far more interesting—they endowed human embryos with a biological enhancement.
Specifically, the researchers introduced a beneficial mutation that cripples an immune-cell gene that it makes it impossible for the HIV virus to infiltrate human immune cells (as in the 2015 experiment, the embryos were later destroyed). A very small fraction of the human population has this built-in immunity, but this experiment showed that CRISPR could eventually be used to make it universally available.
In related news, a research team from Sichuan University in China delivered modified immune cells into a patient suffering from an aggressive form of lung cancer. The scientists used CRISPR-Cas9 to make the cells more resilient in the presence of cancer, marking the first time that the powerful gene-editing tool was used to treat a living human.
This was a big year for brain-computer interfaces (BCIs). A research team led by Miguel Nicolelis from Duke Health developed a wireless brain interface that allows monkeys to control the movements of a robot wheelchair using their thoughts alone, while a team from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne used an implanted neural device to restore walking movements in paralyzed primates.
Researchers in the Netherlands successfully tested a brain implant that allowed a patient with late-stage Lou Gehrig’s disease to spell messages at the rate of two letters per minute, and in a related experiment, monkeys used a BCI to text at 12 words a minute with their minds. Researchers at Johns Hopkins demonstrated a system that enables a person to move the individual fingers of a prosthetic hand using just his thoughts, while a team from the Battelle Memorial Institute developed a brain implant that enabled a quadriplegic man to play Guitar Hero with his hands, making him the first person in history to regain function using signals from his brain.
After nauseating levels of anticipation and hype, fully-immersive virtual reality headsets finally became available to consumers, though they come with a high price-tag. And wouldn’t you know it, products like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive lived up even to the loftiest of expectations. These devices are truly awesome and as much fun as we hoped.
This past May, over a hundred scientists, lawyers, and entrepreneurs held a secret meeting to discuss the possibility of creating a synthetic human genome. Journalists were not invited, and attendees were told to keep a tight lip. A month later, Harvard biologist George Church said the whole thing was blown out of proportion, and that the project, dubbed the Human Genome Project-write (HGP-write), is an effort to build and deploy a fully synthetic genome in human cell lines within a decade.
The researchers are hoping to develop powerful new technologies that will allow them to connect long strings of artificial human DNA, and then power these synthetic cells in a petri dish—and nothing more (or so they say). That’s all fine and well, but research in this area could eventually be used to create artificial organisms and even designer humans.
In October, a report put out by the International Energy Agency showed that renewable electricity capacity growth is at an all-time high, hitting the 153 gigawatt (GW) mark (that’s basically the entire energy output of Canada). Most of this growth came from new onshore wind and solar power plants (about half a million solar panels were installed each day around the world last year).
The IEA says that, for the first time, “renewables accounted for more than half of net annual additions to power capacity and overtook coal in terms of cumulative installed capacity in the world.” Technically speaking, we reached this milestone in 2015, but we didn’t realize it until October of this year.
On October 7, the British pound suffered a “flash crash,” plummeting six percent against the US dollar within a matter of minutes. Experts pointed to high-frequency stock trading as the culprit—and possibly a single algorithm that was reacting to comments made by French President Francois Hollande, who called for tougher Brexit negotiations. The incident pointed to the growing power of—and our reliance on—lightning-fast bots, and how we’re increasingly unable to control them.
In related news, students at Georgia Tech were duped into thinking one of their teaching assistants was an actual human named Jill Watson, when in reality it was an AI. The digital TA managed to answer the students’ questions with 97 percent certainty in a charade that lasted for nearly the entire month of April.
By using a chemical compound to turn a rabbit’s brain into a glass-like state, and then cooling it to near-liquid nitrogen temperatures, a research team from 21st Century Medicine (21CM) showed that it’s possible to achieve near-perfect, long-term structural preservation of an intact mammalian brain.
The new technique will allow scientists to study brains in unprecedented detail, but it could also apply to cryonics, the practice of preserving a person in cold storage in the hopes that they’ll eventually be brought back to life. The technique essentially turns a brain into an inert chunk of plastic, destroying all biological components in the process—leading to concerns that the technique, at best, will only ever result in the restoration of a duplicated brain.
In February, German scientists used an experimental nuclear fusion device to produce hydrogen plasma. During the experiment, a 2-megawatt pulse of microwave energy blasted a cloud of hydrogen gas, converting it into an extremely low-density hydrogen plasma.
It lasted for just a fraction of a second, but the plasma hit 80 million degrees in a process similar to what happens on the sun. It will be a while yet before we achieve safe, containable, and sustainable nuclear fusion, but this test marked an important step in that direction.