8 fascinating and fearsome frontiers of science you should know about

Quantum 2018

Physicists at MIT and Harvard University have demonstrated a new way to manipulate quantum bits of matter. The researchers report using a system of finely tuned lasers to first trap and then tweak the interactions of 51 individual atoms, or quantum bits.
Image: Christine Daniloff/MIT

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: David Gleicher, Head of Science and Society, World Economic Forum


A range of technologies are coming of age all around us, transforming our world in complex ways that are hard to predict.

Anticipating what’s to come requires paying attention to lesser-known yet important elements of the natural world before they catch us unprepared. Several of these are poised to generate game-changing technologies and create new understandings.

With this in mind, we called on a network of experts to tell us which corners of scientific research make them most excited and which most concerned. Six hundred and sixty replied. We think their answers will surprise you.

Future frontiers

As you might expect, the same technologies that many of us read and talk about are also top of experts’ minds. The complex issues to surface included the usual suspects, such as artificial intelligence, human genome editing, sustainable energy and the future of weapons.

But if we are to get better at expecting the unexpected, we need to listen more closely. The Future Frontiers Survey aims to do just that. Deep in the data, we found voices whose hopes and fears were different from the rest.

From these intriguing responses, we distilled eight Future Frontiers of science and technology that we would all do well to know more about. Four of them hold great promise and four pose great risks.

The four most promising

1. Quantum biology

How can plants convert sunlight into chemical energy that they can live on in one billionth of a second? How can birds detect the Earth’s magnetic field, in order to navigate over thousands of miles? How can our DNA randomly mutate with no apparent cause? What is consciousness?

Understanding how biology evolved to take advantage of manifestly quantum behaviour and what role quantum physics may have in the human brain is a nascent but growing area of research. It could answer some of science’s biggest mysteries and lead to technologies beyond our imagination.

2. Machine learning through small data

Not a day goes by without news of how artificial intelligence will change our world. But today’s AI has major limitations. For machines to learn, they require huge sets of training data. When confronted with scenarios that differ from the examples used in training, they break down. Human intelligence is the opposite. We see a surprising new situation, and with very small data, our brains are hardwired to generalize, mostly with excellent outcomes.

The AI systems we hear about today are still impressive, but they are likely one-trick ponies. A system that can learn with as much agility as a human and deliver valuable services without the need for huge amounts of training data would be a game-changer. It could lead to capabilities on a par with, or superior to, our own.

3. Room temperature superconductivity

Few things have changed the human condition more than our ability to harness electrical power. But when we store electricity in a battery it degrades over time, and when we transmit electricity over cables some energy is always lost. Superconducting materials can achieve lossless transmission and storage of electricity, and create powerful magnetic fields that never weaken.

Imagine levitating trains that can reach incredible speeds; a world powered entirely by desert solar farms; ultra-fast computers; cheap MRI machines; and technologies we haven’t dreamed of.

However, the superconductors we have today only function when cooled down to hundreds of degrees below zero. This is a technically difficult feat that makes superconducting technology impossible to scale commercially. Achieving superconductivity at room temperature would transform the world in ways comparable to when we first started to use electricity.

4. Venomics

From spiders and scorpions to frogs and snails, there are more than 220,000 species that produce the complex cocktails of toxins called venom. Venoms contain powerful proteins which have evolved to act quickly and in very precise ways, binding to specific targets in the body like a lock and key, with devastating effect. In short, they are nature’s perfect superdrugs. If human chemists were able to make drugs that perform as well as venom, we’d see a dramatic increase in drug efficacy and decrease in side-effects.

One of the reasons drug-makers haven’t made more use of venoms is how difficult it is to untangle their complex chemistry to identify the active ingredients. But the application of new ‘omics’ technologies – tools that systematically characterise differences in DNA, RNA, proteins and the molecules involved in cellular structures and metabolism – are enabling scientists to decode and catalogue the structure of venom at a much faster rate. They could lead to a revolution in discovering drugs for treating human disease.

Four concerning areas of research

1. Lethal autonomous weapons

Whether drones, guns or robots, what defines lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) is that once deployed, they make their own decisions about when to use lethal force or not.

For the full story, read this article by Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

2. Digital phenotyping

Science fiction fans have long dreamed of handheld devices that diagnose illness and ailments with a quick scan of the body. Such technology is now close to reality, with the advent of algorithms that can analyze video, text and audio recordings to identify subtle patterns or anomalies that human eyes and ears can’t register.

While digital phenotyping could empower people, it could also be used for passively screening populations without their consent or awareness. Security and surveillance cameras have become a fact of life in cities, transport hubs, offices and even schools. Soon it will be possible for these systems to capture changes in our physical and mental health without us knowing about it.

The spread of digital devices that track our behaviour patterns could even be poised to change the field of psychiatry, writes Amit Etkin, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, in this article.

What companies, governments or third parties do with that data will open a new frontier in the already complicated debates on data privacy and digital rights.

3. Non-invasive neuromodulation

Intangible forces such as electrical currents, ultrasound waves and magnetic stimulation can be used to alter mental states, behaviours or the physiology of the brain in ways that used to require surgically entering the skull or ingesting drugs. This is leading to novel treatments for persistent depression or relief for Parkinson’s tremors without having to implant a device deep in the patient’s brain.

But without clear regulation, this technology is easy to use in unapproved ways which could put consumers at risk. There is already a small market developing around do-it-yourself brain stimulation kits. Taken to extreme conclusions, it’s not hard to imagine a future where companies and governments might deploy devices to manipulate the mental states of workers, soldiers or citizens, regulating up or down their levels of wakefulness, subservience to authority, fears or inhibitions.

For more on the science of non-invasive mind control, take a look at our interview with Antoine Jerusalem, Professor in the Department of Engineering Science University of Oxford.

4. Predictive justice

This is the ability to use artificial intelligence, neuro-imaging technologies and big data to identify individuals and scenarios where crime has a high probability of occurring. Artificial intelligence used in courtrooms could help make justice more efficient, but consider the risks in a world where evidence-faking algorithms proliferate.

We’re facing a digital revolution, writes Daniela Piana in this article exploring the ethics of predictive justice. It’s up to us to ensure that we are still ruled by the law rather than falling into the trap of making the rule of law equal to the rule of code.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Tuesday’s Daily Brief: prizewinning journalists freed in Myanmar, new tracking tool for suspected terrorists, and a global bid to stop snakebite deaths

UN rights chief calls for release of hundreds abducted and abused in South Sudan

5G security: Member States report on progress on implementing the EU toolbox and strengthening safety measures

The world’s e-waste is a huge problem. It’s also a golden opportunity

Mergers: Commission opens in-depth investigation into proposed acquisition of Transat by Air Canada

Road safety: Data show improvements in 2018 but further concrete and swift actions are needed

Young? You should work out the entrepreneurial heart before the mind

Towards a seamless internal EU market for industrial goods

What options the new President of Ukraine has?

World Digital Media Awards winners announced at WNMC.19 in Glasgow, in association with The European Sting

Europe and the tragicomic ‘black sovranismo’

Young people worldwide can ‘determine the future of migration,’ says UN senior official

FROM THE FIELD: Enduring freezing winter in a war zone

A UN-backed boost for women-run businesses in the developing world

This is how a smart factory actually works

Nagasaki is ‘a global inspiration’ for peace, UN chief says marking 73rd anniversary of atomic bombing

The Chinese spirit

Draghi tells the EU Parliament his relaxed policies are here to stay

How Big Food is responding to the alternative protein boom

Medical Devices Regulation: Commission welcomes Council support to prioritise the fight against coronavirus

EU budget deal struck with Parliament negotiators

Trees in ‘green’ Cameroon refugee camp, bring shade and relief from ‘helter-skelter’ of life

Jeroen Dijsselbloem new Eurogroup president

Why India can show us how to achieve growth with purpose

This disease once wiped out 60% of Europe’s population – and now it’s back

Nearly 900 children released by north-east Nigeria armed group

European Citizens’ Initiative: Commission decides to register two citizens’ initiatives

‘Education transforms lives’ says UN chief on first-ever International Day

The Commission calls for a climate neutral Europe by 2050*

Staying home? Here are 5 exercise tips from the World Health Organization

These cities score an ‘A’ for environmental action – but hundreds more are falling behind

Companies have a new skill to master – innovation

How the technology behind deepfakes can benefit all of society

First EU collective redress mechanism to protect consumers

It’s Trump’s anti-globalization and inward-looking rhetoric that perturbs GOP and US

3 reasons why business leaders can’t afford to ignore diversity

Refugees now make up 1% of the world’s population

COVID-19 and the pursuit of financial inclusion in Pakistan

Upgraded EU visa information database to increase security at external borders

Ebola: EU announces new funds to strengthen preparedness in Burundi

Here’s how drone delivery will change the face of global logistics

Mozambique: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Orlando Bloom meets the child cyclone survivors who’ve lost everything

Why does death prefer to hold a scythe rather than my hand?

Spotlight Initiative – EU and UN fight against domestic violence in the Pacific region

10 ways regulators need to change in 2020

Mixed news about the Eurozone economy

Why symbols of injustice matter and what to do with them

World Health Organization calls crisis meeting over deadly Ebola outbreak in DR Congo

Refugee crisis update: EU fails to relocate immigrants from Greece and Italy

UN General Assembly President defends ‘landmark’ migration compact

On International Youth Day the European Youth Forum calls for true youth participation

How our food system is eating away at nature, and our future

New EU telecom rules: latest actions in time for transposition deadline

EU-US trade war? EU calls for logic while Trump’s administration is a loose cannon in a dangerous lose-lose situation for global prosperity

Long-term exposure to air pollution is like smoking a pack of cigarettes a day

The Five Chinese Girls

The EU Commission implicates major banks in cartel cases, threatens with devastating fines

How the institutional response to COVID-19 can prepare us for climate change

What’s everyone talking about at Davos 2020?

How AI is bringing the ‘dark matter of nutrition’ to light, unlocking the power of plants

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s