Is it 3-D printing? Nanotechnology? Green innovation? The technology gurus over at Edge.com have put out their Top 10 edgiest innovations for 2016. You may be surprised by some of the answers given by the 197 scientists polled in this survey. Which ones stay with you? Which ones can you harness for your own innovation endeavors? Says the Washington Post:
This year’s two-part question was: “What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?”
Not surprisingly, this year’s set of 197 responses converged around a few key themes – the human brain, the human genome, space exploration and artificial intelligence. Based on these responses, here are 10 of the edgiest innovation buzzwords that have the greatest potential to change the trajectory of innovation in 2016.
1. The wisdom race
Given all the apocalyptic scenarios we’ve been hearing about artificial intelligence over the past year, it’s not surprising that there’s been a lot of thinking about how to prevent one of those scenarios from actually occurring. Max Tegmark — the MIT physicist and cosmologist who has used mathematics to explore whether humanity might be living inside the equivalent of a Matrix-style computer simulation — calls this the “wisdom race.” What he has in mind here is a counterpart to the AI arms race, a “race between the growing power of technology and the growing wisdom with which we manage it.”
With the introduction of most new technologies, humans are reactive rather than proactive, says Tegmark. Think of how the invention of fire led to fire alarms and fire extinguishers, or the invention of the automobile led to seat belts and air bags. What’s needed with AI is a more proactive approach so that we aren’t forced to learn from our mistakes later. “Either win the wisdom race and enable life to flourish for billions of years,” says Tegmark, “Or lose the race and go extinct.”
2. Reusable rockets
At the end of 2015, both SpaceX and Blue Origin demonstrated the ability to return rockets safely to earth after use. That could be big for the future of space exploration, opening up a New Space Age fueled by cheaper costs and reusable rockets. As science historian George Dyson points out, “The launch business has been crippled, so far, by a vicious circle that has limited the market to expensive payloads — astronauts, military satellites, communication satellites, and deep space probes—consigned by customers who can afford to throw the launch vehicle away after a single use.”From this perspective, says Dyson, “Reusable rockets are the best hope of breaking this cycle and moving forward on a path leading to low-cost, high-duty-cycle launch systems where the vehicle carries inert propellant, and the energy source remains on the ground.”
3. Blockchain technology
If you thought blockchain technology was only for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, you’d be wrong. As Melanie Swan of the New School for Social Research suggests, we’re on the cusp of a new “Crypto Enlightenment” driven by blockchain technology. It’s an entirely new paradigm driven by value rather than information: “Blockchain technology (the secure distributed ledger software that underlies cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin) connotes the Internet II: the transfer of value, as a clear successor position to the Internet I: the transfer of information.”
The implementation of blockchain technology across financial assets such as currencies or mortgages is just the beginning, says Swan, “This means that all human interaction regarding the transfer of value, including money, property, assets, obligations, and contracts could be instantiated in blockchains for quicker, easier, less costly, less risky, and more auditable execution.” Blockchain technology, says Swan, could even lead to new models for governance, given its focus on distributed consensus. In fact, investor Marc Andreessen thinks the blockchain could be the biggest invention since the Internet itself.
Optogenetics is a relatively new field of biotechnology that gives researchers the ability to transform brain activity into light and light into brain activity. Optogenetics made headlines at the end of 2015, when Karl Deisseroth and Edward Boyden won a $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the life sciences for their pioneering work in the field.
Using optogenetics, suggests Christian Keysers, a Dutch neuroscientist, it could be possible to use light to trigger feelings or emotions, to change what’s happening inside the brain, to treat depression, or perhaps even to wipe out or implant memories in others (along the lines of Total Recall). The potential for optogenetics is just now being understood: “Being able to record and manipulate brain activity will change who we are. It will serve as an interface through which computers can become part of our brain, and through which our brains could directly interface with each other.”5. Neuroprediction
Neuroprediction, which is the use of human brain imaging data to predict how a person will feel or behave in the future, almost sounds like something straight out of Minority Report. Thought crimes, anybody? If you accept the fact that human thoughts and choices are based on underlying biological processes, though, it might be possible to predict future behaviors by being able to measure and monitor those processes. In some cases, says Abigail Marsh, an associate professor at Georgetown University, neuroprediction could be used in the criminal justice system to handle problems of sentencing and probation.
Read the next 5 at The Washington Post.