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Decades of future science

NASA
An artist's conception created for NASA in the 1970s shows a double-barreled space
colony in action. Today's visions of the future are different, but just as grandiose.


Cloud science? Solar-power primacy? Affordable clean-energy cars? Space colonies? Super-centenarians galore? These are some of the visions put forward for the next 50 years in science and technology.

The past 50 years have set a precedent of sorts for the next half-century: Back in 1960, folks may have assumed their children would be riding rockets to other planets, finding signs of alien life and interacting with intelligent machines - all of which are featured in Arthur C. Clarke's "2010: Odyssey Two" as well as the film based on the book.

The issues that scientists and engineers faced from then up to now have turned out to be more complex than they seemed in 1960. Getting to the moon wasn't a sustainable proposition, and right now it's not clear when anyone will ride a U.S.-made rocket out of Earth orbit again. The evidence for life or even livability beyond Earth is still not in hand, although there have been tantalizing hints from Mars. And for better or worse, machines have not yet reached anything close to HAL 9000's level of intelligence.

That doesn't mean scientists have been standing still: In some ways, we've come farther in the past half-century than we did in any previous century - as evidenced by this 50-year timeline of discovery. Among the leading fields have been medicine and genetics, information technology and cosmology.

In the next 50 years, we may well fall short of the breakthroughs we expect - but unexpected discoveries will pop up to keep life interesting. Here are a few of your predictions for the next decade and the next half-century:

Jeff Simmons, San Diego: Augmented reality (textual/graphical information superimposed over reality) will become an integral part of our lives. Once interfaces such as glasses, windshields and other mobile surfaces become display technologies connected wirelessly to mobile devices (think smartphones on steroids) we will come to depend on this flow of just-in-time information: Want to work on your car's engine? View a schematic that gives you the part's location and the steps to carry out. Looking at a product? See comparative pricing and reviews. Looking at a piece of art? Learn more about the artwork and the artist. Looking at a person you've met before? See their name, where you last met, birthdate, etc. ... and the list goes on.


Bruce Core, Sunriver, Ore.:
I'm just a casual observer and marvel at the advances presented, but it seems something belongs on the list about automotive propulsion advances in the past decade and the next. Hydrogen, electric, solar, fossil fuel, air and other propulsion systems have been undergoing tremendous innovation. Perhaps most useful is the reinvention and miniaturization of the storage battery. ...


Onevoice, Frederick, Md.:
Things to look for in the next 10 years:
1. Real evidence of global warming will be realized. It will be worse than the deniers believe but also not as bad as the doomsayers claim.
2. Middle East countries will still be rattling their sabers. Only now, Iran will become a nuclear power.
3. For all their effort, CERN will still not find a Higgs boson.
4. Commercial suborbital and orbital spaceflight will become a viable business.
5. Gas prices will go up. Battery prices will drop and we'll all be driving plug-in hybrids.
6. Astronomers and physicists will come together to realize that there is more matter and energy in the universe than previously realized and significantly revise their estimates about dark matter and dark energy.
7. The first example of a true artificially intelligent computer program will be created ("Open the door, HAL").
8. Commercial and residential solar power costs around the world will drop low enough that it will disrupt the economies of several oil-producing nations.
9. The first Earth-sized, Goldilocks Zone, extrasolar planet will be discovered.
10. Life will be found, active or dormant, underground on Mars.
Two suggestions for the next 50 years: First permanent human colony off Earth and first discovery of an extrasolar world that shows signs of organic processes.

Robert Bynum, Beaumont, Texas: I don't think we will have an answer on the question of global warming, either yes or no, since it is a political question at this point. However what I do hope to see in the next 10 years:
1. Sucessful treatment of diabetes with adult stem cells.
2. Discovery of extrasolar planet with near-Earth conditions.
3. Brain-computer prostheics for amputees.
4. New treatments for Alzheimer's disease that at least halt its progression.
5. Home diagnostics for many diseases and home-based treatments of disease that will cut the cost of health care.
6. New treatments for obesity to curb this growing health threat to our country.
7. Cell phone apps that will act as a health monitor for heart disease, blood sugar levels, and a general overall state of health that people can use for on-the-go diagnostics. These apps would be combined with advanced diagnostic software and connected to emergency services. Sort of an OnStar system for the body.
8. More progress in human genome research to identify treatments for genetic diseases.
9.  An economical system for completely burning carbon fuels with no byproducts other than CO2 and water, and recycling the CO2 for use as fuel.
10. Switching of most of our automobiles to gas/electric hybrids or plug-ins, with 400-mile range of travel. ...

McKinley Hill, Morgantown, W.Va.: Even with NASA's amazing accomplishments, the debate about moon vs. Mars shows it's likely that robotic exploration will precede a lunar colony, which might even be the result of private enterprise rather than the efforts of government-sponsored astronautics. The potential for helium-3 on the moon is substantial, especially if a third-generation fusion reactor can be developed, because of the complete absence of radioactive waste.  Tourism is another valid reason to develop the tech, it may have lessons to teach on terraforming and colonization techniques. Moon vs. Mars? Let's do both.

Kevat Shah: Many new ideas and inventions will come to be in the next few years:
1. Automated flying cars.
2. Domestic and military humanoid robots.
3. Cure for cancer and AIDS.
4. "Space Jam" -  an amusement park in space or on the moon.
5. Mining colonies on moon (run by the aforementioned humanoid robots)
6. Medical nanobots - ones you can put into your body and then control them/see through them.
7. Immortality - through perfection of human cloning and organ transplantation.
8. Bio-implant chips, allowing us to have telepathy-like abilities. These chips may also directly connect your brain to the Internet and act as a computer.
9. Virtual reality - Glasses which show you a world that isn't there
10. The theory of everything.

The power curve
Some of these forecasts touch upon the predictions put forward by inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil, having to do with three kinds of power: the power for our vehicles and devices, computing power, and our own staying power.

Controlled nuclear fusion power or space-based solar power would be great, and we might indeed have those alternatives sometime in the next 50 years. But the way Kurzweil sees it, cheap terrestrial solar power is the energy source that will keep the lights on. Last year, he told me he expected the per-watt cost of sun-generated electricity to equal the cost of fossil-fuel energy by 2014 - which would set up the "tipping point" for a solar-dominated energy economy by the 2030s.

Kurzweil is also well-known for his view that humans can extend their longevity quickly enough to beat the Grim Reaper. That's the theme of his latest book, "Transcend," co-written with Terry Grossman. Some of the later steps in the process - such as developing injectable nanobots, infusing our blood with artificial respirocytes and reverse-engineering the brain - sound as way-out as Arthur C. Clarke's science fiction does. There's also a chance that limits will be placed on biomodification, just as the scientific community placed limits on DNA modification in 1975. But who am I to rule out a breakthrough before it breaks?

So how could we possibly get from here to there? Futurists assume that the pace of technological change will continue to accelerate as computers become increasingly powerful and increasingly interlinked. That's the basis for Kurzweil's claim that machines will match human intelligence in the next 20 years or so. He says that will set the stage for a "singularity" in the mid-2040s - an event beyond which it's impossible to foresee humanity's future.

Cloud science ... for humans, too
Part of the power curve has to do with the move toward "cloud computing," a process for massaging information on linked computers instead of stand-alone machines. The Energy Department is already using the cloud-computing paradigm for its research. So are the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, and NASA has been experimenting as well. This approach, also known as grid computing, promises to revolutionize how science is done.

It's not just the machines that are coming together into grids. Citizen scientists are doing something similar through projects such as Galaxy Zoo. I can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future where large-scale experiments routinely farm out their data to be run on garden-variety computers, tended by knowledgeable science enthusiasts under the supervision of professionals. That won't render the scientific method obsolete. Instead, it could well create a whole new market for the method.

Should we fight the rise of the machines? Will cloud-science cooperation help humans learn to get along? Feel free to weigh in once again with your thoughts about the coming decades in science and innovation.


Don't miss the "Year in Science" and "Decade in Science" reviews from last week, and stay tuned for the Weird Science Awards on Wednesday. Join the Cosmic Log team by signing up as my Facebook friend or following b0yle on Twitter. And pick up a copy of my new book, "The Case for Pluto." If you're partial to the planetary underdogs, you'll be pleased to know that I've set up a Facebook fan page for "The Case for Pluto."