According to Wikipedia, futurism – or more appropriately, futurology – is the study of hypothesizing possible, probable and preferable futures. The people in this discipline try to figure out the different types of possible futures that humanity is heading towards. They do this by analyzing past and present trends in fields like science, technology and medicine.
An example of futurology that you might have heard of is Moore’s law. Named after Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, it states that the number of transistors on a circuit doubles roughly every two years. The more transistors that a computer chip has, the faster it is. The laptop you used four years ago is slower than a laptop created today.
There are three factors that set futurology apart from other disciplines:
1. Futurology studies not only possible but also probable, preferable and so-called “wild card” futures.
2. Futurology uses a systemic view which is based on multiple insights from a bunch of other disciplines.
3. Futurology challenges and examines the assumptions behind popular and competing visions of the future.
To explore futurology, let’s take a look at some of the progress going on in the fields of science, medicine and computing. These particular advances focus on how these fields can improve the human condition.
15. Curing Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that causes issues with memory, thinking capability and behavior. It’s a progressive disease, which means that it gets worse over time. It’s ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and an estimated 5.4 million Americans suffer from it in 2016. There is no cure right now, but one team of scientists think they can prevent it some day.
A study from a team of scientists at the University of New South Wales, Australia examines a certain protein in the brain called the tau protein. In its healthy state, the tau protein acts as a stabilizer for the microtubules that help transport materials around a cell. It’s thought that sometimes the tau protein can run into trouble, and clump together into twists and tangles. When it does, it’s possible that it could be releasing certain chemicals that build up and cause Alzheimer’s.
In certain studies in mice, an enzyme called p38γ kinase was able to interfere with the build up of another protein called beta-amyloid, which is thought to be another cause of Alzheimer’s. When beta-amyloid proteins tangle, it seems that it creates a cascading effect that eventually causes the tau proteins to tangle. But during the study, the scientists found that slowing down the beta-amyloid clumping with p38γ kinase also stopped the tau protein from tangling. Which makes sense: if A causes B, then stopping A will also stop B.
14. Helping The Disabled With Exoskeletons
A startup called WeaRobot hopes to help the elderly and those with physical disabilities. The premise? Building modular exoskeletons. An exoskeleton is machinery that you wear over your body, or a body part. It helps to assist movement in a joint by reinforcing it with a mechanical module.
This isn’t quite Ripley from Alien though. The system that WeaRobot is developing will be less like a suit of armor and instead be minimal and flexible. It uses a special control system that uses electrodes attached to your skin to read electrical signals from your muscles and joints. The modular nature of the exoskeleton should also make it more affordable, since you don’t have to buy the whole thing.
The founder of WeaRobot, Ernesto Rodriquez Leal, PhD., also wants his technology to help children as well. Children could use an exoskeleton to help recover from trauma, or to alleviate medical conditions like scoliosis.
13. Creating Synthetic Organs
On average, 22 people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant. Wouldn’t it be great if there were synthetic organs that could be quickly created? Two teams of Dutch researchers from University of Twente and University of Utrecht have successfully created a “living membrane” that is a step towards a functional artificial kidney.
The teams used conditionally immortalized human renal proximal tubular epithelial cells on polyethersulfone-based hollow fiber membranes to form the living membrane. That’s a mouthful of weird words that means they successfully transported molecules from one side of the membrane to the other.
This synthetic kidney could make dialysis or transplants unnecessary for patients that suffer from renal failure. Even though it’s an artificial kidney, it’s based on biological materials like the epithelial cells. Scientist Dimitrios Stamatialis said,
“The strategies and methods of this work could be relevant to the development of other bioartificial organs, such as a bioartificial liver or bioartificial pancreas, and organs on chips — such as a kidney on chip, a lung on chip, or a liver on chip.”
12. The Age of Personalized Medicine
By 2030, it may be possible to tailor medicine to each individual, instead of using a “one size fits all” method that we currently use. Melanie Walker, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Future Council, predicts that we’ll soon enter a “post-hospital” world. Instead of being treated in a hospital we can stay at home. Thanks to improvements in health monitoring, doctor’s visits will become increasingly rare.
Companies like Apple are already slowly moving us in this direction. Apple’s Health app can track data about you under four categories: Activity, Mindfulness, Nutrition and Sleep.
Walker says that a whole array of technologies will enable this personal future. Advances in genetics, biology (like synthetic organs) and even nanotechnology will help this along. Ingestible robots can diagnose you as they travel through your body, then microbots will perform surgeries from inside your body.
Certain advancements in 3D printing could print out artificial organs, bones and tissue, while brain implants (we’ll talk about those in a minute) could scan your brain for symptoms and beam them to your phone.
11. Gene Editing With CRISPR
If you keep up with science news you’ve probably heard of CRISPR/CAS9. It’s a revolutionary gene editing technique that will change humans forever.
Genetically engineering humans is definitely a controversial subject. On one side of the spectrum, it has the possibly to cure diseases of all kinds. But some people fear it could lead to designer babies or even the return of eugenics. However, testing with CRISPR has already been done by Chinese scientists.
The Chinese team was able to switch off a single gene in a live human as a possible treatment for lung cancer. This is Phase I of a clinical trial which means that the scientists are first testing the safety of their techniques. Each patient – 10 in all – has been diagnosed with metastatic non-small-cell lung caner. Metastatic means that the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
Before CRISPR, each patient has a life expectancy of six months or less. Since the study is ongoing, we’ll have to wait and see whether it will be successful or not. But there is a lot of hope for it.
10. Curing Type 1 Diabetes
Recently a patent was granted for a possible cure for Type 1 diabetes. About 1.25 million American adults have this type of diabetes, which is when your pancreas stops producing insulin.
The cure involves combining insulin-delivering cells with certain technology that lets them hide from the body’s immune system. The cells in question are called “melligen cells” and they can produce, store and release insulin in response to a person’s blood sugar levels.
The team of scientists from the University of Technology Sydney in Australia has already published a paper that shows they can reverse Type 1 in mice. The scientists recently teamed up with a company called PharmaCyte Biotech to create a product called Cell-in-a-box, which will hide the melligan cells from the body so they don’t get attacked.
This technology can last inside the body for at least two years without damage to itself or surrounding tissue, which means this is a long-term treatment for Type 1 diabetics.
9. Growing Food With Vertical Farming
Improving the human condition isn’t all about medicine though. In order to improve the state of agriculture, a company called AeroFarms is building what will be the biggest vertical farm ever, and it will produce two million pounds of leafy vegetables every year.
So what is a vertical farm anyway? Basically, it’s a farm built in the form of a skyscraper. It’s thought to be more space efficient, and will rely on aeroponics. This lets the crops grow in stacks of plant beds without soil, water or even sunlight.
This new type of “green agriculture” lets farmers grow crops in less space and minimize damage to the environment. AeroFarms say their crops are free of pesticides and fertilizer, which it hopes will attract customers who prefer organic food.
The company already has a farm in New Jersey where it promises new jobs, millions of dollars in public-private investment, and plenty of fresh crops for sale.
8. Boosting Human Intelligence
Remember the movie Limitless? It turns out that there is a similar real-world drug that can boost your intelligence. People already use so-called study drugs like Ritalin to improve their concentration. But it’s very addictive and can even backfire. This Vice article tells a story:
“One friend told me the day before his final exam, he accidentally spent hours alphabetizing his bookshelf and cleaning his apartment rather than studying.”
But a new drug called modafinil is the only smart drug clinically proven to really work. It makes people more alert, but it’s not as intense as other drugs.
Drugs aren’t the only way to boost intelligence though. What if you could you instantly learn something like Neo from The Matrix? Researchers have already created a way to do this with brain stimulation.
Researchers at HRL Laboratories discovered that when you use transcranial direct current stimulation to send the brain activity of commercial and military pilots into the brains of beginner pilots, the subjects can learn to fly in a flight simulator. The technology is far from coming to market, but it sounds promising.
7. Redefining Morality
If drugs could make us smarter (at least temporarily) what else can they do? Believe it or not, there is a debate right now in the field of philosophy about drugs that could make enhance a person’s sense of morality. Brian Earp, a research associate at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, says that there are certain cases where it make sense for a drug like this. He says,
“Imagine a psychopath who doesn’t have the ability to deal with other people’s pain and, because of that, is more likely than others to commit violent crime…”
Other philosophers say that not only is moral enhancement beneficial, but it’s essential. There are tentative studies on the effects of drugs on morals, but so far a drug hasn’t been found that could achieve this. Although there are finer details to work out when it comes to morality, Earp says that there is already a drug that affects moral behavior: alcohol.
6. The Future of Getting High
All of this talk about drugs inevitably leads to a discussion of recreational drugs, such as marijuana. Many scientists and entrepreneurs are working to help make these types of drugs safer and more enjoyable to use.
Strains of marijuana are already being sold depending on what mood it gives you. Mowgli Holmes, chief scientific officer of Phylos Bioscience, thinks that growers will use technology to produce weed that is less potent.
“Normal people want to try it but can’t, because they get too high. Legalization should lead to options more like wine and beer.”
By tinkering with the cannabis genome, Holmes wants to create new strains that specifically make people calm, creative or even hungry. Other drugs researchers are working on: a pill that can reduce or reverse the effects of alcohol, and safer painkillers to make them less addictive. One thing is for sure: the future of getting high will change. Being able to feel good should be part of the human condition.
5. Ushering In The Fourth Industrial Revolution
Advances in robotics, AI and other forms of automation promises to bring a new form of industrial revolution: 4.0. We’re slowly starting to see glimpses of this future, as the smart home becomes more popular. This year was said to be the Internet of Things, which is when your devices can talk to each other and do things by themselves.
The phrase Industry 4.0 was originally coined to describe the ways in which Germany is increasing its competitiveness in manufacturing by integrating “cyber-physical systems” into factories.
Technology will cater to the user, instead of the other way around. Imagine custom-fitted smart clothing, shampoos and soaps tailored to your skin’s bacterial ecosystem, or a fridge that automatically orders your food when you run out. This is only the beginning, and we’re sure to see more advances that will change our society. But where will the jobs go?
4. Building a New Form of Society
If Jacque Fresco has his way, we won’t need jobs in the future. Fresco is a futurist and architect who is the mastermind behind The Venus Project. This project is his idea of a future human society. And he built a prototype.
Right now, The Venus Project is a 21-acre location in Central Florida that Jacque Fresco and his partner Roxanne Meadows hand-built for over 40 years. Right now it’s a sanctuary and research center that Fresco uses for weekly seminars.
Some of Fresco’s ideas include eliminating taxes (and money altogether) poverty, war, homelessness, and many other problems we face today. He wants to create a resource-based economy for example. And his ideas aren’t falling on deaf ears. Jacque Fresco recently won an award from the UN for city design.
Leading figures like Elon Musk are already predicting that robots will take over jobs, and proposes ideas like a universal basic income. Look no further Elon, Jacque Fresco has you covered. And there’s no need to flee to Mars to escape our woes.
3. A Brave New Birth
For the first time ever, scientists have been able to grow human embryos outside of a body. They managed to grow the embryos up to 14 days – which is the current ethical limit imposed on scientists. The embryos grew inside of a petri dish, but in the future doctors hope to achieve artificial, womb-free reproduction.
But this field of study isn’t without controversy, as it’s likely to bring up visions of Brave New World to some people. The author of the study, Marta Shahbazi, told Motherboard,
“As is wont to happen when people think they’re about to do something that will raise controversy, the strategy is to float the idea and see how long it’ll take for people to become accustomed to it—and then move forwards.”
Others feel that this technology could bring more reproductive freedom for women, and also make it easier for same-sex couples to have children.
2. Bringing Back The Dead
Thanks to new biotech experiments, brain-dead people could be brought back to life. At least that’s the hope of the ReAnima Project. Earlier this year they got the green light to proceed with the “First In Human Neuro-Regeneration & Neuro-Reanimation” project. Bioquark Inc., the company behind ReAnima, will work with 20 clinically-dead patients to test whether certain parts of their central nervous system can reanimated.
The techniques that team will use range from injecting the brain with stem cells and peptides, to using lasers and nerve stimulation techniques that have previously been used to successfully bring patients out of comas.
With the stem cells, the team takes inspiration from nature, specifically salamanders that can regrow limbs. Dr. Sergei Paylian, the founder, president and chief science officer of Bioquark, says,
“Through our study, we will gain unique insights into the state of human brain death, which will have important connections to future therapeutic development for other severe disorders of consciousness… the vegetative and minimally conscious states, as well as a range of degenerative CNS conditions.”
1. Conquer Death And Live Forever
Now we come to the ultimate question: What if you didn’t have to die at all? Zoltan Istvan, who represented the Transhumanist Party in this past US election, believes that one day humans will merge with machines and conquer death.
Brain implants, exoskeletons and even pacemakers are the beginning stages of this dream. In an interview with Popular Science, Istvan lays it out:
“In 25 to 35 years, we’re going to probably be able to download our consciousness into a machine. That’s one way for transhumanists to find immortality. The thing we want to preserve is our mind, our memories, our sense of identity. And eventually we’re going to put that into some type of machine that is just much more efficient, much stronger, and can go explore the universe.”