Sometimes, it seems like we are living in the future. In some ways, it’s extremely disappointing (where is my flying car?), but in other ways it is incredible. It is easy to forget how far we have come in such a short time. Technology and science are moving faster and faster and it can be difficult to keep up with everything that gets invented or perfected in any given year. Some of it is so abstract there is no way for an average human to understand it. Some of it is stuff that we expected to happen years ago. And some of it is yet another “one giant leap” for humankind. It can be difficult to wrap our minds around all the new possibilities, and they can certainly be overwhelming.
In 2017 we invented a computer that could teach itself to play board games, a gun that can spray new skin on burn victims, a surprising bodily fluid that could help to cure cancer, and created a chimera using human and pig DNA. It is pretty shocking to consider these unbelievable scientific advancements. It can be difficult to predict what will happen in the next year, but there are some incredible technologies and discoveries that are on the horizon. In 2018 humanity may get to see tourism on the moon, affordable laboratory-grown meat in the supermarket, and may even discover a planet that could support alien life. We may not have a flying car in every garage, but the future is still an exciting place.
15. Google Created An A.I. That Can Beat The Smartest People At Go
Computers beating humans at chess is old news. We’ve been trained to suffer ignominious defeat by our super-intelligent overlords since we first fired up Battle Chess on our dad’s computer. Deep Blue, a chess-playing computer, was the first computer program to beat a reigning world master of chess. It definitively defeated Gary Kasperov in 1997. However, until 2017, humanity could at least feel superior when it came to Go. Invented in China over 2500 years ago, Go is considered the oldest board game still played today, with over 40 million players worldwide. Although the rules are simple, the game is complex and difficult to master, and high level players are treated like sport stars, particularly in South Korea, where the number one player resides.
In May, 2017, AlphaGo, an A.I. developed by Google, defeated Ke Jie in 3 out of 3 games. Ke Jie had been openly confident about his chances before the match and his defeat shocked Korea, and much of the Go-playing world. Even more disturbing, in October of the same year, Google let the world know that they built another computer that taught itself to beat AlphaGo. In just 40 days, AlphaGo Zero could defeat all previous versions of itself, and came up with Go strategies that human players had never conceived of in 2500 years. At this point the only winning move is not to play.
14. Coming In 2018: Tourists Go To The Moon
In 2017, Elon Musk announced plans to fly two lucky (and wealthy) space tourists around the moon. The mission will be conducted using the Dragon 2, a capsule spacecraft designed to carry astronauts into space. The two private citizens have already paid a “substantial deposit” but have not yet been named. They will also have to pass a stringent health and fitness standard before being cleared for takeoff. As they would be the only passengers on the largely automated voyage, they would also have to train for emergencies. The intention is for the space tourists to “skim over the surface” of the moon, but not to land. However, this would be the first time any humans had returned anywhere near the moon, since the last Apollo mission in 1972. Most exciting is what this kind of commercial venture could mean for the future. A few more billionaires in orbit may just lower the cost of space tourism for the rest of us to the point where it only costs as much as a second or third mortgage on a house.
13. A Gun Can “Shoot” Burned Skin To Heal It
One of the coolest inventions showcased this year is the SkinGun, developed by RenovaCare Inc. Currently used to treat burn victims, doctors fill the SkinGun with a solution of liquid and the patient’s own stem cells (taken from a small, unburned patch of skin) and spray the mixture over the burns. Previously, third degree burns could only be treated by harvesting patches of healthy skin and grafting them on top of the burned areas, hoping to cover and assist the natural healing process. This treatment was slow, depended on doctors having access to suitable healthy tissue, and was prone to scarring. Some of the time it simply didn’t work, as the grafts could quickly become infected and even kill the patient. Using the SkinGun allows doctors to spread an even layer of undifferentiated cells onto the burns, quickly and easily. Patients who might have taken weeks or even months to heal are now able to be discharged from the hospital in mere days.
12. Coming In 2018: Looking For Alien Life
As much as conspiracy theorists wish otherwise, there is currently no firm proof of life on other planets. There is not so much as a scum of bacteria on a puddle somewhere on Mars. The last few years, however, have been a bonanza of discovery for scientists looking for proof of other planets, including those which may have life. In fact, over 3700 planets have been discovered in other solar systems. If Earth ever gets its act together and goes out searching for aliens, knowing which systems have planets will help narrow down the search considerably.
Most of the planets already discovered were found in the small area of space studied by NASA’s Kepler telescope and are many thousands of lightyears away from Earth.
However, all this will change in March 2018 when the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is launched by NASA. Using some of the most sophisticated camera and telescope technology currently in existence, TESS will spend two years searching the sky for nearby planets, including those which may have life. Researchers are expected the number of known exoplanets to more than double with the information TESS will gather, and it may be the next step to finding out we aren’t alone in the universe.
11. Spider Venom Can Be Used To Heal Stroke Victims
Spiders are the stuff of nightmares for some, but they could also turn out to be lifesavers, as their venom may be able to protect the brain after a stroke. The Australian funnel web spider is one of the most venomous creatures on Earth. However, in 2017 some researchers in Queensland still decided it would be a good idea to capture several of these creatures to sequence the DNA in their poison. After the spiders were “milked exhaustively,” the scientists studied the venom and discovered a molecule that was similar in shape to an already known brain-protecting chemical, used with stroke victims.
The researchers decided to test the new molecule on rats. Not only was the molecule successful in preventing up to 85% of the brain damage normally expected from a stroke, it was effective even 8 hours after the stroke started. As mild strokes may go unnoticed for hours, this time period could be crucial in treatment. However, if you recognize stroke symptoms in yourself or others, better leave the treatment to the professionals. However helpful the individual molecule may turn out to be, the pure venom is capable of killing a person in only 15 minutes after a bite.
10. Coming In 2018: Virtual Reality Will Be Used To Treat Many Different Kinds Of Patients
Virtual reality is already used in treating many different mental illnesses. Patients with dementia are able to visit historical times and places where they feel most comfortable. Schizophrenia patients are able to confront the voices in their heads as real entities that can be seen and interacted with, rather than just shadowy presences in their heads. Their families can experience an environment replicating the experience of having a mental illness, and so learn empathy. And of course, treating phobias in virtual reality has almost become a cliche. It’s easier to get someone to experience their fear of heights in small doses if you don’t actually have to cart them up a skyscraper. In fact, the army has been funding research into virtual reality and its applications as a treatment for PTSD for years.
However, doctors have recently realized that virtual reality can also be used in more physical applications. In one trial, using a VR game reduced pain in young patients by 24%. Occupation therapy is another use for VR that is only just beginning to be realized. It might not be long before hospitals assign a VR set to every patient that enters their walls.
9. Male Bodily Fluids Can Be Used To Cure Cancer
Standard chemotherapy targets active cells. This allows it to attack cancer, as one of the defining characteristics of cancer is abnormal growth. Unfortunately, it also affects any other active cells, such as the lining of the stomach and hair follicles. Cancer patients will often complain that the cure is worse than the disease and in this case, they aren’t wrong. Finding ways to target cancer cells more selectively is vital in the search for a cure. A breakthrough in 2017 included a very unconventional means of targeting cancers in the female reproductive tract. Cells of a certain male bodily fluid used for reproduction are mobile, self-contained, and won’t be treated as invading bacteria by the body. Researchers found that when these cells were coated with the chemo drug, and given tiny iron hats, they could be guided by a magnet to tumors. In a lab experiment with bovine sperm, the feisty little soldiers managed to penetrate the tumor and reduce it by 90%. Further studies will examine whether human sperm can be just as efficient, and determine whether doctors will unleash these swimmers on the world.
8. Coming In 2018: A Male Contraceptive That Is 100% Effective
The advent of the contraceptive pill and other forms of safe contraceptives were so revolutionary that most of us can’t really comprehend what life was like before them. And yet, even decades since, there is still no foolproof long-term and reversible option for either gender, and very few birth control options at all for men. In fact, no truly effective method of contraception for men has been invented in almost a century. That may all change in 2018. Vasalgel, a quickly applied and semi-permanent contraceptive option for men has been in trials for several years. In 2017 it was trialled on primates and found to be 100% effective, which is a statistic that doesn’t get thrown around very often when talking about contraceptives. When the treatment was reversed, the rhesus monkeys resumed having babies, as if nothing had happened. So what’s the catch? Unfortunately, the treatment involves injecting a substance into a very sensitive part of the male body, which blocks reproductive cells. If the idea of needles makes you faint, well you might need to wait another hundred years for the next breakthrough.
7. Researches Discovered The Biggest Footprints Of Dinosaurs That Were Ever Found
In 2016, a dinosaur footprint was found in the Mongolian Desert measuring almost 3 and a half feet long. Palaeontologists were ecstatic as, at the time, it was the largest intact dinosaur footprint ever found. However, in March of 2017 that record was hit out of the park by a discovery in Northwestern Australia. The prints, in this case, were so large that the researchers didn’t realize what they had found at first. When they finally identified the marking as a dinosaur print, it turned out to be almost 6 feet long. This means that the giant sauropod that made the print was likely over 18 feet tall at the hip, and larger than a brontosaurus. The area where the print was found has been called Australia’s Jurassic Park, and the footprints of at least 21 other dinosaur species can also be seen there. Considering the gigantic size of the dinosaur that made this footprint, we can only hope this park doesn’t follow in its fictional predecessor’s footsteps.
6. Coming In 2018: Advancement Of Cyborg Technology To Help The Blind Be Able To See
We are becoming more used to the idea of cyborgs as they become more and more a fact of modern life. The ability to build an artificial limb has been around for centuries. After all, and we have just been making them more and sophisticated. We’ve also made leaps and bounds with hearing aids, to the point where making the deaf hear is no longer considered a miracle, however miraculous it might seem to that person.
Legs and ears are comparatively simple compared to the eye. So it really feels like a leap into the future to be able to say that we are very close to having a commercially available bionic eye. A man-made eye that will be able to make the blind –some of them – see again.
The company Second Sight is to begin trials with human patients in 2018, using a brain implant along with their bionic eye technology. It will only be “limited vision,” so the patients won’t be able to drive a car anytime soon, but clearly, it’s time to start saving up for a Geordi LaForge-style visor.
5. Magic Mushroom Reboot
Medicine can be found in the most unlikely of places, but you would think that the name “magic mushroom” would give scientists a clue on where to look. Researchers gave the active compound in the mushrooms, psilocybin, to human subjects who suffered from moderate to severe depression. All the subjects had previously tried at least 2 different treatments for depression and were considered to be “treatment-resistant.” In one case, the subject had been depressed for over 30 years.
The subjects were given large doses of the compound and each took off on a 6-hour trip while listening to classical music provided by the researchers. Most of them experienced almost immediate relief from the depression, although other “expected” symptoms, like nausea, anxiety, and headaches also occurred. More importantly, when the researchers followed up on the experiment, weeks after the original treatment, five of the 12 subjects reported that their depression had not returned. The subjects described the experience as being like a “rebooting” for the brain. The study was small, but scientists called the results“promising,” so most likely more lucky subjects will experience the magic in the future.
4. Coming In 2018: Geo-Hacking May Become Reality
One of the more controversial and yet enticing methods for combating climate change is popularly known as “geo-hacking,” or attempting to change the climate of the planet intentionally. Various methods have been proposed, like pumping huge amounts of water to the deserts to grow trees, fertilizing the ocean to create algae blooms, creating massive mirrors to reflect sunlight back into space, and so forth. Most of them have been shot down as either impossible, impractical, or outright dangerous.
Still, the idea that we can come up with just the right combination of short-term ingenuity to solve this long-term problem is still very tempting and scientists at Harvard are certainly not immune. In 2018 they will launch a high-altitude balloon, equipped with chemicals and sensors, from a site in Arizona. The balloon will spray a mixture of different substances such as sulfur dioxide and calcium carbonate into the upper atmosphere and then measure how much sunlight the particles reflect. If the results are promising, this could lead to squads of drones flooding the upper atmosphere with a blanket of particles, designed to protect the Earth from the negative effects of too much sunlight.
3. Scientists Created The First Human-Pig Hybrid
Of all creatures with which to mix human DNA, pigs would probably be quite far down the list for most people. However, that is exactly what a group of researchers in California have done. Scientists from the Salk Institute announced in early 2017 that they managed to achieve the first human-pig hybrid by successfully introducing human cells to pig embryos.
The team had previously introduced rat cells to mouse embryos. The resulting mouse-rat chimeras managed to live to adulthood with gallbladders made from combined of rat and mouse cells, even though rats don’t naturally develop that organ. The purpose of developing a chimera with human cells is to eventually be able to grow human organ replacements inside pigs or other animals. However, in this case, scientists were only able to grow about one human cell per 100,000 pig cells, and even that small percentage resulted in embryos that grew more slowly than normal. The embryos were allowed to grow for 3-4 weeks before they were removed from their surrogates. That’s hardly long enough to grow a full-size human-pig centaur, but it’s certainly an unsettling start.
2. Coming In 2018: Real Lab Meat Made Without Animals
One of the strangest crowdfunding campaigns that gained traction in 2017 was by a company called Memphis Meats. The purpose of this company is to produce edible meat grown from animal cells, without the need to raise animals. The startup has already managed to cultivate edible beef, chicken, and duck meat and has stated their intention of having commercial poultry products in supermarkets by the end of 2018.
Whether they will actually be able to meet this goal is anyone’s guess right now, as they have not yet managed to reach the company goal of meeting the current cost of conventionally grown meat. In fact, the last reported “harvest” of the lab meat cost around $3800 per pound. This is much cheaper than the $325,000 lab-grown hamburger served up by scientists in 2013.
The CEO of Memphis Meats believes they will eventually get the price of production even lower than farm grown meat. With people the likes of Bill Gates and Richard Branson investing in Memphis Meats, it’s possible one day we’ll all be munching on chicken fingers produced from a petri dish.
1. We Are Very Close To Being Able To Design Our Own Babies
Designer babies seem almost inevitable at this point, but the science is still in its infancy.
While the ability to edit the DNA of embryos has been a reality for several years due to work done in China, American scientists only achieved this milestone for the first time in 2017. The scientists used the gene editing technique CRISPR to change the DNA of embryos at the moment of conception (waiting until later can result in embryos with both the edited and unedited genes). They corrected a gene that, untreated, results in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which can cause sudden death. None of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days, and as the FDA does not allow trails of such a procedure. However, it may only be a few more years before the first hyper-intelligent, genetically “perfect” supermen and women start taking their first toddling steps among us.
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