Monday, July 13, 2020

Hard Challenges For Living Longer And Having Better Lives


Reversing the effects of ageing, reprogramming genes to prevent diseases and producing clean energy are some of the biggest challenges for the next 50 years, according to a group of leading experts.

The pace of advances in technology means the rate of progress will be 30 times faster in the next half century, futurologists believe - and that opens up the prospect of innovation in many fields.

Better understanding of our genes could lead to more personalized medicines and longer, healthier lives; communication technology should get faster and cheaper; and we will hopefully find more sustainable ways of living in our environment.

The 18-strong team of scientists, entrepreneurs and thinkers was convened by the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE) to identify problems for technology in the 21st century that, if solved, would change the world.

The group included biologist Craig Venter, inventor Dean Kamen, Google co-founder Larry Page and Harvard University professor of international development Calestous Juma. The experts presented their report and list of challenges yesterday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston.

The NAE group focused on four areas for their engineering grand challenges: sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living.

"As the population grows and its needs and desires expand, the problem of sustaining civilisation's continuing advancement, while still improving the quality of life, looms more immediate," they wrote in their report. "Old and new threats to personal and public health demand more effective and more readily available treatments. Vulnerabilities to pandemic diseases, terrorist violence, and natural disasters require serious searches for new methods of protection and prevention."

The provision of clean energy was a priority. They identified sunshine as a "tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power, bathing the Earth with more energy each hour than the planet's population consumes in a year". But capturing that power, converting it into something useful and storing it poses a challenge. "We only need to capture one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the Earth to meet 100% of our energy needs," futurologist Ray Kurzweil, a member of the NAE group, told the AAAS. "This will become feasible with nanoengineered solar panels and nanoengineered fuel cells."

Alongside clean energy comes clean water, which is in short supply. New technologies for desalinating sea water may be helpful, but small-scale technologies for local water purification may be even more effective for personal needs."

Personalised medicines are another challenge. The recent sequencing of the human genome and a better understanding of how the body works offer scientists a way to identify the things that determine the health of an individual.

"An important way of exploiting such information would be the development of methods that allow doctors to forecast the benefits and side effects of potential treatments or cures," they wrote.

Genetic technology allows scientists to switch off selected strands of DNA and new techniques in gene therapy enable them to modify the behaviour of genes. "Within one to two decades, we will be in a position to stop and reverse the progression of disease and ageing, resulting in dramatic gains in health and longevity," said Kurzweil.

The NAE report also hailed the potential of advanced computer intelligence that it said would enable automated diagnosis and prescriptions for treatment.

Kurzweil went further on artificial intelligence. "Once non-biological intelligence matches the range and subtlety of human intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge."

He added: "Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in the environment, our bodies and our brains, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses ... and enhanced human intelligence."

The experts said none of the challenges would be met without the economic and political will. "Despite environmental regulations, cheaper polluting technologies often remain preferred over more expensive, clean technologies," they wrote.

Goals: Improving the quality of life

Make solar energy affordable: Sunlight is a free energy source, but the ability to capture it is limited and expensive at present

Provide energy from nuclear fusion: Could supply a near limitless supply of energy using seawater as fuel

Prevent nuclear terror: Engineers must find ways to secure energy sources that might attract the attention of terrorist groups

Engineer better medicines: Personalised medicine would combine genetic information with clinical data to tailor drugs and doses to meet the needs of an individual patient

Provide access to clean water: About one in six people do not have adequate access to water

Manage the nitrogen cycle: Humans have doubled rate at which nitrogen is removed from the air relative to pre-industrial times, contributing to smog and acid rain, polluting drinking water, and worsening global warming

Develop carbon sequestration: Capturing carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels and storing it could help tackle global warming

Enhance virtual reality: From psychiatry and education to entertainment, virtual reality is seen as a powerful tool for training experts and treating patients

Restore/improve urban infrastructure: Engineers need to find ways of keeping cities and services running and beautiful while preserving the environment

Secure cyberspace: Identity theft and computer viruses will disrupt an increasingly connected world. Security technology to tackle the problem must be designed with people in mind to ensure it is not too cumbersome to use

Advance health informatics: To deliver more personalised medicines, doctors and health professionals need new ways to carefully track patients' biological information

Reverse-engineer the brain: Determining how the brain works could help with treatment of diseases while providing clues for designing artificial intelligence

Advance personalised learning: This could use internet courses or virtual reality to tailor education to a person's abilities

By Alok Jha
Source: The Guardian
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