By Bram Vermeer
Science can create a better world. We are no playthings in the Earth’s fate. Here are my personal top 10 breakthroughs that are badly needed to ensure our future.
1. Smart irrigation
When farmers irrigate their land, they usually water it 100 percent of the time. But isn’t it silly for farmers to ignore the rain? Often they have no alternative, as reliable rain forecasts are not available. Ethiopia, for example, has only a dozen weather stations that report online. But nowadays many farmers own a cell phone. Google.org came up with a simple, yet brilliant idea: let farmers text their own weather observations to a central computer. That will allow experts to make a forecast and text an irrigation advice to the farmers. This is only the beginning for how information technology can revolutionize farming.
2. New energy from the earth
This century we will probably say goodbye to oil. I have great hopes for deep geothermal energy, but it doesn’t feature in many energy scenarios. Planners usually base their ideas on existing technologies. A breakthrough may make it possible to tap the heath of the Earth. If we can really learn how to drill 5 to 10 kilometers through hard rock, we can make many artificial geysers. That would make large amounts of energy available within the next 20 years. A few trials are already underway. If they succeed, we’ll have to completely revise our energy future.
3. Solar cells printed on rollers
For solar energy to provide 5 percent of the world’s energy needs, we would need to cover a surface as large as California with solar cells. We have no way of doing that with current solar cell technology, except if we start using plastic or other thin materials that can be processed on rollers. That means you can use printing techniques, which allow for faster production. Plastic solar cells have progressed over the past decade from a scientific curiosity to a promising breakthrough technology. But we need to improve their lifespan and efficiency.
4. A factory in a shoebox
Size matters. Modern electronics makes it perfectly viable to minimize the size of a chemical plant without sacrificing efficiency. So why not reverse the trend of sizing up installations and start shrinking the equipment? You can miniaturize all the vessels, pipes, and distillation columns that make up a chemical plant—down to the size of a shoebox. The local supermarket could produce your washing powder. No logistics required.
5. Personal genetic profile
Long before 2030, all parents in the US will probably be able to afford to have their baby’s DNA sequenced. Knowing the details of the DNA will make it easier to predict the effects of pharmaceuticals. And it will generate a mass of significant data for scientific research, which will further accelerate progress. Probably we’ll learn that nurture may compensate for our genetic nature. When DNA tells us where our weaknesses lie, we’ll probably start training to improve on that. Learning from DNA will make us less dependent on our genetic fate.
6. Fertilizer factories in Africa
Africa currently imports most of its fertilizers. So why not produce them locally? This would reduce the hassle of transportation on bad roads and connecting to international markets. It would bring the benefits of the Green Revolution to rural communities. Technically, we ‘would have to scale down the chemical installations to meet the local requirements, but new developments in chemistry will make that possible.
7. Antidote for the real pandemic
Not much happened in the 2009 pandemic. But we learned that 85 percent of the world’s population has little chance of being vaccinated. A mere nine countries produce almost all the influenza vaccines, and all of them are located in the developed world. In a real pandemic, the rich will survive, and the poor will die. We need new approaches to produce small-scale immunization technologies that would be available worldwide on day one of a pandemic. Pharmaceuticals like statins, fibrates, and glitazones are good candidates.
8. Herd knowledge
Social sciences are now experiencing a data revolution. Scholars are benefiting from the enormous amount of digital traces of almost every aspect of human activity. They can also use computers to create virtual societies. These resemble computer games like SimCity, in which individual citizens interact. All this offers a new quantitative approach to sociology. Upcoming breakthroughs in this field will allow us to understand financial crashes, how viruses spread, how people move through a city, and how they are influenced by others. This will give us real insight into mass movements and herd behavior. That will help in rescue operations, stabilizing the financial system, and securing democracy against manipulation.
9. A robot for everybody
Most western societies are graying. It’s unrealistic to think we can find enough personnel to properly care for the elderly in 20 years’ time. Who is going to lift people out of bed twice a day? We’ll have to look to technology for help. Metal hands are needed around the house—lifts to help you raise yourself onto the bed or to get off the toilet. This will ultimately mean domestic robotization. Some years from now, there will be a form of robot in many houses. For now the challenge is to learn how to manage the complexity of robot interaction with people.
10. Stable cities
In 20 years’ time, most people will live in cities. We will then enter an era of posturbanization. Growth will no longer come by drawing people in from the outside. Will cities maintain their scale? Or will urbanization go into decline, turning downtown Shanghai, Mumbai, and Chicago into wastelands? Cities will have to find a new dynamic to prevent them from falling apart under their own weight. Insight in human behavior and industrial innovation will prove vital in designing a new future for our cities.
Bram Vermeer is a freelance science journalist with a background in physics who has been writing about technology for Dutch newspapers and scientific journals for 25 years. He lives and works alternately in Amsterdam and Berlin. He is author with Rutger van Santen and Djan Khoe of 2030: Technology That Will Change the World.