Science and tech in 2014: The cutting edge
New Delhi: 2013 was an exciting year for science and technology. A team of US scientists cloned 150 human embryonic stem cells. A baby born in Mississippi with HIV three years ago was treated with drugs starting around 30 hours after birth. She hasn’t contracted the virus, scientists announced in the year.
India launched a spacecraft that is expected to reach the Martian orbit by September 2014. The extinct gastric-brooding frog (famous for giving birth through its mouth) was cradled back to life by scientists in Australia using frozen frog tissue. Scientists in the US used brain signals via the Internet to control the hand motions of another human, opening the doors to a possible treatment for paralysis.
Can 2014 top that? Scientists, industry analysts and studies shed some light on what science and technology could give us in the year ahead. Here’s a sample:
Wearable technology and the quantified self: Clicking pictures with the wink of an eye, sending live feeds of surgeries, and watches that are phones are likely to become common next year. Google Glass’s commercial launch early next year is expected to lead to a major expansion in the scope and applications of wearable technology.
A report by Juniper Research published in October valued the next-gen wearable devices market to be worth more than $1.5 billion in 2014, up from $800 million this year.
Quantified self movement, the gathering of knowledge about the self by tracking parts and aspects of the body through mobile apps and wearable gadgets, is also likely to gather momentum in the coming year.
Wristbands and microchips to track our habits and health are likely to become mainstream in 2014. “Doctors will have to start catching up,” says Mark Anderson, chief executive at Strategic News Service, which makes technology predictions every year.
Voice interactives: “You’re going to see a lot of voice interaction in mobile devices. Siri is Apple’s example; Google Now, voice search, all of these things are going to provide an integrated package,” Google’s chief economist Hal Varian said earlier this month. “You’ll interact with your mobile device like you do with your personal assistant or someone providing information to you.”
Mars odysseys, space tourism and manned space missions: If all goes well, India’s Mars orbiter will be successfully put into the Martian orbit by September, after which the spacecraft will study details of the Red Planet’s atmosphere and look for traces of methane, water and other previous signs of life. During the year, at least 500 passengers would become “astronauts” as Virgin Galactic prepares to make its inaugural commercial sub-orbital space flight with SpaceShipTwo. Also in September, US space agency NASA is expected to launch the Exploration Flight Test-1 as part of its plans to send manned shuttles to explore deep space.
Internet of Things: The idea to build computer intelligence into all sorts of things using chips could herald the fourth industrial revolution. Technology firms Ericsson and Cisco Systems Inc. both predict that about 20 billion such devices will be connected by 2020.
“We’re talking about embedding of communications in all sorts of things, cars, buildings, devices, as chips get cheaper and cheaper,” said Huzur Saran, a professor in the department of computer science and engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “Right now, people are talking to each other. Internet of things would mean devices talking to each other.”
Genomics for rare diseases: The US this year funded a $25 million five-year research programme to explore the potential advantages and ethical challenges of sequencing every newborn’s genome, while the UK saw the launch of a personal genome project that seeks 100,000 volunteers, who are asked to give open access to their genetic and health information.
“I personally foresee a lot more genome/exome sequences being done in India for medical indications, like rare genetic diseases,” said Vinod Scaria, a scientist at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and one of two scientists responsible for sequencing the first Indian genome in 2009.
“The next step is synthetic biology—the ability to precisely customize organisms by ‘writing’ DNA,” said a study by McKinsey Global Institute, a research arm of McKinsey and Co.
Big data, biomaterials, green communications and civil engineering: are the four major areas shortlisted for the 2014 Indo-American Frontiers of Engineering Symposium, pointing to future engineering trends.
“Developing better tools to analyse Big Data can have important applications -- we’re looking at Big Data from the meteorological perspective, and how better analytics could facilitate more predictions,” said Upadrasta Ramamurty of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. Biomaterials, a growing area that can either be derived from or designed to mimic naturally occurring materials, will provide applications in 2014 in the form of drug delivery, cancer therapeutics and prosthetics.
Civil engineering will have a major part to play as engineers concentrate on water resource management in the context of climate change. “This is especially important in a country like India where you either have drought-like conditions or rain-like conditions,” Ramamurty said.