What’s left for science to discover? There’s always a pervasive feeling that science has reached an impasse of sorts, and we’re nearing the end of all there is to know. But if history has taught us anything, the given paradigms of today could well be the dead ends of tomorrow. Here are just a few mysteries at the forefront of modern science that we might see answered in the next quarter-century.
5. Researchers Develop a Machine That Can Reason
How long will it be before we put a computer intelligence to the famous Turing Test … and we can’t tell the difference? And is this the last discovery we need to make, as computer-based intelligence surpasses human intellect? There have been spurious reports just in the past year that computer intelligences have passed the Turing Test. Simply put, early computer pioneer Alan Turing’s test states that if you can’t discern whether an entity is human or not in a double-blinded discussion, the computer must be thinking on its own. Obviously, there are some flaws in those tests. Just as the prom queen and the chess club champion demonstrate different types of social and problem-solving abilities, there are various types of human intelligence.
Our first real-world glimpse into humans being fooled by computer intelligence might come in online comments sections on websites. Most analysts believe computers will soon have the ability to break CAPTCHA entry codes. Perhaps, when we can’t tell whether a commenter on a blog or YouTube post is a machine or human, it’ll all be over.
4. Scientists Create Life in the Laboratory
How did life begin? The famous Urey-Miller experiment provided some tantalizing clues: take a container filled with a mixture of gasses thought to represent the atmosphere of the primeval Earth, zap it with electricity, and watch as organic molecules coat the container. But thus far, no one has performed the experiment and seen something crawl out, so to speak. The Urey-Miller experiment in 1952 showed that simple organic compounds — the basic building blocks of life as we know it — are relatively simple to create, given the right conditions. Life as we see it today arose from simpler organisms, and the key puzzle is how a self-replicating molecule such as DNA arose and started the evolutionary engine of life on Earth. It’s true that Earth had billions of years to get life started, while we’ve only been at it for a few decades. There are interesting hints as to just how this might have occurred, but whether we can replicate the process in the next 25 years remains to be seen.
Yet on a “humans-create-life-from-scratch” note, do-it-yourself genetic engineering, or “gene-hacking,” may be the next big thing in science. A gene-editing technology known as CRISPR may even put gene modification ability in the hands of garage tinkerers, for better or worse. One successful crowd-funded IndieGoGo campaign has already raised funds for DIY CRISPR kits. Imagine a world where this technology is used to help cure genetic diseases. On the downside, terrorists could biohack deadly mutant bacteria. Even well-meaning scientists could theoretically modify human embryos to create superhumans. This is not science fiction; there’s plenty of debate today on how to regulate this rapidly changing field.
3. Researchers Discover the Seat of Consciousness
What makes us who we are? Are we just “meat machines” at the whim of chemistry, or will there always be something vaguely indefinable about the human brain? Consciousness and the sense of self seem to be a clever illusion generated by the brain, a sense that can be taken away by traumatic injury or surgery. Some futurists believe we’ll be uploading our entire brain contents to computers in the next 25 years or so. In the process, that “consciousness” would theoretically gain immortality. Is it still a human consciousness at that point, or a machine intelligence? Scenarios such as this obviously blur many different lines between theology, psychology, science and futurism.
These issues involving the combination of human consciousness and machine are already making news in bizarre ways. Japanese researchers have claimed a tentative ability to “read human thought” in the lab. Another alarming trend is the rise of do-it-yourself “brain zappers” attempting to modify their consciousness with homemade devices. Although the military has looked at this before as a means to accelerate learning, at least one person blinded himself using this dangerous method.
2. Advances Lead to Lifespans of Hundreds of Years
It’s been said that the first person that will live longer than 150 years is already alive. Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University researcher who heads the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) project, goes much, much further in his view on human longevity. He says his team has identified seven key factors governing aging; he thinks that within 25 years those issues can be resolved. It’s theoretically possible, he says, that people will be able to use a mix of drugs, gene therapy, stem cell therapy and other advances to live 1,000 years or more. And it will be possible to remain between 20 and 25 years old physiologically during much of that time. The prospect of this super longevity has certainly caught the attention of several leading Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who are spending billions to fund various anti-aging initiatives.
Of course, the social issues raised by the possibly of such a population of “super seniors” would be staggering. Would such treatment be available to all, or a select few who could afford it? And would such a world become devoid of younger thinkers and ideas at the expense of maintaining the status quo? If this all sounds like a great idea to you, but you’re getting on in years, there’s still hope. The Alcor Foundation will freeze your body shortly after death until future science catches up for a possible revival for a mere $120,000 (whole body), or $50,000 for neurosuspension (head with brain encased only).
1. We Discover We Are Not Alone in the Universe
An easy No. 1 here. The modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence is multi-disciplinary, drawing off of nearly every field of science from psychology to astronomy. In 1961, astronomer Frank Drake proposed his now famous Drake Equation as a way to calibrate how many civilizations may presently exist in the Milky Way galaxy. And with the detection of thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars, we’re rapidly filling in some of the factors of the equation with hard data. The revelation that we’re not alone could come from, say, a dirt sample on Mars, a blip in the spectrum of a distant exoplanet, a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization, or ET landing — ray guns ablaze — on the White House lawn. SETI researcher Seth Shostak told a U.S. House committee in 2014 that the discovery of extraterrestrial life could come in the next 20 years. “The fact that we haven’t found anything means nothing,” Shostak told legislators. “We’ve only just begun to search.”
Of course, the detection of Martian micro-fossils or a blip on a graph indicating alien chlorophyll wouldn’t be as exciting as finding an advanced alien society. Yet the discovery of any life form on another world would be a transformative event in human history. The SETI effort got a serious financial boost in 2015, thanks to Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. The tycoon provided $100 million for the largest SETI effort to date, dubbed Breakthrough Listen.