The next giant leap

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Half a century after a Scout landed on the moon, what do we know about humanity’s next big step? From curing cancer to living with robots, hear from the experts what the world might look like in the next 50 years

 

Words: Annabel Rose | Illustrations: Jack Hughes

  

Since the first moon landing in 1969, the world we know today has become a very different place. When people first walked on the moon, there was no such thing as an MRI scanner, video games or Star Wars. The police didn’t use DNA to investigate crimes, and you couldn’t send an email, let alone use a mobile phone.  

A lot has changed in the past 50 years. Although we haven’t quite managed to create flying cars, nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners, or a cure for the common cold, some other predictions were surprisingly accurate. From watches that can make video calls and shoelaces that tie themselves, to TV shows on demand and electric cars, it turns out that, sometimes, people can predict the future. 

We spoke to four experts about what they think humanity might conquer in the next 50 years. 

  

Cancer research

Dr David Crosby is Head of Early Detection Research at Cancer Research UK, the world’s second largest non-commercial funder of cancer research. 

 

What do you think will be the next big leap in your field?  

The hope is that we’ll detect cancers with routine screening. Most people don’t know when they’ve got an early cancer – they’re tiny, and patients don’t really have symptoms. About half of cancers are diagnosed at a late stage, when they’re difficult to treat.

What if you could be monitored routinely, or continuously, so that as soon as a tiny cancer arose, a beeper would go off? If we detect cancers much earlier, when they’re more treatable, we’ll save lives on a huge scale. Things are happening now that are working towards that world. We’re developing chemical-based blood tests, looking for tiny molecules that have fallen from cancer cells. Cancer cells have a different metabolism to normal cells, they leak out different waste, so people have developed technology that finds cancer waste products in your breath. Maybe in the not-too-distant future that’ll be in every GP’s office. 

 

Or, perhaps it’ll sit in your kitchen drawer. I think routine health monitoring won’t have to happen in an NHS-type environment. Wearable technology monitors heart rate and blood pressure – maybe in 50 years you’ll have a device that can monitor your cancer status. 

 

What if you could have a smart toilet? If you identify what cancer cell waste products come out in urine and faeces, an in-built sensor in your toilet could light up at the early stages of disease. Scientists have developed nanotechnology – ever smaller particles and machines. What if I could introduce a nanoparticle into your bloodstream to patrol your body, bind to any early cancerous cells, and release a detectable chemical?

 

Wow. What about treating cancer? 

When you do surgery, you can’t leave anything behind – a couple of cells can grow into a new tumour. But it can be hard to see where a tumour ends and normal tissue begins, and the more you chop, the more you damage the organ. People are developing the iKnife, which is like a scalpel with a plasma jet, an intense ionising ‘flame’. As it’s applied to tissue, it vaporises cells, analyses molecules, and tells you whether you’re cutting tumour or healthy tissue. 

 

Immunotherapy is starting to come into real-life medicine. Cancer cells come up with ways to evade your immune system, so scientists take your white blood cells and reprogramme them by genetic editing, telling them how to find and attack tumour cells. They put those modified white blood cells back into you, to hone in on tumour cells and kill them off. In 50 years, you might not wait until people have cancer. Super white blood cells could patrol your body for your whole life, and snuff out cancers the moment they start – you’d never need to be treated. 

 

 

Sustainability technology

Akshatha Veerendra is a Senior Sustainability Engineer at engineering consultants MWL.

 

Tell us a bit about your job.

I work in the sustainability team. We help with planning approval by certifying buildings to the required standards, and we use software to model buildings and analyse their energy efficiency. We produce energy and sustainability reports, make sure materials are sourced responsibly, and inspect sites. We also help throughout the life cycle of the building, to help reduce energy, carbon dioxide and waste, and to improve water efficiency. 

 

What do you think the next big leap will be?

I think innovations in solar technology will be one of the main things. There’s a lot going on in the solar industry. In the future, we’ll have things like solar windows and solar transportation, like buses. We might even have solar-powered aeroplanes, like the Solar Impulse 2, an experimental solar-powered aircraft project. You’ll have solar fashion, because there’s a way to make anything solar – your mobile, your clothes – to capture energy and make it usable. You’ll also have trees that can harvest solar power. 

 

There’s a lot of potential in the solar industry. A lot of research is going on. It’ll be more environmentally friendly, there’ll be more job opportunities in the STEM industry, 
and there’ll be a better quality of life in 50 years.

 

Will we have better technology?

Yes. We’ll have better technology and better resources, and we’ll be able to give future generations better opportunities. Solar is our best option for renewable energy at the moment. It doesn’t contaminate, it’s green and unlimited. 

 

What else can solar do?

It can purify water. Solar desalinisation is where you extract salt and minerals from water, to make it more drinkable. You could purify water that people can’t drink. There’s a lot of water scarcity, so I think it’s the best thing you can give to the developing world, to help solve the water crisis. 

 

What kind of technology would you use for that? 

At the moment, solar desalination uses a combination of technology which uses membranes and sunlight-harvesting cells, to convert salty water into fresh drinking water. There’s a lot of research going on in this field to make the technology more affordable and accessible. 

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge to overcome? 

One of the biggest challenges will be educating people about sustainability and the impact this will have on our environment. To protect our ecosystem, we need funding for projects and research, and we need governments to understand the connection between ecology and economy. We need volunteers, we need STEM ambassadors, and we need more people to put in energy, time and resources. 

 

Robotics

Dr Séverin Lemaignan is a Senior Research Fellow 
at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. 

 

Tell us a bit about your work with robots. 

I supervise research on human-robot interaction. If robots understand what humans are doing, and respond by showing signals that a human will understand (like some form of emotional response or facial expression), it makes interaction as easy and natural as possible.

 

What’s going to be the next big leap in robotics? 

Robots already do interesting things, but they mostly work in well-designed environments like laboratories. One of the biggest challenges is to have robots and algorithms that are robust enough to work in the ‘real world’. For example, to work effectively in schools, robots will need to understand what’s going on – even if there are children making a lot of noise around them. The robot will need to focus on you if you talk to the robot, and not be disturbed by all the other activity. It’s the same thing in hospitals, or our homes. 

 

In the next 50 years will robots be in our everyday lives? 

I think so, yes. I work with teachers to see how robots could be helpful in schools. We don’t want to replace the teachers, but we want to provide support. For example, you could have more one-to-one learning – if one child is really struggling, instead of being lost in the middle of the classroom they could work with the robot. There’s a strong need for that – we found that teachers are happy to have us test our assistants in their schools. There are opportunities to have robots in classrooms that don’t just teach robotics, but help children to learn about a range of different topics. 

 

Another place robots might play an important role is within elderly care. It’s hard for older people to maintain good social interaction. We hope that with the help of robots they could have a lot more interaction, not only with robots but with each other. A robot could create opportunities for people to spend more time together and support richer social interactions. 

 

What do you think is the biggest challenge to overcome? 

The main challenge is that people’s expectations of what robots can do are so far from reality! People think that robots can easily recognise people or talk to you – this is far from being the case. As an example, vocal assistants like Alexa became common fast – but they’re the result of maybe 20 years of research. To go from that to a robot, we multiply the complexity by, like, one hundred. There are so many more challenges to make a social robot alive compared to purely vocal assistants. We’re not there yet, we have many technical issues to solve, but a lot of people are working on getting robots into our homes and schools.

 

So, in 50 years robots will be everywhere?

Yes – we’ll have to get used to that.

 

 

Space exploration

Dr Kierann Shah is the General Manager of the National Space Academy, an education organisation which uses the context of space to tackle the science curriculum.

 

What will be the next big leap in space exploration? 

In the immediate future, the next challenge is sample return. At the moment, the only samples we’ve brought back to earth from another rocky body were from the last Apollo mission, in 1972. 

 

It’s tricky to have a robot travel to Mars, land on the surface, gather up a sample, and then launch it back to earth. If we could do that, it’d be a really big leap.

 

What would samples tell us? 

The samples that came back with that Apollo mission are still being researched now. Their chemical make-up has been broken down so we can see what they’re made of, and understand the processes that formed them.

 

We could learn a lot about Mars. A lot of radiation from the sun gets to the surface because it doesn’t have a strong atmosphere. If there were any chance of life on Mars – and I’m not saying it would definitely be there – it would be killed by the radiation. Curiosity Rover got just below the surface, and Insights and ExoMars will try to dig down further. If we could place samples in front of experts like geologists, we could maybe see if there was an environment where life could survive.

 

How could technology in space change things on earth? 

We’ve been using technology in space to gather data on things like the depth of ice at the poles, and deforestation. Hopefully it’ll help us make good decisions about how 
to look after our planet.

 

We use satellites for smartphones – to use GPS-based applications like Google Maps, we’re in contact with at least four satellites. In practice, you’re probably connected with upwards of 20 satellites. We use it without thinking – even ambulances rely on satellite navigation. 

 

Our weather predictions are benchmarked by looking at satellite images. We can look at things like storms, typhoons and hurricanes, and the potential damage 
they can do, so we can warn and help people. You could combine that information with communication, to not only have good stewardship of our environment, but to save lives as well.   

 

There’s so much that access to space gives us, without us realising. I think it would be great if we all thought about it a little more – the more awareness ordinary people (and young people in Scouts) have about what technology could do, the more we can ask from it.  

 

The UK Space Agency runs a yearly competition where young people come up with their ideas of how satellites could improve life on earth. The entries are really inspiring – from wristbands that keep surfers safe, to using drones to deliver medical supplies. 

 

And the question everyone wants to ask – what’s next for the astronauts of the future?  

We’ve had some long duration missions. Two astronauts have done a year on the International Space Station – they’re being studied to see how it affected them 
physically, and whether it’s something we can reasonably ask people to do. 

 

The more we find out, the closer we get to a crewed mission, which is the dream I think a lot of us have. Some people think it’s better to just send robots, but I’m a bit of a romantic and I’d like to see humans land on Mars one day. 

 

That would be amazing. When do you think that might actually happen? 

That’s tricky! In the middle of the last century, they easily thought we would already be there by now... I think within the next 50 years it’s possible, if everyone works together in the right way. 

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