By: Jim Al-Khalili | The appliance of science: hope and fear in tomorrow’s world | Jim Al-Khalili | Neuroscience | The Guardian
As advances in gene editing, energy and AI gain momentum, Jim Al-Khalili predicts their impact on our future
Meteorologists can now reliably tell us if it is going to rain tomorrow, but wouldn’t dream of forecasting rain a year from now. Similarly, scientists find it much easier to predict what the world will look like in the next decade rather than in a century. This is because the technology of tomorrow relies on the science of today – it is only after we have understood a certain concept that we can think about how to put it to use. A famous example is Michael Faraday’s research into electricity and magnetism in the 1830s. It was only decades later that others saw how to use this new knowledge to build electric motors and power generators, inventions that transformed our world. Sometimes, of course, scientific discoveries lead to completely unforeseen applications – the internet is one such example.
But what about 2018? Surely the world won’t look too different? All I can say for certain is there are three technologies we’re going hear much more about next year, even more than we have done this year. The first is the incredible opportunities opening up in medicine thanks to advances in gene editing. Just this year, we saw the development of techniques that allow for single molecules on DNA to be tweaked or replaced, with the potential to reverse genetic mutations responsible for a whole host of terrible conditions. Soon we will be able to remove, very precisely, a faulty gene responsible for diseased cells, and replace it with the “healthy”, correctly functioning version, thus treating genetic disorders, such as sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s disease. The flip side is that this advance opens up the insidious possibility of modifying the genome in an embryo (so-called germline editing) leading, potentially, to designer babies and genetically modified superhumans. Debate about the ethics of such techniques needs to be had, and quickly.
Soon we will be able to remove a faulty gene responsible for diseased cells, and replace it with a healthy one