Flying cars, teleportation, colonizing other planets: Science fiction has a unique idea of what the future of scientific advancement will look like. But who wants to run out of gas at 8,000 feet? Our guests discuss what the future of science will actually look like, and where we should be focusing our attention to improve humanity and protect the planet.
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs is a serial entrepreneur who has co-founded multiple successful start-ups. He is currently the Co-Founder & CTO of Evaptainers, a company working to create zero energy refrigeration for the developing world. He hopes science can find a loophole to faster-than-light travel.
Roger Highfield is an author, science journalist, and Director of Affairs at the Science Museum Group. His work can be read in publications as diverse as Wired, Observer, Esquire, and the Economist. His best-selling books have been published worldwide in multiple languages, and he is looking forward to the rise of the cyborgs.
Jayshree Seth: 72% of 18-34 year-olds believe science will cure cancer in their lifetime. Nearly half believe humans will colonize Mars, too. Where does science fact meet science fiction? We’ll explore the possibilities on this episode of science champions.
Welcome to episode 5 of science champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
On this episode, we’re talking about the future of science. Science fiction has promised a lot of technology that actual science has yet to deliver — which can lead to some misplaced disappointment. Would you really trade in your smartphone for a flying car? I’d much rather have instant access to the world’s knowledge than worry about a fender bender at 8,000 feet in the air!
To take a realistic look at the future of science, I’m joined by two guests who spend a great deal of time thinking about what comes next: Jeremy Fryer-Biggs and Roger Highfield.
Hi, Jeremy, Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: Hi everyone! My name is Jeremy Fryer-Biggs and I am the chief technology officer at Evaptainers. My job revolves around developing new materials and technologies to help people be able to refrigerate their food in the developing world. So, we're developing a new generation of a refrigerator that doesn't use electricity and it's super inexpensive and affordable for people who don't have access to refrigeration.
Jayshree Seth: And Roger, welcome to the show! Can you introduce yourself as well?
Roger Highfield: My name is Roger Highfield. I'm the director of External Affairs for the Science Museum Group which is a group of, as the name suggests, five science museums in the UK with about five and a half million visitors per year, between them, and about seven million objects records, and images, belonging to our museum group.
Jayshree Seth: What type of exhibits do you have in a science museum?
Roger Highfield: Well, we have very cool things. Like the Flying Scotsman and Watson and Crick's double helix. The desiccator where Louise Brown was being grown, the first IVF baby. Just over 40 years ago that dessicator was used to keep her warm. All sorts of rather cool things.
Jayshree Seth: Let’s start by going right up to the boundary of science fiction. What amazing, out-there scientific development would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: So, I promise that this is the only one I'm going to take in a sort of science-fiction direction and maybe it's stretching the question a little bit. But I would love to see faster than light travel happening. It might not. I don't know whether that's possible. In fact, it probably isn't. But whether it's warping space or utilizing wormholes or some alternative technology or even slower than light but solar sails, the ability for us to be able to reach out and to go to distant worlds. Not just Mars and Mars is very cool. But to be able to go to more distant places, and to learn, to mine the potential commercial implications, to expand, to explore, to contact others. I don't see that happening without a faster mode of travel. The nearest star system Alpha Centauri is about four light years away. So, that's four years traveling at the speed of light. And if we could go the speed of light and there are all kinds of questions about infinite mass and time stopping if you did, it would still be a four-year trip. So, without the ability to go a lot faster I think we're kind of trapped in our little corner of the universe. And for humanity to really extend beyond that requires a means of transportation that's much faster than anything we currently have.
Roger Highfield: The one I sort of want to happen, although it's still going to be quite tough, will be the discovery of alien life. And I think there's good reason to be confident that we're going to find hard evidence of aliens. And the reason is that in the last couple of decades, there's been a revolution in our ability to detect planets orbiting alien stars. And as of this month, there are something like 3 - 4 confirmed planets in something like 3,000 systems and there are at least 500 maybe 600 systems with more than one planet. So, we're beginning to see alien solar systems. We're beginning to develop technologies now where we can use the starlight winking through the atmosphere of an alien planet to analyze the atmosphere and figure out what its constituents are. And they're going to be all sorts of probes launched in the coming years like W-I that will look at reflected light and other forms of light from these alien planets to look for the signatures of oxygen, water vapor, and hopefully, some indications of possible life. So, I'm pretty confident that in the next few years or a decade or two, we're going to have some very strong evidence that we're not alone in the universe.
Jayshree Seth: Roger, you were kind of building off of Jeremy’s answer, but do you have another “science fiction” prediction you’d like to see come true?
Roger Highfield: I think that it's very likely that in my lifetime, there'll be the rise of cyborgs. Now cyborg is short for cybernetic organism. It was coined in the 60s by a couple of guys in an article about the advantages of merging technology with a human body to help astronauts to survive in space. But actually, when you look around us and there's lots of evidence that cyborgs have been stealthily evolving among us. You know, there are people with cochlear implants, helping them hear. There are people with retinal implants helping them see. There are various prosthesis and so on. And in fact, if you look at the collections in my museum, you can see how we've always exploited new technical leaps to suit ourselves. So, I think the rise of ever smarter machines doesn't mean a world of us or them, but actually an enhancement of human capabilities. So, I'm looking forward to the rise of the cyborg when you know that will be taking off-the-shelf enhancements to increase our cognitive ability or when we're elderly help us walk a bit longer perhaps with an exoskeleton or something like that. And within a decade or two or three or four, it won't be so easy to tell some humans and machines apart.
Jayshree Seth: So we’ll hope for Cyborgs and faster-than-light travel. But let’s narrow the scope a little bit. What do you think will actually happen in your lifetime?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: I really believe that we’re going to see a cure to cancer and I know that that’s a buzz phrase that people have thrown around since Nixon declared war on cancer. Nixon isn’t popular for a lot that maybe that was one good thing. And you know, it’s been so overused that I think at this point, it’s a little boy who cried wolf. But I do think we’re going to see a cure to cancer in the Gen Z lifetime. That’s coming from a place of much more understanding. So, in the last, I worked in a cancer lab in college which was an amazing experience and my work there was all about, you know, let’s be honest, pipetting and moving things around, but it was really about this notion of personalized medicine. So, that people aren’t all the same. Every person is a unique blend of genes, a unique makeup of genes that are activated. You know, methylate, phosphorylate, turned on, turned off. And what those genes are. And so, cancer itself it’s not a disease where it’s a single thing. It is kind of a unique disease to every person. Every skin cancer can be different depending on the blend of genes that’s turned on and off in that cancer. And I don’t think up until relatively recently post sequencing the human genome, post really creating cheaper more expensive technologies to dive into this stuff that people have had a way to understand what an individual’s genetic makeup was on a very deep level and then use that understanding to try to create a therapy. So, we’re learning tons and tons right now about individual gene combinations and I think through that maybe not in my lifetime but definitely Gen Z you’re going to see targeted therapies. We’re already starting to see these that can really take a person’s unique individual cancer and go after that. And I think that’s the way that you’re going to see real success in that area.
Jayshree Seth: So you believe gene therapy is the key. Roger, what do you imagine you will see in your lifetime?
Roger Highfield: I think when it comes to the advancements I'm going to see in my lifetime. I think we're laying the foundations for a whole new generation of medical treatments by the convergence of several technologies. So, we can now read the genetic code of creatures both precisely and pretty cheaply as well. And it's astonishing how the cost of sequencing has dropped since the human genome was unveiled all that time ago. Then we're getting better and better at manipulating cells in the lab and actually turning one cell type into another. So, you could take a skin cell and then you could turn it into embryonic cells and then make it into all sorts of tissues for repair. And then on top of that, we've got this new gene editing technology called CRISPR which is enabling us to carry out genetic changes more precisely than ever before. And I think when you put these technologies together, we're entering this era of cellular alchemy where I think we're going to see a step change in the kind of things that doctors can offer patients in terms of treatments.
Jayshree Seth: It’s great that both of your responses were around health care - that’s definitely an area that I’d like to see any advances we can get. But what other big challenges do you think science will solve?
Roger Highfield: I think the one really big challenge facing all of us is climate change and linked with that is trying to find cleaner ways to generate energy. And I know that there's lots of advances in alternative sources of energy, but the one that would be a total game changer is fusion power. Now the joke goes that we've said for at least 50 years that it's going to take 50 years to build a fusion power plant. We've been talking about it, you know, since the height of the Cold War. We're still talking about fusion power being just around the corner. But I think there are lots of approaches now to fusion as a giant international consortium called ITER. There's loads of little exciting unusual fusion concepts being tried in labs all over the place. And if anyone can crack fusion power, this is going to be a source of energy that's going to have a greater impact on humankind than really landing the first people on the moon. You know lithium from one Laptop battery and deuterium from a part of water would give enough energy to power a single citizen for 30 years. Also, fusion reactors, they're going to generate fewer radioactive waste problems than their old-fashioned fission reactors. So, I'm hoping that we can get fusion to work. And I think there's so much activity, so many approaches. I'm feeling pretty confident that in the next 20 or 30 years, fusion power will be on tap and helping us to deal with climate change.
Jayshree Seth: That would definitely solve a host of challenges we’re currently dealing with. Jeremy, what do you think will be the next big challenge science will solve?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: So, this is a fun one. Useful 3d printing. This is another one of those cases of maybe boy who cried wolf a little bit. 3d printing is a technology that’s been around since the 80s. I was an early investor in a 3d printing company. So, I’ve had a lot of fun kind of watching this technology grow. And the problem for a while has been that you can make these incredible shapes that you can’t make with any other manufacturing technology. You can’t get the head of a mill into these confined weird geometries. So, you can make these incredibly cool shapes with 3d printing. But the materials you were making them out of were brittle, not terribly strong and not really useful. And so, it was a really cool technology for prototyping, for developing ideas very rapidly without having to spend a lot of money in building molds and complex manufacturing components. But it’s not been a great technology for making things that are actually useful, that will stand up in the real world to the kind of the use that you’re going to put it through in your daily life. And there’s a lot of work right now in the development of materials that are stronger, more flexible, have all kinds of unique and valuable properties. So, I think in the next 20 to 30 years, you’re going to see machines that are capable of working in these materials and I think you’re going to see more stuff commercially made outside of aerospace parts and some medical technologies with 3d printing because it is cheaper and actually useful.
Jayshree Seth: What applications for 3D printing do you find most exciting?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: There’s a Dutch architecture firm and I’m blanking on their name that 3d prints concrete. And so, it’s like a giant tube of toothpaste that they squeeze except it’s ready-made concrete and they just go over and over again. It’s your scaled-up home 3d printer just a heck of a lot bigger. And they’re making whole holdings. It’s not even transportable, just in place. The machine comes and prints the house in a day. It’s really incredible stuff.
Jayshree Seth: Now, what challenge do you think science won’t solve in your lifetime?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: So, I’m going down the rabbit hole a little bit here. But there’s been a lot of talk about Ray Kurtzweil’s wild notion of a technology singularity in reference to artificial intelligence AI. And I think we are moving in that direction. You’re seeing machine algorithms being developed that are able to do more of what we would call thinking. Whether it’s Watson through IBM or I mean there’s a whole bunch of these kinds of things. And so, I think that the world is shifting in that direction. Whether we get to the point where machines are self-aware by 2049, I’m not totally convinced that’s going to happen.
Roger Highfield: I think the one problem that science is really struggling with is a problem of consciousness. The reason is simple because it's very difficult to get a scientist agree on exactly what they mean by consciousness. I mean we all kind of have a sense of it that we have an awareness that somehow our complicated brain processes seem to feel like something from the inside. We're not just robots that just retain key information, respond reflexively to our senses, like you feel ouch, if you touch something really hot. But inside, we don't have any inner life. You know we are convinced that we've got an inner life. But at the end of the day, how this lump of pinkish beige stuff between our ears gives rise to something very mysterious as the experience of being a body with that lump between our ears and our senses, that's interacting with environment. It's a really difficult problem. And I feel that science is still a long way off even being able to define the problem. Let alone solve it.
Jayshree Seth: What do you think is the most pressing problem scientists should be trying to solve?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: So, this totally dovetails I think on the last question. As we see this rise in artificial intelligence and robotics to go with it, to physically implement what these algorithms are deciding. I don’t know what the deciding is the right word there. You’re going to see a real shift in the world economy. But let’s look at the US economy, 3% of all the workers in the labor force drive. And you know we’ve heard about automated Google vehicles, we’ve heard about Uber doing this, we’ve heard about auto which was a startup that Uber bought for the trucking industry, all of those jobs are going to not exist. And the consequences of that, thinking about 3% of the US labor force just not working is pretty crazy. I’ll give you another one! Right now, 8.8% of the US workforce works and factories. As those jobs continue to get automated and they already have been to a large degree, a lot of those people aren’t going to be working. So, there’s some really interesting implications for the society as a whole when you have huge chunks the labor force out of work. What happens? How do they feed their families? What do they do next? Do they retrain for new professions? And so, I think this notion of what is artificial intelligence? How fast is it growing? What sectors of the economy is it going to be relevant to? It’s really important. And then also thinking about some of the implications from that. Where do we go as a society? These are some complicated questions a lot of really smart people are thinking about that they don’t have easy answers.
Jayshree Seth: Roger, what do you think?
Roger Highfield: In terms of pressing problems, I think in the most practical problem, we've got to solve is climate change. And there's no magic bullet out there, although I think fusion power probably would be a game-changer. But I do think that it's going to require advances in a whole range of technologies whether its nuclear, conventional nuclear energy, carbon capture technology, bio-energy, new kinds of solar cells and so on. So, it's going to be a tough problem. But we have got lots of different ways to attack it and I think together this constellation of approaches is going to make a big difference.
But in terms of science itself, there's also a bit of a problem that I hope can be solved quickly which is the reproducibility crisis. So, back in 2005, a Stanford University professor John Ioannidis really shocked everyone by publishing a study that was entitled, why most published research findings are false? And it basically pointed out that most publications in science that their results couldn't be reproduced independently. Even in the last year or so, there's been follow-up studies on psychology and neuroscience showing that they're really in quite a bad state in terms of convincing everyone that because one groups found something reported it in the journal other people have followed up and said yeah this is a real effect. So, I'm hoping that we can deal with the kind of reason why there's a reproducibility crisis. It's a cultural thing because people like to be first. They don't really like to be second and confirm things. Some discoveries are based on quite small populations, quite weak statistics, flawed analysis but the key thing is to change that culture and again scientists do accept that there has to be a kind of critical mass of people supporting that an important discovery for science to advance. I'm hoping that science will live more up to its reputation as being an objective, rational, skeptical and never-ending dialogue between theory and experiment.
Jayshree Seth: What are the most challenging obstacles to solving problems/making scientific breakthroughs?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: This is another really interesting question and the way I would look at this is more of a human side than a scientific side. I think that as a scientist, I will say, and a lot of fellow scientists will agree with me that scientists are not historically the best advocates of science. We as a group tend to not be the world’s best communicators. And so, part of the challenge for science is explaining to the public why science is important? Why it matters? Why tax dollars should go to it? Why the public should support it emotionally and financially? And we as scientists have not always been the best of doing that. So, I think the biggest challenge especially as we come into a world where the term fiscal responsibility gets thrown around a lot and people are looking for ways to cut government spending, science is on the chopping block. It has been and will continue to be. And it’s really really important for scientists to capture the imaginations to the public and really explain why it is that what they do is so important. Whether it’s food solutions or medicines or making life a little better or that cool gizmo you have in your pocket. Science is integral to creating a better world and for us to continue to solve the challenges in front of us. And if we as scientists do a bad job in explaining it, then the consequences are going to be pretty bad.
Jayshree Seth: So it’s more of a human problem? Roger, do you see the same kind of human problem getting in the way of science?
Roger Highfield: I think there's a very simple answer to the challenging obstacles getting in the way of great science and that is I just don't think we're harnessing all the brainpower or the amazing brain power that's available on this planet. We need more diversity. We need more women. We need people from different backgrounds. When people write that next generation that AI code and design that robot and engineer that probe, I don't want them to be like me and just another bunch of male stale and pale people, I want them to come from all sorts of backgrounds. So, things like AI, it's really important that we try and capture in knowledge bases machine learning AI, that the diversity of humanity. So, that AI is kind of working for the benefit of everyone rather than one sector. So, a magic wand it would be to make science open to all done by all and really inclusive.
Jayshree Seth: How do you think the next generation feels about science?
Roger Highfield: Okay. We've done research in the Science Museum with King's College London on the attitudes of young people. What we find is that there's an unusual problem which is that most kids find science interesting and then most kids find science is fun, but a lot of them think is just not for me. And in fact, when we look at kids going through the educational system in the UK, when they start out in secondary school which I guess is like equivalent of a high school, you find that more than 70% of boys and girls are interested in science and they enjoy it. And yet when you look at the time they sit in exams, go to A levels, which really they have to take to get into University, you find that only one student in four is studying two subjects from science, tech, engineering or maths. And only one in eleven is studying maths and physics. So, I think they're interested in science, but they don't feel it's kind of connected with where they want to be in their lives. So, it's an important problem. We've got to deal with it.
Jayshree Seth: How do we make that connection, then? How can we inspire the next generation to become scientists?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: Now, the question then becomes, and you know again I don't know whether this is political or not, but you have the next generation appreciating science and that's fantastic. But there isn't the necessary support behind them. You know if you are living in an era of austerity when it comes to education funding, then you could have the most excited enthusiastic generation ever, and if they don't have labs and school supplies and teachers who inspire them, it doesn't matter. And so, there's this really interesting tension there between I think a generation that is embracing science and the inability to push it as far as a lot of people I think would like to.
Jayshree Seth: So imagine we have the funding, where do we go from there?
Jeremy Fryer-Biggs: So, how do you get anybody to want to do anything? I think the answer is positive exposure. You get kids and young adults, not just kids, in science labs and you make it a good experience. You teach them the broader context of what's going on and why it's important. I mentioned earlier that I worked in a cancer lab in college. I also worked for part of a summer at MIT in a physics lab and being able to see the implications of what I was doing, the broader importance was really powerful to me in wanting to devote my life to understanding the world. I think that's one of the things that drove me inside it. Its self-selection. I was kind of first that went out and made those opportunities happen. But without those opportunities, it's sort of a chicken or egg. I don't think I'd want to be here right now doing what I do. So, how do you inspire the next generation? You make those opportunities whether it's in a research lab or at a company accessible in high school or earlier. And you let young people see that this work is important and it's fun and it's interesting and it's cool and that it's okay to devote your life to it.
Roger Highfield: I think if you go into that, so, how can we inspire the next generation to become scientists? The widespread view is that science qualifications lead you automatically to a job as a scientist or a science teacher or a doctor and is mostly for white male people who end up doing those jobs. And I think that's one reason why many young people see qualifications when they're teenagers, it’s not really relevant to them. And so, I think we need to broaden their aspirations about science, tech and engineering. Particularly, the earliest opportunity in school, I think we've got to break that link that science means that you're going to become a scientist. Because actually for my money, it gives society people who can think analytically, who enumerate, and we need them in all sorts of situations in society and it would be great to get that career awareness more embedded in science lessons. And also, in terms of attainment, you know people think you've got to be an Albert Einstein or a Mary Curie to pursue a science career. But there are all sorts of other careers, you know in terms of technicians and so on that support science. So, I think we need to break that down. So, I think if we can get rid of this idea that if you study science in school, then it means you're really trying to be a Nobel Prize winner and say actually instead this is going to arm me with a way of thinking that I can use in all sorts of circumstances. If we could do that, I think we'd have an enormous effect.
Jayshree Seth: Jeremy and Roger, thank you for joining me. And I do hope our distant future involves cyborgs and aliens.
How far will science take humanity in my lifetime? It seems as though the rate of change, of new discoveries and technological advancement, is accelerating every year. The challenge will be to focus our energy on what will most help humanity and expand our useful working knowledge of the universe. To face that challenge, we will need to inspire the next generation of scientists. And we’ll need to engage the public at large, to ignite their passion for science, so that we continue to invest in scientific research & discovery.
Thank you for listening to science champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.