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The Five Most Revolutionary Scientific Trends to Look Out For In 2017

Neural prosthetics, driverless cars, geoengineering and more.

by Zoltan Istvan
Dec 30 2016, 3:00pm

Image: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/Shutterstock

2016 was a powerful year for science and technology innovation. CRISPR gene editing technology became nearly a household name with its potential to affect humanity. SpaceX rockets landed themselves. And a baby was born with three parents.

But what's in store for 2017?

While some decry the developed world is falling apart due to changing political environments, science and technology innovation is likely to continue thriving. In fact, innovation is occurring so fast, I believe 2017 will be the year governments begin to consider forming new science, technology, and futurist agencies and organizations to better contend with the rapid change. The old ones are mired in bureaucracy, conservative religious ideology, and the past—unable to contend with issues like nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Borrowing from The Wizard of Oz, "We're not in Kansas anymore."

Let's take a look at the top five developments I anticipate for 2017:

1) Neural prosthetics—the idea we can benefit greatly by connecting our thoughts directly to the computing power of machines—will become the holy grail of human progress.

Artificial intelligence and robotics are developing so quickly that in the next decade, I believe they'll take away approximately 25 million jobs in America from humans. In case you don't know how many jobs that is, that's about three times as many jobs as was lost during the recent Great Recession in the US.

America should look at natural disasters and past wartime scenarios to get an idea of how disruptive AI and robotics will be to the economy. Already, the world's largest hedge fund is creating tech to replace its workers with machine intelligence in less than five years time. Don't expect Wall Street to have human workers in 10 years time, unless they can somehow upgrade themselves.

That's where neural prosthetics comes in. It's a technology that can and might keep humans competitive indefinitely. These so-called brain readers and communicators will allow humans to utilize AI—in real time cognition—for its own intelligence. After all, what's better than a super smart human mind? A super smart human mind directly connected to a super smart artificial intelligence.

Personally, I love this idea. And I have volunteered to be a test subject of implants and headsets that read brain waves. My senior thesis in college was on brains in a vat, and the idea of being a part of the Matrix fascinates me.

The use of neural prosthetics will change human nature, but without it, I doubt humans can be competitive in the future to machine labor. Besides without human labor, there's no guarantee capitalism, as we know it, can survive. After all, capitalism is based on human labor, and if machines do everything, then it's likely to end up a very different economic system.

Almost by default, to keep humans competitive in the labor force, we'll have to become transhuman—and utilize radical technology as intrinsic parts of our bodies. Otherwise, only the very rich will own robotics and AI companies, leaving the rest of us in a jobless dystopia.

One company called Kernel, which launched this year with a 100 million dollars of the founders own money, tech visionary Bryan Johnson, is leading the way. I expect many more startups to join the fray in 2017.

2) President-elect Trump will hire an anti-red tape FDA chief that streamlines the Food and Drug Administration, making more drugs available to save lives and improve health.

No matter how you look at it, the FDA has become a bureaucracy monster. Early in 2016, I wrote about this FDA problem in Motherboard:

"On average, a new drug takes at least 10 years from creation to arrival in your cabinet in America. Additionally, Matthew Herper at Forbes reports that about $5 billion is spent on average developing a new drug. New medical devices—especially those life saving ones—take upwards of seven years to hit the market. For patients, some who are dying to get the drugs and devices, this may as well be an eternity. Nearly all of this has to do with the FDA and the bureaucratic labyrinth that exists to make sure medicine is safe in America.

Now don't get me wrong, I also want safe medicine. And for the most part, the FDA does that. But sometimes there are more important things than safe medicine, especially if you're suffering from a debilitating and terminal disease. For example, many people believe access to medicine before they die is more important than whether that medicine is safe or not. And with such a long, laborious, and costly medical approval process in the US, many inventors and companies that would like to create new medicine don't do it because of the prohibitive procedure of bearing a product from conception to sale."

One such choice for FDA Chief being floated around by media outlets is free market-minded Jim O'Neill, managing director for Mithril Capital, which was cofounded by Peter Thiel. Mr. O'Neill, who formerly worked in the George W. Bush administration, would be just the kind of person to cut the fat off the FDA and get America better drugs for better health.

3) Driverless cars will appear in all major American cities, challenging state and local laws.

This month Uber was in my hometown of San Francisco, testing out its new driverless vehicles. After several reports of driverless cars running red lights, the California DMW quickly shut it down, sending it packing to Arizona where laws are more favorable.

I found this sad, as did many techno-optimists. Being in driverless cars is one of the more visceral experiences people can have that make them understand the transhumanist age has indeed arrived. Driverless cars will be a philosophical turning point for many Americans, many who are not sure they really believe the future will be automation-ubiquitous.

But like California, some governments—often led by luddite lobbyists and general fear—will resist, setting up the stage for US Congress to consider the matter. At some point, the Supreme Court may even have to get involved to okay such change. The facts are the transportation industry will be completely different animal within 10 years time. And 2017 will be the year local governments rise up to grapple with the coming driverless world.

4) Life Extension science will go mainstream with multiple science breakthroughs and new companies joining the quest for the "Fountain of Youth"

2016 was a banner year or the life extension industry. Even Mark Zuckerberg came out and established his own multi-billion dollar commitment with the goal of curing, preventing, or managing all human disease by the end of the century. The rise of CRISPR genetic editing further gave the movement new firepower as the possibility to rewrite our very own genetic code—including our hereditary shortcoming and the aging process—became not just possible, but plausible. Finally, events like the thousand-person life extension-oriented RAAD Festival, the Longevity Cookbook, and my own Immortality Bus made headlines as America wondered aloud what indefinite lifespans meant—and how it might affect humanity.

Despite that, we still live in a country with strong deathist attitudes. Ironically, I suspect that life extension will become much more well known in a Republican controlled-government, as the conflict between religious values and science allowing us to live indefinitely ultimately reach a climax, one that will end up in civil strife and Congressional discussion.

I've said this on my presidential campaign trail before: The more people that label transhumanism as something dangerous, the more popular it'll become. That's human nature for you.

5) Because many leaders in the incoming Trump Administration don't believe in climate change, scientists will change their focus from carbon footprint prevention to radical geoengineering tech to save the planet.

As a journalist who's traveled extensively to write more than a dozen environmental stories—many for National Geographic—I've seen some of the Earth's destruction firsthand. I've witnessed the decimation of millions of hectares of Paraguay's forests. I've seen major oil spills in the ocean. And as a Communications Director at nonprofit WildAid I've searched for extremely endangered species in Southeast Asia—some that are simply no longer there.

It's sad what we as a people have done to Planet Earth. But we will rebuild. And I believe we will make Earth more plentiful and beautiful than ever before. How? With radical technology that is right now being created in laboratories around the world.

In just 10 years time, I believe we may have the ability through genetic editing to regrow rainforests at 5-10 times their normal speed of growth—giving us the power to replenish the damaged Amazon basin. We already have some of the Jurassic Park tech to bring back endangered species like the Siamese Crocodile in Cambodia, where just about 400 remain in the wild. And we already have ways to do basic engineering on our climate. Rain is not something sent from the "gods," but the precise mixture of certain weather and atmospheric conditions, as China is already experimenting with. We are learning how to make it. We can be the new generation of rain makers—or of endless sunny days (though presumably we'd want a mixture of both).

Perhaps, the leading green tech will be nanotechnology—where we can literally remake the planet to our taste. This type of tech involves affecting and building matter and objects on a molecular level. In line with this tech are ways of consuming pollution or even garbage—the hope is we can create nanobots that eat the waste and pollution humans have made. Already, researchers are experimenting with fungi that eat plastic.

Transhumanism is the key to making the Earth pristine again, not forcing people to make less of a carbon footprint. While I believe in respecting the Earth and not polluting it, the future of beautifying nature belongs more to technology and science than human restraint. That said, my techno-optimism knows that geoengineering presents risks too, as we would be in uncharted territory. We must be careful not to create unintended long term consequences of our environment we can't reverse.

Despite challenges, I'm betting 2017 is the year scientists, technologists, engineers, and the public begin to openly accept geoengineering as a leading way to fulfill goals of the environmental movement. In the face of an American government and leadership that largely is not interested in climate change, the best way forward is likely through radical science and technology innovation.

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and was the 2016 US Presidential candidateof the Transhumanist Party. He writes an occasional columnfor Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond human ability.

Artificial Intelligence
climate change
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augmented humans