What we can expect from 2022: What are the big technological trends?
2021 was another extraordinary year for the sciences and technologies. Unfortunately, the covid virus continued to keep researchers on their toes worldwide. But here, vaccination also resulted in enormous successes. How many more deaths we would have had without the vaccination that was so quickly developed in 2020 – and further developed in 2021! And unfortunately we quickly forget what an enormous success the new vaccine is. Even the scientists could hardly have dreamed that the mRNA-based vaccines would be so successful (70% vaccination success was considered a success before, now mRNA based vaccines reach 95%). Unfortunately, hostility to science has also continued to grow in illiberal and right-wing populist circles, the German AfD party, large parts of the Swiss SVP, to the extremist circles of the US Republican Party.
What can we expect this year in terms of new technological developments? This time last year, I described five major technologies that promised big advances:
- Artificial intelligence
- Quantum computing
- Nuclear fusion
- Genetics in medicine
- Internet of Things
And indeed, significant, in some areas even dramatic advances have occurred in all these areas. For example, anyone using www.deepl.com to translate today will notice how much better AI tools have become. Advances in quantum computing appear somewhat less public. But meanwhile, financial investors are already addressing implications of these new machines. We also learned more and more in the public press of 2021 about nuclear fusion technology for energy production, which had been researched for 70 years without ever being heard of much. Dramatic progress is currently being made here, so that we may be able to hope for such power plants as early as ten years from now. Genetics in medicine was the top topic in 2021, and the Internet of Things continued to expand, especially through 5G networks.
But there are numerous other dramatic technological developments currently taking place. So let us look at another five new cutting-edge technologies here and consider their impact in 2022.
Key technology 1: Using genetic engineering to create designer babies, but also to cure previously incurable diseases
Unnoticed by the public, a powerful new technology was discovered in 2012 that allows genetic engineers to directly access and manipulate individual genes. Since then, it has become the most important tool in genetic engineering. Its name will soon be as well-known as DNA or AIDS: CRISPR. CRISPR stands for „Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats“ and describes sections of repeated DNA in a genome. The specific CRISPR/Cas9 complex enables extraordinarily precise, rapid and inexpensive intervention in the genetic material of living organisms. While the technology is already being used to modify the genome of plants, it is still in its infancy for animals and humans. But work on this has long since begun. The potential of CRISPR is immense.
In November 2018, for example, a previously unknown Chinese scientist announced that he had created the first genetically edited humans. He had altered their genome to make them immune to HIV for life. It had not taken more than a moderately equipped lab and basic knowledge of genetic engineering (some negative side effects became obvious later). With CRISPR children, we have finally arrived in the age of human experimentation and designer babies. At the same time, CRISPR offers enormous opportunities for the treatment and prevention of diseases that have been incurable up to now.
Key technology 2: Using neuro-enhancement to improve (and control) our minds.
Currently, people are doing an enormous amount of research into the genetic, chemical, and neurological backgrounds of emotions such as trust, compassion, forbearance, generosity, love, and faith. The more we grasp these, the more we can (and probably will) use this knowledge to manipulate ourselves and others. The more deeply neuroscientists grasp the workings and processes of decision-making in our brains, the more precisely they can influence how we feel, think, and experience:
- Today, the injection of neurotransmitters already alleviates mental illness, but our performance as healthy individuals can also be manipulated in this way.
- Direct stimulation of the appropriate sites in our brain by neuro-electrical impulses also changes or controls mood, attention, memory, self-control, willpower, comprehension, sexual desire and much more.
- Scientists are working on microchips that can be implanted in the brain, where they can permanently improve our state of mind, raise our sense of well-being, increase intelligence, memory and concentration, or even provide lasting happiness.
- Brain researchers are already allowing brains and machines to interact. Using brain-computer interfaces, for example, they are transferring content from a person’s brain to a machine so that the machine, in turn, can assist the person with various tasks. This technology will probably be first widely used in video games to make them more experiential with sensory input projected directly into the brain.
A significant philosophical insight from our experience with virtual reality so far is that the mental self-image of humans is anything but stable and can be manipulated relatively easily (against much of the philosophical belief in the last centuries and millennia). Incidentally, experiences with hallucinogenic drugs in the 1960s and 1970s also lead to this insight. So it is hardly surprising that with suitable setups we can very easily identify ourselves with an artificial body image instead of our biological body, with a so-called „avatar“.
Key Technology 3: Using Digital Algorithms and Big Data to Control Our Lives
The collection and sharing of data about us has long since moved beyond computers and smartphones. Our smartphones are often directly connected to the heating system and all the everyday appliances in our homes. Also popular is the idea of so-called „wearables,“ which are pieces of clothing that incorporate various sensors directly and connect to apps that permanently measure our pulse and other body values. It no longer needs a computer at all. The objects of our everyday life regulate their needs directly with each other in the „Internet of Things“. This is made possible by the ultra-fast 5G mobile Internet, which enables breathtaking speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second.
How simple the „Internet of Things“ makes our lives! But there is a catch. The data we leave behind everywhere, like bacteria after a sneezing fit, is collected, processed with ever more powerful algorithms and ever smarter AI, and used for ever more comprehensive purposes. From them, our behaviors, preferences and character traits can be specifically read out and the patterns of our lives calculated (and then manipulated).
In a world of total networking, our privacy will disappear. With the appropriate software for facial and image recognition and a dense network of cameras, the creation of movement profiles of individual people in real time is no longer a problem. Banks, too, are increasingly determining the granting of loans through AI that is able to capture our essence. So soon we will hardly be able to do anything without someone finding out about it. As Eric Schmidt, the head of Google, put it, „If there’s something you don’t want anyone to know about, maybe you shouldn’t do it anyway.“
Key technology 4: New methods to prolong life (and possibly avoid death one day).
In the last 150 years, human life expectancy has doubled. And at 2.5 years per decade, it continues to rise briskly (exception: USA). So the question is: Will we be able to live to any age? In fact, most of today’s genetic researchers assume that aging processes can be stopped or even reversed at the cellular level. Genetic manipulation could make a primeval human dream come true: the eternal fountain of youth.
Animal cells, for example those of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, can already be completely reprogrammed by targeted editing, i.e. changing, rewriting or deleting individual parts of the DNA strand. For example, a worm whose gene that forms an enzyme called SGK-1 has been switched off lives 60 percent longer than its non-manipulated conspecifics. Why should a similar approach not be possible with human cells?
Another approach to achieving immortality is to grow entire organs outside the body using stem cells. As soon as existing organs lose their functionality, the replacement organs could be implanted into the respective body. This is precisely the goal of the „3D Organ Engineering Initiative“ at Harvard University, which has already achieved amazing success: in 2019, it reported the cultivation of an artificial kidney.
Stem cell therapies are another powerful tool available from the toolbox of modern biotechnology for the purpose of disease prevention and life extension. Stem cells are cells that have not yet differentiated into specific cell types such as muscle, skin or fat cells. They can be used to produce any tissue (in the case of embryonic stem cells) or even specific tissue types (in the case of adult stem cells). Stem cells could make it possible to treat diseases that are still incurable today.
Key technology 5: Building at the atomic level with nanotechnology
Next to quantum computing, the most groundbreaking vision of future quantum technologies is the construction of ultra-small machines that can perform work at the level of atoms. Such nanomachines could assemble individual atoms as if using a building-block principle, and use them to synthesize any chemically possible (i.e. energetically stable) compound. They could even manufacture or replicate themselves. Nature has long since shown us that this is possible: DNA is nothing other than a self-replicating nanomachine capable of producing the most amazing structures – just think of the multiform synthesis of proteins, the foundation of any form of life.
In fact, researchers are already succeeding in selectively manipulating structures on an atomic scale and even making basic building blocks for nanomachines: rolling nano wheels, nanogears that turn along a jagged edge of atoms, propellers, hinges, grippers, switches and much more. Already, small motors and vehicles can be developed – and all of them are about one ten-thousandth of a millimeter, i.e. close to molecular structures. in size.
A great future is predicted for nanomachines, especially in medicine. They could, for example, be inserted into the human body with the task of independently searching for and destroying cancer cells. Thus, the second generation of quantum technologies will change our lives at least as much as the first generation with computers, lasers, atomic energy and imaging techniques has in medicine.
So I can only repeat myself: Our world is changing faster and faster, not as in the past through revolutions in one single technological field at a time, such as the emergence of the internal combustion engine (end of the 18th century), the railroad (beginning of the 1830s), electricity (technological expansion from the 1870s), the heat pump (from the 1920s), the radio (expansion for the masses from the 1930s), the atomic bomb (1945) and many other technologies, but through the development of dozens of new technologies simultaneously. So let us repeat here from last year: in his novel Brave New World of 1932, Aldous Huxley describes a society in which people are sorted into different castes at birth by means of biotechnological manipulations, and at the same time are instantly satisfied in all their desires, cravings and appetites by permanent consumption, sex and the happiness drug soma. The novel will be familiar to most readers in its basic outline. Less well known is the year in which Huxley sets his action. It is the year 2540 A.D., more than 600 years after the novel was published! Even the visionary Huxley could not have imagined that the technological possibilities he visionarily described could not only be achieved after only one century, but could be far eclipsed by further technological developments. And one thing seems certain: technological developments will continue to accelerate in 2022.