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Biotech, neurotech and nanotech: 3 big trends in 2017

  • Biotech: reimagining life as technology
  • Neurotech: artificially interacting with the workings of the brain
  • Nanotech: microscopic is the new big
  • Convergence of these technologies will disrupt all aspects of our lives

Innovation is never ending and is more transversal than ever before. According to Google, NASA and the Singularity University, three of the most important exponential trends that form the backbone of radical innovation in 2017 are biotech, neurotech and nanotech. Convergence of these technologies promises to disrupt all aspects of our lives.

Biotechnology – reimagining life as technology

In biotechnology, imagination is as important as science. It’s all about reimagining biology as complex tech and looking for ways to tweak it to our advantage. But for life itself to be manipulable, scientists needed to couple the best quantum computing with innovative nanotechnology and advances in biology and chemistry. In that sense, biotech signals a growing trend: the interconnectedness of the sciences, engineering, and the growing processing power of the fastest computers. When these are joined to imagination, some very exciting possibilities can be realised.

For instance, researchers at the University of California— San Francisco and its partner, Gladstone Institutes, used a gene-editing platform called CRISPR to copy the T cells of people genetically immune to the effects of HIV. By revising the cells of regular people, they may be able to confer this genetic resistance. Imagine an inoculation against HIV! And that’s just the beginning for this fantastic trend.

The future of biotechnology

In the next few decades, expect expanded biotech research on the most pressing health problems. This is an exciting time to watch this trend: in the next 10-20 years, we may actually be able to cure the most common forms of cancer and reverse heart disease, prevent Alzheimer’s and cure autism. In more than one laboratory now, there are advances in biotech that are very, very close to actionable breakthroughs.

Consider, for example, that at MIT, Guoping Feng and a team of researchers have demonstrated that they can reverse the behavioural symptoms of autism in mice. The Shank3 gene is a protein that allows neurons to communicate with each other. By quieting this gene during embryonic development, and allowing it to express itself in early childhood, they were able to affect the expression of autism. Continued research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis (WUSTL) has identified a gene related to autism as well. The neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) gene, also responsible for a rare form of cancer, was found to be positively correlated with autism. Stephanie Morris, one of the team’s researchers, explained that “Our research indicates that this single gene also is associated with autism spectrum disorders in these same patients. That may make it possible to look downstream from the gene to find common pathways that contribute to autism in the wider population.” And given that this single gene is so closely linked with autism, it points the way forward for treatment.

This is an exciting time to watch this trend: in the next 10-20 years, we may actually be able to cure the most common forms of cancer and reverse heart disease, prevent Alzheimer’s and cure autism.

Neurotech – artificially interacting with the workings of the brain

Focusing on brain-computer interaction, neurotechnology links thoughts to the outside world. Depending on complex sensors and sophisticated development in the sciences and engineering, neurotech offers us the possibility to allow the blind to see, paraplegics to walk, and the depressed to heal themselves. It also enables us to control machines with our thoughts, potentially disrupting a host of allied technologies like robotics and self-driving systems. The key to this new tech is the brain-computer interface (BCI), a system that allows the direct measurement of brain activity, translating these tiny electrical signals into a language a computer can understand. By sending clear signals to a computer, anything that can be automated can potentially be controlled by nothing more than a thought. Sound like science fiction?

Phillips is already developing home medical systems that use BCIs to help patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases control their home appliances. These systems measure the electrical activity of the brain generated by particular thoughts, thoughts such as ‘open my email.’ The BCI translates these thoughts into a command, much as a voice controlled system might, allowing a patient with limited dexterity and speech to control devices that would otherwise require touch or sound to activate. Not only does this make independence an attainable goal for people who might otherwise require constant care, advances such as these point the way forward for thought-controlled robotics of all kinds.

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The future of neurotechnology

Neurotech is advancing rapidly as BCIs become more sophisticated and as computer processing speeds allow us to assess the big data produced by the brain. Perhaps the most exciting possibilities being considered now involve BCIs capable of enhancing the human brain. Such ‘neuro-hybrids,’ a step in the direction of the cyborgs of science fiction, will have ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ brain implants that enhance cognition, memory, and motor function in real time by monitoring brain activity and instantly adjusting time to maximise performance.

In some ways, this is truly exciting. Imagine being able to search your memories like you would search computer files or having everything from basic heart function to muscle growth assessed and influenced by your mind! But in other senses, the ethical challenges provoked by this tech are considerable. Should we allow enhanced neuro-hybrids to compete in sports against unenhanced humans? Indeed, will the non-hybridised be able to compete at work, or will this new tech effectively create an underclass of ‘normal’ people?

Will this merely perpetuate and exacerbate the effects of social and material inequality? As we develop neurotech, we may need to turn to the archives of science fiction to consider the ethical aspects of this deeply futuristic technology.


Nanotech – microscopic is the new big

Nanotechnology is as exciting as it is complicated, exploring the surprising properties of micro-particles to turn the rules of physics and chemistry on their head. From anti-microbial shapes to tubes with walls no more than an atom thick, nanotech promises radical disruption in material science and medicine. But we shouldn’t imagine these nano-developments as a single technology; they represent diverse advances in physics, chemistry, 3D printing, biology, and engineering. And these complementary sciences are reshaping reality in a staggering variety of applications.

For instance, a promising example of nanomachines was developed by Joseph Wang of the University of California at San Diego and Anna Balazs of the University of Pittsburgh. By creating microscopic ‘motors’ of gold and platinum, they’ve demonstrated that the addition of hydrogen peroxide allows these tiny particles to self-repair disrupted circuits. Taking advantage of the chemical reaction between the liquid and the platinum to act as propellant, they found that the gold side of these Janus particles was attracted to the energy differential caused by the disruption, effectively steering the particles into place where they could close the circuit and effect a repair. Imagine that the next time you spill coffee on your PC or douse your mobile with water, the damaged circuits were able to self-heal! That’s pretty cool, but this advance is far more exciting than that. Everyday tech we rely on like telecommunication satellites are often incredibly costly to repair. It’s impractical, to say the least, to haul them in when a circuit fails or to fix them in space. Instead, these nanoparticles can allow them to self-heal, saving millions of Euro and providing uninterrupted, long-term service. Soon, nearly anything electronic may be able to fix itself if it breaks.

The future of nanotechnology

It’s advances like these, driven by discoveries across the sciences, that open the path to the future of nanotechnology. And as the cost of non-renewable energy mounts, expect radical solutions for renewable energy. One such disruptive tech we can expect over the next decade is energy harvesting from floors and roadways. Wood pulp is a readily available, inexpensive, recyclable product. Xudong Wang, a scientist at UW-Madison, has found that the cellulose nanofibres in the pulp can be made to produce an electrical charge. When treated with the right mix of chemicals, these nanofibres produce an electricity when pressed against their untreated twins. The result is an inexpensive tech that generates energy from otherwise wasted — and free — weight. Not only could this new tech be layered under conventional flooring, it can be built into major roads and freeways, providing energy capture that is predictable and green.

As our miniature sensor tech improves, we can expect self-healing infrastructures. Atom-sized sensors embedded in roads, bridges, tunnels and even our power grid will know when the structures they serve have been damaged, releasing self-healing nanomachines to repair what’s broken. This could be adapted to airplanes, nuclear containment vessels, and perhaps even human bodies. In the next three decades, we may well witness the advent of nanotech implants that monitor our health and affect self-repair.

Convergence of these technologies will disrupt all aspects of our lives

The convergence of biotech, neurotech and nanotech has the potential to significantly change how we live. It promises to fundamentally change our operational, competitive and employment landscape. The emerging reality of convergence can already be found in artificial intelligence applications, genomics, bio-information and robotics. Some examples are:

  • Significantly enhanced drug delivery
  • New energy generators and new supercomputers that are based on biological processes
  • Unprecedented control over structural properties and the biocompatibility of materials
  • Self-assembling, self-healing and self-cleaning textiles and structural materials that are lighter and more customisable
  • Miniature sensors that enable significantly improved diagnosis and real-time health monitoring

It’s no overstatement to say that the most exciting tech trends for 2017 are transforming the future. And we’re excited to report that some of what still seems like science fiction is already possible today. We’ve analysed only the best technology developments, bringing you the hard facts and our best insights into the trends that will define the future.

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