2015 came to a restless close with fear dominating news-- would terrorists spoil the joy and promise of a new year? Thankfully the answer was no but it's a fitting end because in a sense fear defined 2015. We feared terrorism, corruption, digital vulnerability of all sorts, violence, and personal financial collapse. We feared social changes and coped nervously with ongoing weather extremes. Yet, our year of high anxiety also ushered in a quiet new dawn of breakthroughs in medicine, sciences and space. Profoundly, 2015 signaled the beginning of a revolution in the way we cure. It heralded transformations in our manufacturing industries. It lent certainty to a future with devices that know how we feel and robotic competitors/companions that will challenge our definition of self. Fasten your seatbelts, readers, get ready for an exciting ride...here comes 2016!
It's little wonder why Americans registered so much fear in 2015. News and social media delivered a steady stream of terrorism, wrong doing and violence into our homes. Charlie Hebdo in January, be-headings throughout the year, the Bataclan Theater in November and a holiday party in San Bernadino at year end. Though Isis inspired terrorism exists in America most of our violence was homegrown. Nine people shot in a bible study group at a Charleston Church last summer. Bombings in African American churches, firebombs and defacings of Muslim Mosques later in the year. Protesters spilling into our streets outraged by 101 unarmed black people killed by police in 2015. Violence in our schools too. More than 50 school shootings last year. By December gun deaths outnumbered deaths from car accidents in 21 states demonstrating progress with automotive safety but revealing the stark reality of American gun violence.
Photo credit above: Renee Jones Schneider for the Star Tribune.
Though social problems threatened to drag the nation back 60 years science pushed us forward into a brave future. In July, NASA flew close to the surface of Pluto snapping photos only imagined in the '80's and completing a 9 year reconnaissance fly by mission. This completes initial probing of our solar system. It's "...giving us a new perspective about how we as human beings fit into the universe," Glen Fountain, mission project manager, told Space.com. Data is surprising. It shows young geographic features on outer planets that were thought to be static and contains evidence that water still flows on Mars! “It seems that the more we study Mars, the more we learn how life could be supported and where there are resources to support life in the future,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. That's good news because space travel became more realistic this year. You or your family may be touring Mars in years to come. Amazon's Jeff Besos' owned company Blue Origin launched and landed a spacecraft in November and Elon Musk, of Space X, successfully launched and landed the Falcon rocket a month later paving the way for his vision for tourism and colonization on Mars and other planets.
What motivates us to travel to Mars or to experience fear? Genomic research brought us closer to those answers this year with more advanced mapping of the human epigenome. The epigenomic map reveals "...which bits of us are set in stone by our DNA, and which bits we can affect by how we live our lives," writes Catherine Brahic at the New Scientist. Wondering how this impacts you? This map helps doctors figure out how to aid us in improving our daily lives and better help us to overcome some diseases. It adds perspective to the nature/nurture discussion. In the video below our epigenomic expressions are likened to the expressions in music.
Epigenomics move us one step closer to precision medicine. "Ten years from now," Dr. Eric Green of The National Human Genome Institute told a 2015 conference audience, "you'll look at what the medical field has been doing and say, 'Oh that was so crude and rough,' compared to what we'll be doing 10 or 20 years from now."
2015 was a year of developing, exploring, and learning how to manage basic new tools that are changing the way we cure. CRISPR gene editing technology that I first reported in 2014 allows scientists to fundamentally copy and alter DNA cheaply. Think this is just a topic for science geeks? It's the process behind genetically modified (GMO) foods (or is it?) and it promises to help us solve many chronic illnesses. Yet a potential this powerful triggered ethical debates in 2015. "We’re on the verge of a technological breakthrough that could change the future of mankind, and we should not blindly charge ahead,” Rep Bill Foster, a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology warned an International gathering of scientists. Meanwhile, 3-D and 4-D printing tools continue revolutionizing medicine, automotive, aerospace, and corporate retail. Space X, for instance, 3-D printed the rocket engine's hot-fired chamber in just 3 months- one tenth of the time it would take in standard production. Software and printing services continued to emerge this year enabling "engineers and orthopedic surgeons'" as example to "design and 3D print highly accurate, patient-specific orthopedic medical implants without [needing to own-ed] an expensive high-end, 3D printer," as Ann R Thryft of Design News reports. 4-D printing, in research and development, creates products that respond to their environment whether that means stretching with growth or reacting to other environmental states. Earlier this year a 4-D implant saved the lives of babies with the breathing disorder tracheobronchomalacia. 3 and 4-D printing along with the start up of support services in that industry is revolutionizing the way we manufacture and transforming our ability to cure by enabling highly customizable products inexpensively at a fraction of typical standard production times. New medical tools excite but, in 2015, medicine found a new generation of an old familiar tool: antibiotics. The first new antibiotic in 30 years was discovered through a process that may mine more new drugs to fight stubborn infections such as MRSA and C-Diff and bolster our mainline defense against disease.
2015 found us at the confluence of advancements in four scientific fields: Genetics, Robotics, Quantum Computing, and Artificial Intelligence that promise amazing new capabilities some of which you may see as early as 2016. 2015's top physics breakthrough involved the teleportation of two quantum properties (think "Beam me up, Scotty" on a quantum scale). This feat had to be accomplished to continue the pursuit of ultrafast and long distance Quantum computing. Why is that important? Because powerful quantum computing is needed for creative and complex problem solving in industry, smart devices and robotics products. Robots have already improved with the aid of GPS technology, smart phones and cloud computing. Perhaps you know that 1 in 4 U.S. hospitals now use a DaVinci robotic system to perform the majority of hysterectomies and other GI and Urology procedures. This year Google teamed up with Johnson and Johnson to make robotic surgery safer. 144 patients died last year from complications linked to robotic surgery. Robotics is this century's new automation revolution and it will continue to transform the professional landscape. "In 2015 the information technology research firm Gartner predicted that one–third of existing jobs will be replaced by software, robots, and smart machines by 2025," blogger Dr. Bertalan Meskó writes at Science Roll. Readers, the future is here.
"All the powers of our comic book super heros of the 30's and 40's every single one of them right now either exists or is in development," Joel Garreau, author of Radical Evolution, said in 2013. Certainly, today's world looks almost as fantastic as our childhood authors imagined. Those of us who remember those futuristic stories know that they often depicted ethical dilemnas and troubled places. Here, at the beginning of that reality, we have an opportunity to guide our technology in a positive direction. In October Space X developer Elon Musk donated $10 million toward research to keep Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics safe and beneficial to humanity. He, Stephen Hawking, and many others signed an open letter urging a ban on the development of killer robotics.
We can make a difference. That becomes clearer in life and substantiated through neuroscientific research. Study findings this year indicated that optimism plays a mediating role in the relationship between the size of our Orbital Frontal Cortex and levels of anxiety. In other words, we're constantly realizing that our environmental experience can change us at the fundamental level of brain structure and, to varying extent, we can do that too. That study and others this year continue to suggest that cultivating long term habits of mind through methods such as optimism training or meditation as well as engaging in mental and physical exercise and eating good foods will contribute to brain fitness and cognitive health in later years.
Finally, 2015 was a good year for the 50+ crowd. After years of advocacy the Senate has now re-authorized the Older Americans Act although the House may still be deliberating on its final passage and 2016's Federal budget protected funds for older Americans. If you contacted your representatives on these issues, thank you. Three surprising developments are fueling a furious pursuit of Alzheimer's and Dementia drugs: the Federal 2016 budget included historic funding for Alzheimer's research, the culmination of ten years of research was presented at the International Alzheimer's Association Conference, and Paul Allen committed $7 million to break through the impasse in finding effective Alzheimer's treatments. Lastly, boomer power is motivating senior centers to re-brand and revamp programmatic offerings. Aging just isn't what it used to be. We have more promise ahead than any generation before us.
Thank you for your readership. May you enjoy health and happiness in this amazing new year.
Update January 2016: In President Obama's State of the Union address he acknowledges the world of change around us and urges us to put fear aside as this CNBC article outlines. "These changes, Obama said, were made to "work for us" instead of being opposed outright.
"Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control," he said. "And each time, we overcame those fears. We did not, in the words of Lincoln, adhere to the 'dogmas of the quiet past.' Instead we thought anew, and acted anew. We made change work for us, always extending America's promise outward, to the next frontier, to more and more people. And because we did — because we saw opportunity where others saw only peril — we emerged stronger and better than before," Obama said.
Update April 2016: This article discusses the ethics of artificial intelligence designed to look like real people and the consequences of human/robot interface. From that article, "Kate Darling at the MIT Media Lab has argued that what humans do to robots tells us about humans themselves. Darling proposes that we may want to legally protect robots to some extent, because if we treat them in inhumane ways, we become inhumane."
Update 21 April 2016: "the first CRISPR-edited organism to receive a green light from the US government" will be sold in your stores very soon according to the journal Nature.
Update July 28: The NY Times takes a look at how our fears as a society may be shaping/changing politics and the November election.