AI home assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant are helping manage our schedules, even chatting with our children. But our humanoids bots can’t really do much yet. While some can walk, and others can talk, none of them can really do either without human intervention.(Shutterstock)
AI home assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant are helping manage our schedules, even chatting with our children. But our humanoids bots can’t really do much yet. While some can walk, and others can talk, none of them can really do either without human intervention.(Shutterstock)

#Vision 2020: If imagination were everything

Flying cars, androids you can’t tell apart from humans, colonised planets... here are things we should have had by now
By Zara Murao, Rachel Lopez, Madhusree Ghosh & Natasha Rego | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON DEC 27, 2019 08:33 PM IST

We should by now have had cars that could levitate and drive themselves, androids that could march and make basic decisions, at least one or two colonised planets, and some mind-reading capability.

It’s not like we’ve failed on all fronts, but stock markets and hedge funds do seem to have engaged most of our attention for the last half century. The space race became more of a lazy game of tag. Man hasn’t ventured any further than the moon, and not even to the moon very many times. For better or worse, there are still no manmade structures out there — unless you count our space junk and the flags and debris we’ve planted on our satellite.

We have a life-like robot called Sophia, but she can only say what she’s been told to say. Most of our other humanoid bots can do one thing well, but no more. So they can talk but not walk, move but not do stairs, and most still need prompting from humans even for this.

As for mind-reading, we have a truth serum and Twitter. The truth serum seems decidedly the less harmful of the two. Here’s a look, then, at where we thought we’d be in key areas by now, and the ‘futuristic’ things we have achieved, at the dawn of 2020.

SCIENCE AND TECH

Synthetic food

3D-printed food at Food Ink, London. We can make a meal in unusual shapes now, but we still need more or less the same ingredients.
3D-printed food at Food Ink, London. We can make a meal in unusual shapes now, but we still need more or less the same ingredients.

For much of the decade, researchers worked on creating foods that look, feel and taste like meat, but without the need for raising or slaughtering an animal. The world’s first lab-grown burger (made from stem cells) was eaten in London. Since then, plant protein and gelatin tech has improved the process. The first product on the market will possibly be a burger patty. But even that’s a few years away, at least. Currently, lab meat is too expensive to produce, store and stock commercially. Meanwhile, The Good Food Institute, along with Maharashtra’s Institute Of Chemical Technology, will establish a facility for lab-grown meat in Mumbai ‘by 2020’.

Self-driving cars

A futuristic Audi concept car created for the film I, Robot. In the real world, we don’t have cars that can drive themselves, or levitate, though we do have the magic of GPS.
A futuristic Audi concept car created for the film I, Robot. In the real world, we don’t have cars that can drive themselves, or levitate, though we do have the magic of GPS.

The 2010s were all big noise and bold predictions. Elon Musk said cars would be driverless by 2017. General Motors said they’d be here by now. Google got into the game with Waymo in 2016. Has yours arrived? There’s a delay. Ford’s date is 2021, but everyone’s cautious now. After an Uber test vehicle fatally knocked down a pedestrian in the US, programmes have been put on hold. Robotics companies estimate that self-driven vehicles, carrying human passengers, navigating traffic and weather and making decisions, may be at least 10 years away, to say nothing of the global traffic systems that will have to adapt to work with them.

Solar cities

In 2016, the year India got its first solar city in Diu, the government announced its plan to make Delhi one by 2020. This meant generating 1,000 MW of power by 2020 and taking it further to 2,000 MW by 2025. That first deadline is here. The target far from met. But there’s good news. India’s solar power capacities are increasing in record amounts. We are just under 38 GW at the moment. Schools, mosques, hospitals, even airports are going solar, lessening the burden on coal and polluting fossil fuels. But India’s Paris climate agreement goals are 100 GW of solar capacity by 2022. We’re unlikely to reach that goal in time.

HEALTH / MEDICINE

Artificial organs

We’ve 3D-printed a heart, but it’s the size of a cherry or the heart of a rabbit, and a patient’s own cells were used in the development of the ‘ink’ for the 3D printer, so it’s not really an ‘artificial’ organ. (AFP)
We’ve 3D-printed a heart, but it’s the size of a cherry or the heart of a rabbit, and a patient’s own cells were used in the development of the ‘ink’ for the 3D printer, so it’s not really an ‘artificial’ organ. (AFP)

We’ve managed to make a 3D-printed heart, courtesy researchers at Tel Aviv University, Israel. It’s the size of a cherry or the heart of a rabbit, and was a patient’s own cells were used in the development of the ‘ink’ for the 3D printer, so it’s not really an ‘artificial’ organ. And stem cell engineering is still working out challenges like vasculature, the network of blood vessels that feeds any organ.

A cure for cancer

There’s a bit of a sad twist in the cancer cure story. As researchers innovate to find ways to prolong life, minimise the side-effects of treatment, and ensure that remission is as long-lasting as possible, the incidence of cancer is growing. Our big worry today is that chemicals and artificial substances in our food, water, air and environment could raise the incidence further. In a bit of good news, a new form of hyper-targeted chemotherapy was recently managed in a clinical trial in London, without affecting nearby healthy cells.

Eradicating leprosy, polio

The numbers are falling; sometimes a year goes by with no reported cases. But even moving into 2020, attempts to eradicate diseases we were sure would be gone by now — like leprosy, polio — have, essentially, failed. Cases of vaccine-derived polio virus (VDPV) are surfacing steadily across Asia and Africa. In order for a disease to be declared eradicated, even in one country, that country must go three years with no reported cases. Since being declared polio-free in 2014, India has recorded 50 cases of VDPV. And while malaria rates are falling in India, according to the WHO we are now home to 66% of all leprosy patients in the world.

THINGS WE HAVE ACHIEVED

Tourist rockets are being tested

SpaceX Falcon 9 delivers 60 Starlink satellites to orbit. It won’t be too long before tourists can buy a ticket to (orbit) the moon.
SpaceX Falcon 9 delivers 60 Starlink satellites to orbit. It won’t be too long before tourists can buy a ticket to (orbit) the moon.

Three private companies are in the race to help tourists escape Earth’s atmosphere — Space X, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, owned by Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos respectively. Each has successfully tested unmanned craft. SpaceX has also tested a reusable rocket, which would slash eventual ticket prices.

So far, seven ‘space’ tourists have left the planet, going as far as the International Space Station, lodged just beyond the Earth’s atmosphere, aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Eventually, space tourists will be able to go much further, and choose between orbiting the earth or the moon.

We have limited capability diagnostic smart pills

‘Smart’ pills are here, albeit in a limited capacity, in the US. These capsule-sized ingestibles are fitted with microsensors that can share diagnostic information with your smartphone. The first was sanctioned for human use in 2017. Now, digital oncology has led to sensor fitted chemotherapy drugs too. But, like all things ‘digital’ and ‘smart’, the pills raise issues of privacy, security and data-sharing.

Bots are talking, entertaining our kids, performing surgeries

The bots in our lives may not be humanoid, but we’re already fairly dependent on them. Online, they help you respond to email, search for a job, shop, bank and create playlists. AI home assistants such as Alexa and Google Assistant are helping manage our schedules, even entertaining the kids.

We’ve created superbugs we can’t kill

The discovery of penicillin was a turning point for the species. But, over the past century, we’ve been so overmedicated, particularly with antibiotics either prescribed, self-prescribed or ingested via meat from medicated livestock, that the bugs they once killed became resistant. In 2017, the WHO released a global priority list of 12 antibiotic-resistant bacteria to guide future research on antibiotics. These list strains of gonorrhea, pneumonia and salmonella. In India, we’re fighting a pitched battle with drug- and multi-drug-resistant TB.

We’ve shrunk the icecaps and raised ocean temperatures

Icebergs float away near Kulusuk, Greenland. We’ve contributed to the altering of the polar ice-caps and thereby the dystopian phenomenon of climate refugees. (AP)
Icebergs float away near Kulusuk, Greenland. We’ve contributed to the altering of the polar ice-caps and thereby the dystopian phenomenon of climate refugees. (AP)

Rising temperatures have been accompanied by rising sea levels, which in turn have led to the dystopian phenomenon of climate refugees. The term was first thrown up in 1976, by Lester Brown, a US-based environmental analyst.

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