Science in 2022

What if, in 2022, everyone in New Zealand could use science as easily as they can use a computer now? What would you create? Who would you work with? What would you invest in? What problems would you solve? What would you help to change?


Sequencing an individual’s DNA

10 years ago, it took $10 million and 1 year to sequence an individual’s DNA.  Now you can have your genome sequenced for $1000 in 1 day. In 2022 everyone could have their genome sequenced for $1 in 2 minutes.  In 2022 you may have your full DNA information that travels with you from the moment you are conceived.

Today, people who have had their DNA sequenced are getting information about whether they are more likely than other people to develop a range of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and some forms of cancer.  This allows them to make diet, exercise and lifestyle choices that reduce the risk of developing these illnesses and have regular checks to catch them early if they do develop them.

In 2022, everyone could be in a position to have this information and make these choices.  What would you do with this information? Who would expect to have access to it? How could it be used to improve everyone’s health?

Observing individual molecules

For a long time, we have only been able to observe what groups of molecules do, like being able to observe flocks of starlings, but not able to look closely at one individual bird.  Now we can use light beams to see and count individual molecules.  We can see whether all molecules of the same substance behave in exactly the same way, or whether there are variations.

In 2022, we will be able to manipulate individual molecules using light beams in the form of “optical tweezers”.  This will allow us to design and build new types of molecules to do new things, for example new molecules for photosynthesis, leading to more efficient energy capture and storage.  What other things could we make possible or make more efficient when we can build new molecules? What will be possible if we can build molecules that have never been made before by nature? What might we discover?

Making large-scale, complex calculations very quickly

A Quantum computer uses quantum mechanics to make calculations.  It has the potential to solve complex problems much faster than the digital computers we are familiar with today.  Quantum computers have the potential to be really good at doing certain calculations, from large scale, complex logistics to cracking passwords (though they aren’t great for things like gaming).  Quantum computing is currently at the equivalent state that digital computing was in the 1920’s.

At the moment, quantum computing doesn’t exist outside laboratories.  In 2022, quantum computing will provide the ability to manage things like large, distributed energy grids and calculating optimal traffic flow routes through congested systems that challenge current computers. Quantum computers have the power to be much, much more powerful than digital computers, but writing code for quantum computers will demand a much deeper mathematical knowledge than today’s digital coding does.   What could this powerful computational power be used to do in 2022?  What could we co-ordinate and organise with it?

Cleaning up organic mess with inorganic nano-particles

Work on the potential of inorganic nano-particles to clean up organic mess, such as oil spills, is still in the laboratory today. Specially formulated nano-particles made from heavy metals interact with and break down pollutants when they are exposed to light. (The light acts as a catalyst).  These heavy metal nano-particles would themselves be pollutants in other forms.  In the future, it may be possible to use inorganic nano-particles to purify sewage and to remove substances that are currently impossible to remove.  Might we be able to use inorganic nano-particles to clean run-off from dairy farms? How do we mitigate the risks of the inorganic nano-particles recombining to make other pollutants when they are released?  

Shared access to high powered telescopes

Today, some astronomical institutions are putting data out for crowdsourcing and amateur astronomers are making big discoveries like seeing and finding new asteroids. In 2022, with a combination of improved telescope technology and a much more embedded culture of crowdsourcing, might we vastly increase our capacity for discovering whether there are Earth-like planets around our nearest stars?  If more people are contributing to analysing the data from big telescopes, will they also want more of a say about where the telescopes point?

Affordable sensor technology everywhere

We can currently produce sensors that can measure minute amounts of gases under a wide range of conditions  (see the story about Aeoqual in the game video).  These are used for everything from monitoring pollution, to  helping improve traffic flows, to keeping fruit and vegetables fresher for longer. In 2022, they will be cheaper, more sensitive and deployed everywhere.  They could be used to monitor all aspects of the environment at all levels – in your garden, in your house, in your street or workplace.  96% of New Zealand’s Exclusive Economic Zone is ocean.  At the moment, it’s hard to monitor what is happening over such a vast area.  How would you use this sensor technology in 2022?

Solar cells as cheap as plastic

Current solar cells are about one and a half to two times as expensive as fossil fuels per watt, but this should decrease as manufacturing capabilities go up and more is invested in infrastructure for testing and deployment.  At the moment, solar cells are one of the only renewable technologies with the capability to scale to meet increasing energy demands as oil reserves run dry.

In 2022, it is likely that solar cells will come in multiple forms, expensive and long lasting, cheap and unreliable, splitting the ‘solar cells’ market into niches depending on requirements. This will engender further price competition bringing the prices down even lower. Energy capture devices will become ubiquitous, cheap and disposable.  This, in turn, will increase the demand for distributed energy storage and smart electrical grids to manage energy flows from where generation happens to where they are needed.

Every aspect of our lives, our homes, cars, cities, malls, roads – every huge tract of open space then becomes a target for multiple energy storage techniques.

Smart public transport/smart people

Today we can share our calendars and locations with friends, track buses via GPS, and check the train timetable with smart phones. These technologies let us make use of public transport and our own time much more efficiently than we could previously.

What if, in 2022, you shared your electronic calendar for the week with the bus company?  The bus company could schedule services based on people’s calendars. They could charge a small premium for guaranteeing to fit in with your calendar, while charging less to those who have more flexibility. You wouldn’t need to check the timetable, your phone would tell you when to get to the bus stop or let you know when the bus is about to pull up in front of your house.

From company jet to company satellite

Currently, microsatellite technologies are available to companies with revenues in the $100+ million per year.  With the advent of space tourism and possible large investment in mining asteroids for rare minerals above the earth, it’s conceivable that technologies will advance, prices will drop and far more companies will be able to afford satellite technologies. 

Imagine being able to track and trace every animal in your flock, its vital signs and positional records in real time from a computer at home – what would this mean for farmers and farming? As livestock prices rise (we are currently expecting a rise for the next 4 years and then a sharp dip followed by a further rise – cattle are currently circa $700 per head which may increase over the next 10 years), each animal’s individual life becomes more valuable to the farmer.

In 2022, satellite technology coupled with implanted biosensors could mean that stock control and remote monitoring will become vastly more affordable, including tracking individual animal heath and the effectiveness of drug treatments. How could this be used to monitor and protect New Zealand’s indigenous animals?

Chip the kids?

If we could apply satellite and biosensor monitoring to animal flocks, might we also want to ‘chip’ our children and adolescents to keep them safe? What issues would this raise?

3D printing

At the moment we can make objects, using what are essentially inkjet printers to spray polymers into the shapes we want.  It can be used for rapid prototyping of simple objects or for home hobbies, but it’s a field that is moving really fast.  Fabbing used to be a minority interest, but designing for and using 3D printing is becoming much more widespread

In 2022, with a wider range of polymers, and a wide range of designs, you might be able to design and make your own clothes, shoes, etc.  If these 3D printers start using conducting polymers, you might be able to print simple electronic circuits at home. 

You wouldn’t need to go to The Warehouse anymore.  What would you make?

Personal Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)

Unmanned aerial vehicles are small, remotely-piloted or computer-controlled aircraft.  They range in cost from quite expensive to small and cheap and are flying hundreds of kms with short flying times.  Today, they are used for monitoring insurgents in Afghanistan and are just starting to be used for law enforcement in the United States. Hobbyists are building UAVs and putting cameras and other sensors on them.

In 2022, they will be cheaper, maybe solar powered too, so they can stay in the air continuously. They will be able to carry bigger payloads.  Perhaps you could have your own personal UAV. You can already buy unmanned aerial drones for hundreds of dollars.  In 2022, it may be easier to fly an autonomous drone to your flock than check it in real life, especially if it’s raining!  You could set up a neighbourhood watch for your community, provide early warning for tsunamis, watch traffic up ahead on your route home, send it to the World Cup so you can watch the games from your own angles.  What would you use a personal UAV for?

Artificial life

Right now, scientists can make simple organisms in the laboratory using amino acids, DNA sequences and other building blocks that are not usually found in nature.  At the moment, this technology is still in the lab and has not been used for any applications.

In 2022, our designs and tools will be much more sophisticated. We might better understand how such organisms would function outside the laboratory. We might be able to design organisms that can do useful things that natural organisms can’t.  We might, for example, be able to design simple bacteria that break down our waste products, clean up oil spills or produce biofuel efficiently from sunlight.

Automated growing facilities

Currently, many large growing and processing companies automate large chucks of their workflow as cost-cutting measures.  However, this typically has a large capital outset that limits entry into a large scale to companies with access to significant amounts of capital. People at home can grow herbs and small gardens but nothing large scale, and this is only possible for those with the time and inclination to take good care of their plants.

Indoor greenhouses and vertical farms are being planned and constructed across the globe – an entirely new way of farming, not reliant on sunlight or external stimulus to function.

In 2022, could individuals have access to fully autonomous herb gardens, automated plant growth and care facilities that can be deployed in the home for a relatively small cost. What if, rather than decorations, food plants became an integral part of interior architecture, built and designed into buildings as part of the water system?

What if you could grow the vegetables for your family’s dinner, fresh each day, without having to resort to going to supermarkets. What if you could control exactly what they were exposed to, what pesticides were used or not and so regulate what goes into your family’s bodies?

Wireless ubiquity

Currently, wireless technology coverage is only comprehensive in the highest urbanised areas in New Zealand. Where it is available, 3G has given many remote users unfettered access to information, culture and knowledge from the globe they have never had access to before.  However, it is far from equally distributed.  Many people in New Zealand rural communities and lower socio-economic groups don’t have this access currently.  India, China and some other countries are currently investing in technologies to make Wifi permanently available in remote rural areas.  Some of these areas are larger than the New Zealand land mass.   Over the next 10 years, the cost of technology to provide Wifi will decrease.  

What if, in 2022, it was no longer possible to go ‘beyond the grid’ on mainland New Zealand?  All communities, including the poorer and rural communities that don’t have Wifi would have access to information and data. What if you really could run your high-tech world-leading business ANYWHERE in New Zealand, no matter how remote? What would this mean for our current concept of business? What would this mean for the viability of our poorer and more remote communities? What would it take to get this technology in New Zealand?

Making DNA “younger” to reduce ageing

Treatments to intervene in the ageing process, such as telomere treatments, are already on the market. Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that protect them from deterioration.  This deterioration is linked to the ageing process.  Research is underway to find ways for telomeres to better protect themselves or help them to rebuild.

What if, in 2022, 50 year olds suddenly have health more resembling that of someone 15 years younger? Whilst, mere decades ago, women over the age of 30 were much less likely to conceive than their younger counterparts, now, with both social change and fertility treatments, the average age of motherhood is slowly creeping upwards.

What if fertility treatment became significantly cheaper and more effective at older chronological ages because those who could afford telomeres had a younger biological age? What effect would that have on the way we fund fertility treatment?

Recognising everyone, everywhere

Currently, image and facial recognition is used at high security locations and increasingly on social networking sites (for example the immigration ‘smart gates’ at airports or tagging friends in photos on Facebook). This has made identity concealment more complex and detection of ‘wanted persons’ easier.

In 2022, what if every CCTV camera was equipped with image recognition software and was linked to a database of convicted and suspected criminals, allowing a detailed searchable physical profile of each person to be built up? Outstanding warrants would be as likely to be resolved by cameras as by officers.  What other uses and impacts could such a surveillance network have?

Tracking and tracing people

With the combination of individual mobile devices, GPS locations, GPS recording in photos and video and image and voice recognition technology, people can already be tracked physically, whether they mean to be or not.  Only the more technologically savvy can completely hide their location and movements.   By 2022, protecting your location, or other information about your life and habits technologies, could become a high growth business as more digital information is generated for every action and step you take.