WHAT NEXT CAN WE EXPECT

Things are changing. A new world is evolving. A new mind is evolving to deal with this new world. In the world of engineering, technical skills are not enough to provide leadership. Engineers are expected to better bridge the gap between innovation and manufacturing. Being “best in the world” in scientific discovery is important, but it is not sufficient for keeping any nation viable in today’s global economy. Future leaders must also learn how to work in interdisciplinary teams, how to iterate designs rapidly, how to manufacture sustainably, how to combine art and engineering, and how to address global markets.

The science and the engineering of life are extending its territory and knowledge base so fast that no industry is untouched by its presence. A biological engineer designs living devices, components and systems, and works within the constraints provided by technical, economic, business, political, social, and ethical issues. In the post genome world and in the changing life sciences scenario, the need for integration between life sciences and informatics has become essential. Due to this need, various kinds of ‘omics’ sciences are developing. The major challenge for the ‘omics’ industry is to anticipate what will be the next useful data sources and analysis tools. There is a major attitudinal change towards medicine. Sickness will continue to be the priority, but for a large group, wellness will also be equally important. We have begun to understand that if patients are different, medicine must be differentiated. Future medical practices will follow personalised therapy based on the patient’s unique genetic profile.

To improve agricultural productivity, it will be essential to decrease inputs (water and fertiliser), provide environment friendly pest control methods, and develop new diagnostic tools for early detection of plant diseases. White biotechnology aims at transforming a wide spectrum of industries; chemical, plastics, textile, pulp and paper, food, and energy. Innovation-led technology development programmes include low energy consuming and low waste generating bio-based processes using renewable raw material. This move is necessary to meet the demands of energy, resources, and food of the future world when the state of oil, gas, and coal reserves will not be that satisfactory. The biggest challenge for industrial biotechnology is to develop clean technology at a much lower cost.

Biology and economics of aging is another area that is getting due attention from researchers. It is known that nutritious diet, physical fitness, social engagement, and mentally stimulating activities are potential factors that can delay the aging process. Early years of childhood can shape many adult outcomes. Our neural suitcase is the most astonishing thing. The conventional view on brain functioning was that we are born with a set number of neurons, hardwired in a certain way. We lose connections and neurons as we age, and finally the brain falls apart. Researchers now claim that neurons can change their connectivity, morphology and strength of the connections in their early as well later stages of life in response to new environments and experiences. New research has shown that the brain has a “use it or lose it” approach to neurological maintenance.

What next one can expect from new biology? The challenges are many. These include lifestyle and healthcare, redesigning life, synthetic life, generating super computer models of our brains. In the near future personalised health care could involve doctors monitoring the metabolic activities of a patient’s gut microbes and, possibly, modulating them therapeutically. Biologists will have access to tools that will allow them to arrange atoms to optimise catalysts for making chemicals. Programmable personal stem cells would possibly be able to sense a nearby tumour, coordinate an attack and drill into the cancer cells to release toxins. A more realistic endeavour for the next decade will be to look for genes that raise our vulnerability to brain defects due to our responses to the environment. In the next ten years, the energy sector will be dominated by a “low-carbon society” that will call for greater emphasis on the development of cheap and efficient clean energy technologies.

These and many other developments in different areas of science and technology are adding a new dimension to the ethical issues. Since some future issues are further in the future than others, UNU Millenium Project grouped the questions related to ethical issues into three time periods: 2005-2010; 2010-2025; and 2025-2050. Some of the relevant issues pertaining the past (2005-2010) were: Is it right for governments or the public to intervene in the scientific process when, on the one hand, unimpeded science has such great promise but on the other, unintended deleterious consequences are a plausible result of the research? Do people and organisations have a right to pollute if they can pay for it; for example, by paying carbon taxes, pollution fines, carbon trading, etc? The issues pertaining to the present (2010-2025) include: Should there be two standards for athletic, musical, and other forms of competition: one for the un-augmented and another for those whose performance has been enhanced by drugs, bionics, genetic engineering, and/or nanobots? With a vastly more interconnected world, when ideas, people, and resources can clearly come together to solve a problem or achieve an opportunity, is it unethical to do nothing to connect them, when it is clearly in one’s power to do so? The issues pertaining to the future of ethics (2025-2050) relevant to science and technology include: If technology grows a mind of its own, what ethical obligations do we have for its behaviour? Do we have the right to genetically change ourselves into a new or several new species? Is it right to allow the creation of future elites who have augmented themselves with artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, without inventing a way to manage their superhuman abilities? 

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