Science stories for 2017

The New Scientist has predicted the 10 biggest and most important science stories for 2017 (pay-walled) in their bumper three weeks in one Christmas and New Year special issue. Here are some of them.

1. DeepMind’s AI wants to beat us at video game StarCraft next

In March last year Google-owned firm DeepMind developed the AlphaGo system which defeated one of the world’s best Go players, Lee Sedol.

    There are more possible moves in Go than there are atoms in the universe, so AlphaGo couldn’t work out its strategy simply by “solving” the game. Instead, its neural networks were trained using a database of 30 million moves made by expert human players. The software could then evaluate how each potential move in a real-life game would alter its overall chance of victory, allowing it to choose the best one.

Starcraft is trickier, because players build huge armies to fight on virtual terrain, and the players can’t see what their opponents are up to. The game is more like the real world where we act on incomplete information. So far the best players can beat a computer.

2. Antibiotic resistance will hit a terrible tipping point in 2017

Soon more antibiotics will be fed to animals than are used by humans. In 2015, resistance developed to colistin, the only antibiotic left that works against some human infections.

The problem, which is being taken seriously, albeit a bit too late, is twofold. Some diseases are becoming untreatable, and new ways will need to be found to keep animals healthy in those awful food factories.

3. We may be able to end species extinction and bring some back

    Genetic and stem cell technologies are on the cusp of letting us clone even infertile endangered animals when intact DNA is available. And some extinct species could be brought back by tweaking the genome of a living close relative. It should also be possible to engineer lost traits into a population.

Work is going on to use stem cell technologies, frozen specimens and assisted reproduction to propagate the northern white rhino, where only three infertile animals remain in Kenya.

In 2018 an attempt will be made to endow Asian elephant eggs with mammoth DNA.

4. Babies may be born from menopausal mothers’ own eggs

Not sure it’s a good idea, but it is going to be attempted in New York and Egypt.

5. First Hyperloop tests herald air-powered future of transport

This is Elon Musk’s idea where passenger pods are projected through low-pressure tubes at about 1100 kilometres an hour, riding on a cushion of air.

He’s going to run a competition in June to test out different pod designs from students and independent engineers, and then support development by other companies. He reckons the system will use 10 times less than cars or planes, and do London to Paris in 21 minutes.

6. People prepare to fight governments on climate change

A number of cases are already in the making:

    In the US, a district court judge recently granted a group of children and young adults the right to sue the federal government for endangering their futures by burning fossil fuels. In Belgium, a group of citizens has started legal action against the government for failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a law student in New Zealand is mounting a similar challenge against her government.

We may also see tariffs imposed on back-sliders, like the US – and us too if we don’t lift our game.

7. Expect more on gravitational waves

The Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory (LIGO) caught the first ever signs of gravitational waves in February last year. There have now been two cases of gravitational waves from pairs of black holes doing a dance around each other.

LIGO’s detectors have been made 15 to 20 per cent more sensitive, and from March there will be three points on the planet focussing on the one event. They reckon they’ll see lots, and with a bit lot of luck may get a handle on what dark energy is about.

8. Gene editing used to save lives

Gene editing involves altering or disabling existing genes through a revolutionary method known as CRISPR.

After a successful trial in curing leukaemia in 2015, the technique will now start to enter medical practice. So far it has not been so successful for other cancers, but the Chinese are editing immune cells so there is no switch for cancer cells to flip. Use in other genetic conditions is sure to follow.

9. Watch out for augmented reality

    You’re at work, flipping through emails that hang in mid-air. Graphs, text messages and pictures pop up on your desk, then disappear. Bored, you sit back and watch a jellyfish bob across the ceiling.

    This is augmented reality – real life only better, bedazzled with digital displays. AR is the next futuristic fantasy the tech industry wants to conquer, and in 2017 it may finally happen.

An outfit called Magic Leap is working on a game where you get to shoot enemy robots as they pop up around you.

Not sure the world needs it.

10. We will soon be able to read minds and share our thoughts

So far it’s been sharing “yes” and “no” answers between two people in different rooms using EEG skull caps.

Can’t see the point in that.

They’ve also been bothering monkeys and rats, the former with brain implants which allow them to cooperate in controlling and moving a robotic arm.

I think they should let them be.