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Science is imprecise, so it isn’t straightforward when trying to identify what scientific breakthroughs will have an impact on all our lives in this coming year. Even so, there is a great deal of ongoing scientific activity which is reaching fruition, so let’s briefly highlight a few of the most notable ones.

Dexterous artificial intelligence

In this field, a notable breakthrough is that of Dactyl. This is a robot that has been self-taught to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Why is that a breakthrough? Actually, it has usually been impossible to transfer that type of virtual practise to the real world, because things like friction or the multifarious properties of materials are difficult to model.

But this software accesses what we call ‘reinforcement learning’. This software simulates the brain’s neural networks when learning how to grasp and turn a block within a simulated environment. This software is able to experiment randomly, and this strengthens connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal. This is a further breakthrough allowing robots to master the advanced and complex dexterity needed to manipulate objects with care in a real-life context. This has implications for intricate manual production processes and has even been touted as being usable before too long in the healthcare sector.

Miniaturized energy sources

A number of new nuclear designs have gained momentum in the past year and they are making nuclear energy both safer and cheaper. A standout example is the group of generation IV fission reactors. These have evolved from traditional designs to become small modular and fusion reactors, a technology that has been beyond our grasp up to now. Developers of these reactors, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, are now in a position to enter into R&D partnerships with utility companies, the aim being grid supply by the 2020s.  

Premature births

In healthcare, scientific breakthroughs have immediate impacts on lives. In this case, the aim is to better diagnose premature births. Free-floating DNA and RNA can provide information that previously required highly invasive ways of extracting cells. These included taking a biopsy of a tumour or puncturing a pregnant woman’s stomach to perform an amniocentesis. The breakthrough is that it is now easier to detect and sequence the small amounts of cell-free genetic material in the blood. In the last few years, researchers have begun developing blood tests for cancer and prenatal screening of conditions like Down syndrome. Once alerted, doctors can take measures to give the child a better chance of survival.

Portable probes

Poor healthcare is widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished and have developmental delays. A widespread condition is Environmental Enteric Dysfunction (EED). It is marked by inflamed intestines which leak fluid and absorb insufficient nutrients. A team of pathologists at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a small probe that is used to investigate the stomach for signs of EED, or even obtain tissue biopsies.

Practical screening will help local medical staff know when and how to intervene. The probe consists of a swallowable capsule with a miniature microscope attached to a flexible tether providing light and power. The probe sends images to a console and the healthcare worker can pause it at points of interest. The capsule itself can be sterilized and reused.

Benefits for hard-to-reach patients in the developing world are enormous – these devices are simple to use at a primary care visit and can diagnose this avoidable condition without the logistics and cost of attending hospitals.

Meat, but not as we know it

The United Nations expects there to be nearly 10 billion people by 2050. These people will be richer on average and as people climb out of poverty, they won’t stop eating meat any time soon. This means lab-grown and plant-based alternatives could well be the best way to limit the consequences. Making lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors.

The end product looks practically the same as what you’d get from an animal, although researchers admit that the taste still needs further work. However, nutritional researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands are currently completing work to produce lab-grown meat at scale and are pretty confident there will be a lab-grown burger available by the end of 2019.

The impact of this breakthrough won’t be noticeable over the short term but the longer-term impact – reduction of methane gases and less destruction of forest land for livestock grazing – is clear to all. The biggest unknown is whether these lab-grown ‘meats’ will enjoy massive take-up by consumers.