The scientific breakthroughs to expect in 2020

Making predictions about scientific breakthroughs over the next ten years is a daunting task. On the flip side, scientists are blessed to be living in an era where massive tool advances have been made. That makes research much more sophisticated and new discoveries much more likely.

A.I. will get even more “I.”

Machine Intelligence has been around for decades. But it’s only in the last ten years, however, that it has made quantum leaps into the world of deep learning. This learning is used to develop software to help machines ‘self-learn’ highly sophisticated tasks from large amounts of unstructured data inputs.

We know of the flashier examples, such as adaptive software for self-driving cars. In the first week of 2020, though, there was a startling news item announced. A.I. for cancer treatment is faster than, and equally as good as, a medical specialist at diagnosing tumours. Within the next ten years, it is highly likely we will see major developments in the communicative capacity of these ‘sentient’ applications. Furthermore, it can only be a matter of years before learning capacity is deepened. That will result in them being better able to deal with more random events and unpredictable human behaviour. That would have significant implications for elderly care and performance of precision, non-standard tasks.

Universal flu vaccine

Every year, millions of people get their flu jab to protect themselves over the winter months. However, it can be hit or miss in its effectiveness. That means the development of a universal flu vaccine would be a major boon for national health services. It would result in an even wider impact by making yearly injections unnecessary.

Some aspects of the flu virus are constantly changing, while the majority stay the same year on year. Current research and human trialling target the parts of the virus which vary the least. The purpose of the vaccine would be to gain an immune response against this less variable virus, called the hemagglutinin stem. Initial trialling examines its safety and the response of trial participants to it in terms of side effects.

Neural modelling

In the field of biosciences, neural modelling is making leaps forward. That is, allowing for the modelling of the overall cellular design of the brain using increasingly sophisticated organoids. These are miniature and simplified versions of organs made in vitro and can only be used to a limited extent at present. Soon, scientists will be able to create miniaturised brain ‘models’. These would give us greater insight into how neurodevelopmental issues can arise. That could mean scientific breakthroughs in studying more appropriate kinds of pharmacological treatments for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Astronomy and exo-planets

Astronomy and exoplanet science has been able to achieve great insights in the last decade. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in March 2021 will enhance the possibilities of exploration to the next degree. Its use will allow scientists to observe exo-planets in infrared. That would help them to identify even the smallest planets orbiting longer distances away from their host star.

This highly advanced telescope, the successor to the Hubble, gives astronomers a more close-up view of these far-away worlds. If the conditions are right, scientists may even be able to detect water vapour on some of these rocky planets. That is, provided some of them can support life. Given that water means life (or at least the possibility), this would be a truly momentous discovery.

So, be it in astronomy, medicine, or industry, we are destined to see numerous scientific breakthroughs over the coming 10 years. Any one of these would have been epoch-defining fifty years ago – nowadays, we have an embarrassment of scientific riches. Let’s hope we retain the capacity to appreciate that fact.