2017s big ideas part one: from driverless cars to interstellar travel

James Dyson is excited about the SafetyNet invention, Jim Al-Khalili cant wait to study Saturn up close and Amanda Levete looks to a resurgence of civic space

Transport

Mass production of driverless cars
By Jimmy Wales

The human brain is an amazing machine. It can make an unperceivable number of calculations a second. This outstanding ability is widely implemented during one of the most neurologically challenging actions people are engaged with on a daily basis: driving.

Several areas of the brain act in collaboration in order to receive, process, prioritise and implement real-time data perceived during driving. These complex processes may pass unnoticed by the driver, but their uninterrupted functioning is crucial.

The difference between life and death might be determined by a delay of only 100 milliseconds in response time. At high speeds, this micro timeframe can translate into several feet, which may in turn be the difference between avoiding danger and a fatal crash. Such a minor delay may be caused by any minimal distraction: a sudden noise, a quick glance at the phone or a random thought.

So what I am most excited about for 2017 is the groundbreaking invention that has the ability to minimise these dangers and potentially save millions of lives on the road: driverless cars.

We are getting closer than we thought, faster than we imagined, to having mass production of safe and reliable driverless cars. Many people have heard about this innovation, but not many realise how fast it is coming and how dramatically it is going to change society.

In 2016, it is estimated that worldwide automobile accidents claimed the lives of more than 1.1 million people, while more than 31 million people were injured. Once this technology is commonplace and driverless cars are ubiquitous, those numbers will shrink to a tiny fraction of what they are today.

The social impact will be even greater, to an extent that is very hard to fully imagine right now. Driverless cars will make car-sharing so much easier and more efficient that we could make do with 80% fewer cars. That would translate into less environmental pollution by decreased fuel consumption, less traffic congestion, fewer hours wasted on the roads and less need for car parks. Roads could be laid out very differently, making traffic more efficient and safer for passengers and pedestrians.

Modern technology excels in saving us precious time and making our daily lives easier. The next technological innovation will also make our roads much safer.

Jimmy Wales is an American internet entrepreneur and the co-founder of Wikipedia and Wikia.

Diet

Food goes back to basics
By Thomasina Miers

The past few years has been all about fad diets, cutting out food groups, and buying expensive ingredients to chase superfoods and super health. None of this is realistic. And after a year in which our foundations have been rocked, I feel that dieting adds an unhealthy uncertainty to our lives that we really dont need.

Food should not be about denial, guilt or killing ourselves. It is about nurturing, comfort and spending time with people who are important to us. It is about comradeship and community and breaking down barriers. We need that more than ever.

Next year will be about simplifying and going back to basics in the kitchen. The healthiest way to eat is to go as close to the source as possible. Lots of vegetables, which are cheap; lots of grains and beans. Meat only occasionally, and when it has been well looked after. My point isnt that we spend hours or a fortune in the kitchen, just that we adopt an old-fashioned approach where we avoid processed food. I have three children and zero spare time, but we eat well. Dinner is often just kale sauteed in garlic and olive oil on toast with a fried egg on top.

I think well see this in restaurants, too. When was the last time you heard anyone raving about a 20-course tasting menu? It feels as though that is from the last decade. Now its all short menus and home cooking and milk from cows who might actually have eaten some grass in their lives. There is a comfort in that, and I think it plays into deeper insecurities many of us are experiencing.

Thomasina Miers is a cook, food writer and broadcaster, and the founder of the Wahaca chain of Mexican restaurants.

Astronomy

The Cassini missons grand finale from Saturn
By Jim Al-Khalili

An
An image of Saturn from the Cassini mission. Photograph: Nasa/AP

When it comes to physics and astronomy, there have been a number of important stories in recent years that captured the publics imagination. Look no further than the discovery of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012 or the first detection of gravitational waves in 2016: ripples in the fabric of space itself due to the collision of two black holes more than a billion light years away. Cool stuff. And who knows what might be just around the corner? While I cannot predict what discoveries will be made in 2017, I can say with some confidence that there is one science story guaranteed to make waves around the world.

Of all the planets in the solar system, Saturn, with its beautiful rings, is without doubt the most enigmatic and mysterious, and in recent years weve had the privilege of being able to study it up close and personal thanks to the pictures beamed back to us by the Cassini spacecraft.

The Cassini mission to the giant planet has provided us with jaw-droppingly stunning colour images of Saturns surface, its rings and its many moons. And weve also made some astonishing discoveries. For example, it has revealed jets of water vapour and organic material shooting out of the south pole of Enceladus, creating tremendous excitement that this tiny moon might even be able to support microbial life beneath its icy surface.

But rest assured, the best is yet to come. In 2017, Cassini will come to the end of its mission, 20 years after it was launched in 1997. Nasa is calling this the Grand Finale, and its going to be pretty spectacular In tighter and tighter orbits, over several weeks, the spacecraft is going to squeeze inside the innermost ring, skimming the surface of the planet ever more closely before finally disappearing beneath the clouds and plummeting to its death.

For the Nasa scientists, it is going to be a huge challenge to collect as much data as possible during those final days, and there is no guarantee that Cassinis instruments will work in the increasingly hostile conditions. They are hoping it will continue to beam back what it sees for as long as it can before being ultimately crushed by the incredible density and pressure within the gas giant. Cue tingles down spines, lumps in throats and tears in eyes all round.

Jim Al-Khalili is a broadcaster and a professor of physics and public engagement in science at the University of Surrey.

Environment

A solution for overfishing
By Sir James Dyson

2017 promises to be an exciting year for SafetyNet, a fishing net with a series of escape rings that help prevent young and endangered fish being caught. The invention, which is engineered by Dan Watson, won the James Dyson award in 2012 because it helps to address the very real problem of overfishing.

SafetyNet exploits the escape behaviour of fish. Small and medium-sized fish swim upwards when stressed, whereas larger fish tend to swim downwards. SafetyNet has illuminated escape rings on its top side, which act like an emergency exit sign for the smaller fish. Water flowing through the wide-open meshes guides them to freedom, while the larger ones are retained in the net.

Since winning the award, SafetyNet has been getting ever closer to making a global impact. Trials show that the number of undesired fish caught is reduced by more than half when SafetyNet is used. With trials set to continue around the world in 2017, I hope that the next round of testing will continue to build awareness of the terrible problem of overfishing.

In 2017, SafetyNet technology will also go on sale to fishermen for the first time, with the first batches available in the middle of the year. But Watson also has his sights set on influencing the wider industry for the better. He will give a presentation on the topic of overfishing to the directorate-general for maritime affairs and fisheries in Brussels, to attract the attention of industry regulators and potentially shape future legislation.

Nearly half of fish caught are thrown back into the sea because they are not suitable to be sold, and many dont survive. If a significant number of young fish are being killed unnecessarily, this has an impact on the overall fish population. The best inventions use engineering and technology to solve existing problems and make the world a better place. SafetyNet shows how young graduates such as Watson can tackle global issues, all too often ignored by established industries, in new and inventive ways.

James Dyson is a British inventor and industrial designer, and the founder of Dyson.

Neuroscience

Neural networks and their effect on Alzheimers disease
By Prof May-Britt Moser

In this post-fact era, I believe that scientists engagement with society will be more important than ever before. We need to do our part in building public trust in science, by ensuring that our papers and talks are as solid and true to data as possible, but also by making sure the knowledge we produce is made accessible for people.

I am excited about the novel results from our lab that we will share with the world in 2017. In our everyday lives, we rely on our ability to navigate and remember. Inside the brain, these cognitive functions have a physiological correlate as specific patterns of activity among nerve cells. Networks of communicating nerve cells form activity maps that each give rise to a specific function. In 2017, we will share new insights into the emergence and maturation of the cells and neural networks that give rise to higher cognitive functions like self-location and memory. These cells are also ground zero, and the very first to be affected by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers. Knowing about how these cells develop into functional networks, giving rise to cognition and behavior, may help us understand what goes wrong when memory and navigation breaks down in people who are diagnosed with Alzheimers disease.

May-Britt Moser is a Nobel prize-winning psychologist and neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

The arts

The documenta exhibition revives the notion of utopia for a dystopian world
By Stefan Kalmr

In 1955, art professor and curator Arnold Bode founded the documenta art exhibition in the West German city of Kassel, once considered by Hitler for the German capital.

Documenta was originally initiated to introduce, or rather reintroduce, art formerly branded by the Nazis as degenerate to the postwar German public. This exhibition has, over the past 61 years, become the Olympus of all exhibitions. It is not a biennial; it is a vision, a proposition and a utopia in a hopelessly dystopian world.

Adam Szymczyk, the curator of documenta 14, which runs from 10 April to 17 September 2017, decided to stage, for the first time in the exhibitions history, one half in another European city: Athens. By doing so, he has mapped the field that best describes the dialectical tension in modern democracy today.

On one side is Kassels documenta: a post-fascist vehicle that believed in the transformative power of contemporary art. On the other side is Athens, the birthplace of democracy, which in recent years has become synonymous with the friction between democracy, national sovereignty and late capitalism.

In my lifetime, I have not experienced a more complex and greater existential crisis than today but a complex time can only be responded to in equally complex propositions. Documenta is a vehicle that affords the complex engagement with art and culture as what it is: a manifestation that responds to the sociopolitical conditions of our time. It is this that makes documenta, and particularly this documenta, so important, as it attempts to mediate between western democracy and capitalism in a state of crisis.

Stefan Kalmr is a veteran art industry and gallery insider and the new director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.

Architecture

MAAT
MAAT in Lisbon, designed by AL_A. Photograph: Paulo Coelho/EDP Foundation

Centuries-old ideas show us how to define public space
By Amanda Levete

There has never been a more important time to find ways of bringing people together. We need public spaces in our cities and our buildings to unite people, spaces where everyone has the chance to gather and to celebrate what we have in common. Im hopeful that 2017 will see the flickering resurgence of outdoor civic spaces blossom into something more profound and lasting.

As citizens, we have perhaps been taking them for granted, but now we are actively recognising the roles played by these vital parts of the urban fabric, and demanding that our cities and institutions protect and expand them.

In 2017 and beyond, we will be seeing cultural projects as urban projects ones that engage with cities and their unrestrained, slightly messy, vibrancy. Id like to think that MAAT, a new museum we designed in Lisbon, where the roof is a new place for people to appropriate as they like, is just one example of many more to come. It is used by lingering couples enjoying the sunset over the Tagus, by kids who just want to run up and down the steps, and by runners, cyclists and skateboarders.

There is something visceral about physical interaction that people are coming to value even more with the rise of the digital. There will be a return to looking at Italian urban planning, such as the Nolli map of Rome that allowed us to see the open public spaces connecting a city, or the Piazza del Popolo of Todi, the citys spiritual, civic and cultural heart, where everyone contributes to the sense of community and has done so for generations.

Of course, these are centuries-old ideas and, in 2017, I hope there will be an increased humility in the architectural community in acknowledging our inspirations and inheritances as well as a renewal of that post-war idealism when architects thought architecture could help make a better society. Sometimes, looking back can be a more radical move than the advent of virtual or augmented reality but it is an approach that architects and cities will increasingly pursue.

Amanda Levete is a Stirling prize-winning British architect and the founder and principal of AL_A, whose new entrance and courtyard at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, opens in 2017.

Space

The Starshot project and solar sail technology
By Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Ive been celebrating 50 years of Star Trek this year. I used to watch it as a child and thought, Oh yes, this is for me. I wanted warp drive, I wanted to travel to other planets and star systems. But as I grew older, I realised that our technology is so far from making interstellar travel possible until now.

Last April, the Starshot project was announced. It will use very high-powered lasers to accelerate solar sails on tiny spacecraft, sending them at a fifth of the speed of light to Alpha Centauri, our closest star system, in just 20 years. After the announcement, we discovered Proxima Centauri b, an Earth-like exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri itself. So it gets even more exciting. It pushes the technology we have at the moment to the limit, but the huge challenges are not insurmountable. I think we can do this, and work starts in 2017. We have a chance to take a closer look at an exoplanet, and perhaps even to find signs of life.

Solar sail technology will also allow us to study our solar system in far greater time. We sent the New Horizons probe to Pluto and it took almost 10 years. With solar sails, we could zip across the solar system in a matter of weeks and see whats out there.

As a child, I thought all this was possible, and when I started studying it, I reined in my expectations. But this year, for the first time, Im letting the dream continue. It is incredibly challenging, but when we look at what were achieving in miniaturisation and technology, I believe that in the next 15 to 20 years, we might have our first interstellar probe setting off for that 20-year journey to another star system. That puts it within my lifetime.

Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and honorary research associate at the UCL department of physics and astronomy.

Developmental biology

A leap forward in embryo technology
By Dr Jim Smith

Science sometimes appears to advance in great leaps, but each of those leaps is usually based on years of painstaking and often unheralded work work based on nothing more than curiosity about how the world works. My area of research is developmental biology: the question of how the fertilised egg becomes an adult organism with all the right cell types in the right place. Of course, it had occurred to me that developmental biology research might one day have practical benefits, but this was not why I did it I did it because the problem is so intriguing.

But, as is often the case, this sort of discovery science is yielding extraordinary benefits. For example, the ability of developmental biologists to culture, manipulate and fertilise embryos in a petri dish, then to transfer the embryos to a mother, led to test-tube babies. And this year, thanks to pioneering work by Doug Turnbull, it has inspired the decision to allow doctors to apply for a licence to create three-person babies, thereby providing, for the first time, hope to mothers carrying mitochondrial disease.

Now we know so much about what happens during normal embryonic development, we are in the extraordinary position of being able to recapitulate it and even to reverse it. Doug Melton has shown how stem cells from patients with type 1 diabetes can be turned into pancreatic beta-cells; many researchers are making organoids, three-dimensional stem cell cultures that will allow the design of personal treatment regimes and generate new cells for gene editing and transplantation. Equally exciting is the recent discovery by Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, inspired by his work on newt limb regeneration, that it may even be possible to reverse ageing.

As we understand more about development, now using techniques from chemistry, mathematics, engineering and physics, we can expect even more remarkable discoveries and treatments. This year, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz managed to increase by 50% the length of time we can keep human embryos alive in a dish I cant wait to see what well learn about ourselves.

Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the new director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/jan/02/big-ideas-2017-driverless-cars-interstellar-travel-invention

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