Five science breakthroughs that will transform politics
''Science can be beautiful and thrilling'' ... Andrew Leigh. Photo: Glen McCurtayne
Politicians don't usually spend a lot of time thinking about science. In fact, a survey published in 2010 of their reading habits found that only one of my colleagues was reading a book about science. But as the climate change debate showed, even findings that are broadly accepted by scientists can be described by certain politicians as "absolute crap".
Talking about science is good for us because it engenders a sense of awe. As Monty Python once pointed out, our galaxy, one of millions in the universe, is a hundred thousand light years side to side. As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, when our sun finally gives out, the people watching it will be a higher evolutionary form of humans than us. Bryan Gaensler describes 'Oh-my-God' particles, which have been recorded moving through the universe at 99.9999999999999999999996 per cent of the speed of light. Like the great arts, science can be beautiful and thrilling.
In this article, I've focused on ideas that are just over the horizon for most of us. So green roofs, LED lights, genetically modified crops, 3D printers and geo-engineering are important, but improvements are likely to be steady rather than seismic. Instead, I've chosen "disruptive ideas" that could radically affect the way our society operates.
1. Driverless electric cars
The two big developments in automotive technology are electric cars and driverless cars. Together, they are likely to transform transport. In the case of electric cars, we're still waiting to see whether the model that prevails is the one in which we charge our cars at home, or whether we use battery swap stations. Either way, electric cars will reduce emissions, are cheaper to maintain, and help manage the peak load problem of power generation.
The next step is driverless cars. In California and Nevada, Google's fleet of seven self-drive Toyota Priuses have now driven more than 300,000 kilometres. The cars use multiple video cameras that match what they're "seeing" with images from Google's Street View project. They have driven in busy city traffic, through a Taco Bell drive-thru, and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Last month, Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, took the driver's seat. He joked afterwards "this is some of the best driving I've ever done".
Self-drive cars can do a few things that your regular car can't do. They can reduce traffic congestion and move more efficiently by driving in "platoons". Like Knight Rider's KITT, they can travel empty. But while David Hasselhoff used this to escape bad guys, we're more likely to use it to share our car with other people.
For policymakers, self-drive cars create painfully difficult questions. Even if the car is safer on average than a human, who is legally at fault when something goes wrong? Environmentally, electric cars may produce less emissions, but they're also cheaper per kilometre. Because it'll cost less to drive to work in your new electric car than it did in your old petrol car, electric cars may make traffic congestion worse. Given that both pollution and congestion are negative externalities, policymakers must ask: what is the appropriate balance of taxes and subsidies?
2. Space elevators
When I was in primary school in the early 1980s, I vividly remember participating in a science extension program one school holidays, and asking the teacher why it wasn't possible to transmit electricity wirelessly. It took a generation of research, but in 2009, a team of researchers won a NASA competition to power a robot to climb a one-kilometre cable. They did it by firing a laser beam at a photovoltaic panel. At present, the energy loss from power beaming is around 40 per cent, but it is steadily becoming more efficient.
The most exciting application of laser beaming is the notion of a space elevator; the idea that robots could be powered to climb cables to orbiting satellites. The great irony of space exploration at present is that a vast amount of the energy required is in going the first few kilometres. Getting in and out of the earth's atmosphere is expensive, dangerous and polluting. A space elevator would end the need for rockets; thereby changing the economics of both satellites and space travel.
For policymakers, lowering the cost of getting into space would enable more scientific research, as well as more extensive use of satellites for purposes such as entertainment and communications. Yet there is also a danger that space junk will proliferate. More than 6000 satellites have been launched since Sputnik in 1957, and thousands of pieces of space debris are orbiting the earth. For aviation, space elevators also generate unique regulatory challenges. Currently, we assume that the space a few kilometres above the earth is essentially free for aircraft. How would we divide it between planes and elevators?
Our ability to change matter at a molecular level has given birth to a rich subfield of research. At the interface between biology and electronics, nanotechnology offers the potential of better bionic technology, from limbs to aural implants. Programmable matter would radically change manufacturing, since the same block of matter could shift into endlessly different shapes. Among the possible applications are shape-shifting furniture (perfect for small apartments), or videoconferencing in which a realistic copy of the other speaker is in the room with you.
Nanotechnology will soon enable wearable solar cells, likely to change clothing in practical ways (for soldiers and hikers) and aesthetic ones (for fashion designers). Similarly, nanogenerators in your shoes would provide a source of power that could charge a mobile phone or power a Pacemaker. In countries where people do not have access to clean water, nanotechnology could provide a better way to purify water.
For policymakers, nanotechnology poses multiple challenges. We need more research on the health risks, since the small size of nanoparticles means they can potentially penetrate cell walls. Yet we should also be aware of the benefits that nanoparticles bring. In 2009, the Therapeutic Goods Administration conducted a scientific review of nanoparticles in sunscreens, and concluded that the weight of the evidence is that nanoparticles do not cause health risks. With nearly 2000 Australians dying annually from skin cancer, there's a big social payoff from improving sunscreens.
4. Ubiquitous Data
Commentators often talk about things increasing "exponentially", when they mean "fast". But in the case of computing power and storage capacity, you really can plot advances as a straight line on a logarithmic scale. That means that many scientific breakthroughs are likely to be made by coming up with better ways to collect, organise and analyse data.
One application will be in "lifelogging" – recording and analysing our lives. In an extraordinary blog post last month, computer scientist Stephen Wolfram analysed two decades worth of his own data, including keystrokes, emails, files, meetings, phonecalls and footsteps (he wears a pedometer). Through hundreds of millions of pieces of data, you can see clear patterns in his daily habits, as well as sudden bursts of creativity. For others, lifelogging may involve wearing a video camera at all times. While it sounds creepy, neurologists have shown that it helps sufferers of memory loss to regain control of their lives.
Data analytics can help identify trends, such the use of internet search data to give real-time information on the spread of influenza or the rate of unemployment. It can also help catch criminals, by identifying irregular transactions or behaviours. And yet it creates vast concerns for privacy, data storage and intellectual property. As a former academic researcher, I often found myself frustrated at the difficulty of gaining access to government data. Increasingly, I think the government is losing its monopoly over data, and that private agencies are holding data that is at least as interesting to researchers.
5. Machine Intelligence
Despite huge advances in computing, we're still yet to build a machine that can replicate the human brain. But at some point, it seems conceivable that we will succeed, either through artificial intelligence, or through building a machine that can emulate the brain. Economist Robin Hanson argues that when we do, it will be an economic breakthrough akin to the start of farming, or the industrial revolution.
Hanson observes that once we can replicate the brain, things start to change very quickly. To begin, we can start dialling up the clock speed. Then, we can start making copies. Next, we can start making them smaller. You might be squeamish about uploading your memories to a machine, but so long as some people are willing, it won't be long before there are millions of these new entities in existence.
In the past, the kinds of jobs that have been displaced by computerisation are routine data entry positions. In the early 1990s, when I began working in university holidays at the Parramatta law firm of Coleman and Greig, the firm employed a pool of typists. Technology has now replaced almost every typist in Australia. But a machine that can emulate the human brain would challenge all occupations, from hairdressers to architects.
In the case of this science breakthrough, it's hard to even begin to think how policymakers would respond. Do we limit how many times you can replicate yourself? If we have a machine that contains your memories and can think like you, shall we treat it like a slave or pay it a wage? Do you have the right to turn off copies of yourself? Will this breakthrough cause wages to fall? If so, how do we make sure that everyone has some capital to get by? After thinking about Hanson's work for a few weeks, I've decided that this is one breakthrough for which I don't want to be around.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. This is an edited version of a speech he gave to the Talented Students Program at Sydney University.