Science and technology: what happened in 2016

This year, you are able to buy CRISPR-based gene editing toolkits for $150 on the Internet as well as autonomous drones, and you can ask your Amazon Echo to play your favorite music or give you a traffic report. You can buy a fully functional Android tablet for $40 on Amazon. If you have made it to a Walmart near you lately, you know that kids are going to receive dirt cheap remote-controlled flying drones for Christmas this year. Amazon now delivers packages by drone with its Prime Air service. There are 2.6 billion smartphones in the world.

So what else happened in 2016?

January:

Cancer rates have dropped by 23% since 1991. And, no, it is not explained away by the fact that fewer people smoke.

Though most insects are short-lived, we have learned that some ants never age.

February:

In the UK, scientists have been allowed to modify genetically human embryos.

As you age, your body accumulates “senescent cells”. These are non-functional cells that are harmless in small quantities but can cause trouble when they accumulate. Researchers have found that by removing them (using drugs called senolytics), they could extend the life of mice. A company funded by Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos, Unity Biotechnology, is working to bring this technology to human beings. The CEO of this new company has given a talk which you can watch on YouTube.

Google reports that it can determine the location of almost any picture with superhuman ability. Take a picture of your favorite landscape and Google will tell you where you are just by looking at the picture.

Researchers are attempting to regrow knee cartilage in human beings using stem cells.

March:

Google defeated the world champion at the board game of Go. With the defeat of Kasparov at the hands of IBM’s Deep Blue 20 years ago, there is no longer any board game where human beings are superior to computers.

Google supplemented its Google Photo service with advanced artificial intelligence. If you are looking for pictures of your dog, Google can find them for you, without anyone ever entering metadata.

April:

Europe has authorized a gene therapy to help cure children. Soon enough, we will routinely use genetic engineering to cure diseases.

We have entered the era of fully functional consumer-grade virtual-reality gear. Many of us have experienced high-quality virtual experiences for the first time in 2016. According to some estimates, over 3 million VR units were sold in 2016: 750k PlayStation VR, 261k Google DayDream, 2.3 million Gear VR, 450k HTC Vive and 355k Oculus Rift.

Dementia rates in human beings are falling. We do not know why.

May:

Foxconn, the company that makes the iPhone for Apple, has replaced 60,000 employees with robots.

July:

Pokemon Go is the first massively popular augmented-reality game.

China holds the first clinical trials of CRISPR-based anti-cancer therapies.

August:

Netflix has more subscribers than any other TV cable company.

There are ongoing clinical trials where blood plasma from young people is given to older people, in the hope of rejuvenating them. Blood plasma is abundant and routinely discarded in practice, so if it were to work, it might be quite practical. (Further research that appeared later this year allows us to be somewhat pessimistic regarding the results of these trials in the sense that rejuvenation might require the removal of aging agents rather than the addition of youthful factors.)

Singapore is the first city in the world to have self-driving taxis.

We know that some invertebrates, like lobsters, do not age (like we do). For example, we have found 140-year-old lobsters in the wild recently and they aren’t the oldest. The hydra has constant mortality throughout its life. There is definitively a lot of variation in how different species age. Lots of sea creatures like sharks are both long-lived and vertebrates. We don’t know how long sharks can live, but we found a shark that is at least 272 years old. This suggests that even vertebrates, and maybe mammals, could be effectively ageless.

September:

What would happen if you took stem cells and put them in a brain? Would they turn into functional neurons and integrate into your brain… potentially replacing lost neurons? Researchers have shown that it works in mice.

Japan had 153 centenarians in 1963. There are now over 60,000 centenarians in Japan. According to researchers (Christensen et al., 2009), a child born today in a developed country has a median life expectancy of over 100 years.

The iPhone 7 is just as fast as a 2013 MacBook Pro. That is, our best smartphones from 2016 can run some software just as fast as the best laptop from three years ago.

Software can now read mammograms more accurately than any doctor. Software is also faster and cheaper.

Google upgraded its “Google Translate” service using a new engine leveraging recent progress in “deep learning” algorithms. The quality of the translations has been much improved. What is really impressive is that it works at “Google scale” meaning that all of us can use it at the same time.

October:

The most popular game console of this generation, the PlayStation 4, released a well-reviewed virtual-reality headset.

Between 2011 and 2016, traditional TV viewing by 18-24-year-olds dropped by more than 9 hours per week.

Mammal heart muscles do not regenerate. So if your heart runs out of oxygen and is damaged, you may never recover the loss function. However, scientists have showed (in monkeys) that we could induce regeneration with stem cells.

Microsoft claims to be able to match human beings in conversational speech recognition.

Tesla, the car maker, has enabled self-driving on all its cars. Even General Motors is producing self-driving cars in Michigan. You should still check whether it is legal for you to drive without holding the wheel.

November:

Crazy researchers gave young human blood to old mice. The old mice were rejuvenated. Though we do not know yet what it means exactly, it is strong evidence that your age is inscribed in your blood and that by changing your blood, we can age or rejuvenate you, to a point.

On the same theme, the Conboy lab at Berkeley, with funding from Google (via Calico) has shown, using a fancy blood transfer technique, that there are “aging agents” in old mice blood. If you take these agents and put them into a young mouse, it is aged. Presumably, if we were to identify these agents, we could remove them with drugs or dialysis and rejuvenate old mice. In time, we could maybe rejuvenate human beings as well.

Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, said that it will be soon normal for human beings to live over 100 years. This is supported by the work of demographers such as James W. Vaupel.

December:

It was generally believed that women eventually ran out of eggs and became irreversibly sterile. Researchers have found that a cancer drug can be used to spur the generation of new eggs, thus potentially reversing age-related infertility. In the future, menopause could be reversed.

Bones grown in a lab were successfully transplanted in human beings.

We don’t know exactly how long seabirds could live. It is hard work to study long-lived animals and it takes a long time (obviously). Biologists have encountered unexpected problems such as the fact that the rings that they use to tag the birds wear out faster than the birds do. In 1956, Chandler Robbins tagged an albatross. The 66-year-old albatross laid an egg this year.

Old people (in their 30s and 40s) can have young babies. Evidently, biological cells have a way to reset their age. Ten years ago (in 2006), Shinya Yamanaka showed how to do just that in the lab by activating only four genes. So no matter how old you are, I can take some of your cells and “reset them” so that they are “young again”. So far, however, nobody has known how to apply this to multicellular organism. The New York Times reports that researchers from the Salk Institute did just that. (They have a video on YouTube.) By activating the four genes, they showed that they could rejuvenate human skin tissue in vitro, then they showed that they could extend the lifespan of mice.

5 thoughts on “Science and technology: what happened in 2016”

  1. Great overview and summary, Daniel!

    What I found especially interesting in your post is that these are all positive news, something that’s clearly missing in media in general (newspapers, local news on TV, etc.).

  2. It’s awesome to see how much is being done against aging and death. Not much in artificial *general* intelligence (although that will come in next years, IMHO).

    In comparison, my work feels useless and irrelevant. Do you know where/how could I get career advice?

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