Researchers provide glance into future

December 17, 2010 — by Kevin Mu and Karthik Sreedhara

Jet packs, hydrogen-powered cars, virtual reality and a cure for cancer are some of examples of the scientific advancements students believe society will have achieved by the year 2020. Although more cautious in their predictions than students are, many researchers are also confident that science will have great impacts on society in the coming decade.

What we’ll learn about our genes:

Rob Furrow, a graduate student at Stanford University who studies the ways in which genetics and the environment interact to cause diseases, believes that the most significant advancement in his field will be “improved understanding of how our genes behave differently, in different cells in our body and in different environmental conditions.”

Scientists currently believe that genes play a major role in disease risk but are unsure of how this risk is affected by other environmental factors such as air pollution or diet. Furrow is attempting to remove this limitation, but remains cautious about the pace of his research.

“In the next 10 years I think we will have a good understanding of what role genetics plays in disease risk,” he said. “But I’m not sure that we will have gotten much closer to understanding how our genomes interact with the environment to produce our overall risk of many diseases.”

Nevertheless, Furrow believes that his research “could provide new insights into disease treatment and prevention. It will improve our ability to relate our genetics and lifestyles to the way we look, feel, and act.”

Meet my robo-maid:

But biology won’t be the only field of science making leaps in the coming decade, according to professor Ruzena Bajcsy, who does research at UC Berkeley on “how to use technology for improved communication amongst people with different cultures.”

Bajcsy predicts that the “miniaturization” of robots and wireless technology with low energy consumption will bring these technological innovations to a broader audience.

In 10 years, she also foresees “robots co-existing and even cooperating with people.” Increased artificial intelligence can potentially give the robots more useful roles in society such as in-home care robots.

Nanotechnology, the study of the control of matter at an atomic and molecular level, is one prospect she enthusiastically looks forward to because of its myriad of applications in medicine, electronics and space, such as for drug delivery, efficiency of electronics and the creation of better materials for space travel.

Junior Michael Chang believes that robots that can perform functions like household chores would revolutionize society, for better or for worse.

“If the robots are cost efficient, people can do the things they want to do instead of cleaning or ironing clothes,” he said. “Some of these skills would become dormant.”

Sleepy physicians: practical research to change the system

But many areas of research also deal with more practical areas such as ways on how to improve outdated or unsafe polices in the workplace. Professor Rebecca Smith-Coggins hopes that her research will be able to do just that within the next 10 years.

At Stanford University, Smith-Coggins studies the effect of sleep deprivation on physician performance.

“There has been much discussion of duty hour limitations for resident physicians who are in their training years of their education,” Smith-Coggins said. “All residents must have one day out of seven free from medical duty; all residents must not work more than an 80-hour work week. These limitations were [put in place] to improve resident physician wellness and there were hopes that it would improve patient safety.”

This type of research is important because it can determine the effectiveness and safety of current policies, and it will continue to make jobs safer and more effective in the coming decade.

“There has been much written and studied about [the effects of sleep deprivation of physician performance] since then, and I think the discussion and impact will be felt for years,” she said.

Planes, tanks and automobiles:

As the world’s major countries develop, so too will their military defense systems. Silicon Valley engineer Chaumin Hu, of BAE Systems, develops software for U.S. combat vehicles, like tanks. He says, with advancements in the coming decade, that computers will revolutionize national security.

Hu says that by 2020, an increased number of U.S. fighting vehicles will be equipped with more advanced technology and power systems, which will allow for the control “by software with less human interaction inside the vehicle and further communication capabilities between the vehicles and the base station.”

Hu believes that better equipment is integral for the safety of the country.

“With newer and advanced technology deployed on the U.S. fighting vehicles, the security and safety of the country and society can be better ensured,” said Hu.

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