We follow a day in the life in 2100, exploring the cities, transport, workplaces and health of tomorrow. Plus, astronomers find water on Mars, a magnetic wire which could screen for cancer and why your cat's poo could change your brain...
In this episode
00:56 - Saltwater lake located on Mars
Saltwater lake located on Mars
with Carolin Crawford, University of Cambridge
This week, decades of debate have been apparently settled, as it has been announced that there is currently liquid water on Mars. A team from the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics has discovered a lake under the planet’s south polar ice cap. It is about 20 kilometres wide, and full of liquid water. But how did the team discover this and what does this mean about the possibility of life on Mars? Georgia Mills spoke to Cambridge University astrophysicist Carolin Crawford to find out how they discovered this lake.
Carolin - Well, if you’re going to find water underground you have to use radar. This discovery was made with the MARSIS instrument above the surface of the planet. It’s riding on the European Space Agency’s Mars Express satellite and what it does is it pulses radar signals down to the ground and then receives the signal as it’s being reflected back. And the timing of the signal return and also how much it’s being diminished by that reflection tells you something about what lies under the ground. What they discovered, about one and a half kilometres underneath the south pole, there’s a very bright reflection signal which they interpret as a lake of liquid water right under the south pole.
Georgia - That’s really exciting, but how confident can we by in this interpretation?
Carolin - Well that’s always the question because you’re not actually there sampling it yourself, you’re relying on radar signals. Your understanding of the temperature profile underneath the south pole, underneath the crust of Mars; also the chemical composition of the rocks and the soil, and you’ve got to be absolutely sure about interpreting those radar signals right. It looks like they’ve done a good job but there will have to be further confirmation, and also just to see if there are any other signals like this. Could it be due to anything else, but currently, it looks like a boundary between the bottom of the ice and the beginning of this lake and that’s their best interpretation.
Georgia - We’ve always thought that there wasn’t liquid water on Mars - at least that was the standard opinion. So why didn't we think it was there and why is it only in this place?
Carolin - Well you can’t have liquid water on the surface of Mars. That’s the key thing because the air pressure’s incredibly low and the temperatures very low, so it’s either frozen or if it’s exposed to the air it just sublimates so it evaporates away completely. So the only possible place you could have liquid water is if its been somewhere like the south pole where it’s squeezed by the pressure, the weight of all those layers of ice and dust on top, and so you’ve got that pressure which provides the heating.
The other thing that’s important to say that we’re talking about water but this is going to be not water like comes out of your tap. This is going to be very briney, very salty water and some of those salts can almost act like an antifreeze. So both the increased pressure and that salty content means that it can stay liquid even though it may be sort of -10, -20 degrees C.
Georgia - What’s the next step for this team? What are they going to do next?
Carolin - They’re obviously going to check the signal, the interpretation of the signal. They’ll work with other radar teams just to check nobody’s got any other idea. You’re going to have to see whether this is typical - are there a large number of lakes. But really, if you want to investigate it, you need to go there and we’re a long way off doing that because you’re going to have to land a completely sterile lander at the south pole and work out a way of drilling down one and half kilometres and extract some core sample. That’s going to be your best bet to actually see the water and know it’s there.
Georgia - Here’s the question on everyone’s minds: what does this mean about the possibility of life on Mars?
Carolin - Well it’s exciting. Not only are we interested in the water history of Mars, but we know on Earth wherever we find water we find life. So the idea that there’s a persistent pocket of liquid water it just raises the possibility that there is an environment already on Mars which could host life, and here we’re talking microbial life. But also that it’s more likely in the past because we know Mars’ south polar cap was at least twice as big in the past, there was lots more ice to melt to form the water. And also there would have been more radioactive heating in the crust which would have also provided the heat needed to turn this to water. So it may not be relevant necessarily for life now but it does certainly provide a big first step to saying here’s an environment where you could have had life in the past.
05:18 - Hitting pain where it hurts
Hitting pain where it hurts
with Maria Maiaru, UCL
Up to one in five people suffers from some form of chronic pain, and these sorts of conditions are notoriously hard to treat. Now scientists in London have made a breakthrough: they’ve used a component of the nerve-deactivating chemical “botox” - this is called botulinum toxin - and linked it like two Lego bricks to a molecule of something that looks like the pain killer morphine. Injected into the spinal cord of mice, the construct docks with the pain nerve signals that are normally sensitive to opioid painkillers, which then take the botulinum toxin inside, where it selectively shuts down the transmission of just pain signals in that part of the spine for up to 3 months. Chris Smith spoke to UCL’s Maria Maiaru discovered how to do it.
Maria - Pain is a huge global health problem and seriously affects quality of life. Opioid drugs at the moment are considered to be the gold standard for pain relief, but there is little evidence that long term use is effective in the treatment of chronic pain. Moreover, the body blocks tolerance to repeated drug treatment which necessitates a higher dose to achieve pain relief. The body will also develop dependence and addiction. For all these reasons we need more safe and effective drugs to treat chronic pain.
Chris - How have you tried to go about doing this then, because people have been trying to invent better painkillers ever since Bayer invented aspirin a hundred years ago.
Maria - We started from work that was published about 20 years ago. In the spinal cord we have the specific neuronal population that send these painful messages, if you want, to the brain. So these people selectively killed this neuron in the spinal cord and provided pain relief.
The same approach didn’t translate into the clinic for human use because doctors are reluctant to use drugs that will kill your cells and your neurons. So to overcome this issue, we used the neurotoxin properties of the botulinum toxin to specifically silence, but not kill, neurons in the spinal cord.
Chris - So you can temporarily sort of knock out the nerve cells in the same way as a person who doesn’t want wrinkles can inject a bit of botox which temporarily paralyses the conversation between the nerve and the muscles and the wrinkle irons out. You’re saying go into the spinal cord and use botox in the same way to temporarily interrupt the chemical conversation between the pain nerves, so that the person still has their nerve intact but they can’t feel anything?
Maria - Exactly. We did this by using a lego system to link the botulinum toxin to a specific molecule; in this case it’s an opioid called morphine to target neurons in the spinal cord that express a specific receptor used by morphine. So the compound can go inside the neurons and then silence the neuron without killing them.
Chris - Right. So what we have here is you’re linking something that looks a bit like morphine with the component of the botulinum toxin so that it will bind onto the cells that would normally hear the morphine signal and this will carry the toxin to just the cells that need to be deactivated?
Maria - Exactly. What the botulinum does is it just stops for a period the release of the neurotransmitter, so the pain signalling that the neuron in the spinal cord is receiving is not travelling up to the brain. So you don’t feel the pain anymore, because the neuron that was responsible for the transmission of this information is now silent.
Chris - How do you get the construct of the morphine-like chemical with the toxin-like chemical into the nerves that need it in the first place?
Maria - We inject a tiny amount of the compound intrathecally into the spinal cord of our animal models.
Chris - What sorts of pain states or pain syndromes have you investigated to see how good this is?
Maria - We used two different preclinical models of chronic pain: a model of inflammatory pain, and the model of neuropathic pain. And we found that a single injection of our compound reduces the pain hypersensitivity for up to one month, and to the same extent as morphine.
Chris - So in other words a person who, assuming you translate this successfully to human patients, a person who had one of your injections wouldn’t need another one for a month?
Maria - Exactly. By waiting we did some experiments in-vitro, so on cell culture and, in fact they last for at least 100 days, so up to three months.
Chris - But do you not end up with a patch of the body which, albeit temporarily, does not have any ability to feel pain? So, is there a possibility you could use this on somebody, they get a numb patch of skin that they could then injure quite severely because they’re not aware that they’re burning that bit of their skin, for example?
Maria - I’m glad you asked because the pain relief that we achieve is not completely. These mice are still able to discriminate what is an acute stimulation. We do not achieve a 100 percent of pain relief.
11:05 - Down to Earth: Scratch-resistant glass
Down to Earth: Scratch-resistant glass
with Stuart Higgins
This week Stuart Higgins brings a crystal clear scientific invention down to earth...
Stuart- A clean supply of water is critical if you want to send humans to space. In the 1970s, researchers at NASA were trying to develop a water filter for space missions using a process called reverse osmosis. Contaminated water is forced under pressure through the filter which contains pores so small that only the pure water can pass through.
At the time filters were made by coating different types of plastics onto a surface and allowing them to form a thin skin with tiny holes in. However, making these filters was difficult because factors such as how warm or humid it was in the day could affect the properties of the manufactured filter.
So the NASA team came up with a new way of making them instead; they used plasma polymerisation. They paced an ordinary piece of filter paper, with it’s larger pores, inside a glass jar, pumped out the air, and pumped in a small amount of either nitrogen or argon plus the chemical ingredients for making a plastic.
By applying a high frequency electric field between two metal plates across the jar, they generated an electrical plasma - atoms of gas that had their electrons ripped away by the electric field. This plasma interacted with the plastic making chemicals causing them to deposit and link together on the surface of the filter paper. This layer of plastic contained the small pores needed to make a good filter.
The benefit of their approach was that it was highly controlled and allowed consistent and strongly bound layers of plastic to form. While this solved their original problem, the engineers quickly realised they could use the same trick with different chemicals to create other coatings.
In 1972, the US government introduced new rules that meant that the lenses used in a pair of glasses needed to be shatter resistant to protect the user from injury. Plastic lenses were a cheap and easy way to manufacture alternative glass but were very easy to scratch in everyday life.
The NASA engineers applied their plasma technique to coating the plastic lenses with a hard material based on organosilanes. Organosilanes are materials that contain both carbon and silicon and they can be made to form strong bonds to both surfaces and to themselves. This meant that the coated plastic became tougher and more resistant to scratches allowing the widespread adoption of plastic lenses.
So that’s how engineers working on water filters for space missions used the same technology to develop a scratch resistant coatings for plastic lenses improving the safety and usefulness of glasses around the world.
14:05 - Magnetic nanoparticles detect cancer
Magnetic nanoparticles detect cancer
with Sam Gambhir, Stanford University
One of the reasons cancer is so often deadly is that it is usually caught relatively late, at a stage where treatment is less likely to be effective. This is because at present we don’t have a method that’s sensitive enough to detect early cancers reliably - standard scans and blood tests simply aren’t good enough. This is precisely the problem a team of researchers at Stanford University have set out to tackle - using a combination of nanoparticles and a tiny magnetic wire. To find out more, Isabelle Cochrane spoke to Sam Gambhir, Professor of Cancer Research at Stanford University…
Sam - We know that tumours shed different molecules that end up in the blood and the problem is that when the tumour is small and very early, the molecules that are being shed into the blood are present only in very low quantities. And so, to find these rare molecules from an early tumour we need a way in which we can go into your blood and filter out all those molecules.
The idea is that this little magnetic wire called Mag Wire, which is about a millimetre in diameter and about 6 millimetres in length. It’s made up of tiny little magnets, very powerful little magnets that can enter your body in the vein, and then if anything magnetic is going by, the magnets and the wire will attract those magnetic molecules that are going by. So we also put in little magnetic nanoparticles that stick to the molecules the tumour is making, so within about 20 minutes of having a wire in your blood we can sample the entire blood volume in your body, pull out the wire and then analyse everything stuck to it so that we can get a detailed assessment if there may be a hidden tumour.
Isabelle - How do you specifically manage to tag the tumour molecules themselves rather than anything else that’s floating around in the blood?
Sam - We can target anything we want in the blood by using the properly of antibodies that can be very specific to binding to anything we want to find. For example, sometimes the tumours, not only do they shed little molecules out into the blood, but the cells themselves shed into the blood - that’s called circulating tumour cells. Circulating tumour cells have a molecule on their surface that makes them unique and we can have an antibody that finds that molecule and the antibody is attached to a little magnetic nanoparticle.
Isabelle - How do you decide what might be a useful molecule to look for?
Sam - Based on progress in the early cancer detection world, we continue to find different molecules that are useful to go after. For example, with circulating tumour cells, those tumour cells have a molecule on their surface called EpCAM, and EpCAM if it’s found on a surface of a cell in the blood it’s highly likely to be a tumour cell. But, because those things exist in rare amounts you still need a solution like the mag wire to, in fact, sample the entire body’s blood volume. Because when a tumour gets smaller and smaller, whatever is going to be shed into the blood is present at lower and lower concentrations.
Isabelle - Does this mean that we can make the mag wire sensitive enough to eventually be useful as a screening test for cancer?
Sam - The mag wire could eventually be a screening test, although it’s more likely to be useful for high risk populations as opposed to the larger population that we would call low risk. And the reason is the mag wire would have to be left in for about 20 minutes and it’s unlikely that we would put millions and millions of people through a screening process where they would not get just a simple blood draw, but would have to have a wire in them for 20 minutes.
However, for people that are at higher risk that have family histories of cancer, have other history or genetic issues related to cancer, in those cases it may in fact make sense to use the mag wire to in fact detect if they have an early cancer.
Isabelle - Do we know if there are any risks associated with using the mag wire?
Sam - We don’t know about any risks yet. We continue to study that. There’s probably no significant risk from the wire itself; there may be some risk in the nanoparticles. The nanoparticles that one can use, are made of things like iron; different elements are magnetic but, we in fact give to humans iron based nanoparticles. We break down the nanoparticles and use the iron in the nanoparticle, so it’s not that unusual to actually give someone a magnetic nanoparticle.
Georgia - To anyone else like me who was worried Chris has just been telling me that iron in your blood is not in a magnetic form so the magnet wouldn’t such out all of your blood.
Chris - Someone did write to us once and said don’t those people who work at dumps and car yards where they move old cars around with a giant magnet, wouldn’t they have something of a health problem if that were the case? And the answer is reliably no! You don’t have all your blood rushing to the magnet at the junkyard.
19:30 - Can your cat's parasites help you succeed?
Can your cat's parasites help you succeed?
with Jim Ajioka, University of Cambridge
A paper out this week claims that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which cats shed in their faeces, can - if we catch it - reduce our fear of failure and boost our chances of success! According to a team from Colorado, professionals at business events were nearly twice as likely to have started their own company if they tested positive for toxo. So are parasites really pulling the strings? Chris Smith was joined by Cambridge University’s Jim Ajioka, who wasn’t involved in the study, but does work on Toxoplasma....
Jim - Basically what they did is they surveyed a number of business students and other businessmen in various places in the US and in Europe and just simply asked the question does your exposure to Toxoplasma correlate with your ability to do business in an enrtrepreneurial way, or at least in a survey they could point that out, and they found a correlation.
Chris - There’s emphasis on the fact that they found a correlation. They’re not saying that being infected with toxoplasmosis causes you to become very good at business?
Jim - No, that’s right.
Chris - Because if that were true, populations like France where the majority of the population, as far as I know, it’s at least half the population carry it isn’t it? They ought to be leading the world.
Jim - Yeah, that’s right. All of these things are probably small effects but there’s been a number of studies, both in animals and in other survey studies in humans, where they’ve looked at changes in behaviour between when you’re exposed to toxoplasma or not, and most of those have shown some kind of correlation. In the animal studies there’s really good evidence that there is neurological disturbance with the parasite.
Chris - What does toxo actually do? What’s it’s life cycle, and how might this affect that the Colorado team have picked up be biologically plausible based on what we know about what the toxoplasma parasite does to our nervous system?
Jim - Right. So the parasite has two parts to its lifecycle that are important. One is the sexual part of the lifecycle where the cat is the definitive host, and the parasite will go into the cat and be shed in the faeces, as you’ve noted before, in probably about 10 million infectious particles.
Chris - So when the cat goes in its litter tray, each cat turd could infect 10 million people?
Jim - Across a couple of weeks, yeah, they’ll shed about 10 million. If you pick up one of those things; it’s on your vegetables or you’re a keen gardener you pick those up, you'll put them in your mouth, you’ll probably get toxoplasma, an infection but you won’t notice it because in humans the symptoms are actually quite mild. First you will establish an acute infection which you probably wouldn’t notice because it doesn’t really do much in humans. Other animals it does. And the parasite will be cleared by your immune system, but what it tries to do is to set up a resting form or chronic form in places where your immune system doesn’t work very well - your brain being one of those places. We know from animal studies that you will get neurodegeneration from the presence of the parasite in a chronic infection in the brain.
Chris - But what’s the sort of biological origin of the risk taking/daring/entrepreneurial flare that people might show if they have it? Where does that come from?
Jim - The idea is that the parasite it’s job really is to replicate and then spread - that’s what natural selection would do. And so part of the way that it spreads is to be eaten by other animals. If you are more risk taking and your behaviour for trying to avoid predation is lower and so natural selection will select the parasite to manipulate the host so that it will be more easily eaten.
Chris - You said that the definitive host where the parasite wants to be is a cat therefore is it mice and rats that cats classically traditionally catch that tend to have the more daring behaviour normally when they’re infected with toxin?
Jim - That’s right. When you look at other studies: Joanne Webster at Oxford for example did some nice studies with rats and, in fact, she showed that rats had definitely had a much more risk taking behaviour with regards to predator presence than the ones that were not infected.
Cities of 2100
with Mike Pitts, Innovate UK
What will the city of the 22nd Century look like? According to the United Nations, 54 percent of the world’s population currently lives in urban areas, and by 2050 that number is expected to reach 66 percent and continue to climb. So how will these ever more-populated cities function, and how might artificially-intelligent buildings help? Georgia Mills spoke to Mike Pitts, interim challenge director at Innovate U.K…
Mike - Cities of the future are going to become more and more important. They’re important now; we’re becoming more and more an urban species. And the reason is in cities we have higher GDP, we have lower carbon footprint so cities of the future will manage a lot of the downsides while keeping those upsides. The kind of down sides we want to improve are the things like physical and mental health issues we have in cities, the environmental side of things, and also the way we manage our cities, so cities of the future will be greener. We know that there’s a lot of relationship between green space and our physical and mental health. And we also know we’ll have to be able to manage our infrastructure better in the future, so our infrastructure will be smarter. Buildings will generate their own energy and the city itself will work on what’s holistically almost like an organism.
Georgia - You’re painting a good picture there so how will it work like an organism? How will things be connected?
Mike - What we’re doing more and more is kind of connecting our physical and our digital worlds. So things like the internet are things where we’re adding a digital layer on top of all objects either through senses or plugging more and more of our devices into the internet connecting them all up. They’re all collecting the information we need to be able to visualise the city and perfect kind of duplicate in a digital world. It’s almost like a matrix and that’s (01.18) we’re calling a digital twin and from that we can control the city better. We can control the flows of everything; all the services the city is there to provide to citizens even down to things like health. The city can monitor you and kind of nudge you in the right direction and perhaps it will encourage you to do more walking.
Georgia - The internet thing is something that’s around now and people are connecting things up in their house to the internet, but would this be on a larger scale in the future with things like buildings talking to each other?
Mike - Absolutely. Buildings of the future will be generating their own energy. They’ll also be doing a lot of things we want them to do: cleaning water and managing waste. And it will be kind of trading these flows of materials whether that’s electricity or heat, or waste, or water between them. That’s aware that something's been produced so wastewater coming out a building going into somewhere that needs it. That’ll be optimised across all sorts of systems like transport and health and that should free up us humans to do the more human jobs.
Georgia - When you say they’ll generate their own energy, in what kind of way might they do this?
Mike - Have all sorts of technology embedded into the fabric buildings. So everything from photovoltaic routes to facades on buildings that draw in heat from the air and can store it. But it’s as much about managing things like heating and cooling as it is about electricity.
Georgia - Right. So there could be one building in the sun getting lots of energy from solar power and the building next to it is in the shade but trying to get a lot done? So the building can say hey, do you want some energy and just sort of send it over?
Mike - Exactly. Or a data centre generating a lot and trying to get rid of a lot of heat very quickly and we can move that out of heat networks to buildings who need heat or, more and more in the future, where we need cooling.
Georgia - You mentioned they’ll be more green spaces so how will our future cities be more environmentally friendly, more sustainable?
Mike - We’ll have to build in more and more green spaces. We know it’s so important to mental health but it’s also really important to things like managing pollution. And the urban heat island effect, so this challenge we have in built up areas where the city itself can be up to eight degrees warmer than the surrounding hinterland because of the way infrastructure absorbs heat in the day and reflects it back at night, and that’s mitigated by things like green space.
So we’ll see more and more green space as we manage our transport and resource flows better. All of space is taken up with the services in the city can be turned back over to green space.
Georgia - You paint a lovely picture here - everything’s greener, everything’s smarter, we’re a lot more efficient with everything. Is this what think the future will be like or what you think it should be like?
Mike - We very think this is the way the future is going. The kind of work I do in Innovate UK with the industrial strategy these are the kinds of ideas and things that businesses are working on now. But what’s going to be really important in the future is the cities that will survive are the ones that manage social interaction well. Social interaction drives a lot of the benefits in cities. Strong culture, strong innovation is what really brings the value to cities and why people want to live there, so the cities that do that best are going to be be ones that really survive and thrive in the future.
29:55 - Driverless cars of 2100
Driverless cars of 2100
with Ben Peters and Jamie Lowry, FiveAI
There’s inevitably a lot of hype around what will be the transport of tomorrow. Most likely, you’ll be able to request “Uber”-like public transport services, like multi user driverless pods; you’ll hail them electronically and the nearest one that’s heading your way will come by, pick you up and take you where you want to go. The transport system should, if this happens, work much more efficiently and hopefully traffic jams are going to be a thing of the past. Vy Nguyen has been to see the transport of the future for herself…
Ben - Hi, I’m Ben Peters. I’m co-founder and BP product at FiveAI. We’re at our proving ground so the facility where we build and test our vehicles. This is a standard Ford vehicle platform, so it’s the Fusion platform which is a light electric hybrid that we’ve modified with a bunch of autonomous kits to make it drive itself. If I show you around the vehicle…
Vy - The car of tomorrow looks a lot like the car of today but with some rather funky add-ons. The roof is decked out with various cameras and sensors, and sci-fi looking antennas align the bonnet and boot, while the interior is largely full of flashing computer power. And these adjustments help the car to see and think…
Ben - One of the first steps we perform is the localisation step and localise ourselves to a Primap. We use a bunch of different sensors to do that so we’re using the lidar and the vision sensors to do that, and we do also occasionally use GP, which is partly what you can see on the car - the antennas on the rear. Once you’ve localised yourself one of the next things you need to perform really is recognising everything that isn’t on the map so what we refer to as dynamic objects. So that is all of the pedestrians, all of the cyclists, all of the vehicles. And we need to be able to classify them as that, so accurately determine that they are indeed pedestrians, or cyclists, or vehicles, and even what type of vehicle they might be. Are they a lorry or are they a sports car, etc? And to position them in 3D space and to have an idea of what they’re pose is and what they’re velocity is.
Then we need to actually determine what’s likely to happen next in a scene. By that I man what is the likely action and interaction of the dynamic agents in a scene. To do that with any confidence we need to have some understanding of how those dynamic agents tend to behave. We do that by learning typical behaviours. We learn from the data that we capture with our vehicles and we learn from the data that we capture from CCTV footage. We learn how actors tend to behave and how they tend to interact with each other. And then in run time in our vehicles, based on the learning we have on how these agents tend to behave, we play Ford’s multiple potential futures and try to analyse a path through those potential futures that leads to us safely getting to where we want to go.
Vy - But even with thousands of hours of data and machine learning, we’re still not close to matching the prowess of the human brain…
Ben - If we look at some of the science problems we have to solve, the classification performance of things like cyclists at the moment, best in class science is something like 75 percent precisions, meaning we’re still missing about a quarter of cyclists on a frame by frame basis. Novel science is need to get classification performance of many of the things that we care to identify to get to the level that it needs to be to be safe. And then even on the predictions and path planning side really being able to accurately predict how agents interact, and to do that safely over a reasonable time horizon is still and unsolved problem.
Vy - Well the science has a ways to go before we can unleash these cars on our roads. The proving ground provides a safe place to test and troubleshoot. So, of course, I had to have a ride in one of them…
Jamie - Hi, I’m Jamie Lowrie. I’m one of the development engineers here at FiveAI.
I’m currently parked at the start line. I’m just going to press the engage for the autonomous mode so we’ll see the system take control. I’m completely hands free at the moment. We’re coming up the first corner, which is a switchback right then left over a brow, and it’s just controlled itself over the top of the hill. We’re just about to come to a stop here so you’ll feel the brakes come on as we come to our end way point and I’ll disengage… that was the system disengaging.
Vy - Being driven around without a driver was surreal. But what’s the plan for when these cars hit the roads alongside you and me? Back to Ben…
Ben - What we’re aiming to do is to build this autonomous technology into our service vehicles and delivery urban transportation services that are more attractive than driving your own personal vehicle, and can be delivered at a significantly lower cost. These will be shared services so we think if we can get the service design right, it will encourage people to give up their personal cars to share these vehicles and, therefore, reduce congestion and the environmental impact of congestion.
Most people don’t actually enjoy commuting in their own personal vehicles. They tend to be stuck in traffic jams and they buy these fairly expensive items - the most expensive people buy after a house and have them sat depreciating on their driveways for 94/95 percent of the time. We burn up the world’s resources in creating these cars and then just have them sat rotting in car parks. So that is kind of both the economically and the environmentally low hanging fruit that we want to replace with our consumer service.
Vy - Maybe in the year 2100 human driving will be completely obsolete. With the far more energy and time efficient driverless cars making traffic jams and accidents a distance memory. But before then, driverless cars need to share the roads with driver full cars which presents it’s own challenges…
Ben - For many many years, the autonomous vehicles that we develop will be sharing the roads with human drivers, and human drivers have a certain expectation for how other human drivers behave, and so we need to be cognisant of that. If we start to introduce behaviours that look very different to how human drivers behave that could cause a safety problem in itself. We need to drive in a way that is predictable for the human drivers that we share roads with.
That said, human drivers often take risks which they shouldn’t take. A classic example would be human drivers take blind curves faster than they should. Those are the types of behaviours that we won’t take with our vehicles and so our vehicles are constantly, several time a second, reviewing the risk in a scene, reviewing the confidence that we have in a scene, and reviewing the visibility that we have and modifying our speed accordingly and that’s not always something you see with typical human driving.
Chris - Not something that I’d ever considered actually that the driverless car will drive too well for human drivers to anticipate what it might do. That’s ironic isn’t it.
That was Ben Peters and Jamie Lowrie, from FiveAI, talking to Vy Nguyen taking a ride in one of their cars.
Mike, Pitts who is from Innovate UK is still with us. Mike, what’s your vision for the transport services of 2100 and also especially long distance transport?
Mike - I think within cities, as you heard in the piece there, there’s much more optimised ways of moving around so we’re using fewer vehicles to move people much more efficiently. What’s more interesting is the intercity kind of connections, we’re very excited about technologies like hyperloop probably coming along by 2100 and that’s essentially the kinds of things you’ve seen in movies. Big pods flying down tunnels that have had the air removed from them so that there’s no air resistance and we can get from city to city in minutes.
Chris - So we’ll have even more time to spend on admin wouldn’t you say Mike?
Mike - Or in the pub!
38:54 - The workplace of 2100
The workplace of 2100
with Liselotte Lyngsø, Future Navigator
The way we work has evolved dramatically in the last 80 years - we’ve gone from mainly manual jobs to almost all of us being desk bound tapping away at computers. So what will the future bring, more of the same or will robots have stolen all of the jobs. Georgia Mills spoke with Liselotte Lyngsø, futurist and founding partner at Future Navigator to learn more about what work will look like in the year 2100.
Liselotte - First of all I think the office notion and the notion of paying people per hour is very much from the industrial society’s logic and I think we’re going to completely depart from that. I think we will look into a future where we will be very human centered because machines will be extremely good at being machines at that point in time, so we will have to be very good at being humans. I think we’ll look back and think oh, back in 2018 people were so primitive back then pushing people like they were lemons you know. They had stress, they had depressions, they had loneliness. I’m so happy that now we’re in the 21st hundred, can actually get something better out of people.
We understand how people work. We understand the people shouldn’t be working on their own, they should be working in teams, so I think we will go from head hunting to team hunting. You will also not have the retirement as you have it today. You will go from retirement to having breaks where you retrain, where you re-organise yourself. We probably won’t have one education in the beginning of life, we will have micro learning, adaptive learning as we go along. So we all the time get feedback for okay, now Liselotte has forgotten everything and she needs to catch up on this, that, or the other.
Georgia - It’s looking like as machines get better more and more people will lose their jobs, so what kinds of things will we be doing 80 years from now?
Liselotte - I’m actually not so worried about having this jobless society. All indicators show that the more we put technology into these different areas, the more busy we get ourselves. So, for instance, within healthcare you now monitorise the elderly people and they know exactly when they need water, when they need exercise, and all it has created is this hydra’s head with even more jobs for the healthcare providers. And we will be around 10 billion people so there’s going to be plenty of stuff to do, it’s just going to be different tasks than we’re used to.
If you look out of the window right now we have refugee crisis, we have environmental crisis, we have so many people who need a better quality of life, we don’t have enough water. There are so many jobs out there, so I think it’s so sad to look at these young people who are scared of entering the labour market because they hear that robots are coming and they won’t be needed. You know, they are needed like never before but it’s a different kind of perspective. New jobs are going to be created.
Looking at ourselves as machines - that’s a big mistake. We really have to find out about human nature. You probably know that empathy is going to be more important because it’s a little difficult for machines to have this empathic muscle. Something that we are talking less about is actually the ability to be irritated. People can get very very irritated and there you actually have the key to clever innovation. Likewise, people can get lazy, and that’s also a very good sentiment if you want to create a better planet because it’s asking yourself what do I not want to do any longer or could I do this in a smarter way? Machines are not feeling lazy, so I think we have to, in a sense, tease out these very human capabilities and really find out how to tease out our individual potentials in this future.
Georgia - I like the idea of laziness and irritability being like our defining human characteristics that separate us from machines. Will commuting still be a thing - will we still go to offices?
Liselotte - Already now we are skin hungry like never before, so I think we will actually need to meet, and we need to meet in order to touch, in order to taste, in order to have the informality of meetings. But I think it doesn’t make sense to say well, that’s in real life, or in virtual life a hundred years from now because you can already now make holograms that you can actually touch, so I think you can replace quite a few of these things.
I have to go into a few of the technologies that will be there. For instance, by that time we can do mind reading, so I can read your mind. It’s already happening now that you can recognise the brainwaves, and you can have implants of memory. We had to already now think about how much do we want to alter the human nature. It’s not technology and humankind, it’s really technology melding together with humans so we’ll be having these super-capacities in ourselves. And the big challenge is going to be balance that so we’ll have happy lives together.
Georgia - What other technologies do you think might be making work life different in the future?
Liselotte - Well, the memory chip that I talked about is actually putting a mouse in front of a maze and then it takes it three weeks to get into the cheese in the centre. And then placing a mouse in front of a maze that has never seen the maze before, taking out the chip you had in the other mouse’s head, transplanting it into the other mouse. Then the mouse is actually catching the cheese in the first go like it has been in the maze before. They’re doing this right now for people with dementia, so when you have become 60 you can have a kind of brain update so you’re sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
Georgia - This is like the Matrix. It’s like when Keanu Reeves gets kung fu downloaded into his mind.
Liselotte - It is a little bit. But it works on mice now so why not on people. I actually think we’ll have different workplaces. Workplaces where you do a lot to augment people and where they might lose out on all privacy, and then you have other workplaces where they are guarding the privacy and they are fencing you in and securing your privacy.
45:58 - Healthcare in 2100
Healthcare in 2100
with Catherine Priestley, AstraZeneca
There is no doubt innovation is going to revolutionise healthcare in the future. The Internet of Things and wearable technologies will allow us to get health monitoring from anywhere in the world: perhaps your pillow, for instance, will read your brain activity while you sleep and then it could adjust the environment to ensure you get the best night’s rest. Or, when you sit on the loo, a so called “com-poo-ter” will analyse what goes down the drain and then monitor your health that way. A breath sample could flag up impending ill-health for example, and artificial intelligence can then help us to develop individually tailored drug and treatment protocols. Chris Smith got the story from Catherine Priestley is the Director of Science Engagement, Innovative Medicines and Early Development at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.
Catherine - You only need to look at the way that we’ve turned science fiction into science fact in the past 80 years. 1953 was our first open heart surgery and yet today greater than 8,000 patients, just in the UK, receive new heart valves. Then the improved technologies that we’ve had, therapies, vaccinations eradicating these killer diseases - we’re really moving in the right direction for patient survival rate there.
I think, as you heard from the other speakers, healthcare is also on that paradigm shift and this is a result of this data connectivity, this machine intelligence. And that coupled with automation is going to change the way that we’re going to develop and design medicines of the future. Therapies that are going to not just manage and cure, but actually the way that we’re even going to run our daily lives to, hopefully, prevent and even delay the onset of disease.
Chris - This is more of an all round package that you’re proposing then. So rather than I go to a chemist and I pick up a packet of pills that have been made by your company and take them, you’re saying that you would also provide people with an app to make sure I take them on time, or an app that will guide my lifestyle changes that will mean that drug will work optimally in me, for example?
Catherine - Correct. You can sort of think about this as the pill is the therapy, and that might not be a pill in the future - who knows. But also around that pill the apps that are going to make sure that we’re compliant, that it’s going to actually inform you that you that you’ve got the right dose. And even then beyond the pill, you can see how apps and technologies and wearable devices - biosensors etc., can not only inform with it where the medicine that you’re taking is actually going to be impactful and improve the patient outcome and lead to a healthier lifestyle, but also might suggest lifestyle changes. Divert you from going to the fridge, or that you’re contact lens might actually inform you whether your glucose levels are changing. And what’s going to be so clever about the machine intelligence, plus the human interrelationship, that diversions away from that fridge. How it’s going to change the way our lifestyle, should be healthier in the future.
Chris - One of the things that’s challenged your industry for many years is the whole question of clinical trials. It’s doing big trials with large enough numbers of people to get statistically meaningful data and often, it ends up being a bit artificial because you end up putting people into quite artificial situations to make sure that it’s statistically rigorous but actually that’s not how people behave and so it ends up biased anyway. So with all of this information gathering is this a new opportunity to do clinical trials a whole new way?
Catherine - Yes. There’s two aspects to think about this. Actually what’s fueling into the clinical trial will be different, so not only will the drug itself - the chemistry of the drug be different. We have small molecules, monoclonal antibodies, peptides today as routine. Now even within AstraZeneca we’ve got 13 different types of chemistry going in that’s going to go after new disease biology because, actually, we’re informing back all the way from the clinic to the discovery angle to inform that better practice. We’re also going to have very different pre-clinical datasets; ones that are more predictive using organ chips. Those are little microchips, where you take all the different cells in the tissue or organ and populate them together, so you the interplay. Therefore all the different experiments you’ve run on those chips are better informed, more predictive for what’s going to happen in the clinic.
Chris - Ah right. So you could even, potentially, model say, you wanted to give me a drug for a liver complaint, you could actually model my own liver on a chip and test your drug on that before you’ve got it anywhere near me?
Catherine - Potentially. Although I think at that stage, doing it so tailored at the preclinical stage I think is more that you can use stem cells at that stage rather than your own patient. But then if you couple that with all the imagery advances we are in the hope of creating a google map of cancer. And the way that all of those cells interact with the imagery, the compute power that we then have means that what we’re fuelling into those clinical trials are much more predictive and more likely to succeed.
So those clinical trials then, you could forsee with all the wearable technology, and all the different data that’s been collected in real time, those patients don’t need to be in a clinical trial centre, they could be in their own home. And, therefore, more patients are going to have access to more innovations that are happening in real time as well. And hopefully as patients - all of us in the future - are going to end up with healthier lifestyles and better outcomes if we do have to manage disease.
52:43 - How much land to feed a person?
How much land to feed a person?
Marika Ottman is on a mission to answer Charlie's question...
Marika - The Anglo-Saxons tried to answer this question with a concept of a hide. Around the 7th century hides were first defined as the amount of land required to sustain a household, which converts to approximately 120 acres.
On the forum: anthrogeek12 points out that the answer really depends on the climate, the region, and dietary needs.
We have historically been able to obtain our food only by collaborating within social groups and following food sources. Excellent point: in the spirit of collaboration I put this question to Marco Springmann, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies environmental sustainability and public health. Perhaps he can give us the lay of the land…
Marco - Let’s start with the numbers; our current population of 7.2 billion people uses roughly 40 percent of the Earth’s surface for agriculture. Two thirds of agricultural land is used as pastures for grazing and one third for planting crops. If you divide the total area by total population we get an estimate for average agricultural land amount per person of about 7,000 square metres - that’s roughly the size of a football field.
Marika - An entire football pitch of provisions; now that’s a lot of space just for one person. However, this size could vary based on a whole slew of factors.
Marco - This is only a rough estimate, and actual land requirements will depend on factors such as the production methods used in the region and the dietary choices people make; for example, you wouldn’t need that big portion of land for grazing if you ate less meat. Add in there, technological improvements, reductions in food loss and waste, not eating too little or too much, and growing more of the foods that we know are healthy and we should be eating more of, such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes you'd go from a whole football field to only the penalty zones, or to an Olympic size swimming pool if that’s more your thing.
Marika - an Olympic pool size plot of land is about 12 hundred square metres. Perhaps the best way to manage such a large plot of land would be to pool your resources then everything should go just swimmingly!
Marco - Now that you’re standing before your Olympic plot of land you just need to start farming. For that you might need some good friends and machinery that help you plough. Set aside some land from time to time to let it recover. If you add up all the land requirements that are needed for additional people and all that equipment and machinery you might soon be back at the size of an average country.
Marika - Thanks Marco for giving us some food for thought. Perhaps it is better that we all stick together to ensure we have enough food.
Speaking of sticking, next week we’re answering this question from Martin Fennel:
What’s the science behind non-stick pans? What prevents the sticking?
Georgia - What do you think? You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, find us on Facebook, tweet @nakedscientists or join in the debate on the forum - thenakedscientists.com/forum.