December 27, 2009
The Times Online
By Bryan Appleyard
Nothing much is going to happen in the next 10 years. Of course, that’s not counting the diesel-excreting bacteria, the sequencing of your entire genome for $1,000, massive banks of frozen human eggs, space tourism, the identification of dark matter, widespread sterilisation of young adults, telepathy, supercomputer models of our brains, the discovery of life’s origins, maybe the disappearance of Bangladesh and certainly the loss of 247m acres of tropical forest.
As I said, just another decade really.
These days, “just another decade” always means 10 years of future shock. Science, technology and the contemporary mania for change combine to stun the imagination. It is the way we live now, in a condition of permanent technological revolution.
In 2000 — remember? — the internet all but died when the dotcom stock market bubble burst. You could stand on top of the World Trade Center. And mobile phones were just, er, phones. Today, you still get up and eat breakfast, but, outside, it’s a different world.
Next? Well, as Woody Allen said, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans for the future. But, taking a punt, I reckon the brain is the one to watch. Science has been zeroing in on the 2lb 14oz of grey and white custard-like stuff between your ears for some time now. It’s not been easy. In spite of the evidence of The X Factor, the human brain is very complex custard indeed. But some people are getting very excited.
“By 2020, genetics and brain simulation will be giving us personalised prescriptions for marriage, lifestyle and healthcare.” This is Henry Markram, director of the Blue Brain project in Switzerland, an attempt to reverse engineer the brain by building one from the ground up inside a supercomputer.
“We won’t need a psychologist to tell us why we feel unhappy. All we’ll need to do is log into a simulation of our own brain, navigate around in this virtual copy and find out the origins of our quirks … Computers will look at a virtual copy of our brains and work out exactly what we need to stop our headaches, quiet the voices talking in our heads and climb out of the valley of depression to a world of colour and beauty.”
Gosh. But isn’t there still that pesky problem of other people and their brains? It’s their quirks that tend to get in the way of my happiness. No problem, we can climb inside each other’s brains.
“The big thing for me is being able to link two brains together for communication.” This is Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics scientist at Reading University. “This could have great implications for teaching. Sometimes, no matter how you explain something, it takes forever for the penny to drop.
It would also help to avoid misunderstandings.”
But, eek, what would it be like?
“Well, just like The Matrix with a plug in the back of the head into the brain, or yes, like a Bluetooth earpiece. It would have to be bidirectional, though, so thoughts could travel from you to someone else and back,” says Warwick, who has already implanted a microchip in his own arm so that he can open doors without needing to use a doorknob.
James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, thinks gene sequencing will be the key to unlock the custard and even stir it. “Disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disease, unipolar depression, obsessive-compulsive disease, attention deficit disorder and autism will finally have their genetic guts open for all to see.”
Some of the most impenetrable and harrowing mental illnesses known to man will, Watson believes, be understandable and maybe even curable.
“The exact location and biological function of the DNA variants causing many depressive disease and related disorders cannot be revealed too soon,” he says.
Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at Warwick and Oxford, agrees that brain diseases are the really big nasties. “Some leave sufferers horribly aware as they lose the ability to walk, to talk, to swallow. Others corrupt and destroy the mind, leaving an empty body. Some, such as CJD, are very rare, others frighteningly common. About 700,000 people in the UK have dementia.”
We are seeing more of these diseases because death rates from cancer and heart disease are falling so people are living long enough to develop them. Hope for cures is coming from stem-cell research, genetic and molecular analysis.
“There will be a breakthrough. My hunch is that research on motor neurone disease will provide crucial clues and by 2020 we will know why cells die in some, perhaps many, of these diseases. It could be another decade before we see the impact on health, but by 2020, we must be on the way to this ultimate goal of modern medical science,” says Blakemore.
Meanwhile, sex — you knew it was coming — will be even more recreational than it is now. The pill will continue to be the primary contraceptive device, says its inventor, Carl Djerassi, but sterilisation will be catching up.
“At present, people tend to have children and then are sterilised later on in life. In the future, sterilisation will happen earlier on in a person’s life, with gametes, male and female, extracted and stored in a reproductive bank account… Already we know that male sperm can be frozen for decades, but it is far more difficult to freeze women’s eggs. The problem is not yet solved — this is where research should be directed.”