Humankind has always been fascinated by intelligent (and self-aware) automata. It has wanted to capture the stars forever. And it has been fascinated by ways to overcome death. History will remember the decade of the 2010s (2010-2019), which will end soon, as the one that saw all three move from the realm of science-fiction to science. Then, fiction has always been about the improbable, not the impossible, as opposed to fantasy, which is about the impossible.
There will no doubt be other essayists attempting pieces similar to this, and it's entirely possible that they will focus on more practical technological advances, but from the perspective of high science (and not technology), it's difficult to imagine anything as significant as these three.
One, machines that can think, and also learn to think (although we are still some time away from those that are self-aware).
Two, the colonisation of space.
Three, extending lifespans to 100 years, maybe more.
As humankind enters 2020, it has made huge strides in the first, artificial intelligence; put in place the building blocks of the second (commercial space travel is now a given; it's only a matter of time before the first humans settle on Mars); and discovered CRISPR-Cas9, a technology, which, if it is allowed to progress towards its logical denouement, will mean the next generation (if not this one) could live into the 100s.
Never before in human history have three such happened in the course of a decade.
More excitable people can continue to marvel over the latest phone, which boasts of more computing power than yesterday's supercomputer did; or batteries that can store solar energy and power an entire city block, but none of these figure in the – with due apologies to Shelley – look-on-my-works-ye-mighty-and-despair category. [There's a reason Alan Moore named his smartest man in the world Ozymandias].
In 2010, a start-up called DeepMind was founded in the UK. Now owned by Alphabet (Google's parent), it is best known for helping software learn how to play games, including those as complex as Go. Deep learning and machine learning are not new, but it was only in the 2010s that, primarily thanks to these (and also the emergence of Big Data) that software started doing better than humans at various activities – such as image recognition.
The first time this happened was in 2011 and the first Convolutional Neural Network (or CNN) to do this was developed at a Swiss research institute. Then, in 2012, another CNN, AlexNet did far, far better than humans ever could have in ImageNet's image recognition challenge. Around the same time another CNN won Merck's molecular challenge and accurately identified the biomolecular target of a drug. There's been no looking back since. Software and machines are still not self-aware, although deep learning has helped them put up a pretty good pretence of being that.
In 2012, two papers, published separately, and based on independent research highlighted the gene-editing powers of CRISPR-Cas9. By 2013, papers were being published on the use of CRISPR to edit the human genome in a laboratory setting. By the middle of the decade, experiments were being conducted on the use of CRISPR to cure a variety of ailments; some scientists were also experimenting with its usage in food crops. CRISPR is still not 100% effective or accurate. And, of course, given how close it comes to Eugenics – yes, the technology makes it possible for the passing on of a preferred genetic trait to the next generation – there is the ethical question. Can CRISPR be used to create a race of superhumans? Can it be used to extend lifespans and cure ailments once considered uncurable? The answer to both would be in the affirmative.
It was in the 2010s that two men of significant means, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, turned their attention to the colonisation of space. Specifically, Bezos wanted to make it possible to have settlements on the moon, and Musk Mars.
Musk's big idea is terraforming (or making a planet Earth-like), and Bezos's is O'Neill cylinders, named after Gerard O'Neill, a physicist who, inspired by the US space programme, became a pioneer in space colonisation efforts. His cylinders were giant spinning capsules that mimicked Earth's gravity. The science for both O'Neill cylinders and terraforming is yet to be perfected, but what the 2010s witnessed was the creation of two technologies that are basic building blocks of space colonisation – reusable launch vehicles and 3-D printing, which makes it possible for someone in space to make the things they will need to live in space (or on another planet). Made In Space Inc launched one such printer in the International Space Station in 2014 – the company's premise is that space lends itself to more efficient manufacturing.
Smarter-than-human machines; older-than-ever-before humans; and a very real probability that Mars may be a human colony (not perhaps in the next decade, but who's to say) – it's very unlikely that, back in 2009, anyone writing about the coming decade of the 2010s would have foretold any of this.
It's entirely within the realm of the possible (and the marginally probable) that someone authoring an essay such as this in 2029 may speak of the decade of the 2020s as the one where superior machine intelligence forced a growing human population to take to the stars.
It's only apt, given the focus of this essay, that we are now discussing 2029. That's the year when computers are expected to pass the Turing test, which assesses whether or not a machine can think like a human. That milestone is an important one in the march to what experts call the singularity (or the technological singularity), when machine intelligence will exceed human intelligence. According to futurist Ray Kurzweil, the year 2045 is when the singularity will be reached and it is when "human life will be irreversibly transformed".