Technological innovation happens at an exponential rate.
Our smartphones are more powerful computers than the Apollo 11 mission to the moon used. Many of the devices that power our everyday lives would have been unimaginable a century ago.
It’s a tough world to keep up in.
Concerned about what they argue is a lack of funding and appreciation in the US for basic research that’s pursued for the sake of greater understanding, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology committee recently released a report detailing 15 industries and scientific fields ripe for breakthroughs, fields that they say the US is going to have to invest in to keep up with the rest of the world.
Here are some of the scientific fields where major discoveries could reap huge rewards — and help define our future.
While we've made big steps in treating cancer over the past few decades -- largely fuelled by basic research into cell biology -- we still know very little about Alzheimer's. Millions already suffer from the disease, and it's becoming shockingly more common.
Yet, the MIT committee writes, there are 'real opportunities for progress.'
Potential strategies could come from research into slowing the ageing process, efforts to learn more about how the brain works through the findings of projects like the BRAIN Initiative, and trying to learn how Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia establish a foothold in the brain.
Cybercrime costs the world about $400 billion a year and is just getting worse, but new advances could turn the tide.
Some experts think that cybercrime poses such a serious risk to society that we need a Manhattan Project for cybersecurity.
The MIT committee thinks that designing more secure systems is doable. Most of our current weaknesses stem from two issues: single-password authentication systems and the historical legacy of the way computers were programmed before being connected to a network.
Innovations in authentication are already on their way, with two-factor and biometric systems becoming more popular, but redesigning computer systems without current weaknesses will take much more work.
Space exploration could soon reveal an astounding amount of information about the nature of the universe.
The most recent big news in space is NASA's New Horizons mission to (and beyond) Pluto.
Now it's time to figure out what else is out there in the universe with us.
As the committee notes, we'll be looking to better understand the dark matter and dark energy that make up the majority of our universe, especially once we launch the new James Webb telescope, which will take the place of the Hubble.
Learning the physics of dark matter and energy will reveal new secrets about how our universe was formed.
The world will need to produce 50% more food by 2040. To do that, breakthroughs in plant sciences are needed.
Fifty years ago, it seemed likely that rapid population growth could lead to mass starvation around the globe. Thanks to what's now known as the Green Revolution, that didn't happen.
We need a new Green Revolution now. We need to continue to increase food productivity, but now we can also aim higher. With advances, we could also routinely produce more nutritious food that provides essential vitamins and nutrients.
To do so, we'll need a better understanding of genetics, molecular and cellular biology, biochemistry, and plant physiology. The MIT authors note that most of the top agricultural and plant science research these days is being conducted in China.
If we can solve the quite difficult problems involved in quantum computing, the authors say we could 'dwarf today's supercomputers;' create 'unhackable long-distance communications systems;' and find new ways to measure time, electricity, magnetism, and other phenomena -- all with unprecedented accuracy.
This sort of technological revolution could be completely transformative. While research in quantum computing began in the US, the authors write that some of the top new research in the field is being conducted in Switzerland, Canada, and China.
Though the authors of the MIT report think it's important to invest in the physical and natural sciences, they don't think social science research should be neglected either.
They say that economic research has been essential for creating new financial markets. In the past, this helped lead to the creation of globally-dominant companies like Google and Amazon.
At same time, psychology research can help us figure out how to encourage healthy behaviour and incorporate big data into health decisions. That knowledge could reveal new ways to limit ballooning health costs and encourage overall economic growth.
Advances in chemistry could help us develop new types of catalysts, which could revolutionise the energy industry.
Catalysts help make chemical reactions happen faster (and in some cases, they help those reactions occur in the first place). This is hugely important for the energy industry, for manufacturing plastics, pharmaceuticals, and for making other products.
But right now, our chemistry and the catalysts that we use are fairly inefficient, at least compared to some of the chemical reactions that occur in nature.
The committee offers three examples of natural processes that we could try to mimic and that would potentially be transformative:
- Using photosynthesis, plants synthesise carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and sunlight. An artificial version of that process could help come up with new ways to feed the world.
- If we could convert water into hydrogen using sunlight, we could have efficient hydrogen power.
- If we could come up with a way to convert carbon dioxide into fuel, we could still use carbon-based fuel but continually recycle it so as to not worsen global warming.
Being able to do these things is far beyond our current capacities. But as the authors write, 'the potential payoff -- not just for energy and environmental concerns, but for all of chemistry -- is such that governments will finance this research.'
Fusion energy has been a dream for more than 50 years and it's still a long ways away.
But if we can replicate the process that powers the sun it will forever change the world -- and it's worth pursuing for that reason.
The committee writes that recent developments in superconductors could create a fast track to practical fusion power. Right now, they say that the most advanced superconducting fusion experiments are happening in China and South Korea, with new experiments being constructed in Japan, Germany, and France.
Breakthroughs in our treatments of infectious diseases are needed if we're going to face upcoming challenges.
As the Ebola epidemic showed, the world is not nearly as ready to deal with a viral outbreak as we thought we were -- even when dealing with a not particularly contagious disease. A highly contagious flu could devastate the world.
Perhaps even more frightening, our antibiotics are losing their effectiveness, potentially leading us to a future where people die from minor infections.
We desperately need to develop new antibiotics before our current options lose their effectiveness, and developing better treatments for viral infections could help prevent some of the biggest threats to humanity.
The race to develop the most advanced defence systems in the world is becoming more and more competitive.
Governments around the world continue to invest in seemingly futuristic defence technology. Here are a few areas where the report's authors expect to see breakthroughs in the near future:
- New types of cloaking technology, including the 'development of advanced nano-structured coatings that change how materials absorb and reflect light, changing visibility and effectively disguising the object in visual wavelengths and in infrared and radar wavelengths.'
- New things made of graphene or 'new nanocrystalline alloys as strong as steel but much lighter' that can be incorporated into gear that will better protect against blast waves and ballistic fragments.
- Lasers that can detect environmental hazards like toxins and infectious agents, along with new coatings for gas masks and gear that can kill infectious agents.
Since light transfers data faster than wires (and at a lower cost), optical fibre has long been a preferred option for telecommunications. Now, optical technology is transforming computing, using what's known as 'photonics' or 'photonic integrated circuits.'
These new types of optical chips can allow computing systems to operate faster while using less power, which is essential as the amount of data we transmit over the internet to run everything from businesses to cities skyrockets.
Nature is an incredibly efficient builder, able to assemble amazingly complex systems.
As the report's authors explain, the promise of synthetic biology is that we'll be able to 'create living cells designed for specific purposes as easily as tech engineers now create new digital circuits.' There's also the hope that 'scientists could program bacteria, plants, or even human cells to make them more productive or cure disease.'
Most experiments now only tweak a few cells or bits of genetic code, meaning that large-scale use of synthetic biology is still in the future. But breakthroughs could potentially allow us to 'engineer yeast or algae to produce foods or other biomaterials,' to regenerate organs, or to engineer a virus to hunt down cancer cells.
Materials have always driven innovation, from the Bronze Age to the Information Age. Electronic circuits, optical fibres, lasers, solar cells, and LED technology have transformed what our world looks like now.
Developing a new generation of materials -- the authors mention silicon crystals, nano-materials, and multi-function materials -- will take serious investment and research, but could lead to essential economic and quality of life enhancements.
Advances in robotics are coming as robots move from the factory floor into our lives as driverless cars, drones, and assistants at home and at work.
Smarter and more powerful robotic and AI systems are becoming more and more common in our world today.
Right now, robots have trouble moving with the agility of humans -- and they can't necessarily take in all the environmental information that we can. Advancements in the near future could include more flexibility and sensing capabilities.
Additionally, as we make smarter robots, we'll be better able to make machines that can perform routine work and do jobs that humans don't want to do, along with jobs in atmospheres that are dangerous or uncomfortable to work in.
How's your smartphone battery holding up these days?
Current lithium ion battery technology is expensive and flammable -- too dangerous for some of the uses we'd like to prioritise in the future. As we move towards more sustainable energy sources, new types of batteries could power all our cars, homes, and more.
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