‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!’ This wry quotation has been attributed to various figures, from the Nobel prize-winning quantum physicist Niels Bohr to legendary American baseball player Yogi Berra.
Even though peering into the future remains an uncertain science, it is much easier over the short term: I am preparing to discuss what the coming year holds in store for us at a Lates on 1 February with Cat De Lange, the editor of New Scientist, Science Museum curator Laura Joy Pieters and Matt Reynolds of Wired, all under the watchful eye of maths celebrity Bobby Seagull.
To start the debate, here are a few of the developments to look out for in 2024:
EVER HOTTER: The biggest issue facing us all is climate change. The past year was the hottest on record and 2024 is expected to be even warmer, as the El Niño warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean reaches its full strength on top of warming driven by greenhouse gases.
After COP28, the chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels seems remote, even though this year some believe that greenhouse gas emissions could start to decline. After years of debate, researchers will also vote on whether to declare 1950 as the start of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch shaped by humankind.
SHOOT FOR THE MOON: Human moon exploration now beckons, marking what will be the most significant period of lunar exploration since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first touched down in 1969, after a dress rehearsal by Apollo 10 (which can be seen in the Science Museum).
Following in the wake of India’s 2023’s remarkably cost effective Chandrayaan-3 moon landing, an armada missions is heading to the Earth’s satellite in 2024, with orbiters, landers, rovers and even crewed spacecraft.
January sees the planned landing of Japan’s Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) craft, the nation’s first lunar lander, along with the launch of Peregrine Mission One, which aims in late February to become the first commercial mission, and first American lander in over 50 years, to land on the Moon, followed by the Nova-C lander developed by the US company Intuitive Machines. Both are part of NASA’s multibillion dollar Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, in which the agency funds commercial craft going to the moon to foster industry partnerships for future exploration.
Other missions in the initiative launched this year include the Cooperative Autonomous Distributed Robotic Exploration (CADRE), a trio of small rovers which will work with a base station to see how automation can boost the productivity of robots on future missions, and the Lunar Trailblazer orbiter, to map water at the surface to guide future human missions as to where supplies may be found and extracted as a resource.
The Finnish mobile company Nokia is deploying he first cellular network on the moon. And, in the spring, China plans to launch the Chang’e 6 mission to return the world’s first samples from the far side of the moon.
The climax will come with NASA’s Artemis II mission, which is planned for November, and will see four astronauts travelling to the moon, where they will complete a lunar flyby, and return over 10 days, along with two flights of SpaceX’s Starship craft – one an uncrewed moon landing and the other the dearMoon flight, which will send several artists on a flyby.
Artemis II will lay the groundwork for the Artemis III mission, which will land the ﬁrst woman and next man on the Moon.
TOTAL ECLIPSE: A chance to witness this spectacular celestial event will come when the moon covers the sun on 8 April 2024 for people in a strip of land that begins in Mexico and ends in Canada, passing through 13 US states. The temperature falls, it gets dark, and you can spot stars and planets during the day. Outside the ‘path of totality,’ which is 185 kilometres wide, onlookers will see a partial eclipse.
GENE EDITING, 2.0: Approval has been given in the UK for the use of gene editing to treat serious blood disorders, based on the first generation of gene surgery tools that harness a method called CRISPR. Now scientists are working on the second generation of gene editing, which promises to be more versatile, efficient and precise. As one example, the US company Prime Medicine is to seek approval for the use of prime editing – which can alter individual letters of genetic code, and insert and delete small stretches of DNA – to treat chronic granulomatous disease, a genetic disorder that renders some white blood cells in the body’s immune system impotent in the face of certain bacteria and fungi, increasing susceptibility to infections.
BIGGER, STRANGER COMPUTERS: Starting with Frontier in America, the first of a new generation of supercomputer behemoths are winking into life, so called exascale computers that can run a quintillion calculations per second, which promise to bring unprecedented computational power to many fields of science, such as the development of digital twins.
Expect advances in other kinds of computing. Analog computing, for instance that uses light rather than electricity, offers to be much more energy efficient than traditional computers, while IBM, for example, will be rolling out its Quantum System Two, which it believes will accelerate the use of these machines – which can outperform traditional classical computers – in science.
More speculative kinds of computer are under development, BayesBrain, a blend of living tissue and silicon, the latest in an effort to marry computers and cells that dates back decades.
Efforts to regulate AI will proceed apace, along with unease about its misuse, for instance from Wired, that this could be the year of the deepfake election, as AI-generated audio, images, and videos of candidates proliferate online.
Although popular discussions of AI suggest that it is ‘anything surprising done by a computer’, today’s artificial intelligence is not the same as AI in the fifties and sixties: ‘good old fashioned AI’, relied on programmed rules, while today’s AI relies on neural networks, consisting of large numbers of interconnected units, which are very loosely inspired by the structure of brains, and can learn.
Over the decades, as AI has evolved, we have seen various ‘AI winters’ which reflect the ‘Gartner Hype Cycle’, which shows the impact of technology, from the summer of ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ to the chill of the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’. Are we facing another AI bust?
Because the current generation of AI is trained, and thus only as good as its training data, this can create headaches: when it comes to medicine, for example, patient data are dominated by information on relatively well off, white, males. As a result of this lack of diversity, what an AI is able to learn does not necessarily apply to the majority of people on the planet.
Another issue for AI is that the very act of training could infringe copyrights on those who created the training data: in the United States, according to New Scientist, there are nine separate class-action lawsuits against AI firms, including Meta, OpenAI and Google parent company Alphabet. Even so, when lawyers take an interest, it is a sure sign a field is important.
Expect more breathless mentions of a mash-up between quantum computing and AI. However, the jury is still out on how useful ‘quantum machine learning’ will be.
SHED POUNDS: Although obesity’s causes are complex, obesity’s risks are straightforward: heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, liver disease, and various cancers.
This year will see efforts to develop weight loss drugs forge ahead.
Recently approved in the US, the drug Zepbound (tirzepatide) will reach more people in 2024, with research suggesting its effects trump those of the much-discussed Wegovy and Ozempic, injectable forms of a drug called semaglutide, a so called ‘agonist’ that mimics the action of a gut hormone called GLP-1, which makes us feel full, suppressing appetite, and boosts the release of insulin, a hormone that plays a role in regulating blood sugar.
Originally developed to treat diabetes two decades ago, interest surrounding the use of GLP-1 drugs to treat obesity has surged.
However, tirzepatide works by mimicking not only GLP-1 but also another gut hormone released after eating, called GIP. Current data suggest it might be more effective. Another development could come with more convenient pill versions of injectable weight-loss drugs.
As ever, these drugs present issues, not least the need to stay on the drugs indefinitely to avoid regaining weight. Are there safety implications associated with a lifetime of use? How will doctors decide how much weight loss justifies the drug, and at what age?
In that sense, 2024 research will present us with the same challenges as previous years when it comes to technologies that have the capacity to do good as well as harm. In the coming months, the appliance of science will continue to pose ethical questions, not least about the responsibility of researchers to anticipate the impact of their work.