In 2004, The Frontier Channel began to document just a few of the amazing travels into the frontiers of science and technology. If there was one mantra for all of 2004, it was “I cannot believe this is reality.”
But it WAS real.
Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact
- Humans controlled computers with their minds using brain-machine interfaces.
- Animal/human chimeras were created and thrived.
- Artificial intelligence played an increasingly important role in military surveillance duties.
- The Roomba robot vacuum was a consumer hit.
- Evidence for present life forms on Mars was presented.
- Compounds like AMN107 (to treat chronic myeloid leukemia) were remarkably successful in early human trials.
- Evidence was presented that Homo floresiensis, a cousin species to modern humans, survived along side us until very recently.
- People paid $50,000 to have their dead pets cloned, the first of which were born late in 2004.
- The privately-built and funded SpaceShipOne successfully took a private citizen into space.
- The 2004 Sumatra-Andaman Islands Earthquake and resulting tsunamis were right out of a disaster movie but unfortunately really occurred, with catastrophic results.
Technology and scientific advances are built on a foundation of research that would bore the layperson to tears. For every shocking press release that changes the way we look at the universe there is a mountain of data, many person-hours of repetitious work and double-checking, and a plethora of false starts and dashed hopes. 2004 was a year where the groundwork was set for incredible advances in the years to come.
While supporters and critics debated the ethics of stem cell research, laboratories around the world turned out new techniques for working with these cells. The limits of adult stem cells were specified. The mechanisms by which these and the even more flexible embryonic stem cells work were detailed. Several treatments based on stem cells showed promising results in human trials. A majority of California voters supported spending US$3 billion over the next few years to research further the properties of stem cells.
Every medical avenue to potential treatments seemed to follow a similar path in 2004. Debate aside, significant foundations were built in cloning, designer genetics, genetic manipulation, brain-machine interfaces, next-generation drugs, life extension therapies, synthetic life, and alternative means for reproduction, among many other biotechnologies.
Foundation-building was prevalent in the computer industry as well. While it seemed there was a lull in activity in personal computers, there were changes going on behind the scenes that promise fireworks ahead. For example, the speed of microprocessors for personal computers only climbed very slowly in 2004, but groundwork was completed for dual-core chips and faster communication busses that will debut in 2005.
Perhaps the most surprising change, however, was the rapid devouring of the PC industry by the consumer electronics industry. If you were a PC company, you diversified your product lines to include consumer electronics. If you were a consumer electronics company, you began to position yourself with smart chips in every product, leading to devices that hid powerful computational ability under sleek chassis designed for the living room. The Comdex trade show, once the premier event for computer companies, was cancelled in 2004. Meanwhile the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show to be held in Las Vegas, Nevada is expected to be bigger than ever.
There were significant advancements in computing in 2004, including the fastest supercomputers ever, the spread of Grid technology to share all computing resources over several computers over great distances, the rise of broadband Internet access around the world, rapid improvements in chip technology for cell phones and consumer electronics, and the continued merging of silicon-based technology with biology.
There has never been a more fruitful time than now in astronomy and other explorative sciences. Robots continue their trek out into space, sending back unprecedented images of alien worlds like Mars, Saturn and Titan. In 2004 blurry worlds distantly captured by the Voyager space probes in the 1980s suddenly became crystal-clear with new images from the Cassini space probe. Phoebe resolved into a heavily-cratered ice world perhaps captured by Saturn in the distant past. Titan’s surface features under its smoggy atmosphere startled and mystified scientists. What scientists thought were ice deposits on the frozen surface of Dione were instead widespread fractures and ice cliffs. The Mars Exploration Rovers discovered evidence for water on Mars early in the planet’s history while returning breathtaking images of a world that holds many more surprises, such as the possible existence of present life forms. MESSENGER was launched toward Mercury and various countries announced plans to explore our own Moon.
The rest of the universe beyond the backyard of our own solar system continued to astonish throughout the year, with more extrasolar planets discovered, more powerful ground-based telescopes commissioned and further evidence for cosmological theories such as String Theory. Scientists began making plans for an onslaught of projects that may eventually lead to the imaging of continents on distant Earth-like worlds, a better understanding of dark energy and dark matter, and better gauges for the size and age of our universe.
By the end of the year, “I cannot believe this is reality” dissolved into a kind of awe-inspired acceptance that accelerating rates of progress in both frontiers are indeed reality. This progress will bring unprecedented change to humans, their way of life, and their view of the universe. The great earthquake and tsunamis at the end of the year were a reminder that reality can rival fiction in scope, that much remains to be learned about our universe, and that science and technology offer our very best hope for providing all humans a better quality of life.