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Robots, Regenerative Medicine and More: Futurists Gaze Into 2014

Five breakthroughs in science, tech and health likely coming your way this year.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Organovo expected to produce an artificial liver this year. The company has not set a timetable.

Predicting the future is a pretty good way to end up looking foolish. Just ask the guy who told Businessweek the paperless office was “not that far off.” In 1975.

But there’s a set of brave souls among us who don’t just walk this high public plank for a living — they go right ahead and plug the word in their LinkedIn profiles: Futurists.

The gig requires taking educated guesses about where today’s trend lines point, and how companies and institutions can best prepare for the looming opportunities and risks. As 2013 came to a close, we asked a handful of these soothsayers to peer into 2014 and tell us the breakthroughs in science, technology and health that are likely to define the year ahead.

Five clear themes emerged.

Kneel before your robot overlords

The closing days of 2013 were busy ones for the robot sector.

Google gave the industry a lift by gobbling up an array of robotics companies for reasons the company is not exactly explaining yet. The firms included Boston Dynamics, which builds advanced robots like Cheetah that can sprint nearly 30 miles per hour. As others noted, that’s fast enough to run down Usain Bolt — or, you know, anyone over at Consumer Watchdog.

Meanwhile, Darpa held its Robotics Challenge Trials in Florida, kicking off a $2 million contest designed to push ahead robots’ ability to aid in the aftermath of disasters, like the catastrophic Fukushima nuclear plant failure in 2011.

Futurist David Houle, author of several books including “The Shift Age” and “Future Wow,” said these and similar events will finally tip the prevailing public perception of robots in the new year from job-stealing Terminators to life-and-labor-saving aides. That will begin to allow the field’s true promise to be realized.

“At the highest level, robots represent the first time in history that humans have at least the partial opportunity to no longer have to do manual labor, allowing for the species to evolve to a higher level this century,” Houle said.

Others, of course, dispute that the end result will be positive for unskilled labor — that is to say, the vast majority of people in the world. MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee, co-author of “Race Against the Machine,” has argued that the rise of the robots will exacerbate the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

Regenerative medicine: Just hit print

In early December, the Methuselah Foundation, announced a $1 million “New Organ Liver Prize,” a five-year competition to produce an artificial liver.

Companies like Organovo of San Diego are already producing human tissues using a process known as 3D bioprinting.

It’s merely one area in which we’re likely to see major strides in regenerative medicine in 2014, with more than 5,000 clinical trials using stem cells set for this year, said Dr. James Canton, chief executive of the Institute for Global Futures and author of “The Extreme Future.”

“The most significant trends and breakthroughs in 2014 will be in regenerative medicine: The use of human stem cells to grow new organs, repair tissues (and) heal patients with numerous cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases,” he said in an email.

Houle added that sometime between now and 2020, “our replacement parts will be superior to the parts we are born with.”

Quantum computing

The usual rules of physics break down at the subatomic level. According to quantum mechanics, electrons and photons can act like both particles and waves, located in more than one place at a given moment — among other goofy behaviors.

For instance, check out the video from Google below to learn why, when you plunge into the quantum realm, pizza might also be a bagel. (Go ahead, we’ll wait.)

Applying quantum principles to computers gets you a different kind of computing.

Traditionally, bits of memory are either set to 0 or 1, on or off. But a quantum bit (or qubit) can be in a state of 0 and 1 at the same time.

That means so called quantum computers, like the D-Wave Two recently acquired by Google and NASA, can process all combinations of bits at once, enabling fast and powerful computation. (For our purposes here, we’re sidestepping the controversy over whether or not the machine is a genuine quantum computer.)

“Computer scientists have given up on the brute force approach because there are not enough computers in the world,” said Vern Brownell, CEO of D-Wave Systems, in an earlier interview. “With this tool computer scientists can look at really solving for answers and doing it in real time. In some cases you couldn’t do it any other way.”

That opens up new possibilities for exploring complex scenarios with lots of variables and less than perfect data, like simulating NASA missions to Mars or Google’s efforts in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“We can have more open-ended questions,” said Jordan Brandt, technology futurist at Autodesk. “We can suspend disbelief longer in asking questions, because it can hold multiple states simultaneously.”

The quantified self

So far, the purveyors of wearable tech have tended to overestimate the average person’s interest in their own heart rate.

But new, smarter devices are coming onto the market, wearable or even swallowable sensors that can collect more medical data — oxygen intake, blood sugar, blood pressure, temperature and more — and transform that raw information into relevant life advice. More importantly, as scientists anonymize, aggregate and analyze data from sensors and genetic tests for millions of people, there’s good reason to believe they’ll glean fresh insights into disease treatment and prevention.

“And at that point, you now have, for the first time in history, a scientific basis for medicine,” said Larry Smarr, the noted UC San Diego computer scientist in an Atlantic profile. The “Measured Man” diligently collects his own input and output data — down to the microbial content of his feces.

Futurist Glen Hiemstra, founder of and author of “Millennial City,” said that in 2014 we’ll see the “mainstreaming of the ‘quantified self’ in health, meaning common and cheap access to and popularity of personal health status tracking technology, as more and more people monitor their health day to day.”

“Prime examples are wrist-based exercise and sleep trackers, and smartphone-based heart rate and performance trackers,” he added. “We’ll see some breakthrough entrants into the market.”

The Internet of Things

We won’t just see more devices for our bodies in 2014. We’ll see more connected devices and sensors everywhere, in our appliances, cars, retail products and more.

The so called Internet of Things has been discussed for years, but we’re reaching a point of mobile use and sensor saturation where it becomes a self-reinforcing trend: “Phones, chips, wearable computers and … cloud computing becomes more effortless and intuitive,” Canton said. “Devices will be aware of each other and aware of us.”

Much like the quantified self, the Internet of Things will produce vast quantifies of data that individuals or businesses can use to improve efficiency in real time: Rerouting trips, reducing energy consumption and improving supply chain management.

“The Internet is gradually becoming an extension of our brains, and mobile devices are already our external brains,” futurist Gerd Leonhard wrote last year. “Is the next stop the actual integration of the Internet in our bodies (iris implants etc), cyborgs after that … singularity, transhumanism? Not sure what to think of that, really, but … Ray Kurzweil is ready to tell you.”

Bonus round!

I’ve barely got a firm grip on the present, much less than the future, but here are two other categories I’m eager to watch unfold in 2014.

Re/code writer Liz Gannes contributed to this story.

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