January 28, 2013

Powers of prophesy: Davos looks to the future

Predictions include climate change-linked economic upheaval; advances in fighting mental illness. and increased job obsolescence.

By DAN PERRY and EDITH M. LEDERER/The Associated Press

DAVOS, Switzerland — Forget the endless debates about the euro or government debts. What does the future hold?

The World Economic Forum at Davos is always a showcase for new research, trends and ideas. And those at the annual gathering of the world's elite don't shy away from making predictions, even if they missed foreseeing germinal events like the Great Recession or the Arab Spring revolts.

Here are some predictions from this year's participants:

click image to enlarge

Participants throng the Congress Center during the 43rd annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Saturday. Those at the annual gathering of the world's elite don't shy away from making predictions, even if they missed foreseeing germinal events like the Great Recession or the Arab Spring revolts.

The Associated Press

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WEATHER AND WATER

Climate change will lead to more and more extreme weather, which will cause tremendous economic upheaval, predicts New York University economist Nouriel Roubini.

"It's not just that New York is going to be underwater 30 years from now," he said, referring to the devastation caused last fall by Hurricane Sandy.

Oxford University physicist Tim Palmer – who said as a scientist he preferred probabilities to prediction – noted there is a 10 to 15 percent chance that the Earth will warm by 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) within a century, leading to "catastrophic consequences for humanity" ranging from extreme weather to rising seas.

Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said many countries will start running out of water in the coming years.

"Water is the new oil," he said.

A TECHNOLOGICAL SURGE

Laura Tyson, a business professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said one of the great concerns should be "the employment effects of technology," with so many jobs being rendered obsolete by scientific or technological advances.

Discussions of such advances were everywhere at Davos.

Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor at Stanford University and leader of Google's Self-Driving Car Project, said he thinks that a prediction by Google co-founder Sergey Brin – that within five years, driverless cars will be on the streets, used by regular people – is going to happen.

"It'll be a while before they're going to be mainstream, and there'll be all kinds of interesting questions coming about security, privacy, safety of the system as a whole," Thrun said. "But if they are available within five years for general consumers, I think within 15 years you ought to be able to buy one of those."

MENTAL ILLNESS UNDERSTOOD

Edward Boyden, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who directs a neural engineering research group, says new technologies for analyzing the brain will produce significant advances in fighting mental illness.

"Right now we know that certain cell types in the brain are impaired in schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder or autism," he said.

If scientists can develop new technologies to image the brain and control the brain's cells, he said "over the next half-century or so we should be able to really understand how these networks" generate emotion.

Then, in the case of mental illness, "we can insert information into the cells in order to re-sculpt their dynamics and fix what's broken," Boyden said.

Technology entrepreneur Eric Anderson said biotechnology and medicine "are eventually going to be information sciences, with your genes... will determine treatment."

THE LIGHTEST STUFF

Julia Greer, an assistant professor of materials science and mechanics at the California Institute of Technology, says the world is craving a useful, ultra-superlight material to work with.

Her research group collaborated with Hughes Research Lab and the University of California, Irvine, to recently develop the world's lightest solid material. She predicted that in 10 to 15 years it will be used as fuel cell catalysts, as acoustic damping devices on submarines, as anti-reflective layers in solar cells, and as components of vehicles sent into space.

The new material, called a micro-lattice, is made up of tiny hollow tubes of nickel-phosphorous that are angled to connect – and contains 99 percent air, Greer said.  It can also be used for high-temperature thermal batteries, heart stents and blood clot catchers, she said.

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