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30 December 2015

Top science of 2015

We went ‘back to the future’ in 2015 with advances in wide-ranging technologies that are set to change the world.

We took a look at the top tech as identified by the super-smart people at the World Economic Forum, who identify advances and ideas that have the most potential impact on the way we live. 

Running on empty

You don’t have to live in South Africa to know that energy is one of the key issues facing the planet. This year, some exciting advances have been made in the technology around fuel cells. Unlike batteries, which must be charged, fuel cells generate power directly with hydrogen or natural gas. This tech can be used in zero-emission cars, for example.

One key challenge is supplying all these cool new cars with hydrogen – rest assured, the science brains are hard at work on that one.

In SA, we were all very proud too of the introduction of homeboy Elon Musk’s Tesla Powerwall, a home battery that is charged by the sun.

Hi, robot

Fortunately, we’re not living in machine-controlled world envisaged in The Matrix (that we know of, anyway), but advances in robotic tech mean an ever-closer relationship between our android friends and ourselves.

Better flexibility and dexterity means they can take on increasingly complex tasks (such as weeding and harvesting); better sensors mean they can respond to their environment quicker and more intuitively.

Worried a robot may soon be taking your job? Don’t panic: studies of automation so far have shown higher productivity means a stronger economy, and more jobs for all. 

One digital voice many are comfortable with now is Siri, Apple’s voice interface. And she’s the forerunner in a soon to be exploding area of development: artificial intelligence. 

Google’s dinky self-driving cars may look funny, but they’re seriously clever, predicting and then avoiding pedestrians and other obstacles. And we all heard about Amazon’s promise of drone deliveries with Amazon Air Prime.

Making it

Advances in tech such as 3D printing means it is now possible to decentralise manufacturing. For example, instead of making a chair in China and shipping it to Cape Town, in theory, a digital file could be sent to a smaller factory here, who could simply and efficiently cut and assemble the chair. 

In the future, you’ll be able to 3D print your own things, customised according to your unique specifications.

The tech has medical implications as well: a Spanish cancer patient was given a 3D printed sternum and ribs, following a tumour.

In your DNA

Today, you can easily and relatively cheaply sequence your very own DNA – and this has massive implications for healthcare, allowing doctors to genetically analyse problems such as tumours, and target them with exactly the right treatment.

And that’s not all DNA can do – artificial DNA can be used to store data in a much more compact and permanent way. In experiments, 5.5 petabits (687 500 gigabytes) of data could be stored on each cubic millimetre of DNA.