Five experts who appeared in Horizon Magazine in 2022 outline how their areas of activity will evolve in the coming year and more.
By VITTORIA D’ALESSIO
From more fresh water and less depression to life-saving drones and thought-interpreting scans, 2023 promises to be a big year in science. Still, don’t expect to fly in a plane powered by electricity anytime soon.
Dr Pascal Belin, a neuroscientist at the Aix-Marseille University in France and primary investigator in the EU-funded COVOPRIM project, studies humans and monkeys to understand better what happens in the brains of primates when they communicate. Scans show a remarkable similarity in the way human, marmoset and macaque brains light up when a voice is heard from another member of their species. Next year, researchers plan to implant electrodes in monkey brains to investigate this phenomenon at a nerve-cell level. The implications are far-reaching, both for people who lose the ability to speak following a brain injury or stroke and for general human interaction with technology.
‘Soon, we’ll be able to interpret the activity of neurons in different regions of the brain very clearly. We’re already understanding better and better which region does what. Soon enough, we’ll be able to decode what someone is listening to simply by observing brain activity. We’ll also be able to elucidate what people are imagining without their thoughts being vocalised. It’s not quite the same as reading someone’s thoughts – it’s more about reconstructing what’s going on in the brain by interpreting the activity of neurons.
‘In time, our new knowledge will also be used to control machines. More and more progress is already being made in this area. There will be neural implants, the kind already fitted in some epileptic patients when they don’t respond to treatment, that can be strategically placed in the brain to enhance a person’s perception – much like a cochlear implant is used today in thousands of deaf people so they can hear – or to send impulses that command a computer.
‘It will mean people can express themselves without using a keyboard. A keyboard and pen are awkward crutches that have been necessary in our path towards technological innovation to allow us to convert verbal information in our brain into written words, but they won’t be necessary once your computer can read that information directly from your brain. Though I’m not a specialist in brain-computer interfaces, I believe this sort of innovation will be available in five to 10 years, not 40.’
Tomorrow’s cities will improve the safety of residents and structures alike, according to Professor Gian Paolo Cimellaro, an engineer at the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy. Prof Cimellaro led the EU-funded IDEAL DRONE project to develop drones that can be deployed by firefighters to help locate people trapped in burning buildings. He believes techniques to monitor structures and rescue civilians will improve immensely in the coming years.
‘We’ll see huge change in the field of disaster resilience – both in the short- and medium-term. The advanced technologies we’ve been working on mean people can be tracked inside buildings and soon we’ll be able to do even better. For instance, rescue teams will wear exoskeletons – rugged suits that synchronise with their movement and give them protection and strength – so they can move heavy debris to get to survivors.
‘Climate change will put more pressure on infrastructures, meaning disasters will happen more frequently, so we’ll need to build greater resilience into all civilian infrastructure. Whenever there’s a disaster, such as a partial bridge collapse, functionality drops and there’s a recovery process. We’ll be minimising the downtime. To stick with the bridge example, the only way to know if a bridge is safe today is through visual inspection: the engineer looks at the deck and decides whether or not to replace a part. But soon, sensors will become cheaper and bridges will be covered in them. These will report back on levels of ageing. That way, when a problem is detected, it can be fixed before it becomes a crisis.
‘Eventually, we’ll have ‘‘super artificial intelligence’’, where a machine is smarter than the engineer and can inspect a structure and perform actions better than any human. For very long bridges, inspection will be done by drones equipped with robots that will collect multiple sets of information at the same time using high-resolution cameras, thermal cameras and laser scanners.’
Psychedelic drugs, when paired with specialist psychotherapy, show great promise as treatments for chronic, tricky mental illnesses. Scientists in Europe and the US including Dr Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg are unravelling the neuroscience of psychedelic ‘trips’, hoping to bring an end to debilitating conditions like depression and trauma. Dr Schwarz-Plaschg completed the EU-funded ReMedPsy project in which she examined society’s evolving views on these substances.
‘I envisage research into the benefits of psychedelics moving beyond mental-health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction to include any condition where mind and body are integrated – from autism and dementia to obesity and pain disorders. I also anticipate more research into how psychedelics can enhance creativity and help with problem solving, as these substances are known to foster shifts in perspective.
‘In terms of risks, we also need more studies into the adverse effects of psychedelics. Bad trips happen and can be very destabilising. I expect we’ll see the broader conversation on drug decriminalisation and legalisation move forward in the next few years, and this will include psychedelics.
‘I also anticipate more research into the spiritual and religious benefits of these substances. We’re undergoing a spiritual crisis in western society. Psychedelics could play a role in helping people find deeper meaning in life again. I hope 2023 will enable me and other critical scholars to scrutinise how knowledge is created in this field. What impact does psychedelic research have on communities that have been using psychedelics for much longer than Western science? Are we extracting knowledge from Indigenous and underground communities without giving back?’
Because air travel contributes to global warming, European researchers are exploring the potential of electric and hybrid engines to reduce jets’ carbon footprint. With today’s batteries still some way from being ready for commercial use, Fabio Russo, head of research at Italian aircraft maker Tecnam and coordinator of the EU-funded H3PS project, says real progress requires airlines to make tangible commitments.
‘Our company is putting resources and engineering into developing new technologies for both all-electric and hybrid aircraft. However, all-electric batteries work only in light aircraft with a flying time of around 20 or 30 minutes plus reserve, so clearly that’s unlikely to work for people wanting to fly even short-haul in commercial airliners.
‘Why are things not moving as fast as we’d like? Because, even though we see lots of press releases from airlines expressing their intention to be on a sustainable path, only rarely something tangible then happens. There is no progressive business model, no meaningful commitments when it comes to making pledges about purchases of cleaner aircraft. This does not help manufacturers to safely unlock huge investments. And this needs to change or else engineers, manufacturers and airlines will jeopardise their credibility.
‘Currently, a battery can no longer be used in aircraft once its performance drops below 90% because, at this point, the flight range becomes severely compromised and there’s an increased risk of the battery overheating. This means that after around 800 flight cycles – typically a few weeks of flying – the battery needs to be removed and a new one bought for likely many thousands of euros. And that’s just for a nine-passenger aircraft with very low range. This is too costly to make business sense, plus it’s environmentally wasteful. Over the next few years, I hope we find ways to make batteries last longer and allow them to be “overhauled”, meaning the airline would give its battery back to the manufacturer and get another with new cells. The old battery would then be sold to power other machines like consumer electronics or those used for energy storage.’
Fresh-water supplies are diminishing around the world. As populations grow and droughts worsen, scientists are seeking new ways to convert high-saline water (as exists in oceans) into a form that can be piped into homes and industry. George Brik is chief executive officer of Hydro Volta, a Belgium-based company with a patented desalination technology. Developed in the EU-funded SonixED project, the technology is a lot greener than anything used today, requiring far less energy and fewer chemicals.
‘The world has an unlimited supply of seawater but it’s wasteful, expensive and harsh on the environment to desalinate water using traditional techniques. This is where Hydro Volta can help. Our technology makes the conversion of seawater to fresh water both cheaper and safer for the environment. All that’s left is for us to scale up our processes and get the message across to governments and industry that we can help them solve an important and growing problem. I’m confident that we’ll get this opportunity over the next few years.
‘I came to Belgium with my family as a survivor of the Syrian war 10 years ago. I was already working in the water-treatment industry in Syria, but I had to leave everything behind and start from scratch when I moved to Belgium, which was very difficult.
‘But two years after arriving, I met a man named Yousef Yousef who became my business partner and co-founder and, from the start, the Flemish government and the EU have believed in our project and supported us. I’m so thankful for the opportunity I have been given. Now all that’s left is for us to be get the chance to take our technology out into the world.’
This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.