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We are living in a time of incredible advancements in science and technology. Over the past century, we’ve gone from using typewriters and landlines in a paper-based economy to using laptops, tablets, cell phones, and even virtual reality, in an increasingly digital world.
Researchers have discovered medicines to eradicate previously debilitating diseases such as polio and measles. Electric cars and solar-powered electricity and heating are reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. Remote monitoring tools have enabled patients to recuperate in their homes instead of the hospitals, with their vital sign data transmitting wirelessly to their care teams. Most goods we need can easily be ordered and delivered to our homes within a day or two.
Science and technology have the power to solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges, from creating an inclusive, sustainable food system, to ensuring equitable access to medical care, to encouraging much-needed empathy in the workplace, and more. This has been true throughout history.
How far we’ve come
Some advances that became widely used throughout our society were actually discovered by accident. Take X-rays, for example. Back in 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen was experimenting with cathode ray tubes (commonly known as electron beams now) when he observed an unusual glow in his otherwise dark room and found that an image cast from his cathode ray generator projected further. He recognized a new type of ray was responsible but didn’t know what kind of ray it was, so he simply called it X-ray, with the x representing the unknown. He later took an X-ray photograph of a human hand which showed bones. That simple finding was later improved upon in the 1970s by investigators who combined multiple X-ray images in a computer to develop the three-dimensional images known as CAT (computed tomography, or CT) scans.
Other innovations have been deliberate, such as when multiple pharmaceutical manufacturers worked to quickly bring novel vaccines to market during the peak COVID-19 pandemic to try to protect against the worst effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The vaccines took advantage of decades of research already being done on mRNA, or messenger RNA — a substance naturally present in the body that carries instructions to other substances in cells to make specific proteins. The COVID-19 vaccines used mRNA to teach the body how to make a specific protein to help the immune system prevent or treat the virus. Their speed to market likely prevented countless hospitalizations and deaths.
Progress continues to be made all around us, through novel discoveries and advances, or by adapting existing tools in exciting new ways. Vantage Point, for example, is using virtual reality headsets to create an immersive training platform to educate others about sexual harassment, diversity and inclusion, and disability awareness. The technology can drive empathy and make the world more human, says founder and CEO Morgan Mercer.
Meanwhile, Cambridge-based Biobot Analytics aims to transform wastewater infrastructure into public health observatories. The company has been working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect and analyze wastewater samples from 500 communities across the country to track levels of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, enabling communities to act quickly if necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The work builds upon previous efforts with the Department of Health and Human Services to make wastewater monitoring accessible to all U.S. states, territories, and tribal nations.
Co-founders Mariana Matus and Newsha Ghaeli say they anticipate wastewater surveillance to expand to the point where communities could spot trends in prevalence of other existing or emerging diseases or evaluate the presence of substances like cocaine.
Eye to the future
Going forward, we can anticipate researchers to harness science and technology to solve growing problems such as food system challenges. Richard Munson’s book “Tech to Table” highlights 25 innovators working toward a revolution in how our food is grown and consumed, from robot-picked produce to lab-grown meat.
“Agriculture has long been our least-digitized, some would say least-modernized, sector, more focused on protecting current practices than creating novel ones,” Munson says. “In the last few years, however, investors and entrepreneurs are risking their own funds to devise new ways to farm as well as increase our food options. Ag-tech innovators are reimagining how we farm and what we eat, working to provide nutritious food more sustainably and affordably.”
Additional advances have the potential to transform our lives, from emerging cellular and gene therapies to treat rare diseases that previously had no cures, to potential 3-D printing of organs for transplant, to self-driving automobiles that one day may take us where we need to go. It is crucial to support such inventions.
“We need innovation to address our social, economic, and environmental challenges,” Munson says. “Fortunately, we live in a rather unique era of stunning scientific and technological advances, particularly a merger of sensors and data collection, leading-edge computation, and advanced robotics.”
These are among the many tools investigators are using to revolutionize our world.
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The start-up helping track COVID-19 through sewage water
Biobot Analytics’ founders believe wastewater data is the next weather data.
Using virtual reality to build better workplaces
Vantage Point combats sexual harassment and promotes diversity and inclusivity.