10 Big Global Challenges Technology Could Solve

None is easy, but all are incredibly important

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Illustrations: Tomi Um

By the Editors

1. Carbon sequestration

Cutting greenhouse-gas emissions alone won't be enough to prevent sharp increases in global temperatures. We'll also need to remove vast amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which not only would be incredibly expensive but would present us with the thorny problem of
仅仅减少温室气体排放不足以防止全球气温急剧上升。我们还需要从大气中清除大量的二氧化碳,这不仅价格昂贵,而且会给我们带来棘手的问题。what to do with all that CO₂. A growing number of startups are exploring ways of recycling carbon dioxide into products, including synthetic fuels, polymers, carbon fiber, and concrete. That's promising, but what we'll really need is a cheap way to permanently store the billions of tons of carbon dioxide that we might have to pull out of the atmosphere.

2. Grid-scale energy storage

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are becoming cheap and more widely deployed, but they don't generate electricity when the sun's not shining or wind isn't blowing. That limits how much power these sources can supply, and how quickly we can move away from steady sources like coal and natural gas. The cost of building enough batteries to back up entire grids for the days when renewable generation flags would be astronomical. Various scientists and startups are working to develop cheaper forms of grid-scale storage that can last for longer periods, including flow batteries or tanks of molten salt. Either way, we desperately need a cheaper and more efficient way to store vast amounts of electricity.

3. Universal flu vaccine

Pandemic flu is rare but deadly. At least 50 million people died in the 1918 pandemic of H1N1 flu. More recently, about a million people died in the 1957-'58 and 1968 pandemics, while something like half a million died in a 2009 recurrence of H1N1. The recent death tolls are lower in part because the viruses were milder strains. We might not be so lucky next time --- a particularly potent strain of the virus could replicate too quickly for any tailor-made vaccine to effectively fight it. A universal flu vaccine that protected not only against the relatively less harmful variants but also against a catastrophic once-in-a-century outbreak is a crucial public health challenge.
大流行性流感很少见,但致命。在1918年的H1N1流感大流行中,至少有5000万人死亡。最近,在1957年至1958年和1968年的流行病中,大约有100万人死亡,而在2009年H1N1流感再次发生时,有50万人死亡。最近的死亡人数较低,部分原因是病毒较轻。我们下次可能不会那么幸运 - 一种特别有效的病毒株可能会过快地复制任何量身定制的疫苗来有效对抗它。一种普遍的流感疫苗,不仅能够抵御相对危害较小的变种,而且还能抵御灾难性的百年一遇爆发,这是一项至关重要的公共卫生挑战。

4. Dementia treatment

More than 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer's; a third of those over 85 do. As people's life spans lengthen, the number of people living with the disease --- in the US and around the world --- is likely to skyrocket. Alzheimer's remains poorly understood: conclusive diagnoses are possible only after death, and even then, doctors debate the distinction between Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. However, advances in neuroscience and genetics are beginning to shed more light. That understanding is providing clues to how it might be possible to slow or even shut down the devastating effects of the condition.
超过十分之一的65岁以上的美国人患有老年痴呆症; 85岁以上的人中有三分之一。随着人们生命的延长,在美国和世界各地患病的人数可能会飙升。阿尔茨海默氏症仍然知之甚少:只有在死后才能进行确凿的诊断,即使在那时,医生仍在辩论阿尔茨海默氏症与其他形式的痴呆症之间的区别。然而,神经科学和遗传学的进步开始变得更加光明。这种理解为如何减缓甚至关闭病情的破坏性影响提供了线索。

5. Ocean clean-up

Billions of tiny pieces of plastic --- so-called "microplastics" --- are now floating throughout the world's oceans. Much of this waste comes from bags or straws that have been broken up over time. It's poisoning birds, fish, and humans. Researchers fear that the effects on both human health and the environment will be profound, and it may take centuries to clean up the hundreds of millions of tons of plastic that have accumulated over the decades. Because the pollution is so diffuse, it's difficult to clean up, and while there are prototype methods for tackling the massive oceanic garbage patches, there is no solution for coasts, seas, and waterways.
数十亿微小的塑料 - 所谓的"微塑料" - 现在漂浮在世界各地的海洋中。大部分浪费来自于随着时间推移而破碎的袋子或稻草。它会使鸟类,鱼类和人类中毒。研究人员担心,对人类健康和环境的影响将是深远的,并且可能需要几个世纪才能清理数十年来累积的数亿吨塑料。由于污染是如此分散,很难清理,虽然有解决大规模海洋垃圾补丁的原型方法,但海岸,海洋和水道没有解决方案。

6. Energy-efficient desalination

There is about 50 times as much salt water on earth as there is fresh water. As the world's population grows and climate change intensifies droughts, the need for fresh water is going to grow more acute. Israel has built the world's biggest reverse-osmosis desalination facilities and now gets most of its household water from the sea, but that method is too energy intensive to be practical worldwide. New types of membranes might help; electrochemical techniques may also help to make brackish water useful for irrigation. As far as climate-change adaptation technologies go, creating drinking water from the ocean ought to be a top priority.

7. Safe driverless car

Autonomous vehicles have been tested for millions of miles on public roads. Pilot programs for delivery and taxi services are underway in places like the suburbs of Phoenix. But driverless cars still aren't ready to take over roads in general. They have trouble handling chaotic traffic, and difficulty with weather conditions like snow and fog. If they can be made reliably safe, they might allow a wholesale reimagining of transportation. Traffic jams might be eliminated, and cities could be transformed as parking lots give way to new developments. Above all, self-driving cars, if widely deployed, are expected to eliminate most of the 1.25 million deaths a year caused by traffic accidents.

8. Embodied A.I.

Last fall a video of Atlas, designed by Boston Dynamics, swept the internet. It showed the robot jumping up steps like a commando. This came only two years after AlphaGo beat the world's best Go player. Atlas can't play Go (it is embodied, but not intelligent), and AlphaGo can't run (it's intelligent, in its own way, but lacks a body). So what happens if you put AlphaGo's mind in Atlas's body? Many researchers say true general artificial intelligence might depend on an ability to relate internal computational processes to real things in the physical world, and that an A.I. would acquire that ability by learning to interact with the physical world as people and animals do.
去年秋天,波士顿动力公司设计的Atlas视频横扫互联网。它显示机器人像突击队员一样跳起台阶。这是在AlphaGo击败世界上最好的Go玩家两年后才出现的。 Atlas不能玩Go(它是体现的,但不是智能的),AlphaGo无法运行(它是智能的,以自己的方式,但缺乏一个身体)。那么如果你将AlphaGo的思想放在Atlas的身体里会发生什么呢?许多研究人员表示,真正的一般人工智能可能依赖于将内部计算过程与物理世界中的真实事物联系起来的能力,并且人工智能将通过学习与人和动物一样的物理世界来获得这种能力。

9. Earthquake prediction

Over 100,000 people died in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami --- triggered by one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded --- killed nearly a quarter of a million people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and elsewhere. We can predict hurricanes days and sometimes weeks in advance, but earthquakes still come as a surprise. Predicting earthquakes with some confidence over the medium term would allow planners to figure out durable solutions. At least giving a few hours' warning would allow people to evacuate unsafe areas, and could save millions of lives.
2010年海地地震造成超过10万人死亡,2004年印度洋海啸 - 由有史以来最强烈的地震之一引发 - 在印度尼西亚,斯里兰卡,印度和其他地方造成近25万人丧生。我们可以预测飓风天数,有时甚至提前数周,但地震仍然令人惊讶。在中期内以一定的信心预测地震将使规划者能够找到持久的解决方案。至少给出几个小时的警告将允许人们疏散不安全的地区,并可以挽救数百万人的生命。

10. Brain decoding

Our brains remain a deep mystery to neuroscientists. Everything we think and remember, and all our movements, must somehow be coded in the billions of neurons in our heads. But what is that code? There are still many unknowns and puzzles in understanding the way our brains store and communicate our thoughts. Cracking that code could lead to breakthroughs in how we treat mental disorders like schizophrenia. It might allow us to improve direct interfaces that communicate directly from our brains to computers, or even to other people --- a life-changing development for people who are paralyzed by injury or degenerative disease.
我们的大脑对神经科学家来说仍然是个谜。我们思考和记忆的一切,以及我们所有的动作,都必须以某种方式编码在我们头脑中的数十亿个神经元中。但那段代码是什么?在理解我们的大脑存储和传达思想的方式方面仍然存在许多未知和困惑。破解这些代码可能会导致我们如何治疗精神分裂症等精神疾病的突破。它可以让我们改善直接接口,直接从我们的大脑到计算机,甚至与其他人沟通 - 对于因受伤或退行性疾病而瘫痪的人来说,这是一个改变生活的发展。