Self-Driving Cars, Robotic Medicine and Big, Big Data. Welcome to Tomorrow, Texas.

Keep Dallas Observer Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Dallas and help keep the future of Dallas Observer free.


A healthy lung lives in a bottle at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. It's the rather extraordinary brainchild of Dr. Joan Nichols, who accomplished the bioengineering feat without any grants because everyone doubted it could be done.

Nichols is the associate director of research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she leads a 15-person team experimenting on a living lung created from human tissue. They used lungs that were from a pair of children who died of trauma and unsuitable for transplant. Nichols' team stripped cells from one lung, leaving behind a scaffolding of the lung's collagen and elastin. Then they reseeded it with cells salvaged from the other lung and immersed it in a nutrient solution.

It was a particularly painstaking effort until med student Dr. Michael Riddle managed to MacGyver together their first apparatus using a pet store fish tank. (The things you do when you don't have large NIH grants.) He would ultimately cut the stripping process from months to days.

They'll soon use this process to make pig lungs for transplant, a step that could bring them closer to one day helping those awaiting lung transplants while suffering from severe, incurable disorders such as cystic fibrosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. (There are more than 1,600 people on the waiting list for lungs in the United States today.) More than that, the bioengineered lung offers a living human template on which to experiment rather than relying on proxy animals like mice.

"People ask about modeling other organ systems," Nichols says with a chuckle. "I say it's taken me and my research partner 15 years to do the lung and immune system and get this to work, and when first I started talking to people about creating a human model using human cells ... they didn't accept it very well."

It's a reminder how things change. In those 15 years since the millennium the world has transformed in ways big and small.

We've invaded planets with robot-scooters, peered at the smallest constituents of matter thanks to the Large Hadron Collider, seen the very edge of the visible universe and last year even transmitted a thought from the mind of a researcher in India to the mind of another in France.

It's not The Jetsons — there's no flying Buick in the garage — but as the mirror says, things may be closer than they appear. Science is making logarithmic leaps bringing barely imaginable futures closer, quicker than ever before.

Not to suggest this is something novel, as University of Texas-Austin's Dr. Peter Stone notes. "That trend goes back thousands of years. It used to be you would do what your great grandfather did," says Stone, who has worked primarily with robotics and autonomous artificial intelligence systems. "Nowadays people are expected to reinvent themselves every few years, not just once in their lifetime. The rate of change is accelerating, but it has been continually for many, many years."

What happened over a generation now occurs in 15 years. It took half as long for smartphones to replace cell phones as it took broadband to replace dial-up. Will cable TV even exist in 15 years or might all our media be on-demand? From wellness, yoga and low carbs to Kickstarter, Spotify and Snapchat, trends penetrate deeper, quicker.

"The pace at which you can go from the almost lunatic fringe to the mainstream is a lot faster than it used to be," says Dr. Andrew Hines, program coordinator of the University of Houston's graduate program in foresight. "Something can accelerate up that curve a lot faster than has been possible because of social media, making it much less predictable."

Going back just 15 years takes us past the birth of Twitter and Facebook and the death of Enron. Ten years ago Blockbuster Video was at its peak with 60,000 employees at 9,000 stores, and people were worried about Clear Channel's domination of radio. You know, the thing with the dials that grandpa listens to? It's sort of like a podcast.

So what will be the shape of this new world we're staring down? We're not soothsayers, so we asked some of Texas' best thinkers and scholars to bend their minds toward how our world might change along the road to 2030.

For Dr. Nicholas Suntzeff this is a historical moment. The Texas A&M astrophysicist has been involved in the preparation and building of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which beginning in 2022 will log every star in the sky in just 10 years. He compares it to Magellan's voyage around the globe 500 years ago, when we first began to appreciate the finite expanse of our planet.

"Once that boat went around the world, they proved there's a technology to explore everywhere there is on the surface of the earth," says Suntzeff, who in 1998 helped discover that the universe was not only expanding, but doing so at an accelerating pace. In November he and fellow researchers in the work received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

"The same thing has happened in astronomy. If I have a big telescope and take a deep enough image I can see all the way across the universe and there is an edge to the universe I can't see farther than," Suntzeff says. "In the next 20-30 years we'll map out every galaxy — except the small ones — in the universe. You'll be able to go to Google Universe and look at any one of the 300-500 billion galaxies on your iPad."

A similar paradigm shift is occurring in many scientific fields, as exploring and reducing the world to its constituent parts gives way to cataloging and identifying the pieces and how they're interrelated. Once you've broken down life, the universe and everything, you need to figure out how it all goes together.

It took four billion years for our genetic code to achieve its complexity, but only a dozen years of concerted effort to finally unravel it in 2002, thanks to the $2.7 billion Human Genome Project. That breakthrough sparked a technological revolution in DNA sequencing. In just the last seven years, the cost to sequence your genome has dipped from $10 million to $1,000 with a commensurate increase in speed. Before long, you might squeeze a drop of blood into a kiosk receptacle and have not only your flu/cold/viral symptoms diagnosed by text within the hour but also the best possible treatment based upon your specific and individualized genetic profile.

Thanks to our ever-increasing computing power, researchers who once roamed library stacks for hours seeking scholarly articles now acquire them in seconds. Finally able to peer out from beneath narrow interests, science has grown more multidisciplinary as its tools have become more precise.

"Most people have a more systems-based thinking now simply because it's more possible than it used to be," Nichols says. "What we used to look at as slides, now we'll look at a cell by itself and see why it does what it does, and really start to understand what happens and start modeling these complex biological systems."

This has required ever more expertise and collaboration from researchers as it has deepened and widened fields of study.

"Fifteen years ago you could be a scientist and you worked on your project by yourself with the students in your lab and it was a very small world and you were very introverted," Nichols recalls.

That's no longer possible. Nichols' 15-person team includes a cardiothoracic surgeon, a nanoparticle specialist and chemical engineers.

"The bigger your project the more people you need to be a part of your team, and the more specialized they are," Nichols says. "You have to be able to talk a little bit of physics, a little bit of chemistry to get everybody on the same page and move it along, and that's the truth of science. It's not one person alone anymore."

The challenge goes beyond cultivating interests in related disciplines and staying abreast of advances in as many as 10 other fields. Communication and people skills are required too.

"It's not bad enough you're doing cutting edge science and you've got a great team, but you have to have the skills to take the team and keep them functioning," Nichols says with a sigh. "Those are social components they don't always teach scientists. Scientists like to sit by themselves. I'm happy staring into my microscope all day long, but I can't do that."

The torrent of information created from our ability to see ever smaller bits and parse ever larger volumes of data is helping to drive this change in science's culture.

"We're witnessing a change in the scientific paradigm," says Austin author Dr. John Vanston. A former Army lieutenant colonel, Vanston taught nuclear engineering at UTA before becoming a futurist/consultant in the late '70s. He's written at least a dozen books, highlighted by 2011's Minitrends: How Innovators & Entrepreneurs Discover & Profit From Business & Technology Trends.

"Through the centuries people came to scientific conclusions through observation, then said let's make an experiment and we'll see how these things work," he says. "Then you began to move into computer simulation and now we're beginning the fourth paradigm, which is data-intensive discovery. We've been overwhelmed by information, and the key now is to figure out how to use that information intelligently."

Obviously, the changes being wrought by big data and its tools extend beyond the borders of science and academia. With improvement in natural speech recognition, integrated Internet-enabled home appliances and the next wave of smartphone apps and wearable media, we're on the verge of being able to autocorrect the mundane aspects of our lives, handing our chores off to a personal concierge service no further away than our voices. It will potentially anticipate your needs from ordering groceries, to paying your bills, balancing your checkbook and scheduling your appointments.

"The AI, predictive analytics, big data, all that stuff — it's hard to imagine a bigger story," Hines says. "When you describe it, it sounds a little freaky, but we'll adapt. What am I comfortable offloading to my virtual assistant and what am I comfortable doing? I think we'll find we're comfortable offloading a lot more than we thought."

The changes big data promises are every bit as life-altering for medicine. Computer advances have not only produced advances in genetic sequencing but also machines that model and test thousands of proteins at a time. They call it the "high-throughput era" because of how dramatically new tech has cut experimentation time. Exploring thousands of biochemical interactions that once would have taken years to complete now can be done in hours.

As with astrophysics, we're entering a period when nature is laid out before us. We may not know what everything does, but we can test it, and with the whole picture in hand, things are beginning to make more sense.

This and other advances in diagnostics, modeling and medicine's growing interdisciplinary understanding make Nichols optimistic that we're on the brink of something big.

"We're coming to the point where I expect in the next 10 years we're going to make some big changes in how we look at treatment," she says. "As we understand more it gives us a chance to make better therapeutics, better vaccines and better ways to help people overcome any kind of injuries."

One way this is manifesting is in the growth of personalized medicine. All this data can potentially offer insight into why some individuals respond to treatments while others don't. The answer might lie in individual differences in our DNA and the bacteria that's evolved with us and lives in our bodies, known as our microbiome.

Our bodies have 10 times more microbial cells than human ones, and our bodies' bacteria have a hundred times our genetic matter. Only since the explosion of DNA sequencing have we begun to realize how important these bacteria are in regulating our health, even beyond digestion, including regulating the expression of our genes and inflammation response.

A fuller picture of what's going on promises better, personalized therapies. Just last month, President Obama proposed allocating hundreds of millions to this field and heard rare avowals of bipartisan support.

"Basic knowledge of how the immune system works has advanced tremendously over the last 20 years," says Dr. William Decker, a cancer researcher at Baylor College of Medicine. "When you look back and see what people were doing, I don't want to say it's laughable because it's admirable, but ... "

Decker works in immunology, trying to teach the immune system to seek out and destroy cancer cells. This would replace the current chemo-based method which involves napalming the body with toxic chemicals hoping the immune system bounces back after you've clear-cut everything else. Immunology takes a focused approach, targeting particular chemical pathways in a manner less damaging to the body as a whole.

"I'm positive that in the next 15-25 years immune therapy will be working really, really well," he says. "We're not going to be saying the same thing in 20 years, because things are starting to work in the clinic and these new technologies enable us to think better how things might work and test new hypotheses faster.

"I'm not saying I personally have the answer," he continues. "But there are so many people working on this and we've learned so much more about the immune system that one or more of the emerging technologies is certainly going to work and work well. It isn't some locked black box; we can understand how it functions."

It's an exciting, if challenging, time.

"It's like us looking out on the universe," says Nichols. "We're in the same place of putting it together piece by piece from one side to the other."

Even revolutionary changes like those coming in medicine were probably percolating on somebody's blackboard long before the killer application was discovered or crucial obstacles surmounted.

Some big ideas promised by technology never make it into the wider world, like the flying car. Others just take time. Computer science chased the dream of creating an artificial intelligence that could beat a human grand chess champion for 40 years before machines began regularly besting grandmasters in the mid-aughts.

The missed marks humble computer scientists like Stone, making him hesitant to get too grandiose when he talks about the next 15 years. Even things that are near at hand can seem far away. When he published his first paper on autonomous cars 11 years ago, even his colleagues in computer science "would look at me like I'm crazy," he recalls.

"There were demonstrations of cars going long distances under completely autonomous control in the early '90s," says Stone, a former Fulbright Scholar and Guggenheim Fellow.

"If you go back even three or four years and started to talk about autonomous cars becoming inevitable most people would look at you like you're crazy, where as I think nowadays most people would just nod and say, 'What else is new?' In a short period of time the public perception of the possibility and capability can change dramatically."

Teaching people to measure that space between possibility and reality is Dr. Hines' job as leader of the University of Houston's graduate study in foresight, the nation's longest-running futurist program,

The most multidisciplinary of disciplines, foresight began under the humanities umbrella and now resides in the College of Technology. "It's not necessarily a logical fit per se, but they wanted to have our program," Hines says.

He echoes Stone's thoughts about the difficulty of knowing when an emergent technology has ended its chrysalis stage. Hines recalls heralding the rise of the "wearable space" more than a decade ago, to generally blank stares. The emergence of Google Glass and the iWatch in the past few years has changed that. Even as Google Glass withdraws to retool, other products are emerging.

"[Now] the wearable space looks very interesting," he says. "A lot of it is timing. You're seeing stuff that's coming, that's all well and good, but tell us when? That can often be the tricky part. The diffusion of technology to a larger scale and really the integration into daily life is hard to predict."

One part of the future isn't so hard to predict, and that's demography. It's a simple fact that all the people who will be 16 or older in 2030 are already here.

"There's a saying, 'Demography is destiny,'" says futurist author Vanston. He notes that the increase in America's elderly baby boomer generation by 2030 is matched by a decrease in those under 25, with implications for health care and employment.

"In 2000, people over 65 represented 14 percent of the population and today they're about 15 percent, but by 2030 they'll be about 22 percent," says Vanston. "If you look at the kids 16-24, in the year 2000 they were 17 percent of the population. Today they're about 16 percent and it's estimated by 2030 they'll be about 12 percent. To put that into perspective, in 1980 they were 23 percent of the population. That's a major decrease, and it will have implications."

He expects healthcare costs to balloon from one-eighth of the economy in 2000, and one-sixth of it today, to one-quarter of the GNP by 2030. Currently about an eighth of the country's workforce is employed in some health/elder care-related field, and by 2030 this number is expected to be greater than one in five.

Meanwhile, the limited number of young people will create greater demand for entry-level workers, pushing these wages up. "There's going to be more competition for their services," Vanston says. "It will be a good time to be coming into the workforce."

The population's racial composition is skewing too. From the city to the suburbs to the sticks, the only populations growing are minority ones. In 2010, 53 percent of all children born in America were non-Hispanic white, a 7 percent decline from a decade earlier. Before 2020, non-Hispanic white kids will be the minority. The rising youth generation doesn't see race the way its parents did. The change echoes how this generation's accepted different sexual orientations in a way its parents couldn't.

"These young people look at and recognize the world in a way an older generation, and certainly two generations older, do not because that simply was not their world. Their world was much less diverse," says Rice University's Dr. Steve Murdock, a former U.S. Census director and Texas' official state demographer.

Because of the falling fertility rate of non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, our national population would be shrinking were it not for immigration and population growth among minorities.

"People who think we have too many immigrants may want to think about the implications if we had no immigration," he says. We could wind up like Japan and Sweden where "decreasing and very old populations create a whole set of difficulties that are difficult to overcome without new people coming into the structure.

"It sounds bad to say it this way," Murdock says, "but the future prosperity of the country will increasingly depend on how well minority populations in the U.S. are doing."

Population change also has a profound impact on cities' organization and development. Some cities that set themselves up as retirement communities have to wonder what their future will be after the baby boomers die.

The cores of many major Texas cities face an opposite but similar problem after courting young professionals for years with more nightlife and condos. Young adults who don't want to live in the suburbs, often don't drive and who are waiting longer to marry or start families are powering today's renaissance of city centers. What happens when they age and there are fewer younger people growing up behind them?

"We're seeing both the revitalization of some areas and a new model emerging in which suburbs are becoming not just residential areas but commercial and employment centers," Murdock says.

"Young adults are going back to areas that are being developed for them, townhouses and that sort of thing where there are lots of restaurants and entertainment," he says. "You're seeing it in Houston, Austin and Dallas, but in parts of the Fort Worth suburbs and the Plano-McKinney area you're seeing the same thing."

Many sociologists wonder whether this reflects a long-term change or is merely an artifact of the weak post-recession economy and changing, dating mores that only delay young people's departure for the suburbs. The research Hines has seen suggests the trend may represent a true change in attitudes.

"Even though I do think there is a generational cohort effect, I don't think it's just that 'Once they get older they'll follow the pattern,'" the University of Houston futurist says, because the changes are not limited to the young. "The values data I looked at suggests we're not going to go back. It's not just an age thing. There really is a shift."

But these trends can shift again in new and unexpected ways if the right game-changing technology comes around. That's how Stone feels about the autonomous car. He knows ground-breaking applications when he sees them. Some close colleagues helped found Kiva Systems, whose breakthroughs in robotic order fulfillment have powered Amazon (which eventually bought the firm), the Gap, Office Depot and others.

"People envision an autonomous car as being a car in which you take exactly the same trips you take today when really it's going to change everything," Stone says. "It's going to change the value of real estate, where people tend to live, the types of trips people take, the need for parking in urban settings and the value of owning versus sharing cars.

"It's going to be life changing," he continues. "I compare it to the microwave. People said I'll just cook the same food faster. In reality there are whole aisles of grocery stores devoted to microwaveable food. It's changed lifestyles. Same with the cell phone. It's not used in the same way as a tethered phone, only wirelessly."

Drill down and you'll find the advances in computers, miniaturization and robotics that have borne so much fruit in the past 15 years were sown during the space race. Government money for the Apollo program is paying dividends decades after the break-even point.

"So many technologies that were brought to bear or invented for that program found their way into everyday lives," says Dr. Scott Parazynski, veteran of five space shuttle missions and seven spacewalks. "The computer revolution, the miniaturization of sensors and medical monitor devices that are so commonplace in our operating rooms all have a pedigree in the space program, just like satellite communications."

There's a sense among the medical researchers we spoke to that the Human Genome Project is destined to have a similar effect. Indeed, it already has. According to a report released 18 months ago, HGP created a nearly $1 trillion dollar economic impact, 60 times that of the initial investment. In calling for more investment in personalized medicine, Obama seems to be doubling down on that project's advances a quarter-century later.

Parazynski is part of the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program and is seeking to make surgery possible even in extreme environs such as Mars. It's something with applications for remote rural areas in the U.S., far-flung locales in Africa and one day perhaps in mobile centers that could be sent to crisis zones.

"It leads to remote surgeries anywhere a person needs it, even without a surgeon present," says robotics guru Stone. "I also have colleagues working on rehabilitation robotics, helping people doing physical therapy through robotic exoskeleton type of things that gradually reduce the amount of help they give a person in the motions they need to accomplish a task."

Advances in brain/machine interfaces have also produced surprising prosthetic functionality. Stone noted recent advances in robotic leg locomotion, even as technology increases the sophistication of facial/image and speech recognition — not that we're anywhere close to creating a Terminator.

"Go into any robotics lab and see the capabilities of robots at the moment and most of your fears will be alleviated right away," Stone says with a laugh. Despite recent advances, manipulation of objects is still generally beyond robots' reach.

He did point to inventions such as Japan's PARO harp seal robot, which has been clinically proven to provide comfort to the elderly, and could one day be adapted to home healthcare monitoring.

"That would allow people to live independently for longer because there's some computer or eventually robot reminding them and making sure they're taking their medicine or can be aware if they've fallen," Stone says. "But it's not going to go from nothing to the movie Her or something like that."

Vanston, Hines and Stone were unanimous in their excitement about the mainstreaming of 3-D manufacturing, though the technology is still waiting for the killer app that will take 3-D from its niche status.

When that app does arrive, it might come thanks to another offshoot of big data and our interconnected society. Crowdfunding offers an alternative way to clear the hurdle raised by government administrators' frustrating grant priorities.

For Parazynski, the priorities set by the National Institute of Health particularly rankle.

"Unfortunately they only fund 10 to 15 percent of the proposals that they get and tend to bet on the success stories from the past," he says. "We've become risk-aversive as a nation, and that concerns me."

That talented researchers like Nichols are able to pursue such cutting edge experiments is testament to the passion of her underpaid team and the ability for a will to find a way even if it has to scrape every step of the way.

"The disappearing barriers to entry for entrepreneurs — to take on the bigger challenges, work collaboratively and find the right teammates in industry or academia — is really exciting," Parazynski says. "Crowdfunding has been a powerful amplifier for new startups. I'm very bullish about the future."

Unfortunately, progress in one of our most pressing needs — energy — remains the slowest going. It's been 45 years since Drs. John Goodenough and Koichi Mizushima demonstrated the first lithium ion battery, a technology that's been incrementally improving ever since.

Goodenough reports no breakthroughs on the horizon, just steady progress. He recently saw some private commercial applications that offer a marked improvement in anode operation, and he pointed to potential advances in the creation of sodium batteries, based on an element whose ubiquity would make batteries much cheaper to manufacture.

"I think by 2030 there will be some advances whereby people are using some sodium ion batteries in competition with the lithium," says Goodenough, suggesting the potential for cheaper storage of excess electrical capacity, from wind farms, for instance. "With sodium [batteries] you might be able to get the grid costs down."

Though low oil prices tend to suck the air out of alternative and renewable fuel investment, Hines is hopeful we're almost around the curve on sustainability.

"In 15 years we won't have a trash bin," he suggests. "We'll only have a recycling bin. We'll have the ability to reuse everything — we've just been picking at the edges of that."

Maybe he's right. We'll know in 15 years. In the meantime, for most of us, trying to get a grip on what tomorrow will bring is like being a passenger on a moving train. It's hard to get much of an idea exactly where you're going just by sticking your head out the window — unless you're really close to the front.

Still, there's no doubt the train is moving, and ever faster. Curiously, whether you're talking our culture or the sciences, similar forces are driving the engine.

Our ability to command information about our environment is increasing, as is our ability to communicate with ease and speed. Like Magellan, we've changed the boundaries of the world, and opened up new horizons to explore — nanotechnology, fusion power and quantum computers — without a map.

There's no telling what happens next.

"We have an innate curiosity," says astrophysicist Suntzeff. "It's all part of the same need humans have to figure out the world around them."

Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.


Join the Observer community and help support independent local journalism in Dallas.