Retrospective: The Biggest Sci-Tech Buzz of 2016

The year 2016 finally came to a close. As we look back at the year past us, we now welcome the new and fresh year of 2017.

But before we hope for yet newer and more baffling sci-tech discoveries and breakthroughs, let’s again take a recap of some of the most important, influential, and even controversial, scientific and technological buzz of 2016.

Gravitational Waves (Einstein was right, once again.)

One of the last predictions of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity was the existence of gravitational waves, ripples in the curvature of spacetime itself caused by gravitational interactions of celestial bodies. The effects of such phenomenon are so faint, that a discernable method or technology to detect (and thus prove) its existence did not exist for over an entire century.

That was until the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) in Louisiana, United States, finally confirmed a detected incidence of the phenomenon during early 2016. The event was nothing short of incredible, which was why the research team kept the discovery strictly confidential until it was proven beyond a doubt. While there are no immediate benefits to such discovery, the fact that it was confirmed alone is enough to give astrophysicists an entirely different way to view the known universe from this point onward.

CRISPR (The DNA Slicer)

Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, better known as CRISPR Cas-9, is a standard immune system component of our body. It is a high-precision tool of our body’s cells, recognizing potentially harmful or foreign DNA, and cuts them off to cease their function. The kicker? Scientists eventually found out that it is actually ‘programmable’, in the sense that you can simply give it a string of DNA that it could accurately cut off or disable.

Pinpoint gene splicing at the ribonucleic core is something that we often only think about in science fiction. With CRISPR, researchers are now able to manipulate and edit DNA at an unprecedented level of precision and accuracy. CRISPR use and research has actually been in the works for a while especially in HIV-related research. Finally however, last June 2016, the first clinical trials to use CRISPR on humans was given the green approval.

Reusable Rockets (Launch Rewind Button Feature)

All of our achievements in space, while breathtaking and astonishing, was not without its costs. In fact, the launches themselves are literally costly, eating up billions of government funds over a span of several decades. Access to space, as it seemed, would never get cheap enough.

Thankfully, the advent of the commercial space industry finally broke the cost stalemate. Adding to the list of modern innovations to slash the cost of space travel, is the development of reusable rockets. Yes, rocket stages that literally go back down to Earth and land upright to be used once again another day. SpaceX had its fair share of failures developing the technology, but finally had spectacular success last April 2016 with its CRS-8 resupply mission to the Internation Space Station (ISS). Blue Origin was more successful, though with the use of smaller rockets and on lower altitudes. With the concept now proven, it might not be long before an efficient method is developed to bring down maintenance costs of the returning rockets.

Tensor Processing Unit (Towards Sentient Artificial Intelligence 1.0)

Credit via Google

Building up on the notion of going beyond Moore’s Law, Google made a bold announcement of the development of the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU). These next generation processors go beyond the standard CPU-GPU lineup of current PCs by going for a modular computing design architecture. In other words, it only processes the data needs to be relayed, increasing the processing power per watt and per hardware size immensely.

Due to its design nature, TPUs are specifically optimized for machine learning, The clue is in the name itself, as it is designed by optimizing the performance of TensorFlow, one of the various deep learning AIs that Google is currently nurturing. TPUs are planned to be introduced as the next standard in PC architecture. Even Intel seems to be getting on the bandwagon with similarly designed chips.

The Interplanetary Transport System (The Mars-in-Seven-Years Project)

In perhaps the boldest and most anticipated announcement this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk finally unveiled the company’s plans to conquer Mars for the next seven years. At the heart of the presentation is the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), a gargantuan reusable space launch vehicle with the capacity to carry supplies and people throughout the outer Solar System.

The audacious nature of the announcement, along with certain unanswered and unaccounted for issues and queries about the project still raises lots of eyebrows for a significant number of skeptics. Still, Elon Musk confidently shows that all the math lines up. He reports that the production and development schedule is already working ahead. Will there be a thriving Mars city by 2050 thanks to SpaceX? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Em Drive (From Anomaly, then Confirmed, to Breakthrough?)

One very controversial scientific topic that buzzed in mid-2016 was the topic of the Em Drive. A technology proposed and developed as early as 2001, it presented an anomaly. It is a propulsion system that works by producing forward motion via microwaves in an enclosed tapered cylinder. Sounds a bit off? Indeed, because the observation of its produced motion seems to violate the laws of thermodynamics.

NASA approved a peer review of the subject to prove once and for all if it’s bogus science or not. Turns out, that the device created for the experiment had actually produced a considerable amount of thrust, kind of confirming the concept. Problem is, though there are already several theories, there is not one concrete explanation as to why it works. In the meantime though, we still have to work on its efficiency, probably first by surpassing a standard Hall effect thruster.

Self-Driving Car Industry (Full Auto-pilot at Your Doorstep)

We’ve come a long way since the driverless derby days of the DARPA Grand Challenge. Today, we now have legit self-driving cars on the urban road that can take on the streets more efficient and more safely than any human ever could. Sure, there are a few accidents here and there, but if you compare that to the amount of human accidents per year, it is just but a minuscule statistic.

The year 2016 introduced the next step to driverless cars: commercial driverless cars. There are several announcements and projects, but the most notable of which are Tesla’s currently developing full autopilot system, Uber’s upcoming driverless vehicle fleet, and Alphabet’s now established driverless car solutions company, Waymo. Take note, all of these are just the beginning.

Stay tuned for our follow-up discussion, where we will then talk about the most exciting science and technology breakthroughs and discoveries that we could expect in 2017.

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