Today, Nasa’s New Horizons probe will fly past Ultima Thule, the icy Kuiper Belt object officially classified as 2014 MU69. The significance of the name, referring to distant lands beyond human ken, has changed dramatically in a few centuries. In the age of exploration, Ultima Thule was located at about the latitude of Greenland. The object that New Horizons is zipping past at over 50,000 kmph today is 4 billion miles from earth. This is the most distant rendezvous ever made by the human race, at the edge of the solar system. Human ken extends much, much further, as far as can be seen in the electromagnetic spectrum.
In Sky, Small Steps, Giant Leaps
India and China, public and private, there will be space for many
Humans first made landfall in space 50 years ago, when Neil Armstrong took a “small step” on the moon. The anniversary of that historic moment will be celebrated across the US this summer, but other nations have taken up the mantle of pioneers in the intervening half-century, and NASA itself is turning to private enterprise to send astronauts to space. On January 31, Elon Musk’s SpaceX hopes to test-flight the Dragon Crew capsule and by June, it could become the first private entity to send humans into orbit. SpaceX hopes to grab a lucrative market from the Russians — NASA will no longer have to depend on Soyuz craft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, as it has been doing ever since the space shuttle was decommissioned.
In India, the government has cleared funding of Rs 10,000 crore for the Gaganyaan project, which will put three Indian astronauts in space for a week in 2022, and make India the fourth nation — after Russia, the US and China — to send humans out there. It’s no fun coming fourth, but there’s Chandrayaan-2, scheduled for launch on January 31, to cheer us up. In the works from 2008, it will send a lunar orbiter, lander, and rover to a spot near the south pole of the moon. It will be the pioneer in those parts, as much as the Chinese Chang’e 4, the first mission to the dark side of the moon, which was launched in December and is scheduled to land a rover on January 3. Only Pink Floyd has preceded it to the dark side.
On Earth, Almost Forever
May you live to be 100 — this could well be a fact, not a hope or a blessing
What will life be like on Earth in 2019? It’s a cheerful prospect for the young, because more than half the babies born in developed nations in our times could live to be 100. British babies can shoot for 103, and Japanese babies should be good for 107. The prospects of children in developing nations is less certain, since they would be more prone to diseases brought on by pollution, breakneck social change, stress and a poor diet. But even they would be diagnosed earlier and treated better, and can expect to live longer than their parents.
Increasing longevity was projected in 2009 from a baseline of 2000 by the Danish Ageing Research Centre, and has found general acceptance over time. But such projections are credible only if current longevity trends hold, and even though we finally have a deal for limiting climate change, we must not underrate the power of greed and human stupidity. They are capable of overturning all the projections that we like to make at this time of year, as we stand in the Janus doorway of January. That’s one reason why the old campaigners in the prophesying game are more popular than latter-day soothsayers. Besides, they were generally more dramatic, and flew by the seat of the pants.
Europe: Found, Perhaps Lost
As the euro turns 20; a grand idea faces unprecedented challenges
As always, the UK tabloid press is running predictions for the new year, provided by the usual suspect. Nostradamus’ fans believe that he prognosticated that the East would weaken the West in 2019 (hasn’t it done that already, between the eras of Sony and Lenovo?), and that major powers would engage in war (an old-fashioned, fire-in-the-belly hot war, not a callow trade war) for 27 years, heralded by a comet. Followers of the blind Bulgarian mystic Baba Vanga, who is claimed to have predicted 9/11, Brexit and the IS, look forward to the collapse of the European Union, a super-tsunami, a mystery illness afflicting Donald Trump (his psychiatric condition is in question already) and a giant meteorite striking Russia. Russians are serial victims of objects from space — something mighty big exploded over the Tunguska river in 1908, flattening the taiga for miles.
Some of these predictions are not completely unbelievable. Big challenges do confront Europe in 2019. While the euro turns 20 today and has become the world’s second most powerful currency after the US dollar, the eurozone has been marked by serious financial crises — Greece has weathered one and Italy is in the throes of another — which threaten to undermine the monetary contract which binds 19 nations together. Europe, the fruit of the grandest political idea of modern times, which brought a continent together economically after centuries of conflict, will face more challenges in 2019.
Elections to the parliament of the European Union are due in May. It is never a breathlessly anticipated contest and generally draws out less than 50 per cent of voters. After numerous fiscal crises and the looming threat of Brexit, the figure could be even lower, undermining the authority of the institution. Five months later, the two most powerful individuals in the Union will demit office — Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank. Factor in the lack of clarity over Brexit, and there’s enough room in Europe for Baba Vanga’s prophecies to materialise.
Fake News And Digital Spin
But simpler and more decent human motives will determine voting choices
Speaking of Brexit, which is due in March, isn’t it astonishing that seven months after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, there is still no certainty about the extent to which the referendum may have been skewed? This state of ignorance may persist until Brexit actually happens. Across the Big Water, Donald Trump is doing his best to delay or scupper the investigation into Russian interference in the US presidential polls, and may succeed in holding it off. The extent to which the sanctity of elections has been undermined in this manner is staggering, and the controversy over electronic voting machines in India is only one symptom. Future polls in the world’s democracies, including the one that India is heading for, will be tinkered with by digital spin doctors, because technology cannot be wished away. And if nations still struggle to understand how it is done, and where fake news come from, the validity of elected governments would be in doubt.
The Indian government is attempting to contain the fake news menace by empowering 10 agencies to snoop on Internet traffic, and requiring communications providers, especially messaging and social media platforms, to reveal unencrypted communications on request. But that would broadly undermine privacy, and a backlash showed that the government is not regarded as a reliable fiduciary of public data. Indeed, its disregard for privacy had destroyed the Aadhaar project. But other things remaining constant, the 2019 election will not be decided by the sensational subjects favoured by purveyors of fake news, who create social and political distinctions where none existed before. It is more likely to be decided by the simplest motive, which unites all — the desire to make a decent living and live a fulfilling life without fear of being molested by the government.
Nationalists And Globalists
Political talk about more walls will face the law of diminishing returns
But on the global landscape, the contest of wills that is raging worldwide between nationalists and globalists (interesting, how the term ‘internationalist’ is so carefully avoided these days) is doomed to continue, throwing up more leaders like Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And talk of walls and other restrictions on migrants and refugees will continue, even if the walls are never built. In fact, implementing restrictions would be self-defeating, robbing demagogues of a useful talking point. Neither the wall in the US nor the temple in Ayodhya is likely to be built in a flash. Such projects are politically valuable when they are eternally imminent, but unfortunately thwarted.
Gene Editing, Storm Warning
Some diseases will be defeated, Frankenfood phobia will spread
Politics is gloomy stuff, but the confluence of the life sciences and technology, an area always buzzing with new work, offers hope. In 2019, the first crops customised by the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing suite are expected to move from the lab to the field. Apart from staple grains, the method has been tried on soya, watermelon, grapes, alfalfa and citrus fruits. Look forward to healthier and more viable produce. Also, prepare to the next wave of demonstrations worldwide, and the publication of a fresh crop of books on Frankenfoods.
Less controversial will be reports — several should be published this year — of gene therapy resulting in the cure of sickle cell anaemia, the first disease to be attributed to an error in the genetic code. This success should accelerate work on other diseases. CRISPR holds the promise of extirpating the HIV virus from the body, eliminating cystic fibrosis and eliminating communicable diseases which present a permanent public health challenge, like malaria. However, the fear of unintended consequences, which drives the phobia about Frankenfoods, is not completely misplaced, and is supported by legislative responses, like in Europe. Unfortunately, if a disaster is to happen at some unforeseeable future date, it will not be preventable by law, which always lags behind technology. Even designer babies became a reality in 2018, though it is an existential threat which unites the human race. He Jiankui, who produced viable twins by gene editing, is in detention in China, but the deed is done and a line has been crossed.
A Real Artificial Revolution
Human-machine interfaces will expand, laws to govern them won’t
There will be huge advances in the manner in which humans communicate with computers. Advances in motion sensing have already turned gestures into commands, and the arrival of devices controlled by eye movements is imminent. Better mapping of the brain as a network has already brought wonders, like the Caltech project in April to restore sensation to a paralysed limb. Direct human-machine interfaces, sensory and motor, were the stuff of science fiction just a decade ago. In 2019, they seem completely credible. Paralytics, patients who have suffered brain damage or the loss of a limb, and the ageing will be significant beneficiaries of such interfaces.
But they could be left behind in the queue by the world’s armed forces, which are likely to be avid users. It’s a nationalist era, national security is perceived to be much more important than human security, and an international compact needed to regulate the weaponisation of such technologies is missing. Laws governing the weaponisation of artificial intelligence, which Stephen Hawking and numerous researchers had demanded, are not likely to be drafted in 2019, either.
However, progress is continuous, rather than episodic. The advances that we shall see in 2019 would usually be the products of work that was pioneered long ago. If you’re reading this on a digital device, you are using some variant of a computer architecture first described by John von Neumann in 1945. If you still have a newspaper in your hands, you’re depending on a technique formalised by the smith and inventor Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. Similarly, ideas which are a gleam in an unsung researcher’s eye in 2019 may result in tremendous changes decades or centuries later. Progress does not happen by the year, and a page is not turned over on New Year’s Day. Because the Gregorian calendar is a purely human artifice. The universe does not know about it, and does not care that it does not know.