2016 wasn't so bad: 5 ways this year will shape the future

When we look back, 2016 could be the year we started to live longer, better and beyond Earth.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
5 min read

It's been hard to miss all the ink and pixels declaring 2016 the year of humanity's discontent. That judgment's tough to deny in the realm of geopolitics, given awful conflicts in places like Syria, acts of terror worldwide and contentious elections in the UK and US.

But the world went on, and so did important work in science and innovation. If you sweep the ugly parts of 2016 under the rug and then check the place out, it's not too shabby. What really makes 2016, though, is the view. The future, in many ways, is much brighter and more exciting than it appeared 12 months ago.

Here are five areas in which the events of 2016 will likely have a lasting positive impact five, 10 and even 100 years into the future.

80 is the new 60

Crispr/Cas9, a means of editing genes so relatively simple you can do it at home with a $150 kit, was much celebrated in 2016.

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Former Apple CEO John Sculley is now an investor and adviser to forward-looking startups.

John Sculley

John Sculley, former Apple CEO turned health tech investor and entrepreneur, told me the combination of developments like Crispr, machine learning and precision medicine spell the end for maladies like cancer, Alzheimer's and dementia in the coming decades.

"Cancer will probably be solved in the next 10 to 15 years," Sculley told me in October. Once cancer falls, he sees research and development resources freed up to go after things like dementia. "I think there's a high probability we solve that by midcentury."

Sculley says it's not crazy to think today's schoolchildren could live to see the year 2125 or later.

"The possibility of regenerating organs, finding ways blind people can see, deaf people can hear -- all of those types of problems will be increasingly solvable," he said.

In November, not long after that conversation, researchers at the Salk Institute announced they had used gene-editing techniques to restore vision in blind animals.

Star Trek suddenly seems a little less far out

Nobody is signing up for Starfleet yet, but our understanding of the universe continued to expand this year. We saw the biggest new planet discovery in decades: Proxima b, our closest possible exoplanet neighbor, orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, could be habitable. Multiple efforts aim to study and even send a tiny spacecraft to Proxima b as soon as possible. But that's not even close to the most ambitious space exploration plan announced in 2016. In September, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk unveiled his grand vision to build a colony, 1 million humans strong, on Mars by the end of the century.

"History suggests there will be some doomsday event, and I would hope you would agree that becoming a multiplanetary species would be the right way to go," Musk said in his pitch.

Sounds crazy, but 2016 saw even greater space-faring outlandishness. NASA's physics-defying electromagnetic drive, which could lay the foundation for something like the warp technology from "Star Trek," continues to be an actual thing, apparently. We first heard about EmDrive in 2015 when it seemed like the kind of fake news story that also became more mainstream this year. But 2016 saw the technically impossible engine pass peer review and move toward actual testing in space.

Watch this: Elon Musk reveals grand plan to colonize Mars​

On Earth, it's 'Jetsons' time

Leave it to the king of the unicorns to finally bring us flying cars. Uber revealed its plan for commuting via self-flying ride-sharing vertical take-off and landing vehicles (VTOLs) in 2016.

"In the long-term, VTOLs will be an affordable form of daily transportation for the masses, even less expensive than owning a car," Uber's Jeff Holden wrote in a detailed white paper (PDF).

If you prefer to stay grounded, self-driving cars went from a crazy Google side project to everyone's project that's as simple to implement as a software update for Teslas on the road now. Uber already has its own self-driving cars and big rigs on the road.

Finally, one other mode of transportation went from the drawing board to the testing grounds this year as Elon Musk's Hyperloop design spawned all kinds of plans for cargo and human transport worldwide. This year definitely turned out to be one in which we got moving in all kinds of new ways.

8 sci-fi ideas that might become science fact pretty soon (pictures)

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Machines doing more than driving

Robots and sensors of all shapes and sizes continued to impress (and terrify) in 2016 -- little ones with ninja moves, bigger ones we'll wish we were nicer toward during development, and really tiny ones that can now be implanted in our bodies equipped with their own wireless signals.

There's no stopping Skynet, because it's already here in the form of the internet of things, which will continue to expand with the help of burgeoning tech like blockchain, a secure database technology first used to power Bitcoin.

"Blockchain is big," Sculley told me. "It's going to touch finance, health care and every industry...it could be the foundation for a different parallel internet."

Sure sounds like Skynet. While the idea might seem scary at first, it could also be the cure for many problems when combined with increasingly small machines like the atomic "nanocars" tested in the open air this year. And there lies the potential for a revolution in ground-up manufacturing. If you thought 3D printers were cool, just wait. The combination of robotics and nanotechnology just now coming into its own could finally give us another Star Trek gadget that will change everything: the replicator.

A 23rd-century tourist guide to the galaxy

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How could we forget...artificial intelligence

Machines that think and understand like we do (only better) continued to be both technological savior and bogeyman in 2016. The year started with Google's AlphaGo program beating a human champ at the ancient strategy game of Go and ended with HBO's "Westworld" again prodding us to consider the possibilities and implications of synthetic minds created by organic minds.

In some way, artificial intelligence at its more basic levels, like machine learning, powers just about every technology or discovery mentioned here. But it can go much further. Just imagine any problem, and AI has the potential to either solve it completely or tackle it in a much more efficient manner. So perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that just about everyone with the means is working on AI -- even those like Elon Musk who like to sound the warning bells.

The potential for AI strains the human imagination because frankly, we're not sure what an artificial intelligence with its own imagination could come up with. For some insight, perhaps we should turn to AI -- 2016 saw the creation of one system capable of predicting the future. Maybe next year it will be the one writing this article while I'm relaxing in the back of a self-driving Uber on the way to a ski lift somewhere.