Freeman Dyson is a physicist and mathematician who studied at Cambridge and taught at Princeton's Institute for Advances Study for more than 40 years. In the 1950s, he helped work on a nuclear bomb-powered spaceship with the intention of traveling to Mars. Dyson's daughter, Esther, is an investor, business writer, and trained astronaut who currently sits on the board of biotech company 23andMe.
At a panel in New York on Thursday called "A Century of Discovery" as part of the 7 Days of Genius festival, the accomplished father-daughter duo spoke about the most important innovations of the past 50 years--and some to look forward to in the next 50 years.
1. Cell phones.
For better or for worse, it's tough to overstate the impact of mobile devices. Instant communication is so common--and expected--by individuals and companies, it's easy to forget it wasn't the norm until 10 to 15 years ago, a blip in terms of human history. "Until recently," Freeman says, "the most common form of communication in the world was the African drum."
2. DNA testing.
Our ability to read and write genomes has given us a deeper understanding of our biological identities and led to breakthroughs in the health field, Freeman says. We can now be more proactive about preventing illnesses we're predisposed to, like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Freeman points out that this is in addition to huge benefits to law enforcement and the legal system--not only helping solve crimes and convict criminals, but also freeing innocent people from jail, as has happened 337 times in the U.S. since 1989 thanks to post-conviction DNA testing.
3. 3-D printing.
The process known as additive manufacturing is still in its early stages, but the impact will be enormous, Esther says. Gone will be assembly lines, long waits for products, and massive storage facilities. "We can produce things locally that used to be kept in warehouses," she says. Tools and equipment can be created without needing materials from several suppliers, as can life-changing medical parts such as artificial limbs .
4. The on-demand economy.
Customers can have their product or service immediately. Employees can make their own schedules. Logistics are updated in real time. The on-demand economy has completely transformed consumerism, and Esther cites Uber as the company that changed everything--though that's not to say it invented the system. "It's the same as getting people to mow your lawn," she says. What makes the ride-hailing company so significant is its ubiquity, and the likelihood that, at some point or another, we've all interacted with an Uber driver. "We notice them more because we sit with them and talk with them," she says.
And the most important innovation that's still to come?
That would be ... genetically engineered forests. Scientists have been genetically manipulating trees since the 1980s, but progress has been slow due to red tape. Someday in the future, Freeman predicts, entire forests of biologically altered trees will line the world's landscape. Some of the trees will have their DNA modified to more efficiently break them down into paper--a process that currently requires more than 200 chemicals. Fewer trees cut down will also mean fewer negative effects on the plants and animal species that depend on them. Freeman also says the trees could be injected with carbon fuels to help them more rapidly turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, which could mitigate the effects of global warming.
Freeman says that genetic engineering could conceivably help plant life become "warm-blooded," a term he uses to refer to living things able to live in cold environments. Polar bears, penguins, and seals are able to live at the earth's poles, yet no trees or bushes can survive in Antarctica. "We don't know why animals have adapted to cold temperatures and plants haven't," he says. He points out that most of the universe is cold: comets, asteroids, planets distant from their suns--and thus unable to sustain plant life. It will take plenty of engineering before plants can survive beyond the universe's warm patches--and when they do, other life might be able to thrive as well.