2011 – A look back (part 1)

To kick off 2012, here’s a look back at some of the events, trends, scientific and technological advances that shaped 2011.

These have been divided into categories for ease of reference.

AI & Robots

2011 witnessed a major milestone in artificial intelligence, as the Watson supercomputer defeated two human champions on the Jeopardy! quiz show. This computer proved capable of answering questions posed in natural language on a wide range of subjects. Though some are skeptical over whether it displayed “intelligence”, its performance was undoubtedly impressive.

Advances in robotics technology this year were also significant. They included PETMAN, a humanoid machine from Boston Dynamics with eerily realistic movements. There were also quadro-copters, able to hit a ball to-and-fro while hovering in the air (and even construct a tower), a revamped Asimo with enhanced capabilities, a new version of the NAO robot, and a major step towards microscopic, remote-controlled robots that could one day travel inside the human body. One of the more bizarre developments came from Japan, in the form of a flexible bionic mouth able to replicate human singing.

The number of robots worldwide continued to grow rapidly and is now on course to reach 100 million by 2020.

World robot population 2000-2011

Biology & Medicine

2011 saw a multitude of breakthroughs and discoveries in medicine. Among the most notable was an HIV vaccine trial that received the go-ahead from the FDA, following two decades of research by Canadian scientists. Gene therapy was also shown to protect mice from HIV transmission.

Meanwhile, a new leukaemia treatment was described by some as “the biggest advance in cancer research in decades”.

At a medical conference in Chicago, two new drugs for skin cancer were unveiled and received similar praise as “the biggest breakthrough in melanoma treatment for more than 30 years”.

A trial involving heart failure patients – treated with stem cells to repair their severely damaged hearts – resulted in triple the improvement researchers had predicted. It was the first time this had been done in humans and was described as “the biggest breakthrough in treating heart attacks for a generation”.

In Sweden, the first synthetic organ transplant – using an artificial windpipe coated with stem cells – saved the life of a man diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The world’s first tissue-engineered urethras were also developed using patients’ own cells.

Other advances included a universal flu vaccine that could potentially kill all strains, a pill preventing Type 2 diabetes in 72% of patients, trials of a pancreatic cancer vaccine, a breakthrough in the treatment of sickle cell anaemia, the beginning of human trials for a malaria vaccine, another step towards an obesity drug, a new dye to illuminate hard-to-spot tumours, and prostate cancer being cured in mice.

Researchers found three more genes linked to the most common form of breast cancer, as well as five genes linked to Alzheimer’s.

Progress was made in identifying the root molecular cause of aging (triggered by a gene called p53) and a telomerase activator known as T-65 was shown to increase telomere length and prolong the lifespan of adult/old mice, without cancerous side effects. Researchers also identified a new group of mitochondrial proteins, the absence of which allows other protein groups to stabilise the genome and could delay the onset of age-related diseases.

A new way of delivering drugs to the brain was discovered, using the body’s own exosomes.

Meanwhile, genome editing was achieved for the first time in mice, to cure a life-threatening blood disease. This method, which repairs flaws in the genetic code of a living animal, could one day be applied to humans.

India almost completely eradicated polio in 2011, through an extensive vaccination program. Only a single case of polio was reported during the whole of the year – compared with 42 in 2010, and 741 in 2009.

Also in 2011, the United Nations declared that a once-widespread cattle disease, rinderpest, had been globally eradicated.

The world's first synthetic organ transplant

The world's first synthetic organ transplant

Business & Politics

2011 was of course dominated by the eurozone crisis, which saw Greece in the spotlight for much of the year. Embroiled in economic, political and social turmoil, the Greek Prime Minister, George Papandreou, and the main opposition leader agreed to form a “national unity” coalition government. This was needed to pass highly unpopular austerity plans, secure bailout funds and prevent the country from defaulting on its debt. As part of this deal, Papandreou agreed to resign.

Italy faced major problems too. Its cost of borrowing on 10-year bonds reached more than 7%, the highest since the euro was founded in 1999. This prompted the European Central Bank to intervene and was followed by Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation.

Europe as a whole remains highly vulnerable going into 2012, with no end in sight to the ongoing crisis. According to a BBC poll of leading economists, the continent will fall back into recession. Funding needs are estimated at over €800 billion for this year, with €215 billion euros for Italy alone. French banks have €310 billion of exposure to Italy, while German banks have €155 billion of exposure to France. The FTSE 100 finished 2011 almost 10% lower than at the start of the year.

America’s debt continued to rise, passing 100% of GDP and reaching $15 trillion by December. The last time it rose this high was during World War II. Its triple-A credit rating was also downgraded for the first time. There was some good news, however, as unemployment fell, from 9.4 down to 8.6% (the lowest since March 2009).

China continued to have strong economic growth in 2011 and surpassed the United States as the leading manufacturer. However, more signs emerged of a looming real estate bubble, and the IMF also warned that government-controlled banks could be storing up imbalances potentially hampering future growth.

2011 also witnessed the Arab Spring (interactive timeline here), the Libyan civil war and overthrow of Gaddafi, the death of Osama bin Laden, the birth of a new country, widespread looting and fires in England, the Occupy movement and the end of the Iraq War.

The year ended with tension between Iran and the US over the Strait of Hormuz – a strategically vital waterway, through which almost 20 percent of the world’s oil passes.

Two highly controversial bills – SOPA and NDAA – were debated in the US (the latter being signed into law on 31st December).

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street protesters. Credit: Thomas Good / NLN

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3 Responses to “2011 – A look back (part 1)”

  1. buzz Says:

    Very well written article, very excited about the future! 🙂

  2. Gary Wyse Says:

    Well this made me feel all kinds of optimistic.

  3. Snazster Says:

    The growth in robots and AI leads me to believe the only jobs that will survive “occupational displacement” will be those in which human-machine teaming can provide some form of synergy.

    Per Wikipedia: Synergy may be defined as two or more things functioning together to produce a result not independently obtainable.

    As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in their excellent and extremely readable “Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy,” apparently the number one chess player in the world today is neither a human or a robot/computer. It is a team of two humans and three robots.

    Am I worried about AI becomeing smarter than we are? Not really, my own IQ is in the 99.9 percentile range for humans and I’ve never seriously considered overthrowing any of the many bosses I’ve had to work for. Similarly, if I had parent suffering from cognitive disabilities, they would certainly be in no danger from me! Indeed, I can say with some credibility they would recieve the best care and treatment I could offer (and the most personal freedom they could handle).

    I used to be concerned about masses of people on welfare voting themselves ever more bread and circuses. What concerns me more now is the wealthy people potentially becoming hundreds of times wealthier than they are today, while keeping the unemployed and non-property owning majority of the population on a subsistence level.

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