From radical plans to tackle homelessness to mosquitoes helping to reduce diseases in the world, we take a WIRED look back at some of the good news stories from 2018
It has been a bruising year for the optimists. Adding to the endless political turmoil and desperate environmental outlook is the numbing realisation that we’re not going to wake up from this nightmare any time soon. But it hasn’t been all bad news. Thanks to the hard-work of scientists and a handful of rational policy-makers, some rays of light are poking through the storm clouds.
Nepal’s endangered tiger population has doubled
In 2009, there were only 120 wild Bengal tigers in Nepal, but that figure has almost doubled since then. The country’s government has pledged to double numbers by 2022, and is on track to meet that target. It achieved the increase by expanding the Parsa National Park, increasing the number of of soldiers patrolling it, and working with villagers in the protected area to voluntarily relocate, or reduce their dependence on forest products.
A chemical breakthrough could tackle the plastic pollution problem
It takes 450 years for a single-use plastic bag to degrade, but a breakthrough from US start-up BioCellection could make it happen in as little as three hours. The firm, founded by childhood friends Miranda Yang and Jeanny Yao, has developed a liquid catalyst that breaks the long molecules contained in polyethylene into smaller chunks. The technology works on dirty or contaminated plastic, and the company is currently scaling up its operations.
A 747 flew from Orlando to London on recycled fuel
By 2050, air travel could account for 22 per cent of global emissions, but a new type of fuel could cut flying’s carbon footprint. In October, a Virgin Atlantic passenger flight flew from Orlando to London Gatwick, using fuel that was a mixture of normal jet fuel, and ethanol made from waste gases from industrial factories. The initial flight used five per cent recycled fuel, but its maker LanzaTech hopes that figure can eventually reach 50 percent.
We’re interstellar once again
On August 25, 2012, the Voyager 1 spacecraft left our solar system and went interstellar. However, one of its key instruments for tracking solar winds failed in 1980, meaning it hasn’t been able to send back as much data to Earth as possible. This isn’t the case with Voyager 2. In December it became the second space craft to leave the heliosphere and it’s still in good shape. For the next two years, before it at Voyager 1 run out of electric power and thruster fuel, they’ll be continuing to beam data back to Earth. After that, they’ll float through space for eternity.
A smartwatch is helping people live with epilepsy
Embrace is a medical device, but it looks like a fashion accessory, with a sleek face and changeable straps. It measures subtle changes in the wearer’s sweat levels, and can detect if they are about to have an epileptic seizure. When triggered, the device glows red and automatically messages and calls the person’s caregiver. The device became the first smartwatch to be granted US FDA approval in February, and its makers Empatica are now working on adapting it for other conditions, such as autism.
Virtual reality is changing lives for dementia sufferers and their carers
Reminiscence therapy can help Alzheimer’s patients recall memories from their childhood and earlier life. Traditionally, it relies on visual stimuli such as photographs, but a UK start-up is applying virtual reality technology to the problem. Its app, LookBack VR offers a wide range of 360-degree content designed to chime with the patient’s memories, ranging from Brighton beach in the 1970s, to the rather different ambience of a 1950s tearoom.
Artificial intelligence is helping doctors make better diagnoses
DeepMind, the Google-backed AI company, has come under fire recently over its partnership with the NHS and concerns over the use of patient data. However, it is starting to make a difference. A trial conducted at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, found that DeepMind’s AI correctly spotted eye disease in scans 94.5 per cent of the time. That’s as good or better than leading ophthalmologists.
The Nobel prize for physics went to a woman for the first time in 55 years
Only three women have ever won the Nobel prize for physics, and until this year it had been a long wait. Donna Strickland from Canada’s University of Waterloo was awarded a share of the prize for her work on using powerful lasers to study tiny particles. She shared the prize with Gérard Mourou from the University of Michigan, and Arthur Ashkin from Bell Laboratories, who at 96 is the oldest ever recipient of a Nobel prize.
Mosquitoes are helping to eradicate malaria
Genetically modified mosquitoes could tackle malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. A project in Burkina Faso is releasing 10,000 insects whose DNA has been tweaked so that they are more likely to produce male offspring, which do not bite and therefore don’t transmit malaria. Over several generations, the numbers of disease carrying bugs will drop sharply.
The first hint of an exomoon is a big step in our hunt for alien life
Astronomers have potentially discovered a moon orbiting a distant planet. David Kipping and Alex Teachey spotted evidence for the satellite while using the Hubble telescope to look for changes in brightness of Kepler 1625b, a gas giant 8000 light-years away. Finding exomoons is difficult, but by doing so we increase the likelihood of coming across a world with the right conditions for life.
A baby was born after a successful womb transplant
On December 5, a successful 10-hour operation saw a baby girl be born using a womb that had been transplanted from a dead person. It’s the first time such an operation has been successful (previously 10 attempts have failed). “The results establish proof-of-concept for treating uterine infertility by transplantation from a deceased donor, opening a path to healthy pregnancy for all women with uterine factor infertility, without need of living donors or live donor surgery,” the scientists behind the work say.
People are spending less time on Facebook
In January, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced that people were spending 50 million fewer hours a day on the social media site, after the company implemented sweeping changes to its News Feed algorithm. Now, the site pushes posts from friends and family over content from publishers, with the result that average user was spending two minutes less on the site each day.
An anonymous hacker is protecting people from cybercrime
An internet vigilante from Russia is hacking into vulnerable unprotected routers made by one of the world’s most popular brands, and patching them so they’re not vulnerable to cyber criminals. The grey-hat hacker, known only as Alexey, claims to have disinfected at least 100,000 routers so far.
Tech helped rescue the Thai football team
Hundreds of people from all over the world banded together in July to help rescue a youth football team that were trapped in a cave in Thailand by rising flood waters. Led by a team of British divers, the rescuers used a combination of old and new technology, including drones, AI-powered walkie-talkies, and good old fashioned pumps to get the boys out safely. And not a submarine in sight.
Hospitals have created their own drug company to fight back against high costs
In the US, healthcare providers sick of paying through the nose for generic drug products have banded together to find a solution. A new company Civica Rx, was announced in January 2018 and a third of the country’s hospitals have either committed to participate or expressed interest. The company, whose CEO Martin Van Trieste is not taking a salary, will focus its initial efforts on 14 common drugs that are no longer under patent.
Canada became the second country to legalise weed
Canada took the almost unprecedented step of legalising weed – becoming the second country, after Uruguay, to do so. While the drug is still considered controversial in some countries, there are a few benefits of Canada taking the legalisation step. The biggest of these is business potential: whole new industries may be created. The other? Data. The move by the country now provides researchers – who are looking into the impact on the human body – the ability to properly study weed.
There are more scientists in politics
In 2016, shortly after Donald Trump made his attitude towards science and facts painfully clear, horrified scientists and technologists started pledging to run for office. They attracted funding from groups such as 314 Action, and two years on the fruits of their labour were demonstrated at the US midterm elections. There’s one new senator, and eight new members of Congress with a STEM background, including computer programmers, engineers, and an oceanographer.
A radical plan is helping homeless people access vital services
There’s a cruel irony to being homeless – you can’t get help without a fixed address. A new system called ProxyAddress is looking to change that, by allocating the addresses of unused properties to those in need of one, and making creative use of Royal Mail’s redirection service. “It’s something to put your name against, even if it’s just an idea of belonging,” says the scheme’s creator, designer and architect Chris Hildrey. “That’s so important.”