It's no secret we at Scientific American are fans of the kinds of bold ideas that can help take humanity to a better future. Recently technology, especially digital, seems to be advancing more swiftly than ever. Noting the trend, even the policy leaders at the World Economic Forum's Davos meeting this year focused on the theme of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution.”
How do you know what emerging technologies are likely to make the most difference? We make our annual bets in the cover story, “World Changing Ideas.” Among the 10 advances we discuss are those that could ease poverty through the use of machine-learning software and satellites, could reduce energy consumption while capturing carbon, and could maybe even kill viral infections once and for all.
Of course, a bane of any given technology is its misapplication. Consider antibiotics, the “wonder drugs” that conquered bacterial infections for decades. Resistant bacteria are rising today, largely thanks to our profligate use of these medicines, particularly on farms. The drugs keep animals in crowded conditions both healthier and able to grow faster on less food. As Melinda Wenner Moyer explains in “The Looming Threat of Factory-Farm Superbugs,” the frightening result is a cauldron of fast-spreading trouble, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Improving human welfare doesn't have to rely on technology. Sometimes we just have to incorporate what research has already shown into our society's policies. Politicians often speak abstractly about their support for families, for instance, but in this issue we propose a concrete solution: paid parental leave. In our Science Agenda, “Bringing Up Baby, Helping the Economy,” we explain how studies show that paid leave results in healthier children and less stressed parents, without hurting businesses. The U.S., however, is the only developed nation that does not guarantee it.
Although all our Science Agenda columns represent the editorial team's collective perspective, this one resonates with me more personally than usual. I had my first daughter two decades ago, when my husband and I were just able to cover our household expenses. Because I then had 10 years' tenure at a previous employer, I was able to cobble together almost six weeks of paid “vacation” time to stay home (too briefly) after her birth, so we had no income gap. I vividly remember my feeling of shock that the U.S. had not figured out such seemingly simple matters. Still, I counted myself lucky. New parents shouldn't have to count on luck. Put simply, when conditions are better for families with infants, humanity's future is brighter as well.