The next twenty-five years

The Observer ran a feature today collecting predictions for the next twenty five years from commentators about politics, science, technology and culture. I contributed a short piece on nanotechnology: I’m not expecting a singularity. Here’s what I wrote:

Twenty years ago Don Eigler, a scientist working for IBM in California, wrote out the logo of his employer in letters made of individual atoms. This feat was a graphic symbol of the potential of the new field of nanotechnology, which promises to rebuild matter atom by atom, molecule by molecule, and to give us unprecedented power over the material world.

Some, like the futurist Ray Kurzweil, predict that nanotechnology will lead to a revolution, allowing us to make any kind of product virtually for free, to have computers so powerful that they will surpass human intelligence, and to lead to a new kind of medicine on a sub-cellular level that will allow us to abolish aging and death.

I don’t think Kurzweil’s “technological singularity” – a dream of scientific transcendence which echoes older visions of religious apocalypse – will happen. Some stubborn physics stands between us and “the rapture of the nerds”. But nanotechnology will lead to some genuinely transformative new applications.

New ways of making solar cells very cheaply on a very large scale offer us the best hope we have for providing low-carbon energy on a big enough scale to satisfy the needs of a growing world population aspiring to the prosperity we’re used to in the developed world. We’ll learn more about intervening in our biology at the sub-cellular level, and this nano-medicine will give us new hope of overcoming really difficult and intractable diseases, like Alzheimer’s, that will increasingly afflict our population as it ages. The information technology that drives your mobile phone or laptop is already operating at the nanoscale. Another twenty five years of development will lead us to a new world of cheap and ubiquitous computing, in which privacy will be a quaint obsession of our grandparents.

Nanotechnology is a different type of science, respecting none of the conventional boundaries between disciplines, and unashamedly focused on applications rather than fundamental understanding. Given the huge resources being directed towards nanotechnology in China and its neighbours, this may be the first major technology of the modern era that is predominantly developed outside the USA and Europe.