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.

2 thoughts on “The next twenty-five years”

  1. Dear Richard Jones and others,

    Whether you are convinced from the available chemical and biological evidence that molecular assemblers as laid out by Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, Chris Phoenix, Josh Hall, and others such as Ray Kurzweil are feasible or not, the fact is this: The age of macroscopic machinery in which there is no atomic-precision control over matter is coming to a close. “Bulk technology” and “Promethean” technology, such as bulldozers and strip mines, to plasma torches (though these could be useful!) and steel knives, will be replaced by electro-mechanical machine systems that function with control at the molecular level to the macro level, with atomic precision.

    Instead of noisy, imprecise chaos, we will have systems of orderly molecular gadgetry. No more clanking, crunching, and spewing forth of fumes and noise, rather, smooth systems that move at the speed of molecules and electrons and light, to do work at our command.

    I was walking down a street and my ears rang with the noise of construction workers using a water-cooled concrete saw that was abrasive diamond powder on a big steel disk. The Molecular Age will give us geometrically-curved molecular cutting systems hard as diamond, stronger than steel, feather light, and rustproof, and noiseless, that will slice clean through things with molecular level precision. Such scenes as I saw will be obsolete dinosaurs.

    I welcome you and others to help us with our endeavor: The INCA: Inter Nodal Connector Architecture. A system based on the tensegrity curvature we see in nature, such as geodesic domes and cylinders, and other such structures as we see in the natural world. Bucky Fuller had it right. The Tetrahedron is the foundation of nature, the curve is the way forward.

    Take part in the INCA Naut challenge and see the amazing applications: From real-world molecular assemblers and biomimetic materials that are based on carbon fullerene nanotubes and advanced ceramics, to shelters and structures that can go from a collapsed state to an unfolded state and yet retain the resilience and strength of a solid thing.

    Please feel free to contact myself and the other INCAnauts further.

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