THE FUTURE OF
Precisely what the future has in store for business and society is unclear, but the development of emerging technologies gives a great glimpse into just how the world might develop in the coming decades. As scientific advances in nanotechnology, genomics, and neuroscience continue, the world seems, paradoxically and simultaneously, more complex and simpler.
To get a clearer picture of where this emerging techstorm will take us, it is necessary to try to understand what the next GPT is. As we have seen in the past, it is the GPTs that drive the major technological waves that lead to these vastly different societies that wouldn’t even be clearly recognizable to previous generations.
There is little doubt that the next GPT that will lead us into the sixth wave already exists. While this GPT is still in its infancy, it has given way to many emerging technologies that will also shape the different possible courses of the future. The GPT that seems most likely to bring us into a vastly different world is nanoscience, miniaturization and our ability to understand and interact on molecular and atomic scales.
MINIATURIZATION - THE NEXT BIG THING
Nanoscience is a rapidly growing field that has the potential to create an entirely new generation of scientific and technological approaches.41 With nanoscience, there is a completely new understanding of the atomic scale and how it can be used. By focusing on the atom and how it can be manipulated and used, nanoscience opens the doors for many fresh possibilities in IT, materials science, medicine, and life itself. Nanoscience refers to the study of objects that fall in the nanometer scale, which ranges from 1 to 100 nanometers, and includes studies of viruses, DNA and material properties on the atomic scale. The ability to study and understand objects on such a small scale certainly is an impressive feat that will greatly enhance the understanding of the world around us.
While nanoscience may be something that is far beyond the grasp of understanding for the average person today, this developing GPT is something that will put us on the course to a dramatically different understanding in the future. According to the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, “The emerging fields of nanoscience and nano-engineering are leading to an unprecedented understanding and control over the fundamental building blocks of all physical things. These developments are likely to change the way almost everything is designed and made.”42 This new understanding of the way things work will allow for a future in which everything can be made differently.
A COMBINATION OF SCIENCES
Although the term “nanotechnology” was introduced by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, nanoscience is a relatively new field. Fueled by innovations in imaging and interaction on the atomic scale during the end of the twentieth century, the field has seen tremendous development in the past 15 years and its role as a GPT is already becoming solidified. Nanoscience is also unique in that it combines physics, chemistry, and biology in a way that scientific fields have not generally done before.
WHY SO SMALL?
One of the biggest questions concerning nanoscience is why things need to be broken down to such a small scale. The very idea of nanoscience requires objects to be very small. “Smaller is better” could actually be a principle of nanoscience, at least in certain terms and to a certain extent. Computers are an excellent example of this principle. The massive increase in the speed of computers has not been accompanied by larger devices. In fact, it is the smaller device that allows the computers to be faster. By exploring smaller avenues, we are able to put more and more power into a smaller chip, thus giving us something much faster without having to increase size. Without nanoscience, this shrinking of computers would have been impossible.
By granting the ability to study objects of such small sizes, nanoscience allows for greater understanding and analysis. In turn, this allows for advancements in manufacturing, modification, and many other areas. Nanoscience as a GPT has many applications and has already led, and will, in the coming years, continue to lead to incredible progress in many emerging fields and technologies.
The great advance in computer processing power also makes it possible to study microbiological and neural systems at a much more detailed level, completing the connection between four major branches of science. Combining IT with nanotechnology, neuroscience and biotechnology and medicine, is popularly referred to as ”BANG technologies”: bits, atoms, neurons and genes.
The small scale used in nanoscience has led to significant advances in medicine. By exploring cells at their natural level, scientists are able to create more effective methods of interacting with cells. Instead of using larger instruments to affect the behavior of cells, nanoscience has allowed for the usage of tiny particles, no bigger than the cells themselves. In doing so, nanoscience creates better ways to fight complex health problems such as viruses and cancer. The answer to defeating cancer isn’t by attacking it with something bigger; it’s a matter of getting down to the right size to explore, analyze, and combat it most effectively.
IS NANOSCIENCE REALLY THE NEXT GPT?
In order to consider nanoscience as a GPT, it must have four basic characteristics. First, nanoscience is a single generic technology. While nanoscience itself can be hard to classify into one definition, it is essentially the study and use of objects on a very small scale. All advances in nanoscience involve looking at these very small building blocks. Therefore, it is a single technology. It is generic in scope in that it can apply to the study of any small particles. Nanoscience does not refer to only a specific study but rather a broad one.
Nanoscience is pushing us into a new technological wave that will leave our world unrecognizable to our current minds.
The second question, whether or not nanoscience has scope for improvement and development, is simple to answer. There are billions of small objects to be explored in a variety of fields, and nanoscience has only scraped the surface so far, although the technology is developing quickly. The advances already have made a significant impact on society and everyday life, but the potential for improvement seems virtually unlimited at this point. Computers can be made faster, fuels more efficient, and bodies stronger and more resistant to viruses and diseases. The key to achieving all this is nanoscience.
The third characteristic of a GPT is that it must be used widely and have multiple uses in its mature state. Nanoscience is still maturing, but its many uses are already apparent. From biology to computer processing, to environmental systems, to manufacturing, nanoscience seems to have the ability to reach nearly every field. As nanoscience continues to mature and develop, more and more uses seem inevitable.
The final characteristic of a GPT is the requirement for spillovers into other areas of society and economy. As seen already, nanoscience has the potential to affect all areas of society. From a potential economic impact of trillions of dollars, to a healthier society that can manufacture its own goods to exact specifications, there seems to be no limit to the reach of nanoscience.
There is virtually no doubt that nanoscience meets all the necessary characteristics to qualify as a GPT. The only question that then remains is whether or not this is the GPT that will lead the next technological wave.
SMALL BUT FAR REACHING - CROSS POLLINATION
As much as nanoscience has already changed our lives, its potential is far from realized. With the possibilities of cures for cancer as well as the prospects of artificial intelligence, new materials with unique properties, and many other things we cannot yet imagine on the horizon, nanoscience is pushing us into a new technological wave that will leave our world unrecognizable to our current minds.
Nanoscience may deal with only the very small, but its impact is going to be very big. Maybe the most fascinating aspect of nanoscience is that it spans many disciplines and creates interesting interactions. The concept of cross-pollination between different disciplines is one of the most exciting aspects of science today. This is also happening between science and the arts, for example the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) particle accelerator creates scholarships for artists-in-residence, physicists use modern dance to find new metaphors for quantum dynamics and (on a more applied level) material scientists are finding inspiration from biological systems – shark skins for low friction wet suits and gecko “toes” for upgraded adhesives.
ENVIRONMENTAL ASPECTS OF NANOSCIENCE
While the emergence of nanoscience has created some concerns about the future of the environment, it also has the potential to provide solutions. Research into nanoparticles and their potential effects on the environment is currently limited, but studies concerning other small particles, including airborne pollutants, suggest the possibility of some major impacts that may also be seen with nanoscience. The main questions regarding nanoparticles and the environment center on how these small particles will behave in existing environmental systems. It is possible that nanoparticles could enter into the food chain and interfere with certain biological processes. In order to use nanoscience to help the environment, it will be essential to understand and address these issues.
The growth and development of nanoscience and nanoparticles points to more good than harm for the environment. However, it appears possible to use nanoparticles to make pollutants into less harmful chemicals. Because of the size and volume of nanoparticles, they take on a reactive nature that can speed up chemical reactions. This has already been put to use in the US, with nanoparticles being explored as a way to remove pollutants from ground water and soil.
There are certainly many unanswered questions about just how nanoscience will impact the environment in the future, but current developments suggest that the benefits will be very positive for the world. By creating more efficient energy sources and doing a better job of eliminating pollutants, this emerging area of technology has great potential to solve some of the biggest problems facing the world today.