Thursday, July 1, 2010

Two Things That Will Change the World

**Warning:  The following blog contains prognostication that exceeds the credentialed informational acumen possessed by the author (i.e., he's blowin' smoke)**

In my last blog we looked at simple inventions with large impacts.  This blog will get more complex and more serious.  Get a cup of coffee, you may need it.

One of the phenomena I investigated during my working days as a social psychologist was how the internet and the World Wide Web are changing society.  I still follow this topic -- old social psychologists never die, they just  stop going to departmental meetings -- and it has been fascinating to watch  as this technology has become more and more central to our lives and altered our interactions.  One of the developments that I correctly predicted ten years ago was the move toward wireless connectivity.  I also correctly noted at that time that the cell phone, though not discussed nearly as much as the internet, was also changing society in dramatic ways.  What I missed, though, was that the two would be merged to have an even greater impact, a development we are seeing very clearly today.

Unquestionably the internet/cell phone combination has rapidly altered society in fundamental ways and stimulated a lot of debate about whether the changes are good or bad.  I predict, though, that there are two scientific fields that will change the world at least as much, and perhaps pose even greater challenges and dilemmas to society over the next 15-20 years:  Nanotechnology and Genetic Engineering.

I assume that nearly everyone has heard of these fields from depictions in current entertainment media and in recent splashy news accounts.  For example, male Star Trek fans will recall the rather visually intriguing connection of nanotechnology to the character Seven-of-Nine.  Michael Crichton readers will recall Prey, which combined nanotechnology with emergent artificial intelligence, and of course Jurassic Park, which explored the deathly downside of genetic engineering.  Readers of Neil Stephenson (who wrote Snow Crash, from which I took the title of this blog)  will remember his dystopian extrapolation of nanotechnology in Diamond Age.  Genetic engineering has been in the news frequently, mainly related to controversies surrounding genetically modified food, stem-cell researchcloning, and the development of "synthetic life."

Nanotechnology involves the creation of very, very small devices, such as carbon tubes 1000 times smaller than a red blood cell.   Nano-structures can have some very interesting properties that scientists are only beginning to explore.  For instance, carbon nanotubes assembled together into large structures are hundreds of times stronger yet six times lighter than steel.  Other nano applications have the capacity to do physical "work," as illustrated by a range of devices called nanopumps, which can pass specific liquids back and forth through a membrane .  Coatings composed of certain nanoparticles can alter the characteristics of objects, for example by keeping them cooler or by making them scratch resistant, self-cleaning,  or sun resistant.  Nanotubes implanted in human tissue can act as energy producing transistors, fueled by the body's biochemistry and thus providing power for nano devices, such as tiny computers, that might be implanted under the skin.

Genetic Engineering refers to the direct manipulation of an organism's characteristics by altering its genetic structure.  This also takes place at a very, very small scale and like nanotechnology the consequences are enormous.  The key word here is "direct" -- humans have been altering organisms indirectly through intentional selection processes throughout our history.  In GE the alteration is carried out at the molecular level and the effects can be quite specific and unlikely to occur naturally.  Recent applications include modifying organisms to produce insulin, changing certain food crops to be disease resistant, and altering viruses so that they deliver chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells.  Gene therapy, in which genetic abnormalities are corrected by repairing, replacing, or turning off defective genes, is a major development in medical treatment of a number of diseases.  

There is also the very real possibility that nanotechnology and genetic engineering may be combined in certain ways.  For example,  UK researchers have conducted gene therapy in which genes were inserted into cancer cells that caused them to self-destruct.  The insertion was carried out by nano particles:  The genes were wrapped up in microscopic nano-particles which were taken up by cancer cells, but not their healthy neighbours. Once inside, the genes stimulated production of a protein which destroyed the cancer.

There are both utopian and dystopian views of  genetic engineering and nanotechnology, just as there are of  the internet.  On the utopian side are suggestions that these fields will solve the energy crisis, clean the planet, reverse global warming, solve world hunger, and eliminate disease.  On the dystopian side are arguments that we might unknowingly unleash dangerous substances into the environment,  poison our food supply, and create a race of genetically vulnerable humans.  Judging from history, predictions based on these extremes are unlikely to be correct  -- there are always unforeseen consequences of any technology, both positive and negative.  But it is clear that the potential applications of these two technologies are so varied and so far-reaching in their possible impacts that they will  indeed change the world.  Regardless of the specifics, our understanding of what a machine is, what the properties of familiar things are, what it means to be human, and what "life" is and how much it can be and should be controlled and by whom -- these and other fundamental views are about to change profoundly.

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