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Foresight Update 49

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 49 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


NSF Report says nanotechnology, other converging technologies
could bring 'golden age' in human history

A report issued by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) predicts that several lines of cutting-edge technology research and development — including nanotechnology — are converging to create what could be "a golden age that would be an epochal turning point in human history."

The report, titled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, focuses on emerging technologies in the fields of nano-, bio- and information technology as well as cognitive science — collectively called NBIC. The report is the result of a series of workshops held by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce over the past year. A draft version of the report is available on the web.

The report, edited by NSF scientists Mihail Roco, who heads the NSF's nanotechology research efforts, and William Bainbridge, outlines the potential benefits of this convergence in fields ranging from education and healthcare to national defense and sustainable development. The report also calls for breaking down barriers to cooperative work between different scientific disciplines, and offers suggestions for research programs to accomplish the visionary goals described.

"The sciences have reached a watershed at which they must combine if they are to continue to advance," Roco writes in the report's introduction. "The New Renaissance must be based on a holistic view of science and technology that envisions new technical possibilities and focuses on people. [This] unification of science and technology is achievable over the next two decades."

The report predicts that over the next 20 years synergies among converging NBIC technologies could allow such capabilities as:

  • Direct human brain/machine connections, which would transform work in factories, vehicle control and even enable new sports and art forms;
  • Computers and environmental sensors worn as part of everyday clothing, boosting personal awareness of health, potential hazards and even the location of desired local businesses;
  • A more robust, healthy, energetic human body that will be easier to repair when necessary;
  • Practically any structure will be made of tailored materials, able to adapt to changing situations and offer high energy efficiency while remaining environmentally friendly;
  • Medical technologies and treatments for many physical and mental disabilities, perhaps completely eradicating some handicaps such as paralysis or blindness.

In order to realize the potential benefits of the convergence of NBIC technologies, the report outlines a national research and development plan focused on breaking down barriers to cooperative work at the individual, academic, governmental, commercial and professional levels.

"Education and training at all levels should use converging technologies and prepare people to take advantage of them," the report states. "Interdisciplinary education programs, especially in graduate school, can create a new generation of scientists and engineers who are comfortable working across fields and collaborating with colleagues from a variety of specialties."

In the report, contributor W.A. Wallace describes the four areas' intertwined possibilities this way: "If the cognitive scientists can think it, the nano people can build it, the bio people can implement it, and the IT people can monitor and control it."

An article on the report from United Press International ("Merged science promises golden age", by Scott Burnell, 8 July 2002) quotes Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa: "The biggest thing that's holding back (the report's) types of results has been that we are very splintered, we're into specialists ... with very disjointed systems," Murphy told United Press International. "Once we break that barrier, we're going to see another round of amazing advances in science."

    "What's most interesting is its core recognition that advances in technology, occurring across a wide range of fields, are interrelated — and that these advances will produce consequences that are greater than the sum of the individual advances would suggest. The result will be dramatic changes (the report says that we are in a 'transitional age' comparable to the Renaissance) with consequences that at present are only dimly foreseeable."    
    — Foresight Director Glenn Reynolds    

Glenn Reynolds, a member of the Foresight Institute Board of Directors, said the report is an example that shows "Sometimes the federal government does something right."

In a column on the Tech Central Station website ("Unfogging the Future", 24 July 2002), Reynolds says references to medical nanotechnology, advances in bioinformatics, and other over-the-horizon technologies should not be surprising to those — such as the members of the Foresight community — who have been considering such possibilities for years. But, he notes, "to see such speculation (along with calls for further research and a calm assumption that such capabilities are both desirable and largely inevitable) in a serious government publication is another thing altogether."

Reynolds says the report is "uneven", but that in general it seems "on-target."

"What's most interesting is its core recognition that advances in technology, occurring across a wide range of fields, are interrelated — and that these advances will produce consequences that are greater than the sum of the individual advances would suggest. The result will be dramatic changes (the report says that we are in a 'transitional age' comparable to the Renaissance) with consequences that at present are only dimly foreseeable."

On nanodot
The NSF report on Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance has generated considerable interest in the Foresight community, including several posts and discussion threads on Nanodot. You can join in the discussions at:

Overall, Reynolds says, the report "represents a serious effort to look ahead to the singularity, to deal with the challenges posed between here and there, and even to look a bit beyond it. I'm especially pleased with bracingly realistic statements like this one (page 3):

Most progress over the next century will require the use of converging technologies, and it is advisable to take advantage of these benefits sooner rather than later. However, we may not have the luxury of delay, because the remarkable economic, political and even violent turmoil of recent years implies that the world system is unstable. If we fail to chart the direction of change boldly, we may become the victims of unpredictable catastrophe.

"This is absolutely right," says Reynolds. "Trying to stand still might well prove the most dangerous course of action."

Examinations of emerging technologies by such organizations as the NSF and the Department of Commerce, Reynolds concludes, are important "not only because they had the clout to bring in good panelists, but also because they get listened to (sometimes, anyway) in Washington. . . . I hope that the thinking in this report diffuses outward, and helps to inform discussion in the coming years. Because the changes will come, and so will the public debate. Better that it's informed by this kind of expansive yet rational thinking than that it should become the preserve of Luddites and demagogues."

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Foresight Update 49 - Table of Contents


Report Calls for 'Fine-Tuning' of U.S. NNI

Amid congressional calls for expanded support for nanotechnology research programs, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) issued a report in June summarizing its year-long review of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

The NRC report concludes that U.S. nanotechnology efforts are generally on the right track, but need more careful focus in some areas, and that the NNI needs more long-term, interdisciplinary investment to build on its initial successes. "For nanotechnology to fulfill its promise of revolutionizing industry . . . the government-funded National Nanotechnology Initiative needs to increase its support of long-term research and promote more interdisciplinary effort," the NRC said in announcing the report.

Samuel Stupp, a materials science professor and chairman of the NRC committee that reviewed the NNI, said understanding the nanoscale, where individual atoms and molecules interact, cannot be limited to a single field of study. "To realize the potential of nanoscale science and technology in advanced medicine will require research at the interface between engineering, the physical sciences and biology," Stupp said in introducing the report. "[Developing such science] will require generations of interdisciplinary scientists and engineers who can learn and operate across traditional boundaries."

The review of the NNI, conducted by a committee of 16 scientists and scholars organized by the NRC was begun in August 2001 at the request of the White House National Economic Council. This study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), NASA, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE). The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. The full report is available on the NRC website.

The report lauds the NSF's leadership in the initiative. The committee's report praised the "leadership and level of multiagency involvement in the NNI," singling out the National Science Foundation (NSF) for cobbling together the Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) committee, a multiagency group that was instrumental in launching NNI. The committee concluded that "the leadership and investment strategy established by the NSET has set a positive tone for NNI."

However, the report says, further study of the basic scientific principles of nanotechnology is needed before many of the anticipated applications can be achieved. Nanoscale science and technology combines many disciplines, such as biology, physics, chemistry, and engineering, so researchers need to be able to work across multiple fields. Nanotechnology centers in the United States encourage collaborations, but creation of a more widespread interdisciplinary culture is needed. Creative programs and long-term funding commitments are needed to encourage the development of interdisciplinary research.

An independent advisory board composed of leaders from industry and academia should be established to provide guidance to federal agencies on important research and development opportunities in nanoscale science and technology, the report adds. Federal leaders of the initiative need to develop an overarching strategic plan, and outline goals and objectives, especially long-term ones. The initiative will require continued collaboration at the local, national, and international level, the report emphasized. Partnerships with industry should be stimulated and nurtured to make the science a commercial reality.

The NRC report offered a number of specific recommendations to help improve the focus of NNI research efforts. These included:

  • An advisory board be established to offer advice on research investment policy, program goals and management issues;
  • The Nanoscale Science, Engineering and Technology (NSET) committee put in place a strategic plan articulating goals and objectives for short-term, medium-term, and long-term research, emphasizing long-range goals that move results out of the lab and into the marketplace;
  • NNI support long-term funding in nanoscale science and technology;
  • NSET distribute more money to more agencies researching the intersection of nanoscale technology and biology;
  • The government invest more heavily in development of new instruments for nanoscience;
  • A special White House-managed fund be set up to support interagency research programs; collaborations among the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation should be emphasized;
  • The NSET further nurture an interdisciplinary culture for nanoscale science and technology within the NNI;
  • The government works to create more domestic and international industrial partnerships;
  • A new funding strategy is developed that allows for more research on the societal implications of nanoscale science and technology; this research should be a more vital component of NNI;
  • The NSET develop performance measures to judge NNI's effectiveness.

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Foresight Update 49 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 49, originally published August 2002.


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