IFTF predicts nanotech 50 years out

This week I’m attending the Institute for the Future’s meeting titled Beyond the Horizon: Science & Technology in Ten, Twenty & Fifty Years. Overall, it’s great and I recommend it. Reminds me of Foresight’s Vision Weekends. Tomorrow I’ll be presenting our Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems project at one of the breakouts.

The meeting was inspired by a study IFTF did for the UK Government’s Office of Science and Innovation. The study is interesting, but I’m disappointed in its nanotech section. Basically, they downplay the productive nanosystem model and focus almost entirely on nanobio:

“It’s Not About Machines, It’s About Hybrids
The original language of nanotechnology spoke of foundries and factories, molecule-sized gears and levers, atoms as switches. But some of the most interesting nanoscale devices and processes owe as much to biology as to mechanical engineering…In other words, scientists working in the small world are less likely to generate an inventory of mechanical systems, than a menagerie of hybrids and chimeras.”

It’s not just “some” of the most interesting nanoscale devices and processes that owe more to biology than to mechanical engineering: today, it’s almost all of them. And it’s a good bet that this will continue to be true of the majority of interesting nanoscale devices and processes for the next ten or twenty years.

But fifty years? That’s a long time in technology. Biological systems are wonderful, but they have limitations: they require water, and they have a pretty narrow temperature range; if it gets too hot, they denature. That’s a big problem. In the long term, it makes sense that we’d continue to use nanobio to interface with biological systems, but for other purposes, using nonbiological systems appears very attractive.

Perhaps someone can make the case that nanobio will still be the most advanced, most complex nanotechnology fifty years from now, but I haven’t heard that case made yet. So why do we keep hearing that nanobio will continue to dominate? I think that humans, as biological systems, want to believe that biological systems are the most complex and always will be. Also, it shows a nice level of respect for nature, making it a politically correct position to take. Doesn’t make it true, however.

But this problem with the report didn’t seem to hurt the meeting itself, which included brainstorming apparently based on productive nanosytems, including a fun exercise involving a product fabricator very similar to the productive nanosystems video mentioned here earlier. —Christine

UPDATE: If I am fortunate enough to live fifty more years, Nanodot readers who are still around are welcome to get in touch, and if I’m wrong, I’ll eat my hat. Of course, in such an era of advanced nanobio, my hat could be not merely nutritious, but delicious as well!

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