January 13, 2003
Emerging World Changing Technologies

MIT's Technology Review has an article entitled 10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change The World. Here is the summary list of the 10 technologies.

Technologies pinpointed to change the future include glycomics, injectable tissue engineering, molecular imaging, grid computing, wireless sensor networks, software assurance, quantum cryptography, nanoimprint lithography, nano solar energy and mechatronics. For each technology, Technology Review has profiled one researcher or research team whose work exemplifies the field’s possibilities.

Molecular imaging will be greatly helped by quantum dots. Nanotech for solar is important because nanotech manufacturing techniques show promise for huge reductions in manufacturing costs. The biggest factor holding back the widespread use of solar photovoltaics is their cost (yes, energy storage is another problem but nanotech fabrication techniques for batteries and fuel cells will similarly reduce their costs).

Wireless sensor networks have implications for privacy that science fiction writer David Brin has fleshed out in both his non-fiction book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? and in his fun fiction read Earth. Brin argues advancing technology will make the use of surveillance technologies ubiquitous and that our choice is between just letting only the government watch everyone or letting everyone use surveillance technologies to watch everyone else. I think he's right about this and agree with him that the latter option is preferable.

Here is the more detailed description of each of the technologies. In particular, nanoimprint lithography sounds especially promising as a way to make nanotech device manufacture affordable.

Right now everybody is talking about nanotechnology, but the commercialization of nanotechnology critically depends upon our ability to manufacture,” says Princeton University electrical engineer Stephen Chou.

A mechanism just slightly more sophisticated than a printing press could be the answer, Chou believes. Simply by stamping a hard mold into a soft material, he can faithfully imprint features smaller than 10 nanometers across. Last summer, in a dramatic demonstration of the potential of the technique, Chou showed that he could make nano features directly in silicon and metal. By flashing the solid with a powerful laser, he melted the surface just long enough to press in the mold and imprint the desired features.

Although Chou was not the first researcher to employ the imprinting technique, which some call soft lithography, his demonstrations have set the bar for nanofabrication, says John Rogers, a chemist at Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs. “The kind of revolution that he has achieved is quite remarkable in terms of speed, area of patterning, and the smallest-size features that are possible. It’s leading edge,” says Rogers. Ultimately, nanoimprinting could become the method of choice for cheap and easy fabrication of nano features in such products as optical components for communications and gene chips for diagnostic screening. Indeed, NanoOpto, Chou’s startup in Somerset, NJ, is already shipping nanoimprinted optical-networking components. And Chou has fashioned gene chips that rely on nano channels imprinted in glass to straighten flowing DNA molecules, thereby speeding genetic tests.

Nanotechnology's big challenge is how to manufacture nanotech devices. Sounds like Chou's technique may be useful for fabrication of a wide range of nanotech devices notably including nanopore DNA sequencers. If Chou's technology only enables the construction of nanopore DNA sequencing devices that alone will make his technology extremely worthwhile. The ability to cheaply do full personal DNA sequencing would allow the collection of data on each person's DNA sequence. As a consequence the efforts to run down what each sequence variation does will be accelerated enormously. In addition to providing valuable information about the causes of almost all types of diseases detailed personal DNA sequence information will affect everything from mating choices to medical insurance to privacy.

There are other approaches to nanotech fabrication involving the use of proteins and biological systems to make nanotech structures that might turn out to be equally or even more promising for nanotech manufacturing in the longer run.

One item that I think should have been on the list is microfluidics. The ability to miniaturize chemical, biochemical, and molecular biological experiments will greatly accelerate the rate of advance of biotechnologies and of chemistry as well.

In terms of life extension and rejuvenation the most important technology on the list is injectable tissue engineering. What is especially needed there is the ability to make youthful non-embryonic stem cells to replenish various non-embryonic stem cell reservoirs in the body. One big challenge to achieve that goal is to understand for each non-embryonic stem cell type exactly what regulatory state its genes are in to make it be differentiated into its particular stem cell type. Non-embryonic stem cells are not pluripotent (i.e. they can not become all cell types) because they are in the various parts of the body to make new cells of particular types that each part needs. It is hard to say just how long it will take to develop sufficient control of cellular genetic regulation to be able to make exactly the kinds of non-embryonic stem cells that are desired for each reservoir type.

Another application of tissue engineering is for the growth of replacement organs. This too will be used for life extension and rejuvenation. Though in cases where injectable stem cells will do the job the stem cells will be preferred because stem cell therapy is a lot easier than surgery.

Another important technology emerging technology that went unmentioned in the MIT list is gene therapy. For many cell types one can't simply replace them when you get older (e.g. your brain!). The ability to do repair in situ is essential. Gene therapy will make this possible many years before nanotech repair bots become workable.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 January 13 02:03 PM  Biotech Advance Rates

DMK said at April 17, 2003 7:33 AM:


Walt said at April 23, 2003 9:24 PM:

I agree with DMK -- but I'd go farther: most of that list is peripheral, 'maybe someday' or smaller. The TDP process is one of those retrospectively obvious technological developments that reconnects and reconfigures markets to make a large practical difference fairly quickly.

A few foreseeable consequences:

1. By cheapening hydrocarbon energy, it promotes the hydrocarbon economy -- more CO2 emissions, and global warming. The CWT arguments on this point seem to be self-serving claptrap; the process makes carbon that would have been long out of circulation available for immediate reuse and some of it will be burned.

2. It can surely make us energy self-sufficient within 25 years. We *should* continue to care about the Middle East; will we?

3. Over the middle-long term it will greatly reduce wastes entering the environment. Waste is thus no longer a constraint on the direction of the world economy. Want TV's or computers that are truly disposable, as in 'use once and discard'? Flashlight batteries made with mercury or arsenic?

4. Most of the advantages accrue mainly to the developed nations. Will it widen the gap between 'have' and 'have-not?'

5. Small scale hydrocarbon production hasn't been feasible since oil could be dipped up out of pools on the ground. TDP plants could be reduced to any size larger than a briefcase if production at that scale were desired. The effects of this are impossible to foresee. Want to be *really* rid of a few tons of medical wastes or an occasional dead body?

Some of the items on the list will happen on a scale that matters before they're upstaged by something else. But unless it's Philadelphia's answer to cold fusion or hamstrung by operating costs not currently visible -- litigation to apply hazardous waste permitting procedures to it might make sense to competitors -- TDP is here *now*.

Clive said at April 25, 2003 12:22 PM:

Has anyone really considered what this technology will do to the world ecomony. If it works as advertised it will literally destory several countries ecomomies and cause major headaches to the oil industry. There is so much money, investment and government involvement world-wide in the oil industry that it is impossible to guess at the world-wide consequences. I have seen few comments so far on this side of the topic and am wondering if it is just me or can people only see the bright side. (Guess it is just me).
The ecomony of texas alone would probably have to withstand a major hit let alone Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Kuwait, Iran, Libya, Canada, Britian, Norway etc. When something has the potential to change to flows of international funds at this level it tends to cause major strains on the entire world economic system as it tries to adapt. If there is anyone out there who understands the impact at the financial level I would like to hear from them.

B DeWoody said at April 30, 2003 8:45 AM:

I think people are emphasizing the oil aspect of this technology too much. Even if it works as claimed (and I am hoping it does) it will take decades for oil production to reach a level that would impact the demand on well production. Assuming that, as in the past, demand will increase as more oil is available I doubt if any of the oil producing nations will go bankrupt before their supply dries up. I see the benefit of this process being in the conversion of what we have to pay to get rid of (waste) to to a valuable raw product, no matter how much or little ends up as oil. Imagine seeing all of the county landfills across America disappear as they are converted into the fuel to run our powerplants.

Michael T. Nelson said at May 5, 2003 3:37 PM:

TDP will cause massive economic dislocations, but over a twenty year period, which coincidentally is the most pessimistic estimate of the oil crunch based on current reserves. Most analysts put it at 50 years.

The biggest economic dislocation will be in countries that have limited organic waste streams, small populations, and on over-reliance on exporting oil to prop up their economies and governments. Yes, TDP is a dagger pointed at the heart of Saudi Arabia and all the other desert oil producers. Yes, that means most of Texas, as well.

Other countries, which depend on imported oil, like Japan, Europe, and most of the US will no doubt become more economically and environmentally secure. Developing countries can also breathe a sigh of relief, as they face a bleak economic future without some measure of energy independence.

In the US, we need TDP to solve our waste problems NOW, and solve our national security problems due to reliance on foreign oil over the next 20 years.

robert petersen said at June 11, 2003 8:37 PM:

CWT if it really works can have an enormous beneficial effect on the world economy. I spent 3 months in tonga. The main island Tongatapu has 65,000 population. A plant to produce oil and other useful products from their garbage would be greatly helpful to their economy. These generators could use the oil quite nicely and thereby help their island economy no end. Not to mention avoiding piles of garbage on one corner of the island. I am sure that every city of any size would want a system. SUrely glass, metal, must be separated prior to treatment of the garbage. In northern Utah there is a slaughterhouse that handles 600,000 head of cattle a year. If they weigh an average of 1,000 lbs and 40% waste there would be over 300 tons of waste a day. If it is anything like turkeys that would be 900 barrels a day of oil. What concerns me is that CWT is very close mouthed about any additional systems such as the one for turkeys in Missouri. The other question are there other competing companies out there?

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