14. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition
Theacceleration of S&T innovations, improved communications among scientists,and future synergies among nanotechnology, biotechnology, informationtechnology, and cognitive science will fundamentally change the prospects forcivilization. A computer can now perform 1.144 thousand trillion floating pointoperations per second, supporting computational science’s new simulations toimprove medicine, materials, climate predictions, and other insights intonature. Scanning electron microscopes can see 0.01 nanometers (the distancebetween a hydrogen nucleus and its electron). Photons have been slowed andaccelerated to learn how to create optical computers; synthetic chromosomeshave been created from laboratory chemicals; quantum phenomena and entanglementare being probed; experiments to teleport individual photons are beingconducted; and dark energy is explored to counter gravity. Industrial nationsincreased their R&D investment from 1.5% of GDP in 1980 to more than 2.2%today; 157,283 patents were granted in 2007. Millions of people volunteer theircomputers’ excess capacity to help find cures for cancer. Heads of governmentscience information portals are beginning to collaborate to better inform theworld public.
New diseaseslike SARS can now have their DNA sequenced in several weeks, speeding cures fornew infectious diseases. Individuals can have their DNA analyzed today for$1,000. The price is expected to drop to $100 and require only one day, makingfull DNA analysis a practical diagnostic tool and opening the possibility oftruly customized medicine. Human skin cells have been stimulated to act likeembryonic stem cells without using embryos or eggs; pancreatic tissue createdfrom embryonic stem cells has generated insulin; the Isx-9 molecule was createdto stimulate brain stem cells to become mature neurons that can be re-implantedto improve brain functioning and longevity; future stem cell application couldrevitalize any part of the body. The genome of a bacterium of one species hasbeen moved to a cell of a different variety, which became indistinguishablefrom one of the donor type. Genetic research seems destined to cure inheriteddisease potentials. Genetically modified viruses can coat themselves withelectrically conducting metals to form nano-wires that self-assemble intobattery components, and microbial fuel cells have been demonstrated.
MRI brainimaging shows primitive pictures of real-time thought processes, and changesamong specific neurons can be traced as new memories are stored. Nanoparticlesand fibers stimulate neural growth, and mini-biocomputers help treat specificindividual cells. Robotic micro-tweezers gently pick up and move single cells.Faint magnetic signals from a single electron buried inside a solid sample havebeen detected. Organic transistors with a single-molecule channel length arenow visible.
Over 600nanotechnology-related products improve quality and make new capacitiespossible, from releasing medicine in the body to forming thin-filmphotovoltaics, promising to reduce cost, resources, and pollution per unit ofoutput. However, environmental health impact studies may find dangers andinitiate regulations for nanotech production and use. A science roadmap hasbeen produced for atomically precise nanoscale building blocks, components, anddevices. Nanobots the size of blood cells may one day enter the body todiagnose and provide therapies and internal VR imagery.
Geneticcode is being written to create new life forms; artificial organs may beconstructed in a manner similar to 3-D printing; surgical robots are nowMRI-compatible; external light can be concentrated on internal targets forphotodynamic therapy and to power implanted devices.
However,the risks from acceleration and globalization of S&T are enormous (see CDChapter 3.5 for global 2025 S&T scenarios) and give rise to future ethicalissues (See CD Chapter 5, Science and Technology Management Issues). We need aglobal collective intelligence system to track S&T advances, forecastconsequences, and document a range of views so that politicians and the publiccan understand the potential consequences of new S&T. Currently theInterAcademy Panel, a worldwide network of 90 science academies, is increasingaccess to S&T information and cooperation around the world, and furtheringbasic science as necessary to replenish the pool of knowledge from whichapplied science draws its insights to improve the human condition.
Challenge14 will be addressed seriously when the funding of R&D for societal needsreaches parity with funding for weapons and other purposes, and when aninternational science and technology organization is established that routinelyconnects world S&T knowledge for use in R&D priority setting and legislation.
Africa: TheScience with Africa initiative with the African Union, UN Economic Commissionfor Africa, and others is creating synergies among African and first worldscience organizations. Africa has 83 engineers for every 1 million people,compared with 1,000 per million in the more developed world.
Asia andOceania: China has the second largest R&D system in the world next to theU.S. Japan has the highest R&D budget per GDP in the world at 3.2%, andSouth Korea’s R&D is growing rapidly. The U.S. and China are increasingS&T cooperation in energy and environment. There are more IT engineers inBangalore than in Silicon Valley. In cooperation with Asian scienceorganizations, Japan is leading the Strategic Program for Building an AsianScience and Technology Community.
Europe: TheEU plans to increase R&D expenditures to 3% of GDP by 2010 and to attractan additional 700,000 researchers. Russia has lost over 500,000 scientists overthe last 15 years, but a reverse trend is beginning, salaries have increased,innovation is encouraged, and high-tech is being supported. Switzerland has thelargest number of Nobel prizes, patents, and science citations per person inthe world.
LatinAmerica: The region averages 0.4% of GDP for S&T development but hopes toincrease that to 3% by 2010 and should improve its public-private R&Dlong-term cooperation, regional research networks, national strategic R&Dplanning, basic research, S&T literacy of benefits and risks, andincentives for private investment in local R&D.
NorthAmerica: The U.S. continues to lead world R&D investments with more than$360 billion from all sources during 2007, and it is making an annualinvestment of $1.5 billion in nanotechnology R&D. These investments haveshifted from the government supporting 60% in 1965 to the private sectorsupporting over 65% since 2006. Each week the U.S. Patent Office makes about3,500 new patents freely available online. MIT offers free online S&Tcourses. Falling numbers of students in S&T, religious fundamentalist politics,and the imposition of other political points of view are threats to thecontinued excellence of U.S. science. Prizes can speed the distribution oftechnology that benefits humanity, such as the Tech Awards from the Tech Museumin San Jose, California, or Richard Branson’s new prize for a plan to remove abillion tons of carbon dioxide a year, as can tech sports like MIT’s robotcompetitions.