The Accelerating Future

futurelab default header

by: Jennifer Rice

I was talking with a client a few weeks ago about innovation. Somehow we got on the subject of nanotechnology, which he pointed out was not as much an invention as, say, the turntable. In other words, just because things are getting smaller doesn't mean there's a paradigm shift. I conceded the point at the time, but have since gotten quite interested in the topic. So I looked up nanotech; Ray Kurtzweil gives the definition as "A body of technology in which products and other objects are created through the manipulation of atoms and molecules." (BTW, Ray's site is my new favorite site… amazing stuff in there).

It seems to me that manipulating atoms and molecules would qualify as a paradigm shift. The first chapter of Engines of Creation outlines the shift this way:

The ancient style of technology that led from flint chips to silicon chips handles atoms and molecules in bulk; call it bulk technology. The new technology will handle individual atoms and molecules with control and precision; call it molecular technology. It will change our world in more ways than we can imagine.

Nanotech is born out of advances in biology, genetic engineering and biochemistry. It will lead to new ways of manufacturing just about anything, pollution-free… and will allow us to manufacture things that haven't even been imagined yet.

Because assemblers (nanomachines) will let us place atoms in almost any reasonable arrangement, they will let us build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist. In particular, they will let us build almost anything we can design – including more assemblers. The consequences of this will be profound, because our crude tools have let us explore only a small part of the range of possibilities that natural law permits. Assemblers will open a world of new technologies.

Advances in the technologies of medicine, space, computation, and production – and warfare – all depend on our ability to arrange atoms. With assemblers, we will be able to remake our world or destroy it.

 So perhaps nanotech is not as much of an invention as much as an invention facilitator. It’s a bit creepy, if you think about it in conjunction with AI… self-aware, replicating machines… a super killer virus? The Singularity?

I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself… what will nano mean for business in the next 25 years or so? Ray Kurtzweil posits that "because we're doubling the rate of progress every decade, we'll see a century of progress–at today's rate–in only 25 calendar years." This raises an interesting issue, since it so starkly illustrates how short-term most businesses think. How many years in the future do most execs extend their vision? I think a lot of people are going to be taken by surprise by the speed at which 'the future' will be upon us.

It's fun to review an invention timeline, especially everything that was invented in the 1900s alone, and think that the same amount of progress will be made in the next 25 years. Where will you be in 25 years? I'll be 60. Supposedly we'll solve the 'aging problem' when I'm 85… bummer, I hope they can figure out how to not just halt but reverse aging so I won't get stuck in an 85 year-old body!

Original Post: