What might an iPad10 do in 2020? Could Facetime become Bodytime, rendering conversations in full-blown virtual reality, a life-size hologram in your living room?
Theoretically, the hologram is possible, but the iPad is not. Moore’s law—the uncanny prediction made in 1965 by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computing power will roughly double every two years—has stretched computing advances longer that Moore ever thought it would. By 2020, however, it is likely Moore’s law will implode.
Eight years from now, the world could find itself at the end of an era. By 2020, some predictions go, silicon-chip design will soon run up against the laws of physics. Transistors made of silicon will get so small that they will overheat and leak. Whatever else the future of computing may be, it may not be silicon.
“The world economy could be thrown into disarray unless physicists can find a suitable replacement for silicon transistors to power our computer,” writes Michio Kaku, a noted theoretical physicist, in his best-selling book, Physics of the Future. Like many futurists, Kaku believes salvation for computing will come from the emerging science of small things, nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate individual atoms.
Kaku writes: “Nanotechnology might also, perhaps by the end of the century create a machine that only the gods can wield, a machine that can create anything out of almost nothing.” We can forgive Kaku his hyperbole because (a) almost anything can happen by 2100 and (b) nanotechnology’s transformational potential is undeniable, as this column, too, has acknowledged.
In a nutshell, by changing matter at the level of individual atoms, nanotechnology imparts strange but useful properties to substances. The wonders of nanotechnology are many. Clothes that sense heat and cold. Chemical coatings that make things last longer. Invisible machines that could burrow into the body and bust tumours. A new form of computing that could use electrons different to revitalize Moore’s law. Nanotechnology, the pundits predict, will, in the days to come, influence almost every science.
Yet all things of wonder and promise must come with cautionary notes. The cautionary notes for nanotechnology are now evident, prescribing prudence before humanity leaps into its next big thing.
Earlier this week, scientists at Dublin’s Trinity College said in a paper that nanoparticles (think of a nanoparticle as being to a football what a football is to earth) from nanotechnology products could disrupt the human immune system, sparking rheumatoid arthritis and other serious autoimmune diseases—conditions where the immune system turns on itself.
Published in the journal Nanomedicine, the paper said if nanotechnology products are not properly handled they generate new types of airborne pollutants and cause new global health risks.
In March, another study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health reported that silver nanoparticles—used to kill harmful bacteria—could damage testicular cells and affect fertility in mice and humans. Previous research has demonstrated that such particles, in rats, can crossover from blood to the brain or blood to the testes and enter cells.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US says nanoparticles could penetrate the skin or move from the respiratory system to other organs. “At this time, the limited evidence available suggests caution when potential exposures to nanoparticles may occur,” says the CDC website.
None of this means nanotechnology must stop, only that it is important to understand and assess these risks through long-term studies and put in place regulation before it is too late.
This will not be easy, according to Steve Vaughan, a lecturer and legal expert at Cardiff University in the UK. Writing in The Guardian newspaper two days ago, he said that since current environmental law does not apply on the nanoscale, regulation is difficult.
Vaughan, like others before him, presents the case of asbestos, once a wonder material with fire-retardant and insulation properties. It is now known to cause lung cancer and other deadly lung-related ailments.
Concerns about the safety of asbestos were raised as early as 1900, but it took 99 years before its use was banned in the UK, where 4,000 people die from asbestos-related diseases, a trend likely to continue into the 2050s.
“Potential risks from nano are both unknown and unknowable,” Vaughan wrote. “Unknown because little risk assessment has take place to date (less than 2% of the money being poured into nano research is devoted to risk analysis) and unknowable because scientific expertise in chemical assessment has not kept pace with scientific expertise in nanotechnology.”
Others say potential hazards are knowable, but it will need a clear effort. A study sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency and released in January said it would take a new federal oversight agency to integrate research by companies, universities and international groups and $24 million to close the “knowledge gap”. That is not a whole lot of money for something that could potentially transform—or terrify—humankind.
Samar Halarnkar is consulting editor, the Hindustan Times and Mint. This is a fortnightly column that explores the cutting edge of science and technology. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
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