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future speak

Published on .

Nanotechnology will give you the opportunity for molecular computing. Devices will be so small that they will be integrated into everything, even our body's cells.

AD: Why will nanotechnology end up changing the way we live and the products we consume?

JB: Because it is small. The inherent nature of nano-materials results in unique unexpected activities. Also, the materials are small enough to do things that one cannot do with others, such as place them inside of living cells without disturbing their function. It's going to revolutionize materials.

AD: How will nanotechnology change computers and appliances? Will chips be infinitely faster? Will appliances be ‘smarter’?

JB: Nanotechnology will give you the opportunity for molecular computing. Devices will be so small that they will be integrated into everything, even our body's cells. Objects will all become chips, or at least inertly chip-like. As for home appliances, they will all become real-time smart appliances. Instead of having a temperature sensor attached to a frying pan, like you have with a ‘smart’ appliance, the whole pan will become an auto-sensor, and even generate its own heat.

AD: Will nanotechnology change how doctors administer medicine and perform surgery?

JB: It will all be done differently. You'll be able to put things into your body to modify it for any purpose. Instead of dying your hair, you put materials into your follicles to produce a different pigment. You'll also grow hair this way. In surgery doctors will be able to target the cancerous cells and cut them out with a beam of light. In medicine researchers will be working at the same level as the most basic biologic functions.

AD: If everything becomes so wired, including our own bodies, will we start crashing like computers?

JB: Most people won't give up their autonomy to machines. Lots of people have computers in their cars but nobody lets the computers drive. Until the device becomes more reliable than the person, it won't happen. Consider airplanes. Autopilots land planes better than pilots do — autopilots have landed planes with only one wing. And pilots can't believe it, so they take over during a landing, and that causes the crash. But that's understandable, because would you sit there and watch a plane crash? People like their autonomy.

AD: Will nanotechnology change our food in any way?

JB: I hope not. The potential is there to engineer food in ways that are inconceivable. Plants could be engineered to auto-regulate their environments. Who knows? Nanotechnology can engineer the whole plant, not just the genes. You will be able to grow food where there's no water, or make plants that extract their own nutrients from any environment. There are lots of things that you can theorize, but it will become a question of what's allowed and accepted.

AD: Should we worry that nanotechnology will change weaponry?

JB: Some people will use it to advance weapons. But hopefully it will also allow us to increase our defensibility. Imagine a nano-device that could sense where there's damaged tissue and repair it by modifying cells around the wound. Or imagine putting bio-sensors in people's cells that would report when they've been hurt.

AD: What could advances mean for consumers?

JB: This will be a whole new industrial field. Think of what microelectronics or molecular biology have meant over the past 25 years. The implications are broad and cross many different traditional industries.

While giving a speech in 1959, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman theorized that there was “still plenty of room at the bottom.� He wasn't talking about the basement labs at Cal Tech. Rather, he was prognosticating that scientists would construct miniature devices using individual atoms as building blocks.

Forty years later, Feynman's theories have inched their way closer to reality with the burgeoning science of nanotechnology. Yet consumers and marketers know as much about nanotechnology as they do about, say, cold fusion.

Universities and corporations have only recently invested in this new field, but so far the results have been breathtaking. Engineers have developed tiny motors that power computers and appliances and doctors have built miniature devices that aim to fight cancer on the molecular level. It may be some time before nano-appliances are brushing our teeth for us, but marketers should still take note.

Dr. James R. Baker, Jr., who heads the University of Michigan's Center for Biologic Nanotechnology, develops nano-substances that can be deployed to fight diseases. Recently, his lab worked with the military to develop “nano-bombs� that defend against biological warfare by blowing up germs one at a time. American Demographics' David Whelan checked in with Baker and asked him how advances in nanotechnology will shape the future decades from now.

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