Advances in biotechnology have contributed significantly to improving the health and saving the lives of people with chronic illnesses. Researchers have found that copying the way our bodies fight disease can cure many problems for which we currently have no effective treatment. Monoclonal antibodies are now genetically engineered to find and destroy cancers and other foreign bodies. Synthetic antibodies are also being tried as a way of treating certain diseases. Additionally, vaccines that target cancers of the brain, breast, ovaries, prostate, and other parts of the body are being tested. Imagine the impact that biotechnology can have on our health because of innovative research conducted by dedicated people. Other advances in understanding the genetic functions of plants and animals can significantly contribute to important needs of society. Plants have provided many of the chemicals used for pharmaceuticals, and now the possibility of using plants as a renewable source of energy is being explored.
These technological advances portend radical changes in society, lifestyles, health, longevity, and the way in which our brains function. Science is working on decoding the fundamental rules of nature. Furthermore, scientific discovery is moving at an ever-increasing pace, both because of tools such as super-computers and the growth of knowledge regarding the fundamental laws that govern almost every aspect of life.
One significant change that is being pursued is the availability of abundant forms of energy that can sustain continued growth while maintaining or increasing our standard of living. To some extent, advances in science contribute to leaps in creativity that can lead to unprecedented changes in our political and social systems. Considering the extent of major scientific breakthroughs, one that stands out is the computer, which will become ubiquitous as it is imbedded in “intelligent” devices. Computers potentially will have a significant impact on education, the transmission of medical information, military operations, and the distribution of wealth, agriculture, and more. All portend important advances, but also significant challenges, including the impact on human behavior and the greater need to both understand creativity and employ it in a positive way. Chip implants are being tested for blind spots in the eye, relieve deafness, and stimulate our ability to mentally process information using icons and other “visual” constructs that convey “meaning” rather than “data.”
Michio Kaku describes three basic scientific advances that will change civilization as we know it. First is quantum theory, which states that energy is not continuous, but rather comprised of energy bundles called “quanta.” An example is the photon, which defines a quantum or packet of light and follows well-defined laws that allow us to form new kinds of basic materials. The second advance is the information revolution spawned by the computer. As more transistors are placed on microchips, whole new dimensions will evolve because of the ability to add intelligence to information via the Internet. Changes in lifestyles and medicine resulting from computer applications will dramatically affect the quality of life. The third revolution, bio-molecular technology, is revealing the details of DNA, including how atoms bond and the DNA code for all living organisms such as viruses and bacteria.
In Intelligent Information Systems, Rowe and Davis describe how to match the phenomenal capability of the computer with the cumbersome processing of information by human managers. Recent advances in computer programs such as SAP and Peoplesoft are beginning to integrate the information needs of managers and others in organizations. Even business strategy will be made by computer because of the rapid changes that are taking place.
Smart cards are now being used to store and transmit information. Smart cars are emerging that can help drivers sense and avert dangers. Displays help motorists find the best route to a desired destination. Virtual reality is being used to transform physical objects into computer code that allows manipulation of the design or can improve the sales potential of home products.
According to Kaku, bionics are moving toward harnessing the remarkable speed of quantum transistors to interface directly with neurons in the brain. Doctors at Harvard Medical School are working on a bionic eye that will use implanted chips to restore vision. Scientists predict that using computer chips could reactivate a number of paralyzed body organs. Quantum cryptography will be used to develop unbreakable computer codes. Jobs that can be done on the Internet will eliminate scores of routine tasks. Finally, increasingly “intelligent” robots will be able to carry out many functions without human intervention.
The Futurist, a publication of the World Future Society, describes the projected changes and trends for the next 25 years. Can we really forecast the future, and if so, with what accuracy? Forecasts, in many instances, are extensions of what we know today. But what about creativity and the ability to see what no one else sees? Can radical departures be predicted? In the late 1800s, it was suggested that the U.S. Patent Office be closed because everything had been invented that could be! With knowledge growing exponentially, who can say what the future holds? Nonetheless, we can “conjecture” about what experts in various fields believe will be coming and that will have a profound impact on all our lives.
In their Special Report, Forecasts for the Next 25 Years, the World Future Society forecasts a number of changes. For example, the group forecasts that the 80 million people born between 1977 and 1997 will have significantly more power than their parents dreamed possible. Within the next 25 years, we should be able to grow new organs, tissue, and cartilage. To root out terrorism, world powers will spend up to $9 billion per year to aid developing countries. Will this solve the problem or are value systems more critical in shaping people's behavior?
New technologies that are forecast include: mapping the human genome, super-strength materials, new energy sources, smart manufacturing, anti-aging products, and many others. One of the most critical forecasts is that we will run out of water by 2040 for 3.5 billion people. Even using the polar ice cap for water will not suffice. A creative solution for water purification, such as using ocean water, could prevent this disastrous forecast.
Successful innovation seldom is based on a “flash of inspiration.” Rather, it requires a disciplined pursuit of a desired outcome and knowing what to do to achieve objectives. There are numerous instances of brilliant ideas that eventually become successful products. Accidental or unexpected events can often trigger innovative change, such as the discovery of penicillin or X-rays. Bringing new ideas or products to fruition, however, requires considerable effort, including public acceptance, the ability to produce at an acceptable price, and finding new ways of distribution such as on the Internet. This is the case with almost every major advance that has been made. Computers and their applications, including robotics and artificial intelligence, have had a profound impact on the world and are becoming an integral part of every major product. From wristwatches to spacecraft, computers have made advances possible way beyond anything their inventors could have imagined.
Where is innovation today? A major advance beyond computers is information use and the Internet. Intel's silicon wafer will contribute to wireless, worldwide communication. Biomedicine will produce new drugs and diagnostic technology that can be tailored for the individual based on genetic makeup. This will lead to DNA chips that will be able to guide physicians in prescribing medication that takes into account the patient's blood pressure or other specific needs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is working on a biosensor to instantly determine a “point of care diagnosis.”
Research is progressing on the extension of a biosensor chip that would determine how well enzymes are metabolizing drugs that are prescribed. Toxic effects or other reactions could be detected easily during a routine examination in the doctor's office.
Nano-technology will be able to provide a rapid, inexpensive capability to perform tasks previously considered impossible. Computers will be able to incorporate memory in each molecule to provide more efficient information storage. This in turn may lead to very sensitive devices, such as flat-panel screens or lasers that operate at super-speed. Computers would fit into any device that could benefit from their small size, including powerful devices such as airplane instruments, telephone transmission, automobile applications, and so on.
Medicine continues to make major advances, such as the recently announced method of surgery using high-frequency sound waves that focus in on and destroy cancer cells that are then absorbed by the body. The high-frequency device uses waves that are at a level that is too high for people to hear. Combined with the high-frequency waves are low-frequency sound waves that create three-dimensional images similar to ultrasound and show the physician what is happening inside the body. Imagine doing brain surgery without having to open the skull. The precision of the high-frequency sound waves has the potential of being better than the scalpel normally used by surgeons.
Another significant change is the design of “smart engines” that cruise along with minimal human intervention. Global positioning could become a standard feature on cars of the future. Flying airplanes is a tedious task that requires constant attention. New technology using ultra-smart, ultra-small computers could help pilots avoid airline crashes, and to find the best routes to travel to reduce time, energy, and effort. If all these technological marvels could be applied to the problems confronting us, what a wonderful world this could be!