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This chapter is from the book

The Plan of This Book

This chapter has reported the conclusions of the scores of leading scientists who participated in the Societal Implications and Converging Technologies workshops: Nanoscience and nanotechnology will have immense implications for human society. Although nano will generate distinctive materials and products, its chief impact will be felt through collaboration with other fields. Convergence at the nanoscale will unite nanotechnology with biotechnology, information technology, and new technologies based on cognitive science. Without this unification, scientific, technological, and economic progress would be greatly in doubt. This chapter has also described some of the research carried out at the nanoscale and hinted at likely applications of nanoconvergence that may emerge over the coming decade or two.

Chapter 2 deals with the fantasies and illusions that have both popularized the nano concept and given many investors, policy makers, and ordinary citizens a seriously distorted picture of the field. We cannot properly understand how nanotechnology will converge with the other fields if we have a false impression of the field itself. Also, nanofantasies would prevent us from seeing the real importance of convergence at the nanoscale, because we would falsely imagine that nano alone would remake the world without need of all the rest of the sciences and technologies. Chapter 2 uses a pair of parables plus sci-fi storytelling to show how science fiction literature has long promulgated inspiring but factually false impressions of the nanoscale. Some of these illusions involve convergence, especially Eric Drexler's original conception that nanotechnology is mechanical engineering applied to chemistry on the molecular scale.

Chapter 3 focuses on information technology and its convergence with nanotechnology. Already, the smallest transistors on computer chips are less than 100 nanometers across, and hard-disk memory storage exploits nanoscale magnetic phenomena. Moore's law has driven progress across all domains of information technology, but we may have reached the point at which this decades-long period of computer chip performance progress comes to a close, unless nanotechnology can take us further. Other promising areas of research, notably in nano-enabled microscale sensors and in quantum computing, could benefit from progress in nanotechnology. At the same time, information technology contributes directly to progress in all fields of science and engineering, and we may have entered a period in which the most important tool of research and development is cyberinfrastructure.

Chapter 4 focuses on the interface between nanotechnology and biotechnology, a tremendously active area of research at the present time. Both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NSF have aggressively supported research in nanobiotechnology (also known as bionanotechnology). The fundamental structures inside living cells that do all the work of metabolism and reproduction are nanoscale "machines" composed of complex molecular structures, and the methods of nanoscience are needed to understand them. For a century, biologists and medical researchers have sought to solve the problem of cancer, and nanobioconvergence offers new hope that this effort will finally succeed. Concepts from biology have been applied to information technology, and new biotechnologies enabled by both nano and info promise to improve human physical and mental performance.

Cognitive science, the subject of Chapter 5, is itself a convergence of disciplines, combining artificial intelligence, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology, and education. "Cog-sci" was initially dominated by the paradigm espoused by classical artificial intelligence, which modeled human thought processes in terms of logical manipulations of clearly defined, high-level concepts. More recently, a wide range of other paradigms have been introduced by this field's convergence with other branches of information technology and with biotechnology and nanotechnology. Society faces a number of challenges if it is to digest the cultural implications of cognitive science, notably the emerging controversies about the future viability of religion and neurotechnologies that could transform human cognition. An NBIC task force suggested that the greatest near-term development coming out of a union of cognitive science with other fields would be an information technology system, called The Communicator, that might transform human interaction.

Chapter 6 considers how we could accomplish full convergence of the NBIC fields as well as their convergence with reformulated social sciences. I suggest a system of theoretical principles—conservation, indecision, configuration, interaction, variation, evolution, information, and cognition—that could help connect similar natural laws, research methods, and technological applications across all these fields. Policy decisions about investment in various technologies require serious consideration of the ethical principles at stake and the likely social effects of those decisions. However, we cannot examine those issues rigorously without benefit of social science, and many knowledgeable people doubt that the social sciences are equal to the task, at least as currently constituted. To illustrate this crucial point, Chapter 6 describes a linked pair of failed attempts to accomplish convergence across the social sciences half a century ago, coming to the ironic conclusion that both were headed in the right direction but premature. A fresh attempt to unify and strengthen the social sciences could succeed, if it were based on solid cognitive science in convergence with the other NBIC fields.

Chapter 7 acknowledges that the social sciences cannot give us definitive answers to vital questions at the present time, but collects together a wealth of ideas about how convergence might affect human society. Already having surveyed the views of scientists in earlier chapters, we consider the harshest critics of convergence and the notions of ordinary citizens about the future of the world. A dozen years ago, social scientists proposed a major initiative to strengthen their disciplines so as to better understand the nature of our rapidly changing world, and it is not too late to follow their advice. More recently, key participants in the convergence movement have urged the creation of a new branch of social science focusing on service industries, an idea that is fully compatible with the decade-delayed hope to develop a convergent science of democratic institutions. Standing still is not an option, because uncontrolled sociopolitical forces will harness new technologies to divergent forces ripping humanity apart. The only hope is unification of the world on the basis of the unification of science.

The final chapter offers a visionary but scientifically based vision of how nanoconvergence might transform human potentialities by enabling vigorous exploration and colonization of outer space. Although convergence has vast terrestrial implications, it is easier to see clearly how NBIC fields could combine to create a revolution in astronautics. Specifically, they could revolutionize human access to the solar system, thereby leading to exploitation of the environments and resources that exist beyond the Earth. Current technologies are not potent enough to build an interplanetary society. By enabling moderate improvements across all space-related technologies, however, nanoconvergence could potentially help humans enter the final frontier with the powers needed to accomplish previously unimaginable goals. On new worlds, we could reinvent ourselves, our society, and our destiny.

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