The conference, the first in a three-year, four-part series called People, Nature and Technology: Sustainable Societies in the 21st Century, explored the developments taking place in technology and the challenges they represent for individuals and societies around the world (http://www.oecd.org/sge/au).
Progress is anticipated across a broad spectrum of technologies, classified by Washington, D.C. based futurologist Joseph Coates under the categories of genetics (including food science); energy (including transportation); new materials; brain research (and other medical discoveries); information technology; and environmentalism – not quite a technology in itself but “acting as an influential wash over all the others,” claims Coates.
Actually, all of these categories affect each other: Genetics research would not be possible without advances in information technology, some energy initiatives would not be feasible without advances in new materials, medical research and genetics converge, and so forth.
The Swissair Gazette offers a look at a handful of projects that may have a major impact on our lives in the 21st century. By focusing on technology, we admittedly ignore developments on social and institutional levels that will also affect our future.
Riel Miller, a principal administrator in the OECD secretariat, who co-authored the OECD’s report, points out that “the development of tolerance, openness and learning is equally important for progress in technology and every other sphere. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of institutional breakthroughs for sharing information, as information is the capital of the 21st century.”
Agriculture “In coming decades, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death if we don’t do something,” says Professor Ingo Potrykus of Zurich’s Institut für Pflanzenwissenschaften (Institute for Plant Science).
He and his researchers are trying to improve the situation through genetic engineering. They are focusing on food staples like rice, wheat, sorghum and cassava.
Rice, the most important of these, feeds 2.4 billion people; 40 percent of the world’s population depends on it for sustenance.
From seeding to consumption, 50 percent of the world’s rice crop is lost every year to biotic and environmental factors. Scientists are concentrating on the former, which include diseases in the field as well as invading insects.
Out of 540 metric tons of rice produced per year, 100 million are lost to fungal diseases, a loss that deprives 500 million people of food for one year, notes Professor Potrykus. Another 20 million metric tons are lost to viral and bacterial diseases, and 25 million to insects.
The Institute is trying to make rice and other staples resistant to diseases and insect marauders. It is also using genetic techniques to make rice, for example, a richer source of vitamin A and iron.
“Food is not only a matter of quantity but quality,” says Professor Potrykus.
Five million children go blind every year because of vitamin A deficiency, and more than one third of the world’s women and children suffer from iron deficiency. Adding vitamin A and iron to rice would do much to improve the human condition, and the ability to do this has progressed from the laboratory to field-testing. Results should be visible in the first decade of the 21st century.
The term “body farm” may take on new meaning in the new century. Research will continue on what are called human embryonic stem cells the first cells formed when an egg is fertilized and thus capable (at this early stage) of developing into many or all of the 210 cell types in the fully formed human body.
Research teams at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin announced their ability to identify and cultivate such cells in November 1998.
As their research progresses, one likely application is the cultivation of cells as a substitute for organ transplants. Another is gene therapy, where new or modified genes are introduced into the body, e.g., insulin producing genes to help diabetics.
Stem-cell research, like all genetic studies, is clouded by controversy because it falls into a no man’s-land, blurring science, ethics and religious belief. These issues will persist well into the next century.
Future energy needs are likely to be addressed by a variety of sources, including nuclear power and ever-more-efficient utilization of fossil fuels.
In addition, there will be greater emphasis on natural power sources like wind, water and solar energy.
In Lake Benton, Minnesota, U.S.A., 73 high-tech windmills have transformed this rural community into the wind-power capital of the United States in the last few years. Another 143 wind turbines are nearing completion and a third cluster is in the planning stages. The wind potential in this area could produce more than enough electricity to cover annual consumption in the state.
Wind power is a pollution-free, zero-emission and perpetually renewable energy source with no environmental damage. Therefore conservationists, landowners, community leaders and business interests alike support the windmills.
Meanwhile, local farmers continue to grow and harvest corn and soybeans in the fields around the 120-foot-high wind towers currently in operation. (http://brookings.itctel.com/ lbenton/index.html)
Current turbines, the undersea equivalent of windmills, may someday provide an important source of large-scale electricity generation. They are a renewable energy source offering the concurrent benefits of carbon emission reduction and reduced dependence on fossil fuels.
The European Commission is partly financing a pilot project to build a 300kw prototype, developed by a consortium of British, German and Swedish companies. Once the test site is decided, construction will begin in mid1999, and the test will run from the summer of 2000 to the end of 2001.
Jeremy Thake, senior engineer at Britain’s IT Power, lead company for the pilot, explains that the pilot is intended to see if underwater turbines cause any disruption to the marine ecology. He notes that the places where there are strong currents tend to be pretty barren sites, so the likelihood of ecological damage is minimal.
“We estimate that 20 percent of the U.K.’s power supply could come from these turbines eventually,” he says. They have already drawn the interest of Ireland and the Philippines, and should be attractive to small islands where diesel – expensive and environmentally unfriendly is now the only option. (www.itpower.co.uk)
Sweeping projects like London’s Millennium Dome and the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge at Kobe (at four kilometers, the longest suspension bridge in the world) capture public attention for new building design or execution, but the most pervasive innovation in new construction material may be taking place at skin level.
Researchers at MIT’s Media Laboratory are focusing on what they call wearable computing, i.e., computers that are always accessible, are comfortable and easy to keep and use, and are as unobtrusive as clothing.
Operating power may come from energy generated by the normal movement of feet and arms and even the energy around our skin. As part of this process, conductive, washable fibers that can be put into clothing and shoes are being developed at MIT and elsewhere. (www.media.mit.edu)
Eventually real and virtual realities may blend, so that real exhibits in a museum may trigger notes taken in an art class years before, and the face of a person seen through computerized eyewear brings up the name stored in an image database alleviating the embarrassment of a forgotten name. Sneakers and sunglasses may become the sine qua non of social etiquette.
Even as automobiles learn to talk and tell us where we are and brake automatically when we drive too close to the cars in front of us, social planners will continue to encourage people to make more use of public transportation.
High-speed trains are nothing new in this scenario, but Swissmetro represents a real step forward in urban transportation.
This new rapid transport system proposed for Switzerland is based on magnetic levitation and will make use of underground tunnels and propulsion by electric motors, with stations “piggybacked” on existing train and airport facilities.
Because it will be underground, Swissmetro meets Switzerland’s demanding environmental considerations; and because it is three times as fast as a conventional train with the same energy consumption, it is energy-efficient as well. Swissmetro will ultimately link all regions of Switzerland; the first pilot line will extend from Geneva to Lausanne, with extensions to Lyon and Munich.
Technological and safety issues have largely been resolved. What remains is a decision in the political realm. Costs have been estimated at between 3,500 and 4,300 million Swiss francs, with a payback to investors over 50 years.
The 1990s was the “decade of the brain,” with breakthroughs in basic neuroscience that hold great promise for the next ten years. Among the likely beneficiaries are the millions of victims of spinal cord injuries, like actor Christopher Reeve.
The promotion of nerve-cell regeneration and reconnection is one avenue for recovery from such injuries. A team led by Professor Martin Schwab of the Das Institut für Hirnforschung (Brain Research Institute) at the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, began working on this problem before the decade of the brain began.
They recently were able to purify and characterize a specific nerve growth-preventing protein, and are preparing for clinical trials of a neutralizing antibody that allows nerve fiber regrowth. They and colleagues in North America and the U.K. are hopeful that the New Millennium will offer renewed mobility to spinal cord injury sufferers.
Small bacteria represent a huge health threat in the 21st century. The World Health Organization has identified resistance to antibiotics in disease-causing bacteria as one of the biggest challenges facing medical science today. If solutions are not found, we might end up having made the world’s most important disease bacteria totally impervious to antibiotics – in effect, throwing away control previously achieved with discoveries like penicillin.
Professor Jean-Claude Piffaretti of the Istituto Cantonale Batterioserologico in Lugano, Switzerland, is organizing a multifaceted research project to analyze the problem and develop specific solutions on a number of levels – human, animal and agricultural.
The latter are important because the problem may be directly connected to the widespread use of antibiotics on food producing farm animals. This multifaceted approach is necessary because so many factors are involved: public health policy, agricultural techniques, food processing, the production and distribution of foodstuffs, all the way down to fundamental questions about the molecular biology and evolution of microorganisms.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY/ COMPUTERS
Digitalization might be considered the underpinning of the IT-driven information society of the late 20th century. Its 21st-century counterpart may well be nanotechnology. The University of Washington, a leader in the field, defines nanotechnology as “the precise and purposeful manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular level.”
Already today it is possible to visualize, analyze and manipulate structures a thousand times smaller than the smallest devices produced by the high-tech industry.
Last July, scientists from IBM’s Zurich Research Laboratory, along with colleagues in France and Denmark, announced the discovery of 11 molecular wheels” that switch between rotating and immobile states. Continuing research will lead to a “bottoms-up” approach to tool-making building devices molecule by molecule rather than carving them from larger blocks of matter.
One early application might be to use such devices for data storage. “You can store an incredible amount of information in a small area,” explains Martin Hug of IBM’s Zurich facility. A wire only a few molecules wide might be used to replace a piece of more conventional wire on a chip.
Eventually nanotechnology will become simply nanoscience, with the lines blurring among physics, chemistry, biology and computer engineering.
One might create medical assistants to inject into the bloodstream, or build customized materials with specific properties for industrial use. Nanoscience will bring fundamental advances in areas of materials, sensors, optoelectronics, chemical synthesis and catalysis, separation technology, biomimetic processing, and biotechnology.
Professor Luc Soete, director of the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology, calls nanotechnology “the biggest development of coming years.” Within a few years, he suggests, reporters won’t have to interview scientists by phone. They will be able to communicate with each other and see each other through chips planted in their eyes.
Fortunately for today’s working journalists, the obstacles are more than technological. Ethical and privacy implications still need to be worked out.
Space exploration taps many of the technologies that are leading us into the 21st century information technology, new materials, life sciences and energy.
The International Space Station now under construction epitomizes this convergence. It is the largest scientific and technological endeavor ever undertaken, and so complex that no one nation could tackle it alone.
Sixteen countries, led by the U.S. but including Canada, Japan, Russia, Brazil, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, have banded together in one of the largest non-military joint efforts in history, involving more than 100,000 people at national space agencies and thousands more in subcontractor companies.
The final structure will require 45 missions to carry all the elements needed for assembly and will weigh 460 tons upon its completion in 2004.
When operational, the space station will be a test bed for as-yet unknown technologies of the future and a laboratory for research on new, advanced industrial materials, communications technology, medical research and much more.