Where do the science and technology of the 21st century go? The past is often, in many cases, a good prologue of the future.
From my point of view, the science and technology of the recent twentieth century could be summarized in four words: atom, gene, bit and neuron. This gives rise to four emerging disciplines: nanotechnology, biotechnology, computing and artificial intelligence and neurotechnology.
The borders between them are becoming more diffuse, and combined together give rise to a synergy in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The great challenges of our era, such as those related to human health or our planet, require a multidisciplinary approach.
The Nobel of Physics Steven Chu He said: "The Stone Age was finished not because the stones were finished, but because copper and bronze were better." In the same way, many materials still not extinguished are being replaced by better ones: nanomaterials.
Nanotechnology is a fascinating engineering at the molecular and atomic scale. Thanks to it, for the first time in history it is possible to manufacture materials on demand, materials with controlled properties and for specific purposes, in short, materials at the service of humanity.
It's like a scene from the movie The fantastic trip: a small ship submerged in the bloodstream of a patient, hunting for malignant cells, to shoot them with precise doses of medicines … Only this is not Hollywood, it is science. The seductive promise of delivering drugs directly to cancer cells, leaving healthy cells intact, is now a reality through intelligent nanoparticles. This prevents the devastating side effects of chemotherapy.
Hand in hand with nanotechnology we also enter the era of molecular diagnosis, which makes it possible to identify diseases in their initial stages, when they can still be easily eliminated. It also provides us with different nanofibers that promote the growth of artificial tissues and organs from the patient's own cells.
Nanotechnology is not only a great ally of human health, but also of the health of our planet. Thus, it is possible to move towards the design of more efficient solar cells and batteries or the wireless transmission of electricity. In different laboratories we investigate the development of some paintings that when deposited on the windows turn them into small photoelectric centrals, capable of trapping the solar radiation to later turn it into electricity.
We are going now to the gene. The genome is the book of life. There are the instructions to make every living being on the planet.
At year 2000 we were able to decipher or read the genome of our species. It was a giant leap in the history of mankind! We were able to answer the eternal question of who we are, at least from the biological point of view.
In less than two decades, biology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Today, we can not only read that book of life, we also understand many of its pages. And most importantly, we have become more than mere spectators: we can rewrite the genome and correct defective genes, which cause different diseases!
The so-called CRISPR technology, a high precision genomic edition, makes it possible. We are facing one of the great biotechnological revolutions of our century!
Computing and artificial intelligence
In 1997, the computer IBM Deep Blue defeated Kasparov, the best chess player of all time. Today we also have smart and autonomous cars, capable of driving without a driver. All these are examples of the so-called narrow artificial intelligence. The narrow term refers to a specific domain.
A great dream of technology is the development of the so-called general artificial intelligence or, in other words, superintelligent machines that equal or surpass the human being in any cognitive activity. An approximation tried for the construction of a machine of these characteristics is based on the emulation of the human brain.
There have been several attempts that have so far failed. The big problem is that we are still far from understanding our brain and its functioning, so it will be difficult to build a machine that equals or exceeds following this approach. And we may never fully understand the functioning of the brain. Max Planck he affirmed:
"Science can not solve the ultimate mystery of nature because, in the end, we are part of the mystery we are trying to solve."
Neuroscience and bionics
In the same way that from only a few scattered trees we can not understand the forest, from isolated neurons we can not understand the brain and its functioning. Each human neuron connects and dialogues with many neurons – between 1,000 and 10,000 – through the so-called synapses. Decipher that complex network of connections – known as connectome– is one of the great challenges of science of this century.
Francis Crick suggested in 1974 that scientists should look for a tool that would selectively activate different groups of neurons to find out their function. He even dared to predict that light could be the right tool. An emerging discipline, known as optogenetics, today makes the old dream of Crick a reality: genetically modified neurons can be selectively activated by pulses of light. Optogenetics seeks to understand the brain in a first stage to later repair it if it fails.
In this age we are beginning to join our brains to machines. Today we no longer settle for the passive and rigid prostheses of yesteryear. We want them to interact with our senses. We want the amputee of an arm to be able to pick up a cup with his artificial prosthesis, arriving at the order directly from his mind. A fascinating discipline, known as bionics, makes it possible. In front of it is Hugh Herr. This brilliant technologist has developed his own prostheses controlled with thought. His great dream is to end human disability in the 21st century.
No more accessing information and surfing the internet at the click of a mouse. By using brain implants we can access a website simply by thinking about it. And Larry Page and Sergei Brin, the parents of Google, shuffled these futuristic scenarios in 2004. The geniuses of Google did not seem misguided … Maybe one day we can access the different corners of cyberspace at the stroke of thought.