By Ray Lesser
In the future our hamburgers won ‘t come from slaughtered cattle. Instead every household will have a tabletop nanofactory, which will be easily programmed to produce almost any material we desire. If we want hamburger, we ‘ll simply tell our little factory how much of it to make for dinner, and the nanobot assemblers, using atoms as raw material, will crank out pesticide-free, hormone-free, mad-cow-safe beef, ready to grill, fry, or add to spaghetti sauce. No sentient being will suffer, no rainforests will be slashed and burned, and no methane gas will be released to destroy the ozone. The cost of manufacturing hamburgers (or any other physical product) will be reduced to pennies per pound. Although it won ‘t make it any easier to decide what to have for dinner, this low cost manufacturing process will essentially solve the problem of world hunger.
What ‘s more, based on the many scientific trend lines shown in Ray Kurzweil ‘s newest book The Singularity is Near, this amazing nanotechnology will become available within the lifetimes of most people reading this paragraph, probably by the late 2020s.
Much of the future predicted by Kurzweil ‘s book is easy to imagine. For example, we will move toward a decentralized education system where every student will have access to the highest quality teaching. Major universities are already making many courses available online, so that even students in remote areas (like Kansas) can take classes on subjects not offered by their local schools (like Evolution ). But a huge leap has been made by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is currently offering 900 of its courses – half of all its course offerings – for free online. By the early 2010s, virtual reality environments “will be full immersion, very high resolution, and very convincing,” says Kurzweil. “Most colleges will follow MIT’s lead, and students will increasingly attend class virtually.”
Pretty soon that teenager who locks himself in his room with a computer and cell phone for hours a day, only surfacing occasionally for nachos and Red Bull, might become a college student doing approximately the same thing. Their room will become a virtual lab, where they can perform experiments in chemistry and particle physics, or have wild safe-sex orgies in their virtual dorms. Their room will also become a virtual classroom, where lectures will be given, simultaneously translated into any language, by the leading professors and experts in every field. No longer will parents have to come up with $30,000+ a year to provide kids with the best available college experience, they’ll just need to fix up an extra room in the basement and equip it with a shower, minifridge and Internet access.
Of course, not everyone will want to be locked away in their parents’ basement. With the advent of ubiquitous wireless Internet people will be free to go anywhere, while still remaining in contact with whatever group they are a part of. Communication displays will be built into our eyeglasses and contact lenses, with images projected directly onto our retinas. Cell phones already exist that are part of your clothing, and project sound directly to your ears, and there is an MP3 player that vibrates your skull to play music that only you can hear. So, in the future, that person on the subway who is babbling to themselves and seems to be having a spaz attack, may instead be taking part in a seminar at MIT, or a virtual dance party at the virtual frat house.
Energy production will also become decentralized. The manufacture of nanoengineered fuel cells and solar panels (at pennies per pound) will allow for almost all energy to be collected and converted where it is being used. We won’t have to worry about disruptions in our energy supply lines, or terrorists attacking oil tankers or nuclear power plants, because there won’t be any. We’ll no longer need to strip mine land for coal, or cut down forests for agriculture, fuel, or building materials either. (If we want wooden two by fours, or kitchen cabinets, our tabletop nanofactories can crank them out, pre-cut to exact measurements.) Instead people will move out of overcrowded urban areas to live and build in newly replanted forests, commuting to school or work virtually, designing and making their own clothes and furnishings out of atoms from dirt or garbage, and eating as many hamburgers as they want.
Oh, and by the way, these new back-to-the-landers might be doing such things for a long time because with advanced medical technologies people will be able to live for hundreds, or possibly thousands of years.
Is there a potential downside to this coming techno-revolution? You bet there is. (Can you say “gray goo”?) But I’ll leave that as the subject of another column. This month we can dream about the day energy efficient fuel cells can run on ordinary ethanol as demonstrated recently by researchers from St. Louis University. “We’ve run it on various types of drinkable alcohol,” said Nick Akers, a grad student who worked on the project. “It didn’t like carbonated beer and doesn’t seem fond of wine, but anything else works fine.” Hydrogen ions from the alcohol combine with oxygen in the air to produce power. The byproduct, or “exhaust” of this process is water vapor.
Hey, I’ll drink to that.