Great and small

When Henry Ford drove his car out of his coal shed in 1896, no one-could have imagined the impact that the horseless carriage would make on the world so many years later.

<b>I’m sure in 1985, plutonium is available at every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it’s a little hard to come by – Dr. Emmett Brown – Back to the Future.</b>

When Henry Ford drove his car out of his coal shed in 1896, no one-could have imagined the impact that the horseless carriage would make on the world so many years later.

Some folks with a vivid imagination might have predicted that the new technology might eventually provide an inexpensive means of transport for us all. But would anyone have dreamed of the untold wealth the four-wheeled buggy would bring to those oil-rich countries in the Middle East?

And years later, when Dr. Hans von Ohain and Sir Frank Whittle first saw aircraft fly based on their jet engine technology, could they have imagined that it would lead to a world whose skies are now so crowded with passenger aircraft? And how would they feel about the important contribution that their development played on the bombing of Vietnam?

And what of Bill Gates or Paul Allen, as they tinkered around on their Digital Equipment PDP-10 at school? Did they imagine that one day they would help build a software empire that would eventually help folks at home to run molecular modelling software to fight the war on cancer?

Even if they did, they could surely never have imagined that, forty years later, police would be raiding homes and seizing computers of folks involved in the ‘peer to peer’ downloading of pictures of child abuse and torture.

But what of the implications of the new kid on the block – nanotechnology – and all that it entails.

This all-pervasive technology looks set to revolutionise the fields of medicine, defence, entertainment and the environment. You only have to look at what the folks in the labs are up to in order to figure that out. From delivering drugs to specific sites within the body, to creating novel forms of sensor, to making public loos a cleaner place to be.

Whatever the application, it’s ‘opportunity knocks’ time for nanotech.

Fortunately, since it’s early days yet with the fledgling technology, it’s still not too late to put our thinking bonnets on and really consider the ramifications of what we’re really doing developing and deploying nanodevices. And maybe by doing so, we can avoid the mistakes of the past.

From what I can tell so far, the new technology carries with it pretty much the same health warnings as all the technologies that have gone before it. Like them, it can put to good use, or it can be used to do harm. Products developed using nanotechnological processes might be used to cure cancer. Or they might cause cancer – inadvertently, or otherwise. This much is for sure.

But what’s totally unknown are the more important economic and political ramifications of the new technology. Unfortunately, just as it was with its technological predecessors, these are totally unpredictable, even by rocket scientists.

Indeed, it’s likely that the global implications of the new technology won’t be fully understood in that sense until it has been widely put to use.

Let’s hope things turn out as well with the new technology as it did with the ones that came before it. (Surely not?- Ed.)

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