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Op-Ed: Nanotechnology likely to be the next big technological revolution

I was intrigued by Michael Hanlon’s argument that human technological progress was slowing down, and that the period of 1945 to 1971 was humanity’s “golden quarter” of modern inventions. Hanlon asserts that most of our current technology is simply the product of continual refinements since this period. Indeed, everything from the Internet to the smartphone to GPS got its start prior to 1972. And, when you consider that we landed a man on the moon in 1969, less than two-thirds of a century after the first powered flight, the period since Apollo 11 does seem to pale in comparison.

While Hanlon explores many possible reasons for the decline in technological advancements since 1971, ranging from declining government support for groundbreaking discoveries to harmful changes in wealth distribution to a slowdown in sociocultural progress, he settles on a modern aversion to risk-taking. The Economist similarly argues that a slowdown is occurring, referencing billionaire investor Peter Thiel and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen. Cowen has written that America’s invention prowess from World War II until the early 1970s was the result of harvesting “low hanging fruit.” Basically, until the early 1970s easy progress was still there for the taking: Abundant resources, plenty of new workers, and wide-open spaces ready to accept new infrastructure.

Now, America is full. Our cities are full, our population is fully invested in the work force, and the political will to appropriate funds for grand scientific plans is meager. We are not ready to invest in a new Apollo program.

We cannot go big, but we can go small. Nanotechnology is the next tech revolution. Microscopic computer chips, operating in flexible units, can complement existing infrastructure, be it digital, physical, or biological. That’s right — microscopic particles, working together in complex networks, could help heal, or even augment, the human body. They could allow nerves to bypass spinal injuries, heal damaged tissue at the microscopic level, or override detrimental brain signals.

From its earliest inception in 1959, by Richard Feynman, to early works of fiction on the subject, such as Dean Koontz’ [i]Midnight[/i], the concept of microscopic technology changing the world at the most basic level has captured the imagination. As an author, I myself have been amazingly intrigued by the subject and plan to explore it more fully in my next novel.

Nanotechnology offers the ability to truly change the human condition. We can build and create by augmenting and changing existing systems and infrastructure by allowing nanoparticles, or nanites, to alter components. This allows us to adapt existing infrastructure to new goals rather than tearing it out and starting over, which is costly and time-consuming. Nanotechnology will allow us to embed today’s technology in virtually anything, including human tissue. Instead of having rigid computer chips, we could have thin layers of particles that are flexible and adaptive. Eventually, these particles could exist in free-standing colonies that connect to each other through magnetic or electrostatic forces, allowing them to be dispersed in liquids or gases.

A network of magnetically- or electrostatically-connected particles could avoid the damage caused to rigid networks by environmental challenges or trauma, increasing efficiency and survivability. The network of particles could be programmed to “migrate” in the event of an environmental threat or to seek a complementary system and improve functionality. The possibilities are endless!

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