Technological progress around the world is accelerating. This is particularly true in information, communication, nano- and bio-technology. Whilst it took electricity 50 years to reach 25% of the US population, the internet and smart phones took less than 10 years to achieve the same market share. Combined with the other global mega trends, particularly population growth and the increasing middle class in developing nations any change in technology could affect a massive number of people and have huge environmental and social impacts.
This change is being driven by a number of factors. Firstly, people are now much more accepting of technological change on a massive scale. It is expected that innovations will appear and spread quickly. Increasing populations and affluence of those groups across the globe is not only creating new demand but also new centres of innovation. Increasing levels of education are also boosting the human capital that drives innovation whilst at the same time resource scarcity is creating pressure to find new ways of doing things and new materials to be more efficient. Graphene is one example that never seems to cease having new ideas for its use announced in the news and academic literature.
The trend of acceleration is likely to continue as seen by computer microprocessors, which have been getting more powerful exponentially over time. 1 megabyte of computer memory cost USD 1 million in 1970 but just USD 0.01 in 2010! Innovation is also become more global with the share of patent filings increasing significantly in places such as India, South Korea and particularly China.
Two big areas of significant growth forecast in the near future are nanotechnology and biotechnology
This involves the manipulation of materials at atomic and molecular scales to produce nano materials, no greater than 100 nanometers (1 billionth of a meter), with desirable properties such as greater reactivity, conductivity or enormous strength. This comes about because of the dramatically increased surface area-to-mass ratio of these substances. E.g. if you take a rock and break it apart with a hammer it will cover a larger surface area. Keep doing this to the nano-scale and whilst the mass remains the same the surface area covered has increased incredibly.
Nanotech could be used to enhance the detection and remediation of illnesses and environmental damage [e.g. bacteria eating oil).
Despite being projected to have had an estimated global value of $1 trillion in 2015 we have very poor understanding of the environmental impacts to date. Very little research has been carried out considering the impact of nanoparticles on the environment – just 1% of all research on the topic. Certainly, it could be that current monitoring techniques will be unable to even detect the quantities in the air, water and soil making management all the more difficult.
In simple terms, nanoparticles are persistent, which means that once released into the environment, it is difficult to remove them. Given their size, it is also difficult to prevent them from passing into soil or groundwater, or from being absorbed, inhaled or ingested by humans, animals or other organisms.
One study has found that nano-silver used in socks and other clothing to hinder bacteria and bad odour, has been found to build up in waste water plants as a result of washing. Evidence shows that this in turn hinders the bacteria used in the treatment process. Similarly, it could have a result on organisms dependent on bacteria including ourselves at sufficient levels.
Possible sources of nanoparticles into the atmosphere are shown below:
Their impacts can be shown in the causal diagram below:
This covers the application of science and technology to living organisms, in particular their genomes. It has already contributed to a broad range of applications including agriculture, medicine, health diagnostics and enzyme for industry.
Biotechnology is already addressing treatments for such conditions as dementia, and could yield drugs to enhance natural capacities. Genetic research is looking to regrow organs and even improve them, while genetic screening could contribute to disease prevention. Agricultural biotechnology, including genetically modified crops, has been applied globally, raising societal issues regarding food security, human and animal health, and ethics.
Whilst biotech clearly has a lot of possible uses, it could also be used to deliberately cause harm e.g. the development of bioweapons or accidental and unintended consequences including side effects or the uncontrolled spread of a new or altered species of organism.
Linking in with other mega trends such as population growth and the increasing global middle class, it is also a concern that efficiency improvements arising from biotech could actually increase consumption by reducing costs.
Biotechnology frequently raises moral questions – how far should we go altering the “natural order of things”. This has been explored in numerous works of fiction of course. Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake painted a picture of genetic tinkering going beyond anything we would think morally acceptable today in the name of profit. I am Legend starring Will Smith introduced a cure for cancer by altering a bacteria’s genome. Of course, in both cases things went a tad wrong (understatement) for the human race. In Oryx and Crake the overwhelming acceptance of biotech ultimately opened the door to a devastating attack and in I am Legend the “cure” had a rather unfortunate side-effect turning its patients into light-hating super-violent monsters. Whilst both cases are extreme they touch into a very real concern that we don’t always know what the result of this tinkering will be.
Clearly, it would be impossible to stop nano- and biotech at this point and there are many environmental, social and economic reasons why we should not. Indeed, they may provide many of the answers to problems experienced today or in the future caused by the other global mega trends being discussed in this series.
However, as with all new technologies regulation must keep pace. And just like with technological change, taxes must adapt to dis-incentivise unwanted behaviour and to redistribute the benefits across society.