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Scholar offers vision for technology

A 21st century technology revolution will change the global culture from focusing on scarcity to dealing with abundance, thanks in large part to nano-technology.

That was the prediction of James Burke, a world-renowned producer, director and thinker who gave a lecture to a full house Tuesday night at the Kelowna Community Theatre.

The talk was presented by the Irving K. Barber School of Arts and Sciences and was the third in this season’s UBC Distinguished Speaker Series.

In his presentation, Burke explored the intriguing possibility that the future is no longer what it used to be, and society as a whole is almost entirely unprepared.

Drawing connections from medieval history, philosopher Rene Descartes, and global connectivity, to the lack of interdisciplinary studies in education, the creation of toilet paper, household nanotech labs, and the future role of universities, Burke shared his vision and ideas of what the next 60 years might bring.

“All of our values, ethics, standards and beliefs, and behaviour patterns are, if you think about it, based on scarcity,” said Burke. “Property is private, PhDs are hard to get, diamonds are expensive, and genius is rare. Today we live with institutions established in the past with the technology of the past to solve the problems of scarcity of the past.”

But this will change when scarcity itself becomes a thing of the past.

Burke notes the next big thing being explored in nano-technology is what’s called a personal nano-factory, which would essentially let any person on the planet assemble and process things at the molecular level to produce whatever they want—fresh water, clothing, a car, gold, lunch, medication, a bottle of chardonnay, the Mona Lisa.

Burke said in two or three decades, nano-technology in more general terms promises extraordinary advances:

• virtually free energy

• delivery of medication to specific individual cells in the body

• clean drinking water planet-wide

• a pollution-free global environment

• non-wasteful bottom-up manufacturing

• food for everybody delivered in intelligent packaging

• silent, clean transportation systems

• ubiquitous zeta-byte computers on a chip

• virtually free ultra-high bandwidth

• the end of the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer problem, and semi-intelligent machines of all kinds at all scales.

“If it’s atoms and molecules—and what isn’t—you’ll be able to make it,” he said. “I’m not making a case for how soon this will happen; that it will come does not seem to be in doubt.”

 

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