Fri, 11 Feb 2000

Developing world and science: 'Quo vadis'?

By Omar Halim

This is the first of two articles inspired by predictions of the direction science will take in the 21st century.

JAKARTA (JP): The world has just entered the third millennium. During our history, great empires have risen and fallen in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It was only in the last 400 to 500 years that the great European explorers and conquerors discovered the rest of the world, colonizing and exploiting practically all territories they encountered.

After the end of World War II, the world saw most of these colonies attain formal political independence. At the global level, the industrialized countries established international alliances comprising a number of multilateral political and economic institutions, with the United Nations at its pinnacle.

Although the General Assembly of the United Nations is technically the parliament of the world's nation states, the most powerful body in the UN is the Security Council. The Security Council, is the only body whose decisions are legally binding on the member states. But these decisions can only be agreed provided the "permanent members" do not veto them. The permanent members are, except for China, comprised of the industrialized powers that emerged as victors from World War II.

Within the multilateral system are a plethora of economic institutions, the most powerful are the World Trade Organization (formerly General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, all of which are dominated by the industrialized countries.

At the national level, the mighty economies and most powerful military forces of the world all belong to the industrialized countries. The system by which the industrialized countries dominate the world is complete.

What lies ahead for the world? According to Michio Kaku, a Japanese-American physicist who presents an emerging consensus opinion of about 150 renown scientists in his Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century (Anchor Books, 1997), the rapid progress in understanding matter, life and the mind will enable human beings to be the 'choreographers of nature'.

He contends that with the three scientific revolutions in the 20th century -- quantum, biomolecular and computer -- humans were able to discover nature, and that humans are on their way to mastering nature during the 21st century.

The birth of quantum theory in 1925 has "given us an almost complete description of matter, allowing us to describe the seemingly infinite multiplicity of matter we see arrayed around us in the same way that a richly decorated tapestry is woven from colored strands".

The culmination of the quantum theory is "the Standard Model, which can predict the properties of everything from tiny subatomic quarks to giant supernovas in outer space". In this century, the quantum revolution "may open the door to the next step: the ability to manipulate and choreograph new forms of matter, almost at will".

In 1944, one of the creators of quantum theory, Erwin Schroedinger, conjectured that "life could be explained by a 'genetic code' written on the molecules within a cell". Later, James Watson and Francis Crick proved this conjecture true when they analyzed the "pattern of X-rays scattered off a DNA molecule, they were able to reconstruct the detailed atomic structure of DNA and identify its double-helical nature".

Kaku further states that "the complete human genome will be decoded by the year 2005, giving us an 'owner's manual' for a human being. This will set the stage for 21st century science and medicine. The bimolecular revolution will ultimately give us the nearly god-like ability to manipulate life almost at will".

The discovery of the transistor in 1948, and later the laser -- both are quantum mechanical devices -- made possible the modern computer. The continued miniaturization of microchips will change human lifestyles when "intelligent systems are dispersed by the millions into all parts of our environment. In the past, we could only marvel at the precious phenomenon called intelligence; in the future, we will be able to manipulate it according to our wishes".

Furthermore, in the 21st century there will be synergy or "cross-fertilization between all three fields, which will mark a sharp turning point in the development of science. The cross- pollination between these three revolutions will be vastly accelerated and will enrich the development of science, giving us unprecedented power to manipulate matter, life, and intelligence" and "one of the consequences of this intense synergy between these revolutions is that the steady pace of scientific discovery is accelerating at an ever-increasing rate".

Although these are not absolute time frames, the following prediction is based on the expectation that certain technologies and sciences will reach fruition:

By 2020, "microprocessors will likely be as cheap and plentiful as scrap paper, scattered by the millions into the environment, allowing us to place intelligent systems everywhere. This will change everything around us, including the nature of commerce, the wealth of nations, and the way we communicate, work, play, and live, creating an 'intelligent planet'".

In biomolecular research, "what is driving the remarkable ability to decode the secret of life is the introduction of computers and robots to automate the process of DNA sequencing. This process will continue unabated until roughly 2020. This will have profound implications for biology and medicines. Many genetic diseases will be eliminated by injecting people's cells with the correct gene. Because cancer is now being revealed to be a series of genetic mutations, large classes of cancer may be curable at last, without invasive surgery or chemotherapy. Our molecular knowledge of cell development will be so advanced that we will be able to grow entire organs in the laboratory".

From 2020 to 2050: Computer power is "driven by packing more and more transistors into microprocessors, while DNA sequencing is driven by computerization. Obviously, these technologies cannot indefinitely continue to grow exponentially.

By around 2020, both will encounter large obstacles. Because of the limits of silicon chip technology, eventually we will be forced to invent new technologies whose potentials are largely unexplored and untested, from optical computers, molecular computers, and DNA computers to quantum computers.

If these difficulties in computer technology can be overcome, then the period 2020 to 2050 may mark the entrance into the marketplace of an entirely new kind of technology: true robot automatons that have common sense, can understand human language, can recognize and manipulate objects in their environment, and can learn from their mistakes".

Before 2020, the focus in biotechnology will "shift away from DNA sequencing to understanding the basic functions of these genes, a process which cannot be computerized, and to understand polygenetic diseases and traits. The shift to polygenetic diseases may prove to be the key to solving some of the most pressing chronic diseases facing humanity, including heart disease, arthritis, auto-immune diseases, schizophrenia, and the like.

It may also lead to cloning humans and to isolating the fabled 'age genes' which control aging processes. Beyond 2020, we also expect some amazing new technologies germinating in physics laboratories to come to fruition, from new generations of lasers and holographic three-dimensional TV to nuclear fusion. Room- temperature superconductors may find commercial applications and generate a 'second industrial revolution'. The quantum theory will give us the ability to manufacture machines the size of molecules, thereby opening up an entirely new class of machines of unheard-of-properties called nanotechnology".

The writer is a former senior staff member of the United Nations. He resides in Jakarta.