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Biotech Science

The Future of Nanobiotech Predicted 130

Quadraginta writes "Aharon Hauptman and Yair Sharan of the Interdisciplinary Center for Technology Analysis and Forecasting (ICTAF) at Tel Aviv University recently presented the results of a survey of 139 researchers on the future of nanobiotech. The presentation itself is only available as a PDF file, but there is a brief news announcement from the ICTAF. Interestingly, Hauptman and Sharan asked for -- and got -- specific predictions from the experts of the year in which various nanotech marvels will appear. For example, the experts say we can look forward to biosensors capable of detecting a single molecule by 2015, the direct construction of artificial human organs by 2020, and the use of nanomachines inside the body for diagnosis and therapy by 2025."
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The Future of Nanobiotech Predicted

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 13, 2006 @06:02AM (#14462073)
    .. and gradually scale back.
  • by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <> on Friday January 13, 2006 @06:04AM (#14462088)
    Artificial intelligence, i.e. thinking machines, are always about 10 years away. They have been for years.

    Wait, that was a good analogy.
    • Artificial intelligence, i.e. thinking machines, are always about 10 years away. They have been for years.

      That's not quite true. AI used to be always 50 years away. Not that that means much, of course. I believe we still have no idea what it is we're actually looking for, and keep redefining it (people used to think that a computer playing chess would be AI).

      The speed of innovation is increasing all the time, so our feeling of "some time in the future" is getting shorter. In ten years AI will probably b

      • I'd say the best chance we have to get true AI is to build quantum computers. Constant creation of wavestates and the spontaneus collapse due to gravity will generate a flurry of "thoughts" - and by learning the successful ones will eventuelly be "stored" using neural networks.

        That's one of the theories behind how the human brain works, and it's the "randomness" in it that I feel is sorely lacking from current static neural network thinking.

        More info: link []
        • by Scarblac ( 122480 ) <> on Friday January 13, 2006 @07:00AM (#14462246) Homepage

          I don't agree at all. Human brains work by neurons firing in specific patterns, in specific ways, in extremely huge numbers and with complicated interneuron connections. There is no quick fix to knowing how the brain works, since it's not a simple thing.

          That said, even if the brain relied on some quantum effect, I find the idea that just building something completely different that also relies on a quantum effect (a quantum computer) and just letting it run (doing what?) to be pretty bizarre.

          The main problem to solving "true AI" remains _defining true AI_. You can't solve a problem if nobody can say what the actual problem is.

          • Yup, we have to understand better how minds work. Or at least enough to make a copy of them.

            And then we also need the processor power equal to that of the brain too. It could well be argued that the Internet crossed that line quite some time ago. But the structure of the Internet is not even close to mind-like. Though there are possibilities...

            At any rate, what gets interesting is that we've just recently crossed that same line with "single" entities like the IBM BlueGene supercomputer cluster.

          • It would be ironic and amusing if it turned out that, after all, artificial intelligence wasn't nearly as difficult a problem to solve as folks like Scarbrac thought and that the only reason that it took us so long to solve was because we desperately wanted to hold onto the notion that intelligence was a hard thing to recreate.
            • I'm sure there are computing systems around today that hobbyists will load up with functioning AIs once they code up a working AI, the way people today write a HAL layer for Linux to bring it up on a wristwatch or a Coleco Adam or some such (has that been done? Vic 20?)
          • People are already trying to solve this problem. They're working to create Friendly AI, not through technology, but through definition of the human brain and our thought processes. Check out some of their work at: []

            If they succeed, they hope to create a Singularity, a point at which we have no ability to predict what lay beyond, sheerly due to the intelligences involved.
          • I doubt we'll ever have real artificial intelligence anytime soon, if we're smart enough anyways. Mostly because to create a real AI, you need to give it a purpose or reason to survive... think about how life itself works in general. Survival instincts precipitate change. If we do indeed create real AI, it might turn into something out of the matrix. Just we won't be living in some silly dreamworld. We'll probably just cease to exist because we're horribly inefficient anyways.
            • You said it yourself. Survival *instinct*. Instincts are creature-specific, and environmentally defined. They don't define or require much intelligence. It is a trait of self-awareness. People have survival instincts because they know without certain things they will perish. A computer requires power, and software.

              Artificial intelligence already exists. It will become *actual* intelligence when it can program and reprogram itself.

          • > The main problem to solving "true AI" remains _defining true AI_. You can't solve a problem if nobody can say what the actual problem is.

            Well said. Most attempts to achieve true machine intelligence boil down to "we don't know how this works, but if we throw enough processing power/memory/neural net nodes at it, maybe it'll start to think". These brute force attempts are not particularly elegant, but in some cases they do teach us some things (much like particle accellerators do) to better define t

            • Similarly, Heinlein also thought that AI was going to arrive purely by accident in "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress". Personally, I think that the computer in the novel is one of its more interesting aspects. Yes, its a story about civil freedoms, but the AI aspect of it is very well thought out as well.

              The only reason the main character discovers that the computer he is dealing with might be sentient is because it asks questions that it should have no business asking - like, "What's funny?". Sentience by acci
      • I think I disagree (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Ogemaniac ( 841129 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @07:21AM (#14462282)
        The speed of innovation is increasing all the time

        As a "nano" researcher myself, I have started to almost think the tide is turning the other way. We have lots of momentum, but I no longer think we are accelerating.

        Of course, it all depends on your measure. If you just count number of journal pages printed, or number of scientists researching, things seem hunky-dory. However, if you multiply that by the value of that information, it shrinks substantially. Science has become exceptionally incremental, and we are advancing via zerg-style attack rather than leaps and bounds.

        At least from my position here on the inside, I feel that these estimates are quite optimistic.
        • shrinks substantially.

          I thought that was the point. :)

        • by ace1317 ( 905398 )
          I'm also a "nano" researcher, and while I agree that alot of the recent papers havent been huge advances, the fact that characterization methods are very limited at this scale makes it important to learn techniques that work wonderfully as well as those that work minimally at best. Molecular biosensing happens to be my field, and I have no trouble believing that we'll be able to detect single molecules by 2015. Hell, we can currently detect a handful of DNA molecules and distinguish them from other oligo
        • by Shihar ( 153932 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @12:06PM (#14463964)
          I too work in nanotechnology. In fact, the company I work for just kicked out their first product, a carbon nanotubes based memory cell. I completely disagree with you. I think we are moving forward at a blistering pace that is just getting faster.

          I suggest holding onto your ass, as pharmaceutical companies are about to start blasting new useful products. You need to remember that what we see in a lot of industries is on a time lag. It takes a bare minimum of 10-15 years to create a drug from scratch and get it through the FDA. Think about that for a moment. The drugs being released today come from before the Internet was being widely used. The fruits of these efforts are already starting to become clear. My father for instance probably just tacked an extra 10-20 years onto his life with new cholesterol lowering drug. Things are only going to get better.

          Everything is shrinking at an accelerated rate. The amount of information that we have access to is expanding exponentially. As a culture, we are so used to change that we are utterly blind to it when it happens. 5 years ago I knew only one or two people with cell phones, and those people rarely used them. I recall having friends who swore they would never own one of those damn things.

          Just the other day I ran into the first person I have met in the past year under the age of 50 who doesn't own a cell phone. This guy came to a gathering of about a dozen people that I was throwing. We were crowded in my living room when someone asked what his cell phone number was so they could coordinate meeting up the next day. The guy said he didn't own a cell phone. That statement brought conversation in the room to a dead stop. The group then spent a few minutes trying to figure out how in the hell you coordinate meeting at a park if you can't use a cell phone. In this group, there were people that just 5 years ago swore they would never use a cell phone. Now, they have to struggle to remember how meet up with someone without using a cell phone.

          As a culture we are desensitized to change. We don't suffer from 'future shock' as some futurist thought we would. As new things come we roll with it very well. Show a guy from 1990 the year 2006, and he would be awed. True, we don't have floating cars or cool looking buildings. A city street today looks roughly like a city street from 15 years ago. What a person from 1990 WOULD notice right away is the fact that everyone owns a cell phone. They would be blown away by how trivial it is to get knowledge simply by using the Internet. The speed and power of our computers, or games, and our MP3 players would be unlike anything they could have imagined possible. They would recognize that socially technology is changing how we interact at a blistering rate.

          Things are accelerating very quickly. There might be a limit or a set of breaks out there somewhere, but it sure as hell isn't in sight right now. The best is without a doubt yet to come.
          • by Frisson ( 252387 )
            I'm not sure that's a very good analogy to be honest. Cell phones are based on technologies which are decades old, well understood and have been incrementally advanced. It could be argued that it has taken half a century to realise the telecommunications systems which we have today.

            In the field of nanotechnology there are many barriers to progress. One of the main ones as mentioned above is accurate measurement (metrology) of the substances and products which are being manufactured. The recent advances
        • In 1971 Nixon declared war on cancer. Billions of dollars and countless research hours spent on the problem. We have made some progress but cancer is still a major threat.

          Nanotech, that is, real molecular, bottom-up technology, will make real medicine possible for the first time ever. But not in 20 years. 50 maybe.
      • >> Artificial intelligence, i.e. thinking machines, are always about
        >> 10 years away. They have been for years.
        > That's not quite true. AI used to be always 50 years away. Not that
        > that means much, of course. I believe we still have no idea what
        > it is we're actually looking for, and keep redefining it (people
        > used to think that a computer playing chess would be AI).

        For god's sake, according to science fiction, by 2006 I should have long since been taking my flying car home fro
    • and on a related note - Wheres my jetpack/flying car, its the 21st centuary dammit and in the 70's they promised!
    • We didnt't have Google with container cluster nodes back then. :D
  • by quokkapox ( 847798 ) <> on Friday January 13, 2006 @06:14AM (#14462123)
    Why do we humans keep trying to predict our technological future? So-called (and self-proclaimed) experts have been trying for decades, and they aren't doing much better than psychics. Or are there wildly successful visionaries with high accuracy of whose publications we are now unaware? I'd love to see a discussion of futurists' predictions that HAVE been surprisingly accurate.

    It seems pointless to make specific predictions, such as Technology X in Year Y. Might it not be better to simply steer our unwieldy technology, as well as we can, in a generally sensible direction?

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Nostradamus [] ;)
    • by TallMatthew ( 919136 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @06:30AM (#14462173)
      Why do we humans keep trying to predict our technological future?


    • SciFi writers have been very good at predicting human advancement.

      I suspect this is because they research rather than speculate, and they believe in their predictions enough that they flesh them out by writing detailed descriptions of what life would be like after their predictions come true.
      • " SciFi writers have been very good at predicting human advancement.

        Agreed. However they do not seem at all good at predicting the when as well as the what. They have 'tech X' but not the 'year Y' part.

      • But aren't scientists often inspired by Science Fiction?
      • SciFi writers have been very good at predicting human advancement.

        It's because their loyal followers with super-huge brains have nothing better to do than try and create the tools of the future. Think about a little kid recreating a fight scene they saw on TV. They think it's cool and want to reenact so they can be cool.

    • Predictions are tools of perception. People use predictions to better understand phenomena and to create better goals and plans.
      Predictions are ideas so they affect people's thinking; they give us new ideas, new perspectives and insights.
      The gap between ideas and technology is continuously narrowing and that makes predictions about our technological future more and more like inventions.
    • I've always been interested in futurologists. It started as a kid, when they spew ideal worlds with flying cars and such. A.k.a. The Jetsons period. Soon afterwards, I started realizing it was all crap, and started using them as a source of entertainment as to this day. It makes a great laugh every now and then. If a futurologist predicts something, as a rule of thumb I'd say it won't, still, they tend to take themselves very serious.

      However, so far I've seen two 'predictions' that are worthwhile:
      - The
    • Why do we humans keep trying to predict our technological future?

      It's a precise combination of slow news days and journalistic deadlines.

    • But doesn't "making predictions" sort of lead technology in a particular direction? If the article talks about replacement organs being available by 2020, wouldn't it make some scientist think to perhaps research that possibility?
    • It is useful for knowing where to spread the money and resources. Alot of futurists are good at what they do (one of the best is Ray Kurzweil whose accuracy you can even check by reading "The Age of Intelligent Machines" which was writting in the mid 80's and was surprisingly accurate. This is why many large firms use him as a consultant. He's written a few more books since then and are all pretty decent) You only typically hear about ridiculous and wild speculation because its good for headlines or its amu
    • Why do we humans keep trying to predict our technological future?

      Because it's fun, and usually our best educated guesses are wrong a good chuck of the time.
    • I'd love to see a discussion of futurists' predictions that HAVE been surprisingly accurate.

      I would suggest reading Alvin Toffler's _Future_Shock_ (1970) and _The_Third_Wave_ (1980). Still the best two texts that I've ever read for understanding how technology is affecting how society changes. The overall view represented by these two books is fairly accurate. Naturally, he didn't get all the details right. Still, well worth a read.
      • But IIRC Toffler's Future Shock completely missed out on the forthcoming new means of communication (such as the Internet) and the radically different ways we interact nowadays. Been awhile since I reread, but it seemed like an extrapolation of 1960s life with the only difference being acceleration of industrial change.

        We need a new Future Shock for this new century, which can be snapshot periodically (for posterity) and updated regularly as technology allows.
        Er, maybe that's now called a wiki.


    • Jules Verne is one example of somebody who did pretty damn well. I'm sure there are others. I do agree to some extent though that any "foresight" is kind of pointless, since our species seems more reactive that proactive, in general and individually.
    • John Brunner predicted event futures markets, ubiquitous computer networks and network worms in his 1975 novel The Shockwave Rider [].
    • Aren't you tired of repeating the same tired (and, what is even worse, false) argument?

      Japanese technology foresight project [] run by NISTEP has the average accuracy rate of around 60-70% for its 1st, 2nd and 3rd reports (1970, 1975, 1980). The reports predict technological developments for the next 30 years.

      Now it would be insanely great if every illiterate luddite posting right now on Slashdot about how predictions are worthless and always wrong would just familiarise himself with actual work being done in
    • Hm, you may be interested in this: Predicting mid-range global futures (2005-2050). []

      In particular, it talks about the Delphi method, [] and shows how Japan predicted, in the 1970's:
      • Possibility to a certain degree of working at home through the use of TV-telephones, telefaxes, etc. (forecast: 1998)
      • Acquisition of observation data from unmanned probes around Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and outside the solar system. (1999)
      • Development of optical communication technology that can realize substantial savings in the use of
    • Why do we humans keep trying to predict our technological future?

      Because it is better than accepting the status quo.

      If we don't dream of a better world than what is the point? We might as well go back to caves if we aren't going to better our world.

      I'd love to see a discussion of futurists' predictions that HAVE been surprisingly accurate.

      You mean Moore's law? Or Kurzweil's accelerating returns... If you haven't read The Singularity is Near [] then you should take a read.

      Yes it is a bit optimistic, but he does
  • Replacing medicines (Score:1, Interesting)

    by poeidon1 ( 767457 )
    Would it mean that I no longer have to take pills or injections for my medical problems?
  • Deus Ex and Babylon 5 (Crusade) fans know what I'm talking about. That's not a wild fantasy either, if nano biotech ever takes off.
    • Add Greg Bear "Blood's music" to the list, and it also shows a bit of upside possibilities (however very unlikely).
    • Well, I've only played Deus Ex but basically the scenario in the game wouldn't have happened if the nano-tech wasn't available to merely a single corporation in the entire world. Something which is unlikely to happen in the real world.

      Or is it?....
    • It's not going to happen. This is from Wikipedia and it pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject:

      It is unclear whether the hypothetical molecular nanotechnology, if ever realized, would be capable of creating grey goo at all. Among other common refutations, theorists suggest that the very size of nanoparticles inhibits them from moving very quickly. While the biological matter that composes life releases significant amounts of energy when oxidised, and other sources of energy such as sunlight are avai
      • What the OP refers to, IIRC, is a story element of the PC game Deus Ex. Gray Death is a disease. A cure exists, but it is monopolized by its creators, thus controlling the unwashed masses. It's all a big conspiracy involving the government and that corporation. "Gray Death" is less a story about the dangers of technology than about the possible dangers of power monopolies.
        • In addition, the disease is actually artificial and created by the same corporation which makes the cure, which I guess is what the OP also was pointing to.
  • I predict... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Stan Vassilev ( 939229 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @07:09AM (#14462258)
    I predict that this prediction will not happen.
    Take that, biotech! Hahahaha!

    On a serious note, I remember that episode of Ray Bradbury's Theater where a guy lied to have travelled in the future and saw all ecological issues solved, no wars, and no poverty.

    And it indeed happened like this, because people believed themselves they could do it. And his time machine turned out to be just a mirror trick for the press.

    We all need a shot of sci-fi in our blood to keep us motivated.
    • Yeah. "Why care about the Nature? It will be solved eventually, so no harm done if I dump the sewage to the river and make extra 5% income on the savings."
      Telling "It will work out in the future, somehow" is the best motivation-killer.
      • Re:I predict... (Score:3, Insightful)

        "Telling "It will work out in the future, somehow" is the best motivation-killer."

        Well yea, but telling them "no matter what you do, somehow, you'll end up in a nuclear holocaust and highly toxic environment with lots of deadly mutation and deseases, the last surviving human societies will be a bunch of ruthless scavengers forced to canibalize their fellow buddies for survival, in the hope of slowing the their imminent doom" .. .. ain't a lot better motivation-wise.

        Plus everytime someone predicts flying car
        • That would require very large magnets, so prepare for a car the size of a city.
          • "That would require very large magnets, so prepare for a car the size of a city."

            How about a magnet city that keeps my regular size car in the air. Hmm...

            ** PATENT PENDING **
            • Not a bad idea, but rails are the real future. systematic transport instead of running around like a 10Base2 Network. to be honest as humans become more centralised they're going to need to ditch the idea that everyone has a right to a car like device. sure it's extremely convenient but it's also immensely selfish. no surprise that the USA will moan the most then.
              • "to be honest as humans become more centralised they're going to need to ditch the idea that everyone has a right to a car like device."

                Well that's a phenomenon that is most obvious in USA. Over here (Bulgaria), I can say I never had the need for a car. The public transport is strong, the taxi is very cheap, and I can even walk (!!!) to reach some of the places I need to reach :).
              • Now that europe is unifying, I predict that their thinking about distance will be less parochial. The result will be a philosphy on cars not much different than the US.
      • Telling "It will work out in the future, somehow" is the best motivation-killer.

        So is end of the world scenarios, destroyed environment, and doomsday predictions in which we might as well just fuck up everything anyways so we might as well sit around and indulge in the last few years of life.

        It can go both ways.
    • Well, since it directly relates to the topic, my novel CYBERCHILD [] is a novel about the first use of microbots to implant a computer in the brain.

      It doesn't work out completely as planned. ;-) You can check it out and download a free e-book (the paper version is on Amazon) version at

  • by Stan Vassilev ( 939229 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @07:12AM (#14462261)
    "...artificial human organs by 2020...."

    Ok dudes, we got 14 years until the replacements. With the right dosage of obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking, the replacements will be just in time for some of us.
  • by digitaldc ( 879047 ) * on Friday January 13, 2006 @08:26AM (#14462437)
    One thing that is rarely discussed about nano-technology is the possible harm it could do to living organisms. If someone is ingesting nano-technology unwittingly through the air, water, or food, it is possible it could do great harm. Also, since it is almost impossible to see and track, what happens when it creates unintended harm? Who is held responsible and how do you clean it up?

    That being said, I am for new technology and I am hoping nano-tech will be used in a responsible manner.
    • "since it is almost impossible to see and track,"

      One of the predictions is that we'll be able to detect single molecules in solution. That seems like pretty good tracking to me.

      • I think you misinterpret the prediction. 'They' will be able to detect single molecules (with expensive and limited systems in an appropriate test environment). You and I will not. Which is the worrisome part for some when nanotechnology is mentioned.
        • I would think that the main concerns i.e. water supply, food, etc. would all be monitored under these "appropriate test environments". Public drinking water supplies are tested daily, i don't see why this would not be applicable to synthetic nanoparticles if indeed they are dangerous and released into the supply.
          • I would think that the main concerns i.e. water supply, food, etc. would all be monitored

            Yes they are monitored, but what is the cost of cleaning them up? Huge.
            It has been found that MTBE additives to gasoline have been leeching into water supplies all over the US, but they aren't too concerned about cleaning it up. (see

            If a company creates a harm to the environment and noone fines them or shames them into cleaning it up, they most likely never will. Why do you think Google has a motto
    • > That being said, I am for new technology and I am hoping
      > nano-tech will be used in a responsible manner.

      Just like we used all the other dangerous technologies we have
      discovered recently ?
      My concern is mostly about the humans that will end up controlling
      it , we could use it safely but given humanities track record of
      using technology to abuse each other this could be a bad move.

      Whats the harm in going a little slower and making sure things are
      safe and well thought out. I'm happy to wait .

    • BS. The discussion is under full steam both in public and in science, and some believe it might become the next Frankenfood in terms of public backlash and rejection because of mostly uninformed hype in all directions (positive and negative). The reality is, nano-sized particles have been around since shortly after the creation of the universe, they are nothing fundamentally new, and anybody who claims otherwise is ignorant and/or a liar, erhm, needs to check his facts again. Think carbon nanotubes: Origina
    • Those things are discussed all the time and there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of proposals to fix issues like that (quite a few are pretty clever). Google scholar *might* find you some interesting results if you're interested.
    • Since combustion makes inhalable nano-scale molecules. Maybe it would help to imagine a bunch of destructive nano-machines pouring out of the tailpipe of a car, blanketing the streets of the city, you inhale as you walk from the parking lot to the office.

      Now your questions doesn't seem new. In fact, it could boil down to the ongoing questions: what do we do with pollution? Who is responsible if pollution harms people?
  • by caesar-auf-nihil ( 513828 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @09:35AM (#14462700)
    Maybe the technological breakthroughs will occur in the predicted timelines, but if you tack on all the regulatory issues, one should really add an additional 25 years to the timelines. The great deal of uncertainty on how these nanoscale devices really affect health, as well as regulatory approval of such devices means just as much research to determine that nanobiotech is really ready for safe use. And let's face it - nanobiotech is basically a new term for molecular biology, and we continue to learn a great deal every day in that field, especially how hard it is to get things to work right at that level if we come up with it.

    That being said - some countries may see this tech before others. I'm betting Singapore comes up with this type of technology first. If the regs are such that its more open to widespread use in that country or others, then maybe the timelines will only be 10-15 years off.
  • Has anyone seen that Outer Limits episide where they have nano-technology and they use it on some guy to cure his cancer I think. As the episode goes on, the nanobots refused to let the man die through his many attempts at suicide, repairing stab wounds, burns etc. By the end of the episode, he had gills and and eyes on the back of his head.
    • there's a webcomic called Alien Dice [], where the space gladiators are given "nanites" that heal them of all wounds, even in cases of attempted suicide.

      This is a small world, indeed.
  • by edunbar93 ( 141167 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @12:08PM (#14463992)
    "Shyeah, right, and I predict monkeys will fly out of my butt!"

    I'm sure that it's just a matter of designing nanotechnology monkeys.
  • by airship ( 242862 ) on Friday January 13, 2006 @12:31PM (#14464232) Homepage
    While it's relatively easy to predict some technological developments (i.e., color TV when you already have black-and-white TV), most of the real innovations sneak up on us unexpectedly. Even Microsoft, the biggest computer technology company in the world, totally missed the importance of the Internet until it was already here.
    I predict that, while some of these things may happen, and may even happen 'on schedule', the most important developments in nanobiotech will be impossible to know until it gets here.
  • Knowing how project managers tend to exaggerate product schedules, I'm thinking that such innovations, if they come, are probably four times the estimated dates away... which places them securely outside of my lifetime. :) --Ray

"The following is not for the weak of heart or Fundamentalists." -- Dave Barry