Technology is growing fast. It has been for a while, but to really appreciate it – step back and think how far we have progressed in the last 100 years as opposed to the previous 1000. Electricity and the industrial revolution have much to do with it of course, bringing life to numerous appliances and inventions. But really, it was the transistor and subsequently the silicon chip (which utilised and compacted these transistors) that has led to the largest change in our lives, to a point where the world would crumble without computers.
But where is the next big jump coming from? I believe that Biology, with a little help from Mother Nature, holds the answer.
But why? The answers are right in our faces…
Nature is Efficient
I was reading a section in a wonderful book called ‘How to Cut a Cake’ by Ian Stewart (which I highly recommend). Ever blown bubbles from soapy water? Good fun isn’t it? Have you ever wondered why bubbles are spherical?
The reason is because nature is efficient – molecules (and people!) like to expend the minimal amount of energy possible. Energy is proportional to area, and so the minimal energy structure of a bubble represents the structure which has the smallest surface area. For a given volume, a sphere is the shape that has the minimum possible surface area required to enclose that volume – hence bubbles (and many other objects in nature) are spherical. It’s fairly obvious to us now, but easily overlooked.
If we look at animals then – I’m sure you remember learning in school about how they adapt to their surroundings and how they evolved accordingly. Over time, animals become more and more efficient to cope with conditions – birds of prey who need to fly fast become naturally more aerodynamic and have more developed wings, for example.
Well for starters, there’s a lot to learn from observing the way things behave and the forms they take in nature. If we know that the rule of nature is to optimise energy use, then by designing things more like products of nature, we can increase the efficiency of existing technologies.
A great example of it is to do with robotics – and is perfectly described by the series of Metal Gear Solid games. In the most recent game, Metal Gear Solid 4 – we see robotic war weapons with organic, animal-like legs called “Gekko”.
What’s more interesting, is when the art director of these games – the great Yoji Shinkawa – showed us how he designed “Metal Gear Ray” (the robotic weapon from Metal Gear Solid 2). He was told to produce a bi-pedal tank which was amphibious and cutting edge in terms of its efficiency and power. He describes in the making of the game how he tried to remove unnecessary features and equipment from the drawings, in order to streamline it. After he was done, Ray looked pretty much like some sort of dinosaur-like reptile, which is amazing considering this wasn’t initially what he had in mind.
The next ‘Silicon Chip’?
Following this line of thinking, I think that the next big leap in the human race will come from our study of genetics and cell manipulation. It has already started with the human genome project and stem cell research. But we have only scratched the surface. Anammox bacteria has only been discovered in the 90s – it can break down ammonia (found commonly in our excrement) into hydrazine – which is used as rocket fuel!
The more of these weird and wonderful organisms we can discover, and identify the genes that allow them to do the seemingly impossible, the more we can manipulate them using techniques such as gene replacement to produce organisms that can do exactly what we want them to. If we can culture bacteria to mass-produce drugs now, imagine the potential in future. Culturing bacteria that has been genetically modified to eat carbon dioxide and produce oil seems crazy, but if it does happen, it could completely change the world economy and civilisation as we know it.
The most advanced technology is all around us in nature. The turning point will be when we understand it well enough to use it in our favour.
Update: Just to back up my theory, it seems that E.coli could be used to make plastic in the near future.