Six Increasingly Interconnected Megatrends

The S&E communities and society at large share a mutual interest in advancing major new areas of technological focus in response to objective opportunities, with the goal of accelerating the progress of society as a whole. Six increasingly interconnected scientific megatrends, some closely followed by engineering and technology advancements, are expected to dominate the scene for the coming decades in the United States:

(a) Information and computing. The bit-based language (0,1) has allowed us to expand communication, visualisation, and control beyond our natural intellectual power. Significant developments beginning in the 1950s have not slowed down, and it is expected that we will continue the exponential growth of opportunities in this area. The main product is in the form of software.

(b) Nanoscale science and engineering. Working at the atomic, molecular, and supramolecular levels allows us to reach directly the building blocks of matter beyond our natural size limitation, that is, on orders of magnitude smaller than what we can see, feel, or smell. At this moment, this is the most exploratory of all megatrends identified in this list. The field was fully recognised in the 1990s and is just at the beginning of the development curve. The main outcome of nanotechnology is in the form of hardware, that is, in the creation of new materials, devices, and systems. The nanoscale appears to be the most efficient scale for manufacturing, as we understand its nature now, promising the smallest dissipation of energy, material consumption, and waste and the highest efficiency in attaining desired properties and functions.

(c) Modern biology and bioenvironmental approaches. Studying cells, their assemblies, and their interactions with their surroundings presents uniquely challenging issues because of their unparalleled complexity. Biology introduces us to self-replicating structures of matter. It uses the investigative methods of information and nanoscale technologies. One important aspect is genetic engineering, another is the connection between life and its environment, including topics such as global warming. Modern biology began its scientific ascendance in the 1970s, and its role continues to expand.

(d) Medical sciences and enhancement of the human body. The goals are maintaining and improving human physical capabilities. This includes monitoring health, enhancing sensorial and dynamical performance, using implant devices, and extending capabilities by using human-machine interfaces. Healthcare technology is a major area of R&D; it has general public acceptance, and its relative importance is growing as the population ages.

(e) Cognitive sciences and enhancement ofintellectual abilities. This area is concerned with exploring and improving human cognition, behavior, and intellect. Enhancing communication and group interaction are an integral part of improving collective behavior and productivity. This area has received little public recognition, even though increasing cognitive capabilities is a natural objective for a large section of the population.

(f) Collective behavior and systems approach. This area uses concepts found in architecture, hierarchical systems, chaos theory, and various disciplines to study nature, technology, and society. It may describe a living system, cultural traits, reaction of the society to an unexpected event, or development of global communication, to name a few examples. Recognition of the value of systems approaches increased in the late 1990s.

If one were to model the evolution of the entire society, none of these six S&E megatrends could be disregarded. The nano, bio, and information megatrends extend naturally to engineering and technology, have a strong synergism, and tend to gravitate towards one another. Among these three trends, nanoscale S&E is currently the most exploratory area; however, it is a condition for the development of the other two. Information technology enhances the advancement of both the others. A mathematical formulation of the coherent evolution of research trends could be developed based on a systems approach and time-delayed correlation functions.

Figure A. 16. shows a simplified schematic of the complex interaction between the main elements of the scientific system of the beginning of the 21st century. Bits (for computers and communication to satisfy the need for visualization, interaction, and control), genes and cells (for biology and biotechnology), neurons (for cognition development and brain research), and atoms and molecules (to transform materials, devices, and systems), are all interactive components (part of a system approach). But it is important to note that there is a melding of human and S&E development here: human development, from individual medical and intellectual development to collective cultures and globalization, is a key goal.

The main trends of this 21st century scientific system overlap in many ways; their coherence and synergy at the interfaces create new research fields such as bioinformatics, brain research, and neuromorphic engineering. Let's illustrate a possible path of interactions. Information technology provides insights into and visualization of the nanoworld; in turn, nanotechnology tools help measure and manipulate DNA and proteins; these contribute to uncovering brain physiology and cognition processes; and brain processes provide understanding of the entire system. Finally, the conceived system and architecture are used to design new information technology. Four transforming tools have emerged: nanotechnology for hardware, biotechnology for dealing with living systems, information technology for communication and control, and cognition-based technologies to enhance human abilities and collective behavior.

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