I have no rigid personal viewing and listening
schedule, but for the next five weeks I shall be glued to Radio 4
every Wednesday night at 8, because Lord Broers is delivering the
Reith Lectures on The Triumph of Technology. I met Alec Broers a
couple of years ago at Cambridge when he was Vice-Chancellor of the
University – the first engineer in that post. He is one of the great
creators of technology – a sort-of Isambard Kingdom Brunel of the
Technology has already taken over our world – can
you imagine what life would be like without your tv, your mobile
phone, your car, or your computer? The take-over is accelerating – the
car is only about 100 years old, the tv 50, the home computer 30, and
the mobile phone 15 – and in the last few years we have Google, the
iPod, Bluetooth, and MP3. Technology has triumphed, and will continue
to do so, and we need to learn how best to make use of it, and so
control the future.
Another point Lord Broers makes is that
technology brings the developed and developing worlds closer together.
It’s the only weapon we have to combat disease, drought, famine, and
poverty, and we need to harness technology on a vast and all-inclusive
scale to alleviate these global problems.
Broers’s own specialist subject is
nanotechnology, the mechanics of the ultra-small. This has nothing to
do with grey goo, and everything to do with the future. One of
Broers’s brilliant innovations was to start using an electron
microscope not just to look at stuff but to make things – to build
structures on the atomic scale. Human beings have always used tools to
make more tools; we use spanners and screwdrivers to make bicycles and
dishwashers. Nanotechnologists use tools to make ultra-small tools,
and then use them to build powerful mini-machines.
Nano-molecular assemblers may one day make
designer drugs specific not just to one disease but to one person.
Nano-electronic machines may be able to assemble a computer in a
desk-top factory as quickly as your own pc can boot up Windows. Some
of the building blocks are in place – we have nano-tubes of carbon
atoms – and soon our lives will all be changed, in ways that no one
can yet predict. This is a future I want to hear about, which is why I
shall listen to every word.