where do they walk to the science and technology of the XXI century? The past tends to be, on many occasions, a good prologue to the future.

From my point of view, the science and technology of the late TWENTIETH century could be summed up in four words: atom, gene, bit and neuron. This gives rise to four disciplines emerging: nanotechnology, biotechnology, computation and artificial intelligence, and neurotechnology.

The boundaries between them are increasingly blurred, and in combination with each other give rise to a synergy in which the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The great challenges of our age, such as those relating to human health or to our planet, requires a multidisciplinary approach.


The Physics Nobel prize winner Steven Chu said: “The Stone Age ended not because we are finishing the stones, but because copper and bronze were better”. Similarly, a lot of materials even without extinguishing are being replaced by better ones: the nanomaterials.

nanotechnology is a fascinating engineering at atomic and molecular scale. Thanks to her, for the first time in history, it is possible to manufacture materials to the letter, materials with controlled properties and for specific purposes, in summary, materials in the service of humanity.

It’s like a scene from the movie The fantastic voyage: a small ship submerged in the blood stream of a patient, to the hunting of malignant cells, to shoot them with precise doses of medicines… Only that this is not Hollywood, it’s science. The seductive promise to deliver drugs directly to cancer cells, leaving intact the healthy, is today a reality using nanoparticles smart. It avoids as well the devastating side effects of chemotherapy.

hand In hand with nanotechnology, we move also in the era of molecular diagnosis, which makes it possible to identify diseases in their early stages, when they can still be easily removed. It also provides us with different nanofibers that promote the growth of engineered tissues and organs from patient’s own cells.

nanotechnology is not only a great ally of human health, but also of the health of our planet. Thus, it is possible to move towards the design of solar cells and batteries more efficient or to wireless transmission of electricity. In different laboratories, we investigated the development of some paintings that the file on the windows turn on the small power plants photoelectric, capable of catching the solar radiation in order to subsequently convert it into electricity.


We come now to the gene. The genome is the book of life. There are the instructions for building every living being on the planet.

In the year 2000 we were able to decipher or read the genome of our species. It was a giant leap in the history of mankind! We were able to respond to the eternal question of who we are, at least from the biological point of view.

In less than two decades, biology has advanced by leaps and bounds. Today, we can not only read that book of life, we also understand many of its pages. And most importantly, we have become something more than mere spectators: we Can rewrite the genome and thus to correct defective genes that cause different Betorder diseases!

The so-called technology CRISPR, a genome editing of high precision, makes it possible. We are facing one of the large biotechnology revolutions of our century!

Computation and artificial intelligence

In 1997 the computer of the IBM Deep Blue won to Kasparov, the best chess player of all time. Today we have smart cars and autonomous, able to move without a driver. All of these are examples of the so-called artificial intelligence close. The term close refers to a specific domain.

A big dream of the technology is the development of the so-called artificial intelligence-general, or, put another way, machines-intelligent that meet or exceed the human being in any cognitive activity. An approximation provided for the construction of a machine of these characteristics is based on the emulation of the human brain.

there Have been several attempts at the moment have been unsuccessful. The big problem is that we are still far from understanding our brain and its functioning, so that it will be difficult to build a machine that meets or exceeds following this approach. And we may never fully understand the functioning of the brain. Max Planck stated:

“science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature because, ultimately, we are part of the mystery that we try to solve.”

Neuroscience, and bionics


In the same way that from only a few scattered trees can not understand the forest, from a few isolated neurons nor will we be able to understand the brain and its functioning. Each neuron human connects and communicates with a lot of neurons –between 1,000 and 10,000– through the so-called synapses. To decipher this complex network of connections –known as a connectome– is one of the great challenges of the science of this century.


Francis Crick suggested in 1974 that scientists should look for a tool that would allow to selectively activate different groups of neurons in order to find out its function. Even dared to predict that the light might be the right tool. An emerging discipline, known as optogenetics, is today a reality of the old dream of Crick: neurons genetically modified can be activated selectively by means of light pulses. Optogenetics seeks to understand the brain in a first stage to subsequently repair it if it fails.


In this age we are starting to unite our brains to the machines. Today we are not satisfied with the prosthesis and passive rigid of yesteryear. We want to interact with our senses. We want that the amputee of an arm to be able to pick up a cup with your artificial joint, reaching the order directly from his mind. A fascinating discipline, known as biomimicry, makes this possible. To the front of the same is Hugh Herr. This great technologist he has developed his own prosthesis controlled by thought. His great dream is to end up with the disability human in the TWENTY-first century.

gone Are the access information and surf the internet at the flick of a mouse. By making use of implants of the brain we will be able to access a web page by simply thinking about it. Since Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the fathers of Google, barajaban these scenarios futurists in the year 2004. The geniuses of Google not seemed misguided… Maybe one day we can access the different corners of the cyberspace at the flick of a thought.

Amador Menéndez Velázquez, Researcher at the Unit of Materials Photoactive – Institute of Technology of Materials of Asturias, ITMA

A version of this article was originally published in the Journal Telos, of the Fundación Telefónica.

This article is republished from The Conversation. Read the artíoculo original.