Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Steen Rasmussen's Vision of the Future

Steen Rasmussen's resume boasts time at CERN and Los Alamos to name a couple notable research facilities. His primary focus is in protocell research.  He claims we're not far off from creating those elusive building blocks of life synthetically.  I read his recent interview with Susan Mazur and found his take on what our understanding of protocells might lead to most fascinating.

Rasmussen is fascinated by a technological future with "democratized material production," i.e., an at-home personal fabricator to spin out medicine, electronics, clothing, "anything." Perhaps more importantly, he sees us inventing machines that can "love more deeply" than may be humanly possible.

Even though we're decades, if not centuries away from having personal fabricating machines, it's utterly amazing that we currently possess the technology to be able to see the road we need to take to get there.  The steps we need to take are visible.  In the past all we could think of about the future was robot servants, flying cars, teleportation, and time travel.  Don't get me wrong, all of those would be great, but they are very general, wishful predictions.  This interview with Mr. Rasmussen is so specific that it's hard not to believe that one day his projections will one day play out.  Below is his explanation in further detail about the technology we need to be researching which will eventually bring us to the day we make a 20th century New York pizza in our Sony Fabritron.  
Steen Rasmussen: One of the wonderful things about Information Technology is that you can program your computer. It's easy to give instructions. But it's very hard to tell a biological cell or biochemistry what to do. At the end of the day, however, all material objects have some chemical composition. So if you want to make new materials, you would need to control some chemical production. How can you instruct chemistry to do that? That's where microfluidics comes in.
You can program the microscopic flow of particular molecules in microfluidics by computers by actuators, e.g., with electrodes or with other means. You are then able to control the chemical production down at the microscale, even down at the nanoscale. So you can make factories that are extremely small. We're still in the infancy of this technology, lab on a chip that can be used by individuals at home.
Suzan Mazur: But you're saying you already have this lab on a chip developed in some form that you can just plug into your computer?
Steen Rasmussen: Yes, but we can only do very simple things. What I'm referring to is the future where we'll be able to have Information Technology and biology or production technology to talk to each other, so you'll be able to program material production in the same way as you program your own computer on your desk today. You'll be able to have a personal fabricator able to make anything.
We’ll eventually be able to implement von Neumann’s Universal Constructor and make it into a Personal Fabricator you’ll have on your desktop just as you have your computer and your printer today.

Back to that Sony Fabritron, there's absolutely no way we make it that far and still have the need for companies. I was talking with a guy on Google+ the other day who was really into the concept of Post Scarcity. It will most likely take a lot less than a Fabritron to tackle the issue of scarcity. The Fabritron will be more for extreme luxury and creativity. They will also be popular on long distance space flights, I assume.  That pizza I mentioned before definitely sounds better than astronaut ice cream.

Read the full Rasmussen interview at Scoop here.

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