Scientists are at the point in the knowledge curve where nanotech development will advance exponentially, said Ray Kurzweil, inventor of optical character recognition software and other digital technology.
"Nanotechnology really isn't a strongly defined field, any more than the Internet or telecommunications, but all three of those revolutions are underlying technologies which will affect almost everything," Kurzweil told NanoBusiness Spring 2002 attendees. "We're looking at pervasive nanotechnology in the 2020s."
The first examples of this should be seen in computing devices by the end of the decade, Kurzweil said. Nanotech's potential for further miniaturization of computer chips, displays, wireless communications devices and other personal computer parts will embed massive amounts of processing power into building materials and even clothing, blending computers into everyday environments, he said.
The same shrinking of devices will prompt the development of 3-D versions of today's chips, Kurzweil said, providing enough computing power to support true artificial intelligence by 2030, he said.
Such advances will compress 100 years' worth of progress at today's rate into 25 calendar years, he said, adding 100 years of progress is a reasonable estimate of what's needed to create self-replicating nanotechnology.
Nanorobots small enough to easily navigate the human circulatory system will be combined with increased understanding of the brain's interpretation of sensory information to enhance human capabilities, Kurzweil said.
The robots would enter the brain and replace the real world's sensory signals with complete virtual reality, he said. Such advances are not complete science fiction, he said; medical researchers have encapsulated insulin-producing cells in nanostructures that allow the insulin to escape but protect the cells from type I diabetes, where the body's immune system destroys the cells.
NanoBusiness Spring 2002, organized by the NanoBusiness Alliance and Penton Media, was conceived as a way to bring nanotech scientists and venture capitalists together.
Kurzweil told investors in the audience faith in the technology's inevitable advance hopefully will prevent the boom-and-bust cycle that has plagued developments such as the Internet.
That hope might be misplaced, said former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, the alliance's honorary chairman. The pattern of market bubbles, driven by the pressure of human emotions, has remained stable for 400 years, he said.
That pattern, however, will have very little to do with nanotech's overall soundness, Gingrich said, using railroads in the early 1800s as a good example. While railroad stock prices cyclically rose and fell, the overall number of railroad miles increased, as did the efficiency of locomotives and other rail technology.
Nanotech is at the same point in its development as computing was in the early 1950s, Gingrich said, with one important difference -- venture capital did not exist at the dawn of computing.
"The more people that are aware of (nanotech), the more potential capital investment that's aware of this, the more corporations say, 'Isn't that something we should be looking at,' the faster the rate of transition (to society) will be," Gingrich told the conference. "You're going to see a surprisingly rapid transition, partially because at its core, nano is still science- and technology-centered."
One key to effective development will be investing in not just applications, but the instrument technology scientists need to understand how matter behaves at the nano level, Gingrich said. Breakthroughs from such information will equal the difference between making a lightning rod and understanding electricity well enough to create the telephone, he said.
The Bush administration's 2003 budget seeks more than $700 million for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which is aimed precisely at such basic understanding. Other countries are starting to fund nanotech at similar levels. The United States must continue massive, ongoing investment in basic and applied research to ensure it maintains its technological leadership, he said.