In "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance," the agency points to the fields of nano-, bio- and information technology as well as cognitive science -- collectively called NBIC -- as keys to "a golden age that would be an epochal turning point in human history."
The report, edited by NSF scientists Mihail Roco, the agency's chief nanotechology adviser, and William Bainbridge, outlines possible payoffs in fields ranging from education and healthcare to national defense and sustainable development.
"The sciences have reached a watershed at which they must combine if they are to continue to advance," Roco said in the report's introduction. "The New Renaissance must be based on a holistic view of science and technology that envisions new technical possibilities and focuses on people. (This) unification of science and technology is achievable over the next two decades."
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular levels. Biotech and information tech applications are well known to many people, while cognitive science deals with the basics of thought and learning. In the report, contributor W.A. Wallace describes the four areas' intertwined possibilities this way: "If the cognitive scientists can think it, the nano people can build it, the bio people can implement it, and the IT people can monitor and control it."
The report predicts NBIC's synergies, within the next 20 years, are capable of churning out fantastic applications, including:
-- Direct human brain/machine connections, which would transform work in factories, vehicle control and even enable new sports and art forms;
-- Computers and environmental sensors worn as part of everyday clothing, boosting personal awareness of health, potential hazards and even the location of desired local businesses;
-- A more robust, healthy, energetic human body that will be easier to repair when necessary;
-- Practically any structure will be made of tailored materials, able to adapt to changing situations and offer high energy efficiency while remaining environmentally friendly;
-- Medical technologies and treatments for many physical and mental disabilities, perhaps completely eradicating some handicaps such as paralysis or blindness.
Such visions are more than wishful thinking, said Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue and a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Robotic SAR is an example of how disparate scientific fields, such as computer engineering and cognitive science already come together, she said.
"The biggest thing that's holding back (the report's) types of results has been that we are very splintered, we're into specialists ... with very disjointed systems," Murphy told United Press International. "Once we break that barrier, we're going to see another round of amazing advances in science."
In order to realize NBIC's potential, the report outlines a national research and development plan focused on breaking down barriers to cooperative work at the individual, academic, governmental, commercial and professional levels.
"Education and training at all levels should use converging technologies and prepare people to take advantage of them," the report states. "Interdisciplinary education programs, especially in graduate school, can create a new generation of scientists and engineers who are comfortable working across fields and collaborating with colleagues from a variety of specialties."
Focusing on the commercial sector's need to broaden its vision is particularly important, Murphy said.
"They're not really acknowledging there is a complex system (needed) for their types of products," she continued. "If all you have is a mechanical engineer, they're going to keep applying the same solutions they've been using for the past 20 years."
Unmanned aerial vehicles are one example of this, Murphy said. In trying to make such systems more intelligent, aerospace engineers are not aware of many advances in computer science and end up reinventing technology, she said.
The report is available at the nsf.gov Web site.