Trinity of biotech, nanotech and IT to define 21st century

11 Jun 2008

The first half of the 21st century will be defined by advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technology. And scientists will be pressed into networks of editors responsible for managing vast amounts of knowledge, an acclaimed scholar and economist told

Dr Malcolm Gillis, a former professor of economics at Harvard and current professor of economics at Rice University in Texas where he was previously president, has dedicated 35 years of his life to applying economic analysis to important issues in more than 20 countries.

Gillis was in Dublin last week as a guest of FÁS and delivered a lecture ‘Perspectives on 21st Century Technology’ at the Royal Irish Academy.

Prior to his lecture he told that the world is in the middle of a combined set of revolutions that are transforming the world we live in.

“On both sides of the Atlantic we had the industrial revolution which pretty much had run its course by the end of the Second World War and then we had the electronic revolution. We also began the genomic revolution. In my opinion, the three defining technologies of the 21st century are nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology.

“Nobody knows what the defining technologies of the last half of the 21st century will be. Things are moving so fast, there’s no way of telling.”

But it is at the intersection of advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology and IT where the greatest potential lies. “There’s some risk but also incredible potential.

“We economists have a term that rankles with some people but it’s true, ‘investment in human capital’. This is not just about education but also health and everything that improves the ability of humans to contribute to other humanity and that’s what we term investment in human capital.”

Gillis said he gave up making predictions a long time ago, instead focusing on the possibilities rather than forecasting potential. “I have this saying – there are different kinds of people on earth: there are doomsayers, soothsayers and doomslayers.

“Doomsayers are the kind of people who say we are all going to be overcome by environmental problems in no time at all. There are environmental dangers including global warning, which is a reality. Then there are the soothsayers who say this is not really a problem. I don’t pay attention to either one of these.

“I’ve tried to associate myself all my life with doomslayers, those people who try to do something about those perceived problems.”

While countries like Ireland and Singapore are in a race to be at the forefront of the so-called knowledge economy, Gillis said the real advances and benefits will transcend national boundaries.

“I’m not inspired by countries but individuals and groups of individuals. And what inspires me most is talking to particularly young scientists who are consumed with their work and burn with the desire for discovery and for application.”

As countries race to produce sufficient technology and science graduates, as well as generate IP that could give rise to industries of the future, Gillis said Web 2.0 technologies and services that begin with YouTube and Wikipedia will have a role to play.

“This is very important – what we have is a flood of knowledge, some of it is useless but a lot of it is not. No single scientist or group of scientists at any given university or any given country can possibly cope with it all.

“The hope is that networks of people – the networks performing the editing function – will be going through this massive array of information coming at you from all fields in science, trying to make sense of it. It will be increasingly hard to distinguish contributions – in nanotechnology we have chemists, physicists, mathematicians, engineers – it’s very hard to say who is who. You need a really good network of people to help you edit this information.

“Wikipedia is not a perfect example because a lot of bunk information gets on there, but that will change in time. In this case, the good knowledge will chase out the bad over time.

“As a society, speaking for both sides of the Atlantic, we’ve not come to grips with what the electronic revolution really means nor what the electronic revolution coupled with things like YouTube will mean.

“But if you don’t network, you will be overcome,” he warned.

Throughout his career, Gillis has created a reputation for university leadership, establishing the world’s first centre for nanoscale science and technology at Rice University, as well as spearheading the establishment of universities in Korea and Germany.

He has also consulted for the World Bank on behalf of governments in Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Indonesia, Canada and the US.

Gillis holds several degrees and chairs an organisation that promotes the city of Houston as a major centre for the biotechnology industry and saw it ranked in the top five worldwide.

Asked how he had the time for all of this achievement within 35 years, Gillis replied with a Texan drawl: “Clean living.”

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years