"Spicy world of NanoScience" since 2007
General civilisation crisis connected to the fact that humanity entered the post-industrial development stage, and to the emergence of ‘young’ industry giant such as India and China in particular, has shifted to a new phase. Apparently finite and exhaustible nature of the civilisation resources has now become an outlook for the nearest future. We currently face the question whether it is possible for the mankind to overcome the crisis and ultimately to survive.
Scientists have been discussing the problem for a long time. First serious research of global problems of the civilisation development based on qualitative modelling of the world system dynamics, was carried out in late 1960s and 1970s within the Club of Rome – in particular, in a book by J. Forrester, as well as by some Soviet researchers. The very first publications suggested that in less than a hundred years humanity would face resource collapse. Researches of the Club of Rome showed that crisis embraced all aspects of civilisation and was connected to resource (ecological), social, political, financial aspects, etc. - that is, was systemic in nature. Therefore, it cannot be resolved within the existing paradigm of the human civilisation development. However, despite the unquestionable importance of these conclusions, no specific solutions as to how to overcome the situation were suggested, and we still do not know what to do (Figure 1).
The world around us is integrated and harmonious. Nature, biosphere has existed for millions of years as a self-sufficient and self-regulating system which includes a natural circulation of energy and substances on the Earth. Undeniably, the human-invoked development of technosphere facilitated scientific and technical progress, but it involved deep conflicts between the nature and technosphere from the very start. In the course of its development the mankind has for many ages aspired to increase the working efficiency and the volume of manufactured goods without thinking twice about the price of this growth – that is, the development paradigm of the civilisation from its very emergence consisted of taking maximum value from the nature “no matter what.”
In time, an industrial sphere emerged that was more and more resource-intensive and destructive towards the natural environment and increased the gap between the existence of nature and human economic activity. Suffice to say, experts believe that from five to six billion tons of living material on the planet is lost annually due to technological activity of man. Throughout the history of the mankind, about 224 10 12 kg of oxygen was spent to burn the oil, coal and gas, etc., that were produced. Whereas in the last 50 years, 226·10 12 kg of oxygen were spent for similar purposes – that means that that amount nearly equals the quantity of oxygen burnt during the entire anthropogenic period (Figure 2).
By the mid-20th century, the face of the civilisation has changed dramatically, and the influence of man on the environment (biosphere) has acquired a critical mass. In fact, today's technosphere built by the man presents a detonator of his own demise.
It is important to note that the confrontation of the biosphere and technosphere that has been forming in the course of centuries has had an extremely significant reverse affect on the human mind where technologies and natural environment have become separated – that is, this antagonism is now set on a mental level. We can state that current technological sphere created by man participates in an antagonistic conflict with nature.
Thus, on the one hand, it confirmed the idea of V. I. Vernadsky that the mind of social man implemented in his labour turns into a new powerful geological force, and on the other, his prediction that “In the geological history of the biosphere, enormous future is open in front of the mankind if it can realise the fact and will not use its mind and work for self-destruction” came true.
Inability of humans to realise their new role in the world and reconsider their new duties and new responsibility ultimately resulted in a systemic crisis that included the whole civilisation.
According to the experience of the second half of the 20th century, such antagonistic conflicts cannot be resolved within the traditional developmental paradigm by transforming – even radically – some components of the global technological system. It takes a fundamental rebuild of the whole technological basis with an indissoluble connection with its scientific, manufacturing, social and political, and areas pertaining to the humanities.
This problem was articulated in general in the first decades of the 20th century by Vernadsky and some of his successors. In his study of the Earth biosphere evolution, Vernadsky identified two essentially different phases of the process: the first was spontaneous development which took place before Homo sapiens emerged, and the second involved humans as organic elements of the biosphere.
The degree of human influence on the biosphere evolution is of uppermost importance. This influence was insignificant throughout the course of the human history, but it grew sufficiently with the emergence and development of industrial society and was a determining factor during the last 50–100 years. Therefore, Vernadsky introduced the notion of noosphere as a sphere where rational human activity becomes the crucial developmental factor. In his work titled “Thoughts of a Naturalist. Scientific Idea as a Planet-Wide Phenomenon” he noted that “the biosphere has shifted or, more specifically, is shifting to a new evolution state – the noosphere – it is being changed by the scientific thought of social man.” (Figure 3).
Today, it is possible to overcome the systemic crisis and ensure the survival of the mankind only by forming a new noosphere where technology should become an organic part of the nature (biosphere).
How can that be done? In order to answer the question we should remember the way human production activity was developing.
In the first stages, Homo sapiens was perceiving and studying the world and nature as a whole – not understood and idolised. The “production” activity that accompanied this cognition also was of natural persuasion (for example, hunting, gathering). As the knowledge base grew, and the tasks of cognition became more complicated, man started artificially divide a single, whole and therefore extremely sophisticated natural system into simpler segments accessible for analysis. This was the way physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and other scientific areas emerged. They in turn were divided into narrower directions, etc.
Focused science gave rise to industry technologies and predetermined the industrial form of manufacturing organisation. Moreover, the industrial, special nature of the technologies underlying modern production is the primary cause of antagonism between the anthropogenic technosphere and the natural environment. The emergence of inter-industry technologies in the last decade of the 20th century brought no big changes as they only provided the final stages of producing supersophisticated technical systems (interconnecting, integration of the components).
If we draw a schematic picture, it can be said that industrial technologies represent models of some individual natural processes separated from the single holistic natural system and reproduced in artificial conditions in order to create certain products. Apparently, the only parts of the natural processes that get to be reproduced are those directly necessary to provide the desired product. Other components ensuring interconnections, interactions of natural events and therefore balance and harmony of the natural system as a whole are ignored.
This way, anthropogenic mechanisms emerge and start interacting with the biosphere, that violate ecological balance and affect the natural environment in a destructive manner. As production develops, this influence grows with its consequences acquiring a threatening magnitude. This conclusion was fully confirmed by the experience of the last hundred years of the development of the mankind.
The existing technosphere based on the industrial principle cannot be harmonised with the biosphere and turned into an organic part of the nature.
In particular, that explains the futility of all attempts to solve global environmental crisis of the civilisation. The suggested technological solutions are local and provide only topical effect without changing the situation in general.
Here is an example of that. It is well-known that energy requirements of the biosphere are satisfied almost completely due to solar energy that is transformed in the course of photosynthesis. In its attempt to replicate the processes artificially, the mankind has been pursuing solar energetics for several decades now – we model the natural way of solar energy processing with model semiconductor structure used instead of a complicated structure of green leaves which is still impossible to reproduce (Figure 4).
Living nature in itself is a very “economic” user of energy; it is correctly self-organised and the “low-power photosynthesis energy” is quite sufficient for it. In today's life, we use machines and mechanisms consuming enormous amounts of energy. Nature-like economic energy technologies are unable to supply the necessary energy for that. Some successes were made in this area but solar energetics could not secure a significant share of the global energy balance: today, solar energy provides less than one per cent of global commercial power.
What is the reason for that? A one-sided approach to the problem typical for “industrial” thinking. By copying natural generation processes for solar energetics, humans try to use it to satisfy energy requirements of traditional power-intensive industrial sphere without making any significant changes. It is quite obvious that while drastically transforming power generation technologies it is necessary to make as dramatic changes in the technologies of power use and bring them as close to natural as possible. And those changes should involve all elements of the production area. The mankind faces a complicated and ambitious task of creating fundamentally new technologies and power use systems – i.e. to replace the existing end power consumer with systems reproducing the objects of living nature (Figure 5).
This leads us to the next important conclusion: in order to create a new noosphere where technosphere will become an organic part of the nature, it is necessary to give up the industrial approach to forming sciences and technologies in favour of science convergence paradigm and creating fundamentally new convergent technologies. The main differentiation of such technologies should be their maximum similarity to natural processes in their unity and interconnections.
It is without doubts that man is the most sophisticated creation of the nature unique in all aspects: a self-regulating system that does not have stand-alone physics, chemistry, biology, or mathematics, but includes all those components that mutually complement each other. By developing sciences and technologies, the mankind copied living systems, their principles and action mechanisms. Today, scientific progress has reached the state where it is possible to not only copy but also create nature-like systems by converging sciences and technologies.
What sciences and technologies are we talking here? First of all, nanotechnologies as a new technological culture based on the capability to directly manipulate atoms and molecules in order to generate fundamentally new substances, materials, structures and systems with pre-defined properties. In this capacity, nanotechnologies are a super-industry area of research and technologies integrating special natural-science disciplines into new natural science of the 21st century. Nanotechnologies as a single material basis bring man back to perceiving the world as a whole and provide an opportunity to replicate this world using the same “technology methods” as the nature itself which is especially important.
Using this opportunity to create nature-harmonised technosphere, the mankind in fact faces the need to copy the objects and events of living nature in technical objects and technological processes. This in turn is impossible without the complementary combination of nanotechnology approaches and the achievements of molecular biology, bioengineering, genetic engineering, etc. This inter-disciplinary symbiosis presents a basis for the development of a new class of technologies - nanobiotechnologies.
However, while nanobiotechnologies provide the opportunity of artificial reproduction or even creation of fundamentally new bio-organic materials, they do not allow to research and reproduce various information connections, information transfer and transformation processes in the natural objects and phenomena, especially on the highest levels of its structural organisation. To solve that problem, convergence is required – merging nanobiotechnologies and information technologies with their “super-disciplinary” essence and methodology.
Clearly, by going down the road of “nature-like” systems and processes the mankind will sooner or later come to creating anthropomorphic technical systems. Such systems, unlike less highly organised “copies of living objects,” should have at least some elements of cognition, a capability to realise their cognitive functions. It is only possible to address these tasks based on combining the methodology of nano-, bio-, information technologies with the approaches employed by cognitive sciences and technologies studying and modelling human consciousness and cognitive activity.
Thus, convergent nano-, bio-, info-, cognitive sciences and technologies – NBIC technologies offer an opportunity to adequately reproduce the systems and processes of the nature. That turns them into a tool to form a new technosphere as an organic part of the nature.
However, in order to use this instrument wisely and effectively to create the new noosphere that Vernadsky spoke about, it is vital to ensure fundamental changes in the thinking process of man as a social being. Such transformation might be performed by combining the NBIC technologies with the achievements of social sciences and the Humanities.
It means that the area of convergent technologies should acquire another dimension – socio-humanities – which would turn them into convergent nano-, bio-, info-, socio-humanities technologies: NBISC technologies (Figure 6).
The process of practical building converged sciences and technologies is already in place in Russia. Is began with the creation of a centre for converged technologies at Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Centre – the Kurchatov NBIC Centre that is a unique organisation with no similar establishments existing in the world. Its unique research technology base includes, in particular, the sources of synchrotron radiation and neutrons, the most state-of-the-art electronic and probe microscopy equipment, devices for protein crystallography, proteomics, genome research, neuroscience and cognitive research, a nanotechnology complex, a powerful supercomputer complex with a data processing centre, etc.
The Kurchatov NBIC Centre is already conducting research and development concerning a wide assortment of convergent sciences and technologies from crystallisation, particularly in the space, proteins and decoding protein structure using synchrotron emission, to creating hybrid materials and devices including hybrid sensors, as well as studies in philosophical, sociological, and culturological problems of technosphere development.
The most critical issue of the convergent technologies is training specialists for this new inter-disciplinary area. The training is provided at the only NBIC technology department in the world established at Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (University). Thus, NBIC technologies are already becoming a real development factor.
Today, the mankind finds itself in the bifurcation point. It faces two choices. The first, the one we have mentioned above, consists of conserving traditional developmental paradigm and preserving the existing technosphere. In the not-so-far-away end of this route the mankind will face collapse and will have to return to primitive existence associated with agriculture, cattle breeding, cartage, etc in order to ensure elementary survival. Moreover, it will be accompanied by ruthless fight for resources running out, armaments drive, and wars.
The second choice is associated with the emergence and development of convergent NBIC technologies to create a new harmonious noosphere where its three components – biosphere, technosphere and society – will find themselves not in conflict but will complement each other, will be convergent. By choosing this route, the mankind will get a unique opportunity not only to preserve its civilisation in the historic near-term but also put the time of its existence on par with the term of the geological life of the Earth – or maybe prolong it beyond that period by spreading it outside the limits of the planet (Figure 7).
Kovalchuk М.V. (Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Centre, The Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography, Russian Academy of Sciences),
О.S. Naraikin (Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Centre, The Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography, Russian Academy of Sciences),
Е.B. Yatsishina (Kurchatov Institute Russian Research Centre)
Russian Nanotechnologies № 9-10 2011, published by The Russian Nanotechnologies journal