What do traffic jams, obesity and spam have in common? They are all problems caused by abundance. By achieving abundance, technology destroys the natural checks and balances of scarcity. When technology creates abundance, it brings problems which are invulnerable to simplistic solutions. Like genies let loose from the bottle, the new problems are almost impossible to control. Traffic congestion cannot be solved by artificially reducing the speed of traffic, or increasing the cost of driving – through taxation. Obesity cannot be reduced by making food more expensive or less available. Spam cannot be eliminated by making it difficult and costly to send e-mail. The ratios of abundance are too great to be overcome by artificial restrictions.
Any technology which creates abundance poses problems for any process which existed to benefit from scarcity. The beneficial abundances caused by technology usually bring unpleasant societal side-effects. Then we complain about the very things that were previously benefits.
The cyclic problems of scarcity and abundance are deep rooted in the human condition, in human society. Look around you, and you’ll find the causes and effects around you, everywhere.
Every day we see the emergence of new technologies. And every day we see a widening gap between progress and society’s ability to cope with its consequences. Whether it is an impending shift in the nature of work as technology changes production systems, or the ethical implications of reengineering what it means to be human, the changes we see around us threaten to overwhelm us if we cannot collaborate to understand and direct them.
Unprecedented and simultaneous advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, quantum computing and others are redefining industries, blurring traditional boundaries, and creating new opportunities.
We are witnessing a revolution in our understanding and control of complex forms of matter. Complex systems (both organic, inorganic, and hybrid) are composed of individual entities (molecules, grains of sand, genes, viruses, cells, individual organisms) that interact with each other and with their environment in non-linear, dynamic ways. These interactions give rise to emergent properties at larger scales in space and/or time through self-organization. Complex systems arise at all scales –from elementary particle properties and interactions, magnetism, genetic and metabolic networks in living systems, to oscillating chemical reactions and self-organizing molecules, to intermediate scales in soft matter such as adaptive materials, colloids and granular media, turbulent multiphase and/or multicomponent flows, to macroscopic and cosmological scales such as turbulence in fluids and plasmas.
An unprecedented number of connections between theoretical concepts will emerge linking areas of physics that superficially have little in common. For example, the remarkable correspondences between theories of gravitation and quantum field theories will allow us to make quantitative predictions of phenomena in solid-state physics, such as high-temperature super-conductors, which have so far been incalculable. In technology, the extensive control over quantum superposition and entanglement forms an entirely new resource to be exploited as a novel conceptual basis for technology. Large-scale circuits are needed for a quantum computer capable of solving yet-unsolvable problems, notably the simulation of material properties, and also for deepening our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms of quantum mechanics. It is expected this new control will allow to entirely suppress decoherence in large quantum systems, implying the ability to keep Schrödinger’s cat forever alive and thus solving what used to be a fundamental problem.
Society urgently demands new technologies to deal with grand societal challenges such as renewable energy, resource efficiency, climate change, scarcity of materials, and health care. The physical and chemical sciences are indispensable for finding solutions to these problems. At the same time these challenges create exciting new business opportunities that are bound to enhance the future economic competitiveness.
Let’s focus on materials as example. A combination of unprecedented control and manufacturing techniques allows us to structure and create new (meta-)materials over a large range of scales. This development will vastly increase the range of phenomena that we can understand, including known states of matter under new conditions and behavior of molecules over time in a living person. Even the idea of making synthetic cells or designing new, industrially useful forms of living systems is no longer science fiction. Creating this wealth of new materials, devices and living systems is likely to lead to a bigger revolution than the introduction of plastics. The design of such systems can be used to address major issues in the global societal challenges, such as in energy, health, and sustainability. These systems will also provide major new business opportunities, even with as yet non-existent products in so far non-existent markets.
The power of encoding information into materials, we can look at how objects can be designed to respond to an outside force so that it changes over time. Creating an object that responds to a change in its environment in a pre-programmed way; for example, when an object is printed with a hydrophilic material layer, it responds to the presence of water by changing shape. This is a step towards living materials designed to change in response to their environment.
If manufacturing evolves to harness water-based chemistry, it may allow the use of many more biocompatible and biodegradable materials. When layered with sophisticated structural patterns, waterbased materials such as hydrogels may be designed for new and elegant applications, unlocking the door to high performance fabrication with ubiquitous bio-friendly materials at local levels of scale. It may become possible to envision a future where high performance products are made from easily accessible, natural materials that can be fed into biological cycles as easily as leaf litter.
If we design intelligent materials that use structure to attain high performance properties, using bulk metals and toxic chemistry may cease to be preferred engineering options. Nature challenges us to see information everywhere: in the fold of every wing, in the structure of every blade of grass. If we design materials this way, the distinction between biological and technical nutrients may become blurred. Elements such as iron and magnesium, although framed as technical nutrients for the circular economy, are also part of biological processes. Iron helps transport oxygen in the body, while magnesium is crucial for photosynthesis. A rule of thumb for materials in the circular economy may be less about intrinsic properties, and more about access to and concentration of nutrients.
Unlike today’s economy in which recycling is akin to unscrambling an omelet, materials that can be programmed to assemble like Lego can also be programmed to disassemble. With digital information for disassembly encoded in the very materials that make up products, waste flows will become data flows – the very definition of intelligent assets.
Reflecting back, a provocative question arises: can we think about information and materials as separate flows? As digital manufacturing emerges as the new norm, a fundamental rethink may be in order, and may uncover hidden economic potential in treating materials like information flows, unlocking new sources of value. Such a rethink may bring us closer to how natural systems manage materials: as molecules of data.
Devising physical and chemical reactions that give rise to new products and processes that have the ability to meet sustainability goals, such as becoming more energy-efficient, and reducing the amount of waste or harmful matter found in the environment.