News Overview

The Next 100 Years: We asked researcher Jenny Hoffman to transport herself into the future.

Posted: January 7, 2016


Q: If you could transport yourself to the future, what would you be teaching/researching in 100 years?

A: One hundred years from now, we will all wear embedded devices that turn a thought into an Internet search, providing instantaneous information directly into our brains. Memorization will be obsolete, so instead of preparing lecture slides, I would be free to focus my energy entirely on the more important, human roles of mentorship and inspiration. Instead of preparing assignments, I would be free to select from an open-access library of case studies and virtual-reality team exercises in research and problem solving. I would be free to participate alongside students to develop relationships and to model strategic decision-making and communication skills.

The boundaries between traditional disciplines of physics, chemistry, and biology will be nothing but quaint historical footnotes. Today’s physics tools (atomic-scale imaging, manipulations of light and matter) will be applied to biology, and today’s biological processes (self-assembly, reproduction) will be applied to technology. Problems that loom large today — clean water, adequate nutrition, conversion and transmission of energy and information for a more-than-doubled Earth population — will be largely solved by new materials which have been prototyped by atomic 3D printing, then mass-produced by engineered bacteria.

Despite dramatic revolutions in technology, humans will not have time to evolve. Although our information and material needs may be met instantaneously, we will have the same flaws and life cycle that we have today, with still greater ambition and technological distraction from catering to our emotional needs. Human connection and time for reflection will be of paramount importance. Transportation and space will remain key problems, not so simply solved by new materials and manufacturing methods alone. Research will focus on enabling faster transportation and on preserving natural spaces that are technology-free. Off-planet transportation will be a priority development frontier, driven both by humans’ basic need to explore, and by the practical limitations of the Earth’s small area and increasing population.

Q: How will the work you are doing now influence your field in 100 years?

A: My current research aims to create new materials — exploiting quantum interactions between electrons and atoms, to enable new macroscopic properties. For example, we may want materials that conduct electricity without resistance (to eliminate energy waste), or catalyze certain reactions (to purify water, eliminate air-born toxins, or manufacture nutrients), or respond in a particular way to a magnetic field (to enable new forms of computing). We may want materials that can withstand greater forces in order to reduce wear and extend equipment lifetime within the human body, on Earth, or on long journeys off-planet.

My theoretical colleagues are developing computational tools to design and predict new materials, while I am developing machines to assemble new materials one atom at a time — a sort of atomic 3D printing. If material prototypes do display the desired and predicted properties, we will turn to our chemistry colleagues for bulk synthesis techniques, and to our biology colleagues for routes to self-assembly and mass-production. Today, my research team is happy to successfully move one atom into place, but a device of a thousand components may begin with a single atom.

Original article is available here.


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