21st century will finally meet George Jetson

Decisions, decisions.

Only a few years ago, you disconnected the power line to your house and installed a home power plant. Works like a charm. Runs on all kinds of fuels, but you prefer using grass clippings and weeds.

But now the power company has an offer you can't refuse. Reconnect and try newfangled fusion power in exchange for a year of free electricity. It's tempting because you've recently bioengineered your lawn grass to stay at a constant height, and there are no more weeds.

Besides, you need extra juice for your electric car hovering in the garage. Antigravity is such a kick. It makes you feel old (but then, 125 is old) to recall cars that had tires and passed on the left rather than over the top....

Over the top may be the operative phrase, but the advance of technology may indeed make your 2099 home identical with The Jetsons' - floating space houses not included. Far-fetched? Probably the same thing a homeowner in 1900 would have said about microwave ovens, TV, and a car in the garage instead of a horse in the barn.

As the 3rd millennium AD dawns, futurists are readying their predictions for the greatest inventions and scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century.

While few are likely to predict specific discoveries, they generally agree on one thing: The frontiers of innovation will be marked by the collision of our current economic epoch - the Information Age - with all things biological. And the results will touch nearly everyone's life.

"The main enabling force in innovation over the next three decades will be biotechnology," says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. Which, he says, is illustrative of a second overarching trend: Small is beautiful.

Indeed, rather than polishing crystal balls, today's visionaries are looking through microscopes. Whereas the 20th century and the last decade of the 19th were marked by big, landscape-altering inventions like the automobile, the airplane, and commercialization of electric power, the breakthroughs of the next century promise to be tiny. Very tiny.

Lilliputian computers

Computers will be every size - in everything from atomizers to Zambonis, sunglasses to pens. Hand-held computers will contain as much computing power as all the computers on earth today. Computers-on-a-chip will be implanted in the body. True artificial intelligence - thinking machines that can design and build other machines - will evolve.

The identification of the double helix, a landmark of 20th-century science, led to genome mapping and may herald an era of widespread engineering of anything with a genetic code: animals, plants, humans.

You may be able to order a new body part in 50 years the way you order a new fender today. Private hunting reserves may feature cloned grizzly bears or tigers.

Fusion power, which is fueled by isotopes of hydrogen derived from abundant resources such as sea water, could power a city of a half million with fuel that would fit in the back of a pickup truck rather than 11 supertankers, thus ushering in an era of cheap and virtually limitless power.

The manipulation of matter at the molecular level, a fledgling field today known as nanoscience, when combined with genetic engineering, could eventually lead to things such as e-mailing flowers over the Internet. No, not e-mailing an order to a distant flower shop that designs the arrangement and dispatches a van to deliver it. That's 1999-think. E-mailing the flowers. That is as long as the recipient has a nanoassembler and some spare matter to feed into it.

The nanoassembler would be a kind of desktop manufacturing unit. It could receive a genetic recipe by e-mail for a flower arrangement. You'd only need to insert some form of matter as raw material - perhaps that day's household garbage - and the assembler would "build" your bouquet atom by atom.

Still, it's today's computers begetting tomorrow's thinking computers, today's nanoscience leading to nanoassemblers. Will there be anything brand new in the 21st century?

Perhaps everything has already been invented, and now we're just filling in the niches with style. Some have postulated "The End of Physics" is at hand, that the airplane, automobile, and computer are the end of the line for true innovation.

"That's laughable," says Arthur Molella, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian. "Mechanical breakthroughs are part of the Industrial Revolution. We've moved beyond that stage and so has the leading edge of innovation."

Mr. Saffo agrees. Commenting about our current position amid the sweep of innovative history, he says: "We will soon come to find ourselves standing on the shore of an ocean that is vastly greater than we imagined."

But some futurists lose eye contact when they try to picture what the world will be like if enormous computing power is combined with instantaneous access to the full store of human knowledge (through an advanced Internet) and the ability to modify virtually all matter at will.

Not Stanley Mason.

"Antigravity is not out of the question," says the iconoclastic inventor of the squeezable plastic bottle, the disposable diaper, and microwave cookware, to name a few of the 100-plus products that he has created.

Mr. Mason first proposed a "Manhattan Project" for antigravity back in the '50s. "If you can conceive it, you can eventually create it," he says.

Redefining invention

Futurists - and way futurists - tend to agree on one thing: The whole concept of invention is likely to be stood on its head. Virtually every existing product will be made cheaper, lighter, stronger, and more environmentally friendly, challenging the definition of "invention." And that's in the early stages of nanotechnology development.

Further down the road, nanotechnology could make everyone an inventor on a daily basis, with virtually all products customized for personal use.

It's enough to send a chill through the average 20th centurist who still has trouble aligning the pattern on new wallpaper.

"I'm worried about it," says Alan Lightman, a professor in both the humanities and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. "We're on a speeding train with no engineer. Progress has come to mean more technology and doing things faster and faster."

"It's an end in itself," he adds. "In the 19th century, progress was supposed to improve the quality of life, to support human values. I fear that original notion of progress has been lost."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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