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The Triumph of TechnologyBBC Radio 4

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Reith Lectures

Reith 2005
Open University Discussion Forum


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The Lectures

Lecture 1: Technology will Determine the Future of the Human Race
Lecture 2: Collaboration
Lecture 3: Innovation and Management
Lecture 4: Nanotechnology and Nanoscience
Lecture 5: Risk and Responsibility

Lecture 1 Lecture 1:
Technology will Determine the Future of the Human Race

Man's way of life has depended on technology since the begin of civilization - the flint stone, the control of fire, the wheel, the printing press. In the earliest times significant advances were rare and they were separated by long periods of time - but their benefits, and disadvantages, were easily understood.

About two hundred years ago, however, the pace quickened and in recent decades a cascade of truly disruptive advances has revolutionised the way we live. The technologies behind the advances have become increasingly complex and few people understand how they work and fewer still where they are going. The social implications of the advances have also ceased to be obvious and it has become essential that we study their social consequences.

Modern technology tends to be thought of in terms of the advances brought about by computers and electronic communications but it is in transport, medicine, energy and weaponry that we have seen the greatest impact upon our lives. It is these areas that distinguish the first world from the second and third worlds.

If poverty and disease are to be alleviated and the environment sustained, then technology must be harnessed on a vast and all inclusive scale. Large scale industry must be involved. Significant technology is not created by lone workers but by tens and hundreds of individuals working together across social and geographic boundaries.

We must wake up to the fact that it is technologists that is determining the future of the human race. Advances require vast resources and companies that are prepared to take risks, and if Britain is to continue to play a crucial role in technology then our establishment must realise that applied science is rivaling pure science both in importance and in intellectual interest.

Lecture 2 Lecture 2:

There is an illusion that modern technologies emerge exclusively through a process of invention that has its roots in science. In reality they frequently come from a series of improvements that make them more attractive to the customers. This process of evolution none the less requires the most sophisticated knowledge of science and engineering. Very often the science and engineering advances made in the course of developing a product overwhelm the pure science that gave rise to the original concept.

It is increasingly difficult for local or even national teams to succeed. Markets and technologies are international. There are also few technologies that depend on single disciplines. Most require the full spectrum of technical subjects and they must take in to account, social, environmental economic, and political factors. Energy generation is a prime example. While everyone wants environmentally friendly, cheap energy, there is little understanding of the pros and cons of the competing alternatives. For example, almost half of those interviewed recently at random in the UK thought that nuclear power would increase global warming through the creation of CO2.

Technologies are rarely static, they are for ever evolving. Those who failed to understand in the 1980s that cars were to become systems of interacting computers, rather than mechanical devices, have quite simply gone out of business. Because of this relentless change, education must be continuous and be broad as well as deep.

Understanding of scale is imperative. The old idea that quality comes with hand-finishing is incorrect in most fields today. Precision tools are more accurate, make fewer mistakes and are faster. But they are expensive and only become economical at high volumes. The key is to gain markets large enough to justify the expense of designing and building them. The situation is complicated by the need to establish standards - it is a continuing frustration, for example, that mobile telephones do not work everywhere in the world.

Lecture 3 Lecture 3:
Innovation and Management

Some argue that technology threatens our way of life and must be controlled through regulation. I feel that this is rarely necessary. It is better to allow the market - the customer - to decide whether technologies succeed. If there is a need to help parents limit the content available to children on the TV, then the market will react. TVs with such capabilities will sell better and command higher prices so companies will make more of them. The same can be said for computers and the Internet. It is only where the law is being broken that there may have to be government regulation.

The market can also control intrusive behaviour. Let's take mobile phone users on trains. If more people ride trains with mobile phone-free carriages, then train operators will provide mobile-free carriages. It may take time but the market will provide the control. Companies that develop products without taking the customer into account are doomed. The picture phone and high definition TV were good examples that lost large and otherwise successful companies vast sums of money. It is only in recent years that the cost has coincided with the customers sense of value. Early attempts did not meet this criterion.

The success of technology companies depends crucially on the market as with any business enterprise. Too often start-up companies, especially those emerging from universities, are based upon a naive assumption that their new technology will inevitably generate new customers. It is better to test this assumption beforehand and run the company accordingly. Money is needed, so financial influences are important but it should not be the financial officers that set the strategy.

Technology companies should be led by those who understand the market, with the creative technologists standing at their right hand, and the financiers acting in a service role. Most successful technologies change human behaviour. I cynically observe that the most successful new products allow people be to be lazier - the remote control, the fax, the automatic gearbox are good examples.

Human physiology is also important. The most obvious example is the way in which the limited speed of the human eye allows us to perceive a series of still pictures as a moving picture. This of course is the basis of cinema and television, but 3D video and audio can also be simulated by taking advantages of the specific way in which we sense the position of objects. Successful start-ups estimate all of these influences.

Lecture 4 Lecture 4:
Nanotechnology and Nanoscience

In this lecture I will examine nanotechnology, partly because the term encompasses my own subject and partly because nanotechnology has captured the public's imagination and given rise to the full range of emotions from admiration and genuine interest, to fear of cataclysmic disaster.

The term nanotechnology was initially used to describe techniques that allowed the fabrication of devices, mainly electronic devices, with dimensions of only a few nanometres. A nanometre is about five times the width of an atom. I worked on these methods at IBM in the 1970s and by the bicentennial of the USA we were able to write USA '76 in 10 nm wide gold lines using letters so small that they occupied an area ten million times smaller that a 12 point letter. These experiments guaranteed that Moore's law, the law predicts advances that can be made by miniaturizing electronics, would remain valid at least until 2010.

Interest in nanotechnology accelerated in the early eighties with the development of the scanning tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope. These instruments made it possible to manipulate individual atoms, and this led, unfortunately, to the speculation that atomic machines could be made that would replicate in an uncontrollable manner ('grey goo'). In fact manipulation of individual atoms has only been achieved in the artificial situation of isolated atoms on a very smooth silicon surface and there has been no rigourous scientific analysis that suggests that it would be possible to build three dimensional structures. In fact is seems extremely unlikely.

In the last few years the term nanotechnology became so fashionable that the science band-wagon phenomena took hold and everyone who thought it feasible to adopt the prefix did so in order to make their research eligible for the funds flowing from public and private sources. Nanotechnology now encompasses everything from the next generation of electronics to self-cleaning glasses, precision machining of mechanical parts, and sun-screens that contain nanometre size particles. Many of these subjects had adequate and more informative names such as thin film technology and precision machining but they have all been able to become 'nano' because they deal with dimensions of a few nanometres.

I will include descriptions of some of the most exciting advances that fall within the spectrum of nanotechnology.

Lecture 5 Lecture 5:
Risk and Responsibility

What are the responsibilities of the technologist? Is it acceptable to develop weapons of mass destruction, foods that are unhealthy, transport systems that lead to decadent lifestyles, or communication systems that make it easy to distribute pornography?

Who decides? Is it up to the individual technologist or for companies, or governments to decide? My personal view is that it is for companies to develop ethical policies together with their employees, just as it is for universities with their staff and students.

Funding by the cigarette industry has triggered the Wellcome Trust to impose controls on research funding, even though there are no illegalities involved. How does one decide what is acceptable risk? Why are people afraid to fly but happy to drive a car despite its much higher risk of injury or death? Why do we accept a greater likelihood of accident at home than we do at work?

What are the areas where we are likely to see the most significant advances in the next ten or twenty years, bearing in mind that technologists are famous for over-estimating what will happen in the next five years, while underestimating what will happen in twenty years? The Internet was an excellent example of the latter, as was the personal computer.

Who will be the winners in the race to develop future technologies? How long will the hierarchy of nations remain the same with the USA predominating, followed by Japan, Europe, Singapore, Taiwan, Australasia, with the third world far behind? When will China and India begin to compete in development as well as the manufacture of high technology products?

It is the technologist that is determining how we live. What should the UK do to remain in the race?

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Audio Help

Lecture audio and transcripts will be available after each broadcast.

  • Lecture 1:
    Technology will Determine the Future of the Human Race

  • Lecture 2:

  • Lecture 3:
    Innovation and Management

  • Lecture 4:
    Nanotechnology and Nanoscience

  • Lecture 5:
    Risk and Responsibility


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