On Dec. 29, 1959, the physicist Richard Feynman delivered a famous speech at the California Institute of Technology titled “There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” He predicted almost limitless possibilities if we could “manipulate and control things on a small scale.” He nailed the next five decades of ever-shrinking realms that ultimately produced trillion-dollar markets in microelectronics, nanotechnology and bioengineering through DNA-level manipulation.
Now what? We’re 16 years into the 21st century without any clear map of the world ahead. Social media is nice—my friends take really glamorous vacations—but it doesn’t compare with opening Uber on my iPhone and, in what seems like seconds, hailing an imposing metallic Cadillac Escalade, which pulls up next to me. What else can I click on and change the real world?
The answer: The smaller technology shrinks, the bigger the world can grow. Smaller transistors, faster processors, cheaper sensors will all allow innovators to tackle problems with tremendous precision. It’s as if, because there is plenty of room at the bottom, now there is plenty of room at the top.
Do I mean self-driving Ford Mustangs? Certainly. I often see Google’s self-driving cars on the highways around the Bay Area in California. The $70,000 LIDAR vision system installed in the car is about to drop to less $1,000, cheaper than air bags. But the upside is much more than that.
For one, there is longer and higher. The new $6.4 billion Bay Bridge span, designed and simulated with Autodesk software before a single crane was deployed, is equipped with 199 seismic sensors to check for damage after any earthquake. The 2,073-foot Shanghai Tower, set to open any day now, has 400 real-time monitoring sensors, 27 wind-pressure sensors and 40 inclinometers looking for structural sway at different heights. Next-generation bridges will certainly install thousands, even millions of sensors. The result? Structures that are both safer and can scale to sizes not yet imaginable.
Building design and construction haven’t advanced much since the Empire State Building was raised in the 1930s. That’s changing, and here’s one example: Window struts, which are designed to resist compression, can be dashed off a 3-D printer. And because you can do amazing things in 3-D design, the printed version is 10 times lighter than one manufactured in a factory. And perhaps even 10 times stronger. So why doesn’t everyone use it? Because it costs 10 times as much and takes longer to churn out. But it’s only 2015: The cost will drop, and the entire construction industry will be turned downside up.