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.
So will space. Earlier this month, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully landed a 156-foot-tall booster rocket that had helped launch a payload into orbit. Mining asteroids might still remain a distant dream, but a company called PlanetLabs is launching hundreds of satellites that will send back images of the entire globe, updated every day. More efficient farming alone will pay for this technology.
Things will also speed up. Cheap sensors will help trains chug along self-sufficiently without endangering lives—that is, if the government doesn’t keep forcing operators to install technology that is already woefully outdated. Same for air traffic control, which will soon switch to something dubbed NextGen, dumping old analog radios and transponders for more autonomous flight paths based on GPS and a digital communications system. Flights will be shorter, planes will burn less fuel, and accident rates ought to drop even further. Then maybe we can work on supersonic jets again.
Back on terra firma, roads can become smarter. Sensors could understand and redirect traffic. Roads could be designed to tell you if you’re drifting out of your lane, or even charge electric vehicles as they zip along. All of this will make driving at higher speeds more safe.
Then there is digging deeper. Oil exploration has progressed amazingly with hydraulic fracturing. That’s nothing. The next trick is to “see” underground. Currently, a metal ball is rolled down a well bore to start the fracturing. But fiber-optic sensing can pick up the acoustic waves and allow drillers to map these horizontal wells. Soon they could unleash thousands of sensors, which would enable cheaper and more efficient drilling. That’s important in an era of $35 oil—not to mention good for the environment.
Oh, and breakthroughs may make the world safer. My doctor still uses a little rubber hammer to check my reflexes. But I’m dreaming of robotic surgery. Chips are rolling out to detect ovarian and prostate cancer cells in blood.
One of the biggest expansions may come in consumer electronics. Manufacturers of fitness trackers and smartwatches are racing to add more sensors. A new Apple iWatch is predicted to have 10 different sensors, including one for sweat. A sensor for glucose would completely change the treatment of diabetes.
Virtual reality is the latest Silicon Valley craze, requiring small machines to process supercomputer amounts of 3-D imagery. Facebook bought the virtual-reality company Oculus Rift for $1 billion. MagicLeap is raising another $827 million to build glasses that shine photons directly onto your retina to add digital creations into your field of vision. Gaming will never be the same, but building designers, drillers and even doctors will benefit from these innovations, too. The next 50 years? Look up: There’s plenty of room at the top.