The Internet is nothing compared to the revolution of the deep future sciences

Antwerp 10 May 2000The Euromedia audience was shaken up by the prophetic vision of Dr. Andrey J. Zarur, head of the Biogenetics Department at Starlab Research Laboratories in Brussels, where the latest technologies are being developed. Previously involved with drug delivery at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and research on fuel cells at Los Alamos, this speaker is familiar with the so-called deep future sciences of biotechnology, genetics, materials sciences, nanotechnology, and quantum computation. Dr. Zarur pictured a future where tremendous revolutions will start taking place and opportunity awaits us. "At Starlab, we never make anything that works, we do not sell anything, and one hundred years means nothing to us..." In this way the start sounded to one of the most amazing talks of the "Global Business" symposium.

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The questions of how we will get to the deep future and how we will benefit from it are answered by three driving forces which are the social, the economic and the scientific types of interaction. Dr. Zarur stressed that we have to look at the convergence of these driving forces, hiding in the link between environment and development, the correction of negative trends, the capacity to consider the environment as a goal and to make intelligent use of our natural resources. During the Internet fever, we saw the market respond to Internet key players and this was closely linked to microelectronics. Now, winds of change are coming with the recent biotech revolution. Nasdaq has been affected significantly by the biotech stocks while we do not understand to the full what young Ph.Ds are doing.

People tend to have an unrealistic view to what biotech will bring and some believe in off-the-shelf organ replacement, eternal life span, and total control of viral infections and cancer. This is not very likely to happen but still, Dr. Zarur's corrected vision remains quite impressive. Instead of all this, we will perform enhanced tissue engineering and facilitated organ transplants which means that plastic organs will be history. Average life expectancy is bound to surpass 100 years and more effective drugs for life-threatening diseases will be produced. Current titanium/PE implants which are exposed to wear and tear will be replaced by engineered artificial bone whereas artificial blood cells will serve as a substitute to conventional ways of blood transfusion. All this will give rise to new issues, such as an extended professional activity for an older and healthier population.

The completion of the Human Genome has brought about the discovery of 6 million base pairs in the human organism. Today, researchers are able to identify genes, store their information into databases, as well as determine the sequences of 3 million chemical base pairs. Tools are being developed for profound data analysis which will lead to early detection of gene mutations and the propensity of individuals to certain diseases. Dr. Zarur predicted a global network-understanding of genetics and a substantial change in the structure of pharmaceutical and biotechnological industries with a radically different approach. In this regard, we will witness the birth of an economy of genetic information.

This capitalising on genetic research does not mean that scientists will focus on germline genetics for a systematic genetic reprogramming of babies or on widespread cloning and a complete understanding of gene programming. Dr. Zarur imagined a more "healthy" scenario consisting in the early identification of propensity for disease, actual prevention and understanding, and in the utilisation of animal hosts for human tissue production. For this purpose, we will build genetic databases, analysis tools, and invest in genetic intellectual property. On the level of quantum computation, there will be a 100-fold increase in computer information processing speed, that may equal the power of supercomputers. New quantum computers, that are free, fully expandable, and ultrafast, will not replace all PCs in five years though.

Dr. Zarur also described the design of new materials at the molecular level to replace the catalysts and semi-conductors we now work with. Scientists will utilise natural compounds for industrial materials synthesis and will create materials with enhanced structural properties. Innovative microelectronics devices will comprise an array of nanotubes instead of wires and transistors or carbon structures for the microelectronic circuits, and chemi-luminescent polymeric materials will be used to produce luminous devices and displays. In nature, we observe protein templated structures and directed geometric shapes. In a similar way, researchers will introduce bio-luminescent bacteria and organic compounds into modern microelectronics.

Nanotechnology forms the magic word for superior design and construction processes. Through the control of structures at the molecular level, it will be possible to apply localised medicine. Yet again, here no overheated, futuristic visions, such as nanorobots that will make everything for free or medirobots which will cure and repair everyone. The realistic picture contains optimised assembly processes and energy efficiency instead. As for health care, doctors will be able to perform localised tumour treatment and virus removal via the capturing of protein structures in vivo and will trap the virus by deceiving it. Dr. Andrey Zarur promised no world made of diamond but the emergence of superior materials with enhanced properties. This however will not replace industrial assembly, in contrast to what President Clinton may have claimed in this regard.

The Starlab Research Laboratories integrate three different levels of research which Dr. Zarur described as blue sky research supported by sponsorship, consortia that receive funding, and spin-offs dealing with pipeline projects. As a result, Starlab serves as a pioneering guide for the Virtual World with the important role of facilitating navigation, enabling communication, and transferring information through identification and archival. Starlab's aim is to be global, and not only international, with omnipresence forming the key concept. Being a full profit company, Starlab strives to prove that blue sky research can be a business model, crystallised in the ideal of a responsible use of natural resources with the ambitious objective to break conventional models.


Leslie Versweyveld

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