Technology, Creativity, and Humanity: My Impressions of the Tällberg Forum

07/06/2012 12:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012
  • Nai-Chang Yeh Professor of physics, California Institute of Technology

It was my first trip to Sweden, and I was greeted by a grey sky and seemingly relentless rain. However, when the sight of Lake Siljan and the surrounding green hills expanded in front of the van, the somewhat depressing weather did not matter much anymore. The serene scenery seemed so far removed from the mundane that one could easily distill all worries and immerse one's soul in the pure water of Lake Siljan. As the days went on, the cool temperature, persistent rain, and occasional outbreaks of sunshine accompanied by jealously guarded blue skies wove together the canvas on which the big picture of the 2012 Tällberg Forum was painted. And there was also the sound of music, laughter, conversation, and debates. All these sensations formed the basic fabric of my Tällberg impressions.

As a scientist, it was a novel experience to participate in a large forum focusing on technology while only about 15 percent of the participants were scientists and engineers. On the other hand, the program and the makeup of the participants effectively forced me to come out of my professional comfort zone and carry on dialogues with a broader spectrum of world citizens, and also to reflect on the impact of science and technology on humanity and the responsibility of scientists.

I consider technology as an intellectual product of human curiosity to explore nature and of human desire to improve the quality of life. It goes hand-in-hand with the advances in science throughout human history. For instance, the invention of telescopes by Galileo Galilei resulted in a new understanding of the solar system and advanced the development of astronomy, which ultimately led to Kepler's laws of planetary motion and Newton's establishment of the law of gravity. More recently, the scientific invention of transistors in the mid-20th century eventually led to a revolutionary transformation of electronic, computational, and information technologies that shaped the modern world. The invention of scanning tunneling microscopy and the subsequent development of various types of scanning probe microscopy in late 20th century opened a new era of nano-scale characterization and fabrication, which has had a dramatic impact on both nanoscience and nanotechnology. Similarly, the development of the laser in the mid-20th century, based on atomic physics and quantum optics, enabled applications in practically every section of modern society, including consumer electronics, scientific research, medicine, industry, communication, entertainment, law enforcement, the military, space exploration, and information. Subsequent developments in laser-cooling technology further opened a new research field in atomic and molecular physics that enabled optical lattices, quantum information technology, and quantum cryptography. These examples clearly demonstrate the intertwined relationship between science and technology and the impact of technological developments on civilization.

Technology is inherently neither good nor bad, and its impact on society rests largely on the people who exploit it. As technology progresses at an ever-accelerating pace, it has become more and more difficult for the general public to follow the developments and to assess potentially negative consequences of new technology. Given that technology has the power of shaping the world, scientists and engineers who are in the forefront of technological development have the moral obligation to be vigilant of any adverse consequences and to make efforts in disseminating proper knowledge to the general public. In return, the general public can be supportive of continuing advances in technology so that technology can best serve humanity. This type of positive feedback mechanism must build on trust, which was one of the themes of discussion at the Tällberg forum.

On the topic of nanoscience/nanotechnology, I discussed its development and scope in a large seminar as one of three contributors. Historically, since the visionary "There Is Plenty of Room at the Bottom" speech by Professor Richard Feynman (1965 Nobel Laureate in physics) at Caltech in December 1959, nanoscience/nanotechnology has grown into one of the most active and highly interdisciplinary research fields. The range of sub-nanometer to hundreds of nanometer-length scales covered in the research of nanoscience/nanotechnology encompasses the dimensions of atoms and molecules and is therefore of critical importance to the understanding of the physical and chemical principles that govern the characteristics and processes of various systems, from atomic scales to life forms.

To date, nanoscience/nanotechnology has demonstrated great potential in many applications. Some of the representative areas include high-density miniaturized electronic devices and data storage; "smart" materials with specially designed properties; ultra-sensitive detectors for applications ranging from medicine to defense; space exploration; telecommunications; DNA sequencing; bioengineering; improved medicine (such as targeted cell treatment and drug delivery); efficient photovoltaic cells, batteries, and hydrogen storage for energy applications; flexible and energy efficient display; metrology; filtering and detoxification; better food production; etc. Advances in this highly interdisciplinary research field involve researchers from traditionally different backgrounds of physics, chemistry, biology, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, surface and materials science together pursuing developments in various fronts, including nanofabrication, nanocharacterizations, nanomaterials/nanostructures/nanodevices, and integration of nanosystems. The unprecedented scope of multidisciplinary research efforts has brought much excitement as well as new challenges. Examples of major challenges include assessing possible hazards, ethics, and regulations. These issues do not have "one-size-fits-all" solutions and must be addressed by keeping pace with technological development.

To maximize the benefits of technology to humanity, strong support for fundamental research to nurture creativity and breakthroughs is absolutely essential, and active dialogues and collaborations between researchers, industries, and the general public are also important. Interestingly, creativity is not only the driving force of technology but the source that enriches many aspects of humanity, including the arts, music, literature, and architecture. But what drives high-level creativity? What are the commonalities among creative minds such as Einstein, Mozart, and Picasso? These were intensely discussed topics at one of the smaller seminars. In my own opinions, an essential ingredient for creativity, besides natural talent, is free spirit. Only free-spirited minds can venture away from conventional dogma to discover and develop a new world of intellectual wealth and beauty. Knowledge, concentration, and interactions have also been suggested by other participants as contributors to creativity.

Indeed, throughout history, whenever different cultures encountered each other, either by chance or by force, sparks were triggered and civilization was often prompted to new brilliance. The program of the Tällberg forum is effectively providing such an encounter by design. It was a truly worthy experience that I would continue reflecting on for days to come.