A good starting point is to define those problems in a way that everyone can understand. Each year, the UN University's Millennium Project names "15 Global Challenges." Working from this list, the Foresight Nanotech Institute has chosen six "Nanotechnology Challenges."
That's an admirable approach, especially since today's existing nanoscale technologies can be applied immediately to begin making beneficial changes.
Unfortunately some problems seem almost too big to handle...
Soaring carbon dioxide levels have begun to make the oceans more acidic, Britain's most senior scientists warn. Exhausts from fossil fuels have already increased the acidity to a level that cannot be reversed in a human lifetime. Only swift and drastic cuts in emissions could begin to stabilise the oceans by 2100.
That's from a story in the Guardian about oceanic acidification...
Oceans soak up much of the carbon dioxide produced by living organisms, either as dissolved gas, or in the skeletons of tiny marine creatures that fall to the bottom to become chalk or limestone. But in water, carbon dioxide becomes a weak carbonic acid, and the increase in the greenhouse gas since the industrial revolution has already altered the average pH -- the laboratory measure of acidity -- significantly and will go on doing so for at least 100 years.
Global-scale problems like this can be intimidating, leading one to wonder if there is any cause for optimism about the future, especially when the problems of today seem to be getting rapidly worse and not better. Can technology help us?
The scientists warn that there is no hope of a technological fix. To neutralise the rising acidity, engineers would have to quarry a lump of chalk or limestone 100 metres deep and 40 miles square in area, every year, and sprinkle it across the oceans: in effect they would have to return the white cliffs of Dover to the seas.
A solution on that scale sounds impossible, even absurd -- until you consider the power for change that molecular manufacturing will bring. This advanced form of nanotechnology can go considerably further in tackling the largest problems faced by the human race.
Of course, such enormous power for change does not come without risks. Whether the development of nanotech turns out to be a triumph or a tragedy will depend on how we choose to manage it: wisely, poorly, or not at all.