Microsoft has released a report about science from today to 2020. The report focuses on the effects of computers on science. It's an interesting read; among other things, it claims that concepts from computer science will start to inform and underlie science in the same way that calculus and statistics do.
A major consequence of integrating computers with science will be improved ways of dealing with complexity. This will lead to major advances in biology, such as models of a cell and of the brain.
A couple of quotes I found amusing:
An explanation of how brains work will look much like an explanation of how any other system works. Its elements will be: (i) how the system is organised; (ii) what processes go on inside it; and (iii) how these processes interact to cause the behaviour of the system. . .
A revolution is taking place in the scientific method. “Hypothesize, design and run experiment, analyze results” is being replaced by “hypothesize, look up answer in data base.”
There is very little in the report about nanotechnology, and almost nothing about molecular manufacturing. This underscores the point that these are technologies, not sciences. Nanoscale technologies are typically developed with an eye toward early commercial payoff; whatever scientific research is required takes place within that goal. Molecular manufacturing is driven by an engineering goal: to build small machines (including systems for mechanosynthesis) out of high-performance covalent solids. Although there is some complexity involved in spots, such as working out the best mechanosynthesis techniques, molecular manufacturing is basically an approach of simplicity, more comparable to traditional digital computers than to the molecular computers that this report hypothesizes.
In reading through the report, I didn't get a sense of competition between molecular manufacturing and the projected sciences -- any more than there is competition between a microscope manufacturer and a cellular biologist. As the comparison implies, MM will probably be a very useful tool in support of many of the scientific breakthroughs projected therein.
It was also interesting to see that the new sciences were not projected, at least in this report, to be general-purpose technologies. Computers will become a general aid to science in several ways, but the new sciences will have to be applied to one problem at a time.
I was expecting to find something to agree with or argue with in this report. Instead, I found that it was simply talking about a different level of endeavor. I got some objections to my science essay about "Science vs. Engineering vs. Theoretical Applied Nanotechnology"; some people said that science and engineering are a lot closer than I made them sound. They use many of the same tools, and much of the day-to-day work overlaps; scientists frequently practice engineering, and engineers sometimes engage in science. But if it wasn't already clear, reading this report makes it obvious that molecular manufacturing is not cutting-edge science. It is cutting-edge engineering based on decades-old science.