James Burke has a prediction, and it is just a little mind bending. Imagine all the people in the world had a machine in their home that would produce anything and everything needed to live, crafted largely from air, water and dirt, Burke asks.
It is going to be either paradise or Armageddon,” says the Londonderry-born author and television presenter.
It will happen in the lifetime of people who are living today is his prediction, arguing it will entirely upend the way society operates and warning the world needs to start readying itself now.
If this all sounds like mad science fiction, it is worth remembering Burke has some form and experience as an expert and futurist, the theory is sound, and scientists in various parts of the world are way beyond the conceptual stage of using nanotechnology to control atoms to make substances and build structures.
It is largely about nanotechnology, in short the breaking up of everything and anything down into atoms, building them up into molecules and creating stuff.
And just about everything organic is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, some nitrogen, with a sprinkling of sulphur and phosphorus.
Burke reported for Tomorrow’s World after it first aired in 1965, was one of the team, along with Patrick Moore and Cliff Michelmore, that fronted the BBC’s Apollo mission programmes, including the 1969 moon landing, and the person who conceived and fronted Connections, the wildly successful science and history 10-part series of the late 1970s.
“One of the most intriguing minds in the western world,” according to the Washington Post after Connections aired in the US.
At the tail end of the last episode of Connections, Burke was in Nepal, at a quiet Buddhist monastery but fresh from reporting from the frontline of national security in North America at a massive complex in the Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado.
It was at the missile early warning centre he observed the radar stations communicating with each other in real time via electronic messaging, better known now as email.
And he signed off by predicting the potential implications, that the microchip will lead to instantaneous connections between this out-of-the-way community in the Himalayas and New York.
Now he is back – though for many he never really went away, you know – working on a series, and a book, that builds on Connections but with less of an emphasis on how we got here, and more where we are going, diving into the worlds of artificial intelligence, avatars and, likely the most profoundly important and world-changing, nanotechnology.
It has been a long and hugely interesting journey from his early youth in Derry and the beach at Downhill on the north coast where Burke and his brother Clive were evacuees from a city on the target list for Hitler’s bombers during the Second World War.
“We spent five years living in Downhill near Castlerock and made infrequent trips back to the big city, maybe three of four times,” Burke remembers. “It was pretty much an idyllic life, less a village on the sea and more a cluster of houses. We were in the water half the time and went to school by bus to Articlave on the other side of Castlerock, taught by Mrs Burnside.”
Following his father James’s return from the war, the family, mother Mary from outside Limavady and the two boys, decamped to England.
After school at the “extraordinary” Maidstone Grammar in Kent, two years’ National Service and graduating from Oxford’s Jesus College with a degree in English, the adventurous Burke, rather than “die”, as he saw it, working in management for a big company, the route many of his colleagues took, he went to Italy, spending some years as a teacher.
Then he fell into the world of television after the storied World in Action current affairs programme needed someone around the Mediterranean who could speak Italian. His first programme was on the Mafia, a tough one to produce as many of the planned contributors came down with ailments prior to filming.
Tomorrow’s World then came calling, but “what locked me in to science and technology was … Apollo happened”. He was on air as Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, fearful that he would not keep his mouth shut and talk over the astronaut at the very wrong time.
Armstrong’s “One giant leap for mankind” was happily delivered without interruption.
If the moon landing was one of the most extraordinary events of the 21st century, Burke sees incredible possibilities ahead – and the implications are immense.
He sees every home having a nanofabricator, a backyard factory where atoms, then molecules, will be mixed together in the right amounts and formula to produce all foods, all shelter, many goods and, unfortunately, even weapons, he adds.
He then delivers a blizzard of C, H and O combinations and numbers that would produce sweet tea, without milk, a recipe if you like.
And Burke sees no reason why we will not be able to create a human body, but not the brain, so bafflingly complex and gigantic that no formula could be found to recreate, he adds. At least this side of 10,000 years.
Nanotechnology was central to producing at incredible speed many of the Covid-19 vaccines. And a team from the University of Manchester has already reported using robotics to transport molecules.
“The arrival of such technology would signify the beginnings of a fundamentally new approach to manufacturing and manipulating matter at the nanoscale,” the researchers conclude.
“Molecular robotics has the potential to be the cornerstone of revolutionary technologies that will impact on public health, energy, transport and security.”
When scientists start speaking in such strong terms about the future, it may be best to listen.
A few decades ago “there was no nanotechnology, not really any awareness, now there is,” says Burke.
Once one home-based nanofabricator is built, it can create a second, then four, then eight, and so on until they are available to everyone in the world is how he sees the near future, It would take two years, Burke believes.
“It will be the most revolutionary thing since we came out of the caves,” he confidently argues. “There are few things you will not be able to make.”
Burke is on a mission to flag up but also warn as he sees a world where people are autonomous, unshackled from the need to do business and able to operate without money, or other outside means.
It could be paradise, he says, or Armageddon if this technology is not properly controlled, delivered and managed. Apart from upending the business of business, and throwing up all manner of ethical issues, there is that problem about weapons.
Burke is a little downbeat.
“People making decisions … do not know about science, (they are) looking at a 21st century problem from a 19th century point of view,” he says.
He is referring to the approach to climate change, where the focus appears to be on stopping people doing something, like driving cars, rather than concentrating on harnessing the huge technological changes that are happening, and will do so.
Nanotechnology, and other advances, will “certainly mitigate” the effects of climate change, he argues.
“Perovskite,” he offers. “In 10 years you will be able to spray this material on your house and it will create energy, electricity, from the sun a lot more efficiently than solar panels or farms.”
But that’s another story.
James Burke is still thinking, still making connections, still making thought provoking predictions about humanity’s future.