Gentry Lee: The Future Made Real

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

Gentry Lee, the lead-off keynoter at last week's Sensors Expo & Conference, delivered a real stem-winder to a standing room only crowd of transfixed listeners. In a large room. Lee has co-authored some of the novels in the Rama series with the admirable Arthur C. Clarke, so could be considered a futurist of sorts. Yet he used the here and now as a springboard for the visions he described. And he adhered to the laws of real science and technology, saying nothing about anti-gravity devices, perpetual motion machines, or, mercifully, more effective ways to wage a war. Now I'd like to tell you about some of the areas he did address.

Space Is for Machines!
Lee was part of the team that sent rovers Spirit and Opportunity to Mars. That accomplishment alone would have earned him a place on the podium in my estimation. What amazing engineering, based on equally muscular science! Two years beyond their expected service lives, those little marvels kept poking around just to find out—and tell us us—what's out there. Robotics is the only rational way to carry out space exploration, Lee emphasized. He stuck his neck out, and not for the only time during his address, by pointing out the extreme inadvisability of sending a manned mission to Mars, or back to the Moon, for that matter, within the predictable future. Sure, he said, in principle NASA could land an astronaut on Mars. The monetary outlay would be enormous (did he say $6 billion? I don't remember), and the real bear would be in getting that adventurer safely back to Earth. Why do it? Bragging rights? I suppose an alternative might be a one-way ticket, but to invest so much in training and equipment only to eventually jettison all of it makes zero fiscal sense. And what would a sacrificial Space Cowboy say about us a culture?

Other Follies
Lee was equally clear-eyed about the International Space Station (ISS) and the shuttle program. While he didn't use the word "boondoggle" (I do), he pointed out that real science has yet to be conducted on the Station (unless you count eating liquid globules with a pair of chopsticks). The shuttle's job is primarily to service this orbiting white elephant. Once the ISS has been declared somehow complete, into some ocean it will go with a giant whoosh. All those varied efforts put forth by the shuttle(s) would be far better spent in building the Best Robot Ever and sending it out to save the Hubble (my personal mantra).

We did not hear the by-now old wheeze about "weaning ourselves from foreign oil." Instead, Lee spoke of an energized effort to develop technologies that could provide us—and the rest of humanity—with renewable sources of juice. Conserve what we have, he advised, leave as much as we can for future generations, and get on the stick with wind, water, biomass, improved nuclear generation. He didn't rule out nuclear fusion, but doubted we'll see that very soon. To his ideas I would add that a concomitant technology will have to be superconducting wires and cables.

Lee foresees that biomedical technology will offer us life spans that are theoretically infinite. A newborn, perhaps even a fetus, could be precisely "mapped" on the cellular level. The entire genome explored, and any abnormalities discovered and corrected. No more children with diabetes, asthma, or brittle bone disease. No more adults laid low by Parkinson's, ALS, or congestive heart failure. Wouldn't that be something fine? So we would basically elect to join our ancestors (assuming that they've elected to join theirs).

Medical Monitoring
Most medical tests, Lee observed, are designed and carried out simply to verify that everything's fine. Think of all the blood we leave behind after a regular physical checkup. Well, Lee had a better idea: Implanted sensors that quietly monitor what's afoot in our feet and everywhere else. Should something go amiss, the appropriate chip would alert us and ideally we'd alert our healthcare specialist. Harried medical personnel ought to welcome a respite from late-night phone calls initiated by their patients who've eaten an extra jalapeño at bedtime and mistaken the predictable results for a heart attack.

There Was Far More
But not enough space to report it here. If you have the chance to hear Gentry Lee, jump for it. I wish that his talk could be televised, burned onto a CD, whatever it takes to spread the passion, excitement, and wonder that science and engineering offer us all.