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What would our world be today without technology?  In the 21st century, this rhetorical question just seems ridiculous.  Technology is all around you, and even as you gaze into your computer screen to read this, you are using the latest in high-tech wizardry. 

In the broadest sense of the word, technology is the application of science toward an industrial or commercial objective.  Technology is thus about making products that can improve existing ones, or a device that does something that nothing else currently can.  As technology has expanded to influence every part of daily life, the term has been further used as a grouping of devices related to a specific category.  Broadband technology is distinctly different than display technology, for instance.

For all intents and purposes, technology now refers to the realm of electronic devices.  While many technologies rely on chemistry physics, and mechanics, the ultimate end-result that most people use is that of an electronic device.

From the latest in plasma television screens to the ever-shrinking cell phone, technology is at the heart of all your daily activities.  The personal computer has completely revolutionized the way people do their work and schooling.  Over the last decade, the Internet has completely changed the way businesses and people interact with each other.

It’s impossible now to separate life from technology.  As we move towards a future that will become more and more intertwined, it’s important to take a step back and understand where it’s all coming from.

As the dawn of the scientific method ushered a new age of thinking, so did the world of applied science.  Ingenious ideas spawned by many important pioneers in the late 19th to early 20th century helped bring the industrial revolution to its fruition.  As mass manufacturing became a possibility, the idea of making things that would improve their daily life became a reality.  Many of the early technological feats were based on structural and mechanical systems.  The automobile, the subway, hydraulic excavators, the hydroelectric dam, and the steam engine are just three of the many important mechanical technology achievements.  Of course, electricity had been around for quite some time, but devices were limited in their complexity because scientists and engineers had not yet learned to harness its true potential.

Early developments in electronics were centered on the vacuum tube.  Invented in 1904, this was an analog component that could amplify electronic signals.  By hooking them up properly, it was possible to build devices that could operate in a variety of functions.  The vacuum tube allowed for the invention of radios, televisions, and the first computers.  Unfortunately, vacuum tubes were unreliable, excessively large, required frequent replacements, and did not provide enough control for complex calculations.

It wasn’t until 1947 that things really took off.  That’s when Bell Laboratories invented the transistor.  The transistor could do all the things the vacuum tube could do, but better.  They were smaller, did not require frequent replacements, cheaper, required less power, and heated up slower.  The first commercial devices to use transistors were a hearing aid by Raytheon and the ubiquitous transistor radio of the 1950s.

Almost ten years later, the integrated circuit would fully realize the dawn of the electronic age.  Invented at roughly the same time by Jack Kilby (Texas Instruments, 1958) and Robert Noyce (Fairchild Semiconductor, 1961), the integrated circuit placed many transistors (and other key electronic components like resistors and capacitors) onto one chip.  It allowed for the miniaturization of electronics on an unprecedented scale.  Today, over a million electronic components can be placed onto a chip that’s only one square centimeter.  The microprocessor is the pinnacle of the integrated circuit.  It’s the brain behind computers, microwaves, cell phones, and a plethora of other digital electronic devices.

So where does that leave us?  The development of electronics is quickly approaching the physical limit of our capabilities.  Soon, miniaturization will no longer be possible unless new technologies are created.  New technologies centered on nanotechnology and photonics offer new hope to our dimming prospects.  As these two bold new fields of science evolve, we may once more witness a new technological revolution. 

Many scientists and engineers today liken our current knowledge of nanotechnology and photonics to the early days of the transistor.  In that case, it may only be a matter of years before unimaginable new devices find their way into our unsuspecting hands.  One thing’s for sure: technology will always be with us.  In the right hands, technology can be a positive force in the world.  Unfortunately, it’s also a major player in world conflict.  Many technological applications are driven by military demands.  Everything from nuclear missiles to proposed space-based lasers have a serious impact on our world.

In the end, technology is neither good nor bad.  It’s all in how we decide to use it.  Whether it’s all geared towards designing the next generation of video game console, or the latest in self-guided unmanned aerial vehicles loaded with modern weaponry, it’s a human invention that will deliver human consequences.