Saturday, September 20, 2003

You say you got a real solution …

tinkertoyNow that some key pieces of the nanotech Tinkertoy set have been dumped out onto the playroom floor, it's time to snap the parts together into airplanes, pirate ships and Ferris wheels. Something like that, in effect, is what University of California, Berkeley professor Arun Majumdar said in Ron Wilson's excellent EE Times piece about a Sept. 17 Stanford University symposium on energy and nanotechnology.

monopolyThe Berkeley professor then threw in his support for the growing list of nanotech scientists and critics alike who want to see this infant industrial revolution grow up to benefit "all humanity," and not just the guys with the top hats and monocles.

"Only about a hundred million people in the world have incomes over $20,000 per year," Wilson quotes Majumdar as saying. "But we direct all of our technology development at this minority, and assure ourselves that the benefit will trickle down to the majority at the bottom, earning less than $2,000 per year. It's time to look at the needs of that majority - with little to spend, but with huge needs and huge numbers."

This echoes a theme espoused, in various ways, by many nanotechnology thought leaders, from Doug Parr of Greenpeace to Tim Harper of CMP Cientifica to Eric Drexler of Foresight. In at least vocalizing the hope that promising new technology will be used for the betterment of mankind rather than the enrichment of a few and the destruction of many, Majumdar joins himself, in spirit, with the likes of Einstein, Oppenheimer and others.

But also remember that these giants of science took to their graves an element of sadness in the circuitous path their life's work had taken between the joy and promise of discovery and ultimate application in the hands of the political and business sectors.

Some world political leaders, at least the democratically elected ones, are currently taking their cues from the fears voiced by their most-vocal constituents and have created forums for economic, ethical and environmental issues to be aired. While nanotech business leaders cannot be characterized with any one sweeping statement, since nanotech itself does not encompass any one business, I have not heard much from them, in words or in deed, that signify that they take seriously the fears of a potential "nanotechnology divide" and environmental impact.

The NanoBusiness Alliance recently formed a safety task force, but this panel came into existence only after the media began paying more attention to these fears. I do hope it's an attempt to take the lead in ensuring that what they are creating is socially responsible, and reassuring the public in a meaningful way, minus dismissive and derisive comments about those who attack nanotech as another tool for the rich.

The nanotech business community should take its own words seriously. Everything is going to change, they say, and everybody will benefit. Yes, We get it. They're not setting out to simply sell more widgets. They're proposing, actually promoting, an incredibly traumatic societal transition. If it is true that nanotechnology is going to shuffle the deck and deal each nation and individual an entirely new hand, then that in itself is reason enough for nanoBUSINESS (yes, my caps) to cool it a bit on the second part of that compound word and explain what exactly is meant by the first and how it will change lives.

Be like our Professor Majumdar, and take the high road.

My criticism of Greenpeace, ETC Group and others is not based on pure disagreement with the spirit of what they are trying to do. It's their methods – use of shoddy pseudoscience that plays to emotion and fear to score political points – that I disagree with. Ultimately, these methods undermine their own agenda because they are seen as unable to transcend the political.

ETC and Greenpeace are easy targets because their biases are so obvious and their conclusions so obviously politically preordained. It's unfortunate that because their methods are so easily mocked and dismissed, so too is their message.

Just gimme some truth.


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