Monday, December 15, 2003

Drexler on 'Drexlerians'

Here are excerpts from a couple of e-mails I recently exchanged with Eric Drexler, the author who first popularized nano, yet now finds himself persona nano non grata among the businesspeople and politicians who have taken the nano name.

Eric Drexler: Regarding the following on your blog:

    "I have not taken any kind of scientific poll, but judging from the conversations I've had with many of the people here, I can safely confirm for the MNT believers something they likely already knew: They are indeed being marginalized by those who speak for the nanotech business community, and proudly so. I used the term "believers" on purpose because one source told me that arguing with a Drexlerian is akin to debating a Creationist: There's simply no winning, since they take their beliefs on faith. I countered that most Creationists do not desire or seek proof -- the very definition of faith -- whereas MNT proponents are actively pursuing proof."
Indeed, it would seem that the other side, which can cite no refereed papers, no defensible scientific arguments, more closely resembles the creationists. Indeed, for them, "There's simply no winning," but because they have no sound arguments for their position.

On a related, point, why does everyone call this work "Drexlerian"? To do so ignores the work of Merkle, Freitas and others, and needlessly personalizes what should be a question of scientific and technical analysis. Indeed, I'd love to see an extended critical discussion of molecular manufacturing that made no reference to "Drexler" or "nanobots", just to see whether the critics have anything coherent to say that does not depend on attacking their habitual, scientifically irrelevant targets.

Me: I think you probably already know the answer to your question on why they pick on those poor little hypothetical nanobots: Because it's done with a kind of wink to the current nanotech business community whose goals are to bring existing nanotechnology to market. They want to distance themselves as far as possible from the idea of "nanobots" because their brand of nanotechnology is finally emerging as a legitimate industry with products to sell. They fear that association with sci-fi-sounding "nanobots" would place loosen their foothold on legitimacy in the business and investment communities.

Drexler: I think I understand their strategy, but it is profoundly misguided. By equating molecular manufacturing with "nanobots" and making false claims about the impossibility of both, they amplify confusion and undercut their own credibility. As a basis for claims of safety, this just won't work. The nanotech business community would do better to embrace the modern understanding of the subject, which includes a simple fact -- that developing and using molecular manufacturing simply doesn't require building scary little self-replicating robots.

Indeed, in the Chemical & Engineering News exchange, I use the term "nanobot" only once -- to reject Prof. Smalley's characterization -- stating that molecular manufacturing will use "no swarms of roaming, replicating nanobots." Prof. Smalley ignores this and continues to confuse molecular manufacturing with "nanobots", using the term a dozen times. I began the exchange by stating that "I have written this open letter to correct your public misrepresentation of my work." The misrepresentation continues.

Me: Interesting comments on the term, "Drexlerian." I've been guilty of using it a few times, too, without even thinking of asking Drexler himself whether he wants to become an adjective. But the word is out there in the culture and has taken on a life of its own in the debate. Its meaning can be either derogatory (Drexlerian = Raelian?) or imply foresight and vision, depending on who is using it.

Like it or not, the name of "Drexler" is no longer your own. Its use does not negate the efforts of others because it's come to describe and symbolize much more than your work, but also that of Merkle, Frietas and probably many others who will come after you. The challenge for you, though, is to draw attention not only to scientists who disagree with you, but also to the many who not only agree but are beginning to prove and demonstrate your theories. That, I think, is the only way to counter any impression that this is about Drexler vs. the rest of the world.

Drexler: I cannot control what people say, but I can urge that they speak more constructively. When critics use my name as a label, they evade the real issues -- of science, technology, and policy -- and lower the discussion to the level of personalities.


Sunday, December 14, 2003

The Money, the Politics and the Politics

Sounds like I missed a great discussion in Palo Alto: "Nanotechnology: The Money, The Science and Politics of the Next Big Thing," sponsored by the Cato Institute. Fortunately, David B. Hughes supplied some insights for Nanodot, the Foresight Institute's discussion board. For a change, I'll let another writer make many of the points I've made previously on this blog, and give you some excerpts:

    The consensus seems to be that Drexler and his opponents are not communicating very well, because they are speaking two different languages. Drexler is a scientist and refuses to budge from high-minded scientific and academic principles, and standard protocols of open inquiry and fair discussion. The NNI is a political animal, speaking evasive bureaucratese and always mindful of their constituents. Ne’er the twain shall meet, conceptually.


    Many attendees commented on the perceived lack of principle of Drexler’s rivals. I repeatedly heard phrases such as ‘straw-man,’ ‘circular arguments,’ ‘bait and switch,’ ‘moving the goal posts,’ and the like applied to the NNI position and debating strategy. It seems pretty clear that Drexler owns both the moral and scientific high ground in the argument, though many seem to think he’s politically in over his head, outflanked and outnumbered, and ultimately can’t win.


News in a NanoSecond

  • Build your own home-brew scanning probe microscope here and scanning tunneling microscope here.

  • rocoFrom the NanoForum in Trieste:

      The session on 'societal aspects and communication' was concluded by Mihail Roco, coordinator of the US national nanotechnology initiative. He regretted the often polarised debate, particularly in the media, which is dominated by those with little knowledge.

    Au contraire mon nano frere, have you met Small Times' Genevieve Oger?

  • Kroto: Too many nanocooks spoil the collaborative broth.


Saturday, December 13, 2003

Nano by any memes necessary

My friend David Pescovitz, Small Times writer and BoingBoing blogger, recently taught me the meaning of memes -- ideas that spread through popular culture like a virus. He tells me that nano is among one of the most virulent memes out there right now. In an upcoming Small Times magazine column, he even credits my blog with helping to keep tabs on the nano meme, particularly my posts on nanotech's appearances in kids' TV shows and video games. David also tells me that the way a meme reveals something about our culture's relationship to an idea is through its context, rather than its content. For example, when the nouveau-Luddite branch of the political left flings the n-word around it means one thing in a particular context to a particular audience, yet quite another to, say, this guy, who thinks it's all just another prefix for hucksters and spammers to sell their amazing organ-growing technology.

So, it is with memes on my mind that I look at the "NANO" T-shirts pictured above, sold by a new merchandiser called Emergants. These shirts obviously were designed by nanotech fans -- although I have a feeling they might not have considered that designing a logo so similar to NASA's might drag nano down to the level of "disaster waiting to happen."

Anyway, I asked Emergants co-founder Jeff McHugh what he was thinking, and here's some of what he said:

    I became interested in Nanotechnology after I read Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of Spiritual Machines." That book along with the writings of Drexler, Regis, Merkle, and others such as yourself opened my eyes to just how drastically nanotech will change our lives in the very near future.  So, I just always wanted a way to make the knowledge of nanotechnology less exclusive. I was never much of a writer, so I couldn't really go that route. I'd rather read stuff like yours. Somewhere along the line I started thinking about how else I could spread the word of this exciting new and revolutionary technology.

    My friends and I were always into the alternative rock scene in college and I always found people with common tastes in music by the T-shirts they wore. T-shirts always represented to me another means of finding people that I might have something in common with or could easily strike up conversation with. I was thinking along the same lines with the Nanotech shirts. Chris (my graphic designer, partner and roommate) and I are hoping to start a lot of new dialogue and give people a symbol to represent their interests in Nanotechnology. I know a lot of folks are against sensationalizing nanotechnology, but we believe that its a good thing to excite people about science and technology.
So, they may just be a couple of roommates who thought it'd be cool to sell "nano" T-shirts, but it also sounds to me like they truly "get it." They know how an idea can really get a foothold in society, and it's rarely through official channels. It's happening right now: Completely under the radar of the government, the nanobusiness community and, yes, most of the media that cover nanotechnology, there is an independent nanotech movement. It is composed of  tiny, autonomous cultural ideas and associations that are self-assembling, and even self-replicating, until eventually it will become so pervasive that it will be impossible to ignore.

And that's when those who represent nanotech interests in government, business and the media will finally look beyond their insular world of scientists, businesspeople and self-congratulatory speeches and prizes to see, much to their surprise, that nanotechnology became embedded in popular thought and mythology without any guidance from them. Depending upon the nature of the nano meme, the "official" nanotech community will either launch campaigns against it, or take credit for its existence.


Update: Just going through some old posts and noticed that the T-Shirt guys are MIA. Oh well. My main point still fits, I hope. -- HL 1/29/04

Friday, December 12, 2003

News in a NanoSecond

gray goo goo
Nano-Tex propaganda video shows how the company
is allegedly fighting the "Gray Goo-Goo" menace.

gray goo
I was interviewed about this by a New York Times fact-checker last month. She asked me how Gray Goo could be illustrated for this Sunday magazine piece (free registration, etc). I talked to her for about  a half-hour or so, carefully laying out the fictional nature of gray goo. But, if it did exist, here's how it could goo up the world. After all that, this is the illustration they came up with. I thought I painted a much-better doomsday scenario than that!

A funny thing happened on my way to the NanoBusiness Alliance Web site.
But I can't help but feel that I've heard that joke before.
More conspiracies, I tell you!


Nanotech's transition from idea to industry

seantwoI apologize for the blogging shortage, and it's not because of a shortage of material. I spent much of the past few days doing in-depth interviews with some of the leaders of the nanotech business community and walked away with some great insights into their perspectives on past issues and the direction in which they would like to see the nanotech industry develop. You'll see the results of some of those interviews in various ways on this blog, in stories I assign to Small Times correspondents and in future news events.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures of some good-lookin' nanogeeks from NanoCommerce 2003. The entire sprawling conference complex in Chicago was Geek Central, by the way. Simultaneously, JupiterEvents (yes, the same megacompany that does NanoElectronics Planet), sponsored Search Engine Strategies.

IT people from around the country converged down the hall to talk about how to get their businesses noticed by smallGoogle and the like. It was a reminder that while we nanopeople believe we're the "next big thing," the last big thing is actually still being developed. The difference now is that the real businesses have been separated from the bar-napkin ideas and real money is being made. That's something to remember after the so-called "nano-hype" has died down. Maybe that's when some serious business can begin.

Also, it was refreshing to me that, because these nanobusinesspeople are so new at this, they're not very media-savvy yet. I'm sure that will change as they become more experienced at dealing with the press, but for now their lack of "slickness" makes for some remarkably candid interviews. These are all very committed people who love what they're doing, are working hard at it and have an overriding sense of mission, confident that they really are setting out to change the world. I think it's very likely that they will.

At top, is Sean Murdock, co-founder and executive director of AtomWorks, a co-sponsor of NanoCommerce 2003. AtomWorks' mission is to foster the commercialization of nanotechnology in the smalltimesMidwest. I found Murdock to be an energetic and intelligent leader who possesses not only a strong, driving passion for nanotech as an engine for economic development in his region, but also a great grasp of the far-reaching economic, social, ethical and environmental consequences of nanotech's ongoing transition from idea to industry. Sean shared many of his ideas with me on a range of nanotech-related issues. We did not agree on everything, but our talks made me feel a bit more optimistic about the future of nanotech's development as an industry. For Sean, ethical, social and environmental issues are key considerations in the guidance of nanobusiness, and not merely nuisances or afterthoughts. We need to figure out a way to clone him and strategically place copies around the world.


Wednesday, December 10, 2003

NanoPrizes, NanoCommerce and NanoCreationism

Some of the winners of the 2003 Small Times Magazine Best of Small Tech Award claiming
their prize at NanoCommerce 2003 include, from left: Mel Melsheimer, president of nanotech
VC firm Harris & Harris; David Soane,
founder of Nano-Tex; Wayne Kubinski of NEC, who
accepted on behalf of nanotube pioneer Sumio Iijima; Patrick Lundstrom of Obducat; Ray
McLaughlin, CFO of Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., accepting
on behalf of Rick Smalley;
Small Times features editor Candace Stuart; Lewis
Gruber of Arryx; and Small Times publisher
and fearless leader Steve Crosby. Below,
Crosby hands Nano-Tex  (the"nanopants" people)
 founder David Soan
his Company of the Year Award, as Stuart applauds.

Here's some more of my crude attempts at photoblogging. I'm an old-school "film" guy, so digital cameras are kind of a mystery to me. The photos aren't the best quality. I have more, but here was the main event at NanoCommerce 2003 yesterday, when Small Times Magazine presented its Best of Small Tech Awards.

Nanotechnology Now editor Rocky Rawstern wrote me with some initial reaction to Undersecretary Phil Bond's keynote yesterday. He says that Bond's comments about separating science from science fiction "leads me to believe that the door may be open with regards to approaching Mr. Bond on the nanotech act and MNT (molecular nanotechnology) ... Maybe he'll talk to you about why MNT was left out."

Sorry, Rocky. I wasn't quick enough and he left the building before I could grab him. I suspect, though, that the "science fiction" reference was in fact a message that the government has already decided in which category MNT belongs.

Without really making a conscious attempt at it (I just went where I thought the news took me), my blog has given believers in molecular self-replication an increasingly wider-circulated instrument by which their views can be heard. I'm very proud to have helped given voice to the "minority opinion" on this issue. As I've indicated before, all this science I don't understand -- it's just my job five days a week -- but I do believe that this particular minority, those who still gather inspiration from nanotechnology's original vision as defined by Feynman and Drexler, should have been given this relatively inexpensive item.

Having also covered the Foresight Institute conference in October, I can see now the extent of the contrast between these competing visions. I have not taken any kind of scientific poll, but judging from the conversations I've had with many of the people here, I can safely confirm for the MNT believers something they likely already knew: They are indeed being marginalized by those who speak for the nanotech business community, and proudly so. I used the term "believers" on purpose because one source told me that arguing with a Drexlerian is akin to debating a Creationist: There's simply no winning, since they take their beliefs on faith. I countered that most Creationists do not desire or seek proof -- the very definition of faith -- whereas MNT proponents are actively pursuing proof.

I don't want to talk about who said what to me and when, yet, since my interviews are not yet complete and I don't want to help launch another round of name-calling, but one of my sources brought up what I feel is a valid criticism of Foresight, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and others: The more they launch public attacks against those who disagree with them, the less inclined the nanotech business leadership will be to even invite them to the table, for fear their words will be used against them.


Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Bond: Body politic susceptible to fear

Phil Bond, the U.S. Commerce Department's undersecretary for technology, did not tread lightly over "ethical and environmental issues" at his NanoCommerce 2003 keynote address in Chicago this morning. In fact, the president's chief nano agent likes to "reverse the polarity" on the issue when he talks about calls from some environmental groups to halt nanotech development. Bond argues that not only would a nanotech research moratorium be the wrong thing to do, it would be, yes, "unethical." How could you not harness the power of nanotech, given its potential to improve the quality of human life and the environment.

Bond argued that the National Nanotechnology initiative has been on top of the environmental issue "from day one."

The focus of the fear is not all related to the environment, Bond suggested. It's also about apprehension over an impending economic upheaval.

"A disruptive technology of course brings some fear and apprehension. Of course it does," Bond told the crowd of nanotechnology business leaders. "It's disruptive by its very definition. If an industry can be transformed or eliminated, of course there's apprehension. We're talking about people's livelihoods."

That, he said, is nothing new. Society went through similar upheavals with the invention of the automobile and the harnessing of electricity.

"The body politic, to use a bio analogy, is susceptible to this virus of fear," Bond said, and fears by the public will eventually be reflected in laws passed by Congress, slowdowns in research and – now, here's where he's speaking more to his audience – funding.

"We must prevent that fear from taking hold of all of us," Bond said. "In fact, in that sense, as a business proposition, as a business proposition (yes, he repeated the phrase and placed emphasis on the "B"-word), I submit that we all must identify the legitimate ethical and societal issues … as soon as possible."

First, separate the science from the science fiction, then address them yourself and urge government representatives to address them. "All of us are going to have to be engaged in this," Bond said. "It's very easy to write a negative story, a fear-mongering story" or write a best-selling nanobook and hit movie.

Bond had more to say, but I'll stop here so I can get back to more of the conference. Here is one initial thought from me: I doubt President Bush's representative would be placing so much emphasis on the need to address environmental and ethical issues had the ETC Group, Greenpeace and others not raised the alarm last year.

These groups might have their science and tactics all wrong, but you can't argue with results. These issues are high on the government's agenda only because of its own fear and apprehension over negative publicity. It may be true that these environmental concerns had been a part of the government's thinking as early as 1991, but would there be as much emphasis, and funding, for the study of these implications had the activist groups not fed the press the scare stories?


"Smalley, you ........ ...."

The Drexler-Smalley BattleNanoBots have blasted their way into the "permanent record." The New York Times saw fit to print it today in "Yes, They Can! No, They Can't: Charges Fly in Nanobot Debate."

There isn't much new here for regular readers of my NanoBot (experts still disagree over whether this blog defies the laws of journalism.)

I loved the opening paragraphs of Kenneth Chang's piece.

    It wasn't quite Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin tossing insults at each other while ostensibly debating a serious political issue. But an exchange between a Nobel laureate and a nanotechnology visionary last week was reminiscent of that old "Saturday Night Live" sketch.

    The magazine Chemical & Engineering News, which published the exchange in its Dec. 1 issue, even labeled it "Point/Counterpoint," just like the "60 Minutes" debates that Mr. Aykroyd and Ms. Curtin lampooned.

One slight error I should point out for the "official record." The Times says that Drexler "invented the word 'nanotechnology' a couple of decades ago."

Actually, Drexler acknowledges that the term was used "by an author in Japan in the early 1970s (Norio Taniguchi, 1974) to describe, among other things, precision glass polishing. It came into wide use and gained an aura of excitement after 1986, when I used it to label the Feynman vision of nanomachines building products with atomic precision."


Sunday, December 07, 2003

Blogging NanoCommerce 2003

Despite the fact that my blogwork of late has not exactly endeared me to the nanobusiness elite, my publisher has nonetheless asked that I blog NanoCommerce 2003 in Chicago this week.

The event, sponsored by Small Times Media and Infocast, is going to focus on near-term products and prospects for nanotech. I'm really looking forward to this one, since this group represents the other end of the nano spectrum from the long-range thinkers at the Foresight Institute, whose conference I attended in October.

I'm not just sucking up to my boss here, but I really do have to admire the strong journalistic ethics of Steve Crosby, my publisher, who has never wavered in his support for this blog side-project of mine, no matter whose feathers I have ruffled along the way. I've read stories of other editors or publishers who have forced bloggers on their staffs to shut down, or worse. Thanks, Steve.

Now, assuming I can manage to scrape off enough of the tar and feathers, I'll write later from Chicago.


Nanosys with Small Times assist

The Associated Press sent out a feature that you'll see around the world over the next week. It's about Nanosys Inc., one of the most promising nanotech startups -- unofficially voted by the nano class as most likely to go IPO first. The Palo Alto, Calif., company comes fully loaded with 120 patents and both near-term (biosensors) and long-term (nanowire-powered electronics) goals.

The company's apparent potential to make lots of money is what earned it an invitation to the White House for the nanobill signing, and why at least one Democratic presidential candidate showed up over at Nanosys' digs last summer.

Here's the AP feature (Small Times played a behind-the-scenes role for the AP reporter on this, helping him with some numbers and context. Attention general-interest reporters who are suddenly assigned to write a nanotech story: Small Times is here for you.) Here's some more background from Small Times.


Saturday, December 06, 2003

'Cold cerebral calculations'

Wonderful piece of journalism by Satya Sagar in a piece called Science without Scruples:

    Scientists going about their cold cerebral calculations in the dark, doing things that affect the lives of millions of people they don’t know and don’t want to know about. Scientists, quite like the deadly microbes they mess around with, shunning the dreaded ‘spotlight’ but feverishly working on the concept and design of an entire arsenal of diabolical products.

    If you don’t believe all this go read about some of the scary stuff these fellows are right now in the middle of making. Products that range from ethno-bombs that targets victims racially to the so called `army ants ‘- small, almost invisible nanotech robots that can be sent to assassinate political opponents, dissidents and of course the usual ‘terrorists’.

Sounds like you scientists really are "Dr. Evil" and KAOS all rolled into one. Shame on you.


Friday, December 05, 2003

Jay Nano

LenoYet another cultural bellwether, the late-night TV monologue, has reached down to the nano level. I've already told you about Dave Barry's nanomockery. Last night, it was Jay Leno's turn to poke some fun on "The Tonight Show." I didn't watch it, but my wife mentioned something about hearing "nano" in a punch line. So, I wrote to an old journalism colleague of mine, Daniel Kurtzman, who runs a political humor site on I knew he'd dig it up for me. So, here's the first-ever late-night TV nano joke:

    "In Washington, President Bush has signed a bill to invest 3.7 billion into nanotechnology. This is the science of building electronic circuits from single atoms and single molecules. Bush said he did it to help small businesses."

Ba-dum-bum. Yeah, pretty lame.


Thursday, December 04, 2003

Return of the Cave Capitalist

To: 2 Grunts & 1 Cluck
From: BCE ATP, Grants Processing Department
Re: Your grant proposal

Dear Mr. 1 Cluck,

Thank you for your recent funding request to the Herd Council's high-risk Advanced Technology Program. Your reputation precedes you, as we've been following your failed attempts at cave capital funding for your so-called "wheel" contraption.

Frankly, I don't know how you even got in the cave opening of a respected investment firm with your futuristic sci-fi notions. "Wheels" that just roll through our hunting and grazing land on their own power, with humans somehow aboard and moving faster than our game animals! Indeed. Don't you know that faster-than-foot travel defies the laws of physics? Please, Mr. 1 Cluck, tell me about this new physics?

Unable to secure private funding, you're now asking us to waste the herd's resources on your crackpot ideas. You're asking, in a time of wood and stone scarcity, to borrow a few sticks and rocks to experiment with creation and control of fire! Let's forget, for a moment, the serious environmental and societal consequences of such an invention (What if, for example, a rival herd or an infiltrator within our own ranks got hold of such a technology and used it irresponsibly?), and let's talk about the serious physical barriers to such a fire assembler.

We all know that fire comes only from the sky, and only in rare instances when the cloud gods are in a generous, playful or destructive mood. Such a thing occurs in nature, but only under the proper conditions and cannot be recreated through human intervention. What dry medium will you use? How are you going to replace the loss of breathable air as you orchestrate precise three-dimensional placement of spark and flame? And what are you going to do with those rocks and sticks, anyway? I suppose you can use them to club passers-by who stop to mock you.

I can only guess as to the reaction our cousin Neanderthals will have to such foolishness, as they are convinced that they are smarter and destined to become the world's dominant species.

I admit that we must seek more fire, as the weather appears to be turning much colder as the years go by, but we must be content to find it among the raw materials we are given. We all know that technological society is made only of rock, wood, flesh and bone. The control of fire is, like the "wheel," good subject matter for your entertaining cave paintings or even your irresponsible "clog" (cave log). Even there, though, such ideas corrupt our youth.

A few cycles of the sun ago, I gave a talk in front of the clan's children titled, "Be a Scientist, Save the Flat World." Leading up to my visit, the students were asked to chisel an essay on "Why I Am a Cave Geek." Of the essays I read, nearly half assumed that human-created fire was possible, and most were deeply worried about what would happen in their future as fire spread to the edge of the world. I did what I could to allay their fears, but there is no question that many of these youngsters have been told a sleep-on-the-ground-time story that is deeply troubling.

You and cavemen around you have scared our young. I don't expect you to stop, but I hope others will join with me in turning on the sun, and showing our cubs that, while our future in the real world will be cold, with a coming Long Period of Ice, there will be no such monster as the human-replicated fire of your dreams.

4 Clicks, 7 Squeaks and 1 Grunt
Chief Technology Pronouncer


News in a NanoSecond


Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Nano: It's the Law

OK. Been very busy doing my "other" job (the one that pays me), and I have to say that the Small Times staff and I have put together a report on the nanotech bill that outshines the other 864 nano stories you're reading today. It has color, controversy and, above all, context. Enjoy. Goodnight.


Self-replicating NanoCommentary

While we wait for the president to grab his official bill-signing pen, here's some "hold" music for you -- some of the commentary swirling in the aftermath of the Drexler/Smalley debate.

    "… kind of entertaining to see two reknowned academics get pissy with each other."
-- Max Jacobs, Common Sense Wonder

    "Smalley is just not addressing the issues. Instead, he veers off into metaphors about boys and girls in love. He describes mechanosynthesis as simply 'mushing two molecular objects together' in 'a pretend world where atoms go where you want.'"
-- Ralph Merkle, nanotechnology pioneer and Distinguished Professor of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology

    Here's my summary:
    Drexler: Nanoassemblers are wonderful and possible. Anybody who says otherwise is a little punk.
    Smalley: Well, I'm one of the best in nanotechnology and I say that you are wrong, be-yotch.
    Drexler: Your Mom said I was right last night.
    Smalley: Don't you be talkin' 'bout my momma!

-- Daniel Moore, Georgia Institute of Technology grad student.

    It appears that in substituting the word "assembly" for "replication," some savvy bill writer performed a bit of legislative jujitsu to leave Drexler’s approach out in the cold. After all, why investigate the feasibility of self-assembly when it’s already been proved possible?
-- James M. Pethokoukis, U.S. News & World Report.

    "If two experts of this stature disagree on such a fundamental question, who is right? Don't count on me to give an answer."
-- Roland Piquepaille, computer consultant

    “Smalley's factual inaccuracies, his unscientific and vehement attacks on MNT, and his continued failure to criticize the actual chemical proposals of MNT, demonstrate that we must move beyond this debate.”
-- Mike Treder, Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    I can tell you right now that I'm going to come down in between the two of them on this issue - I think that molecular-scale manufacturing is going to be possible, but I think that Drexler is glossing over some key difficulties that will have to be overcome.

-- Derek Lowe, writing in "In the Pipeline"

    Much of Smalley's discussion is off-topic, and his assertions about the limitations of enzyme chemistry are factually incorrect -- a fatal weakness in his argument.
-- Chris Phoenix, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    "I'm somewhat skeptical of the skeptical claims, in part because of Clarke's First Law ("When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.") and in part because the nanotechnology business community seems to have decided that the best way to deal with people who fear nanotechnology … is to loudly proclaim that the really scary stuff is impossible. I think that's shortsighted, and more than a touch dishonest …"
-- Glenn Reynolds, InstaPundit

    Smalley's approach to reassuring the public about the potential abuse of this future technology is not the right strategy. Denying the feasibility of both the promise and the peril of molecular assembly will ultimately backfire and fail to guide research in the needed constructive direction.
-- Ray Kurzweil, author, inventor.

    Presumably, Smalley will be in Alaska next week telling children that they don't need to worry about being eaten by polar bears because there are no polar bears. The question of whether polar bears actually exist is secondary; the main point is that children shouldn't be frightened.
-- Phil Bowermaster, The Speculist


NanoBusiness leader makes the call

Well, looks like we can all go home. The argument is over. The head of the NanoBusiness Alliance has determined who is correct in the Drexler/Smalley debates on molecular nanotechnology.

James M. Pethokoukis of U.S. News & World Report picks up the "federally funded nanobots" question where I left off in his NextNews column.

    I asked Mark Modzelewski of the NanoBusiness Alliance about this very issue. His group was a big backer of the bill. Modzelewski’s response: "Frankly, we already know what the bill asks for is possible, but the bill will allow us to look at `to what extent.’ It is possible that some aspects of `molecular manufacturing’ might be investigated, but knowing the parties influencing the study, I doubt it. There was no interest in the legitimate scientific community –and ultimately Congress – for playing with Drexler's futuristic sci-fi notions."

I do know of a few nano BUSINESS people who might disagree. Among them, venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, who is now on his way to Washington to join in the nanobill signing festivities.


News in a Nanosecond


Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Bush to sign nanotech bill tomorrow

This just in from the House Science Committee:

    On Wednesday, December 3 at 2:10 P.M. in the Oval Office, President Bush will sign S. 189 (PDF, 56.1 KB), the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act into law. Chief House sponsor, Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), will attend the ceremony. The legislation, sponsored in the House by Boehlert and Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), and in the Senate by Senators Ron Wyden (R-OR) and George Allen (R-VA), authorizes nearly $4 billion in research and development into nanotechnology.

    Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials at the atomic scale. The National Science Foundation has estimated that nanotechnology applications may be worth more than $1 trillion in the global economy in little more than a decade. S. 189 puts the President's National Nanotechnology Initiative into law and authorizes $3.7 billion over the next four years for the program. The bill also requires the creation of research centers, education and training efforts, research into the societal and ethical consequences of nanotechnology, and efforts to transfer technology into the marketplace. Finally, the bill authorizes coordination offices, advisory committees and regular program reviews to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely and efficiently.

More background here, here and here.


Monday, December 01, 2003

Clash of the Nanotech Titans


Chemical & Engineering News, in its cover story on the Eric Drexler/Rick Smalley debates on molecular manufacturing, is allowing the world to witness the latest in a long line of dialogues on the fundamental nature of the universe that dates back to the time of the ancient Greeks and the dawn of scientific and philosophical thought.

Now, as then, the argument is not only about the direction of scientific progress -- in this case the current split in nanotech thought -- but it's also about personal pride, reputation and a place in the pantheon.

Drexler and his followers say Smalley is a dinosaur who is not up on current research and is out of his depth here. Smalley sounds very much like a professor scolding a student who has led himself down the wrong intellectual path.

But this is not just a case of two academics disagreeing. Behind each is the weight of followers who have largely different versions of what nanotechnology is or could be. What gives Drexler a sense of urgency, though, is not merely defense of his reputation, but also the way the government and business community has thoroughly embraced Smalley's vision -- not because there was a careful study of which has the most scientific merit, but because the Smalley dismissal of Drexler is the one that is more convenient for them to believe. Molecular assemblers are impossible, therefore pay no attention to the nuts on the periphery, and let's get down to business and get the economy moving (the prime motivator among national politicians). To take Drexler seriously would be to slow down commerce.

I've written before about the environmentalists' attacks on nanotechnology and how they are on the wrong track when it comes to regulation of nanosize chemicals. Existing regulations can and will cover it. But they are on the right track in that the government is not thinking of what is best for society. To the government's credit, it created a center to think about ethical issues (although the new name, American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, has a strangely military ring to it.). But while this provision of the nanotech bill is a philosophy and communications department head's wet-dream-come-true, the government has already determined that some of the science that they are to debate -- molecular manufacturing -- is impossible and unworthy of study.

Smalley has won in the public arena, and my own print publication has done nothing short of elevate him to the rank of the gods in its bimonthly worship of his work. Yet Drexler has always been ahead in the popular arena, and Smalley himself admits in this current exchange that he was among the many who was inspired by "Engines of Creation."

The problem is everybody read and was inspired by "Engines of Creation," but not too many people talk about "Nanosystems," in which Drexler hones those ideas. What Smalley and others do, then, is guess -- and guess wrongly -- how Drexler would achieve the broad vision. Then, they present the arguments as to why their own convenient "straw Drexlers" are wrong and call it a refutation of molecular assemblers.

What's next? It's up to the people to decide. Is there a burning curiosity about true bottom-up molecular nanotechnology, coupled with concern over who else might develop such a capability first? Or are we only in it for the money?

I am not qualified to determine whether Drexler or Smalley have the force of real science behind them (At least, science as we understand it today. We all know well that what is considered impossible in one era is a commonly used technology in another). I'll let the experts debate that, and I'll watch with fascination on the sidelines. But I've covered local and national government enough to confidently question the motives of those who side with the Smalley camp. And as a naturally curious person, I am baffled by the decision of a government body to launch a significant national effort to develop nanotechnology and study its ethical implications while leaving such an obvious, gaping hole in this expensive undertaking.

You want to use Apollo analogies? In 1962, JFK did not lay out his dream for space exploration by touting the benefits of Tang and Teflon, while dismissing the thought of going to the moon.

How about the Manhattan Project? I'll quote from Drexler here, in a written report to the Royal Society in London:

    "The very breadth of this range of applications has stimulated a reflexive rejection of the possibility of the enabling technology. This is, however, like rejecting data on the neutron-induced fission cross-section of the U-235 nucleus in 1940 because one disbelieves the possibility of a million-fold increase in the energy density of explosive devices. The magnitude of the expected consequences gives reason for careful evaluation of feasibility, not for emotional dismissals. Thus far, the dismissals have effectively inhibited the feasibility studies."

Translation: What if the scientists who believed atomic power was physically impossible had the ear of the U.S. government during World War II? If you think that's a ridiculous thought, go look up Leo Szilard. He had some crazy idea about creating a nuclear chain reaction so powerful that it could change the balance of power in the world in an instant. He said such harnessing of atomic energy was so dangerous that society should figure out a way to control it. The leading physicists of his day, including Enrico Fermi, said such a thing was not possible. It took a letter from former atom-splitting skeptic Albert Einstein, who by 1939 had come around to the possibilities of uranium, to finally convince President Roosevelt to toss some money Szilard's way for a feasibility study on atomic chain reactions.

The rest, as they say, is history.


Sunday, November 30, 2003

Spending power

energyWith all the talk about the nanotech bill, this plan from the Department of Energy, "Facilities for the Future of Science," (PDF, 1.2 MB) did not receive as much attention as it deserved. Much of it involves simply building the infrastructure (28 new science facilities) to enable some of the energy ideas that have been floating around for years, and of course to come up with some new ones. Fusion and supercomputing top the list of priorities, but nanotechnology gets a few perks thrown in there, too.

"Today, our investments in nanoscience – the science of very small things – are making the Department of Energy a leader in a global scientific effort that will give us the ability to build new and better materials from the molecular level," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a speech to the National Press Club in early November.

One of the priorities is an upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory. "The APS upgrade will greatly enhance the brilliance and power of the facility to enable scientists to study very small sample crystals—important for nanoscience research," the report says.

More on energy here and here.


Friday, November 28, 2003

Drawing a nano-sized line in the sand

Whether Iraq had a nuclear weapons program just before the U.S. invasion will be debated for decades to come, but there is one indisputable fact that should be dealt with in the short term: Iraq's science community is now one of the country's richest untapped natural resources.

Iraq is not the only nation to find itself with so much brain power and so little in the way of infrastructure, funding and sense of national direction. Contained within the independent nations of the former Soviet bloc, including Russia itself, are underfunded scientists and institutions looking for a way to apply their knowledge. Without a plan to tap into this resource, there's a danger that Iraqi scientists could make themselves available to the highest bidder, as did some of their counterparts in Russia who sold nuclear secrets to Iran.

That's why the Royal Society in London should be commended for helping to found the Iraqi Academy of Science to keep the best and brightest working to rebuild their country's technological base. According to this report from the Royal Society, Iraqi scientist Hussain Al-Shahristani said:

    The Iraqi Academy of Science will be an autonomous, self-governing organisation of distinguished scientists dedicated to employing their talents for the advancement of science in Iraq. The Academy will also revive Iraqi talents for the good of humanity after decades of abuse of Iraqi scientists under Saddam Hussein's regime.

There appears to be a Middle Eastern scientific renaissance occurring, despite the tremendous amount of resources wasted during decades of plotting ways to annihilate the infidel next door. Science Watch reports that Middle Eastern nations, especially Iraq's former nemesis Iran, have increased their "presence in world science." Just think what could be accomplished if a "peace dividend" were to ever fall into the laps of the Arab and Persian scientific worlds. Remember, it was they who kept enlightened thought alive while the Europeans wasted a millennia or two slaughtering one another and actively discouraging scientific progress.

Not included in the Science Watch statistics, though, is Israel, whose science output is so large that it would preclude any meaningful comparison with its neighbors.

Small Times' Israel correspondent has a report on the state's nanotech program, and particularly former Prime Minister Shimon Peres' newfound sense of mission that ties nanotech to enhancement of water resources and, yes, even peace. I'll have more to say on how nanotech is all wet (in a good way) in dry areas, but for now here's some more background on nanotech in water desalination, here's more on Israel's technological rebound and here's some info on Israeli and French (yes, you read that correctly: French) cooperation in bio- and nanotechnology. See what can happen when nations put politics aside and share their knowledge? Somebody should tell that to Professor Mona Baker of the University of Manchester, whose blackballing of Israeli scientists reminds us of how even from great minds there can emerge the worst small-mindedness.

I can tell from my Web stats that I do have some readers in Iran, which has nanotechnological goals of its own. To them, I'd like to extend an invitation to contact me and see how we can get a battle plan together for an all-out war on inequitable distribution of resources such as fresh water and arable land, brandishing nanotech-enhanced weapons. Having spent much of my journalism career writing about the Mideast conflict, I'm certainly not blundering into this subject under the influence of any kind of naive daydream that historical, cultural, religious and political barriers will simply melt into the desert. But it couldn't hurt to set up a tent.


Nano not hep to this cat

Gordon Wozniak, who the Contra Costa Times describes as the Berkeley City Council's "resident scientist," has a colorful way of telling his fellow council members not to worry about unfounded fears that stray nanoparticles will escape the molecular foundry being built at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    "Nanoscience is not something new or radical. This is existing science that's been hyped as 'nanoscience' to get money from the federal government. You can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting something called 'nano.'"

I'm wondering which charlatan scientists he's spoken to. The ones I've spoken to and read about are planning to do some real nanoscience at the new lab, including Steven Louie, a winner of the 2003 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology. Is it possible that Louie's fooled a bunch of really smart people into believing that his cutting-edge work with nanotubes is just the same old existing science hyped as nanoscience? I'll need to go through my interview with him very carefully to find evidence of hucksterism, since the Berkeley City Council's "resident science" (who should know better) apparently has the inside dirt.

But back to that unfortunate feline. It obviously was not the lab that killed the cat, since it was already dead before it was swung into "nano." I suppose that leaves "curiosity" as the only other possible suspect.

More posts on molecular foundry protests can be found here, here, and toward the bottom here.


Wednesday, November 26, 2003


Glenn Reynolds, in his latest Tech Central Station column, joins the ranks of those of us who support the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (PDF, 56.1 KB), but are a bit baffled by the provision for a study on "molecular self-assembly." Reynolds writes:

    Another important issue in the bill is the provision, in Section 5(b), for what is called a "study on molecular self-assembly." I'm not sure where this language comes from: the bill calls for "a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale." I think that this means a study on self-replicating molecular-scale systems, but self-assembly isn't really self-replication. Given that self-assembling nanodevices have already been demonstrated, taking a narrow view of this language seems unlikely to accomplish much: It's like performing a study to determine the feasibility of integrated circuit chips. Been there, done that. Presumably, the broader interpretation of the language will obtain. If it doesn't, that may be an early sign that federal officials aren't really serious about developing what most people would consider to be true molecular manufacturing. Let's hope it doesn't.

Thank you, Instapundit! I no longer feel I'm a voice in the wilderness.


Tuesday, November 25, 2003

NanoBusiness As Usual

There's an interesting passage in a positively giddy-sounding NanoBusiness Alliance newsletter: "(The nanotech bill), contrary to earlier drafts, does not develop an elaborate feasibility study of Drexler style molecular manufacturing."

Congratulations. You must be very proud.

"NanoBusiness News, The Leading Voice of the Nanotech Revolution," goes on to thank all those who, I presume, helped to strip the bill of some of its vision: "If there is any justice a hundred years from now you will be in history books for the leadership and effort you all showed."

Indeed. The first rough drafts are being scribbled right now.

One more interesting choice of words in a quote from F. Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance: "Both sides of the aisle in Senate should be commended for their FORESIGHT and hard work in getting this bill through."

OK. The bold caps are mine.


Intel's 'Nano Inside'

Intel says it's now a master of the 65-nanometer domain. But are these nanochips truly "nanotechnology?" I was surprised when "Engines of Creation" and "Nanosystems" author Eric Drexler -- whom I had assumed to be a molecular manufacturing purist -- told me he thought they qualified.

"People sometimes perceive me as saying, 'Oh, you shouldn't use the term this new way,'" Drexler told me in October. "What I've actually been saying is we need to understand that it's being used in a new way ... that has a certain relationship to the field."

Drexler's not only glad to have Intel aboard, he's been buddying around with Paolo Gargini, director of technology strategy for Intel.

But here's the real reason he's welcoming the chip industry to his nano lair (and these are my words, not his): It's a great gateway drug for the general public. If consumers think of Intel's tiny chips as "nanotechnology," then that can replace the negative images of far-away or far-fetched doomsday scenarios being planted elsewhere. If just a simple leap beyond the nano barrier can enable faster, cheaper computing devices with cooler graphics, just think what molecular or quantum computing will bring.

"I think it should be made very clear to everyone that today's Intel chips are, according to the official definition, 'nanotechnology.' There's nanotechnology in your laptop. Are you afraid of your laptop, other than because of the operating system?" he grinned.

This line of argument does beat the ongoing nanotech "debate," which sounded a bit like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First" when I heard Drexler describe it:

    "People who are uncomfortable with the long-term (consequences) would say, 'No, that's not real, that's impossible.' Those who understand that it's real, it is possible would say, 'This is real, this is possible.' The press would hear this as, 'It's imminent,' and you'd go around again because people would say, 'It's hype, it's not imminent.' Well, no one said it was imminent. We said it was possible ... "

Drexler optimistically placed this vaudevillian level of debate in the past tense, but I'm not sure we've quite moved on yet.

Back to the Intel story. If you're curious about "strained silicon," which is the "nano inside" Intel's new chips, Small Times' Jack Mason was well ahead of the pack with this report from September 2002. At the time, Cientifica's Tim Harper called it "physics rather than nanotechnology."

Physics? He's our shortstop, and we're not even talking about him.


J.R.R. Nano

'Matrix,' other geek icons become philosophy-class fodder:

    Some people think we should stop all research into genetics, robotics and nanotechnology because they have the potential to destroy the human race, said Schick. "We should throw these technologies back into the fire," just like the Council of Elrond voted to destroy the One Ring of Sauron, the Dark Lord, he said.

Oh, brother. Please stop. Please, please stop.


Nano Boy Band

Thank you, FutureFeedForward:

    "The band, known as "5-N-Love," consists of five autonomous, nanoscopic animatrons, each equipped with full-range, posable bucky-ball-and-socket joints, a quantum-computational "nervous system," and a signature hairstyle. "Beau is the cute one," explains Professor Stone, "while Jack's a little more mysterious, a little 'dangerous."


Monday, November 24, 2003

Nano's got a brand-new bag: Politics

Tim Harper and Paul Holister at Cientifica ask in their latest edition of TNT Weekly whether anybody here in the colonies actually read the nanotech bill (PDF, 56.1 KB) or understand what nanotechnology is.

They take swipes at the bill's provision for a "one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly …" and correctly point out the absurdity of the U.S. government requiring a study to prove that what has already been accomplished, can in fact be accomplished.

Harper and Holister go on to say:

    We assume that the report actually intended here to refer to the creation of materials and devices using the hypothetical, and controversial, molecular assemblers that are a part of the Drexlerian vision of 'molecular nanotechnology' (or zettatechnology, to use the latest label), and the resulting notion of molecular manufacturing. The fact that the bill made it this far containing such a basic, and fundamentally important, error is somewhat worrying, as it indicates that at least this part of the document has not been checked by anyone with a basic understanding of nanotechnology.

Tim and Paul know that I'm a fan of their work (and I've told them so), but I'm going to have to disagree with them on this one. The bill's language is no "error." The document was checked very carefully by those who understand nanotechnology. It's just that nano's got a brand-new branch: "political nanotechnology" (How about "polinanotech," since we're coining new terms these days?)

The original House version (PDF 99.4 KB) of the bill -- now worth only its weight in Thanksgiving Parade confetti --contained a provision to study "molecular manufacturing."

I'm not ordinarily a conspiracy theorist, but this one is obvious. So, I hereby retract what I wrote last week about molecular manufacturing proponents having cause to celebrate, and I once again wonder out loud why Congress – despite last week's inspirational rhetoric in the House and Senate – appears to be afraid of simply asking a question.

There are ongoing efforts to find out.


We're Number 6!

This site won the weekly Top Ten Blog awardNanoBot is in the weekly Top Ten BlogSpot sites for the week, according to a note I received this morning from Yes, this and four bucks will get me an eggnog latte at Starbucks, but it's still good to know that a few people read this blog last week. The Bloggerforum site puts Howard Lovy's NanoBot at No. 6 for the week. No. 1 is Where is Raed?, the famous Baghdad Blogger that put us all on the map -- not bad company for a niche technology/science blog.

Here's what Bloggerforum tells me about the selection process.

    We simply let Google make the selections. We limit the Google search to Blog*Spot hosted sites and we limit the search time to the prior one-week period. This allows newer sites a chance to compete. This is mostly for fun and the method used is far from scientific. Still, it does indicate that Google considers your site important in comparison to other blogs in that one-week period.


Sunday, November 23, 2003

Stairway to Heaven

space elevator

The Space Elevator: You've seen it legitimized, lampooned and blogged, but here you can see it beautifully illustrated. Even if you think the idea preposterous that nanotubes will buy us a stairway to heaven, it's still nice to imagine. This illustration was done by Chris Wren, who makes a living using his imagination at Mondolithic Studios with his partner, Kenn Brown. I'll let Chris explain why and how he came up with this Space Elevator illustration:

    I did this piece for a commission we got from Focus magazine in Italy. Seems like the old idea of the space elevator is starting to be taken seriously again. The article's focus (no pun intended) was how new materials such as carbon nanotubes are finally showing promise in overcoming some of the technical and engineering challenges presented by such a massive project.

    I've always been fascinated by the idea of a space elevator, ever since I read Arthur C. Clarke's "Fountains of Paradise." But when I started to look for reference images on Google, I was surprised at how little there was. I found a few images, but they didn't really seem to suggest the sense of extreme height and perspective that I thought would be cool.

    I used 3DS Max to model and texture the elevator itself. Then I took it into Photoshop, and added a lot of the small accent lights. The Earth itself is a composite of NASA images, and satellite cloud imagery. I did up the city lights with MAYA's paint effects, and some hand brush work in Photoshop. The final image size was 6000X3000 pixels, at 72pp1.

    There was a symposium last year to discuss practical plans for the design and construction of a space elevator. Arthur C. Clarke himself even made a live speech via satellite from his home in Sri Lanka - a likely location for a space elevator by the way. Sadly, the participants agreed that the biggest hurdle to overcome was not technical - but the threat of terrorism. That's why the elevator is now being planned to be anchored to a midocean platform at some point on the equator.


Lost and Foundry -- The Sequel

From the Berkeley Daily Planet, a follow-up to this post.


Friday, November 21, 2003

'Societal Concerns' vs. Scientific Accuracy

My latest column is posted over at Small Times. It's about how the media can give the false impression that there are competing, but equally valid, bodies of research in areas of scientific disagreement. We're seeing this in general media reports on nanotechnology, which often give the impression that there is equal division between those who promote and oppose a moratorium on its development. I've delved into the issue before over here, too.

A few thoughts from my column that were left on the cutting-room floor:

If societal concerns are going to be taken into account, we need to look at how the society is being informed. The new American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center authorized by the nanotech bill should ask that question, as well. Any study on "societal impact" of a technology is also, by definition, a measure of the prejudices and preconceptions the public holds -- based in part on how the technology is explained to them. To take a reading of "societal concerns" is to measure popularly held beliefs, rather than scientific fact. Those who have assigned themselves the mission of informing society should, in theory, try as best they can to reconcile the two.

Christine Peterson at the Foresight Institute says that it's ultimately up to the scientists, themselves, if they want their story communicated properly. "It is a responsibility of scientists and technologists to educate the public. If they can't stand to deal with the media, they can go directly to the public via the Web and by writing books." But to do that is to also alienate themselves among their colleagues. Carl Sagan, she pointed out, paid a price in reputation among his peers for stooping so low as to try to communicate effectively to the uneducated.

Aside from the Royal Society's groundbreaking efforts, there are other projects that aim to bridge this gap of understanding. A European organization called the GreenFacts Foundation is working with scientists to help ensure that nonspecialists understand important scientific information.


Thursday, November 20, 2003

Nano bill passes the House

nanobill It's done. With some speechifying but no argument, the House passed the nanotech bill. Next stop is the president.

  • Here's the latest Small Times report.
  • The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology says it likes the bill, particularly, of course, the provisions to study environmental impact.

      "An open and honest evaluation of all the potential impacts of nanotechnology is vital to the long-term success of nanotechnology ," said Kristen Kulinowski, executive director for education and public policy, in a prepared statement. "By promoting research on both the beneficial applications and potential implications of nanotechnology, this provision ensures that nanotechnology's benefits are maximized."

  • Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, places the vote before an epic backdrop:

      “When one looks at the next 100 years of human development and the growth of the global economy, no vote taken by Congress in the past decade will have a greater effect then today’s overwhelming passage of the nanotechnology bill."


It's the nano economy, stupid

On Nov. 24, economists and urban planners will discuss how nanotechnology could become an engine of economic creation for Portland, Ore. The Hillsboro Argus reports the event will be Webcast and viewers will be able to e-mail questions.

The event, itself, is a question: "Will Nanotech Re-seed the Silicon Forest?" It's an important one to answer for a region that is struggling against a stubborn jobless rate, according to this report in the Portland Business Tribune.

It's no accident that one of the key drivers of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act (PDF, 56.1 KB) is Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. The bill charges the National Science and Technology Council with encouraging "... the employment of underutilized manufacturing facilities in areas of high unemployment as production engineering and research testbeds ..."

Job creation and economic boostrapping is the undertone to world political and business leaders' abrupt discovery of nanotechnology (albeit a "nanotechnology" that is a more-direct cousin to the chemicals and materials industries, since true bottom-up molecular manufacturing isn't likely to create very many new jobs in the short term). This just-below-the-surface, almost desperate wish that nanotechnology will succeed as a last best hope for the economy is infused into discussions not just in Oregon, but everywhere from Upstate New York to Down Under.

But you don't find a great deal of reporting on this in larger publications, which focus mainly on the technological and controversial angles to the story. For the most part, you need to look at your local newspaper or chamber of commerce calendar of events to find out the extent to which your community leaders hope that nano is the answer.

As we've seen from Philly to Atlanta, Rushford to Russia, the fresh money being poured into nano development worldwide is not a story that should remain relegated to the geek ghettos of the science and technology sections, but it's also front-page news about the future of manufacturing and employment.

That's one reason Congress has taken a sudden interest in nanotechnology.


Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Senate passes compromise nano bill

Rather than create 100 new posts a minute, I'll use this link as Nano Bill Central. Check back here and at Small Times for updates.

  • Proponents of molecular manufacturing (see my previous post) will be happy to see this:
    • STUDY ON MOLECULAR SELF-ASSEMBLY- As part of the first triennial review conducted in accordance with subsection (a), the National Research Council shall conduct a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale.

  • To the above, The Speculist speculates, tongue firmly in cheek: "Damn. Too bad molecular manufacturing is impossible, or this would be really exciting."
  • Here's the final version (PDF, 56.1 KB) of the nanotech bill that passed in the Senate. Thank you to Tim Kyger at the Foresight Institute and Glenn Reynolds at InstaPundit.
  • Here's what the NanoBusiness Alliance has to say about the compromise bill.
  • Presidential candidate Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of the bill's co-sponsors, has posted his Congressional Record statement.
  • And scroll down about midway through this link from to read what Sen. George Allen, the bill's sponsor, had to say on the Senate floor.
  • The latest from Small Times' Washington Correspondent:

      Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the bill's sponsor in the House and chairman of the Science Committee, said today that the House could take up the Senate bill "in the next 24 hours," although a committee aide said it could slip to the end of the week. Boehlert said the bill has the support of Republicans and Democrats and should easily pass.


      Tim Kyger, the Washington representative for the Foresight Institute, a nanotech think tank, said he was pleased to see the bill includes two provisions that were particularly important to his organization. They included a feasibility study on molecular manufacturing and a more expanded definition of nanotechnology that "covers the idea of molecular machinery and manufacturing."

  • Interesting comments from nano researcher Daniel Moore.

  • Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a bill co-sponsor, is looking at it from a purely parochial point of view, telling the Albany Business Review:

      "Nanotechnology research and development is important to the economic future of New York and the nation. This legislation is an example of our continuing commitment to promoting New York's extremely skilled workforce, high-tech capabilities, and world class research facilities."

  • The silicon industry is working toward or at the nanometer scale, therefore electronics are reborn as nanoelectronics. More importantly for them:

      The industry expects that NSF will award $4 to 8 million in the next year on Silicon Nanoelectronics and Beyond related research as part of the NSF's Priority Area of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, and, with today's passage of the Nanotechnology Act, anticipates that this can grow significantly over time."


Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Nanobionic man

JakeI haven't seen "Jake 2.0" yet. I'm probably too old for that demographic, but as a '70s child who grew up running in slow motion while humming the theme music to "The Six Million Dollar Man," I'm sure I'd be watching this one if I had a bit more time -- or a TiVo -- on my hands. But bionics are so '70s, and nanobots are now the rage. Some critics apparently like the formula, according to

    "Where "The Flash" gained super speed from the combination of being doused in chemicals and struck by lightning, Jake gainscleg his abilities from having nanobots [molecule sized computers, programmed to keep a living organism in perfect health] invade his body when their container breaks and cuts his arm. In short, he becomes a version of "The Six Million Dollar Man" only his technology is actually a living part of him - where Steve Austin's abilities, though a part of him, remained inorganic attachments."
Laugh if you'd like, but reality does occasionally catch up with fiction. Just ask Curtis Grimsley, a World Trade Center worker whose life was saved by a C-Leg on Sept. 11, 2001. It's not exactly the $6 million ('70s money) "better, stronger, faster" bionics that CBS envisioned, but it did the job for Grimsley.



I'm a bit slow this morning. Took me a while to realize this is satire.


Monday, November 17, 2003

*:nanotechnology - OneLook Dictionary Search

A quick "nanotechnology" search on OneLook's new Reverse Dictionary returns the following eclectic results:

    1. engines of creation 2. medical nanotechnology 3. cognotechnology 4. nanowire 5. ralph merkle 6. carbon nanotube 7. hedonistic imperative 8. diamondoid 9. grey goo 10. k. eric drexler 11. chris phoenix 12. foresight institute 13. mems 14. clanking replicator 15. nanomedicine 16. sub-molecular engineering 17. fungimol 18. nanoengineering 19. the diamond age 20. fluidic triode 21. futurism (philosophy) 22. posthumanism 23. david pearce 24. transhumanist socialism

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Lost and Foundry

As this Berkeley Daily Planet story illustrates, using the term foundry for a molecular research lab might not have been the best choice of names in a neighborhood where they protest first, ask questions later. Monday's meeting should be interesting.


Nanodays on Ice

The cryonics optimists are on ice unil nano saves the world, while this group is launching the lifeboats; nano iceberg ahead.


Parallel Nanoverse

The word "nanotechnology" appears to straddle a fissure in the multiverse. When theorists, chemists, physicists, ethicists and journalists talk with one another about nanotechnology, their conversations appear to exist on oddly divergent levels of understanding. They utter the same word at one another, yet premises, images, definitions are scrambled as the word slips between realities.

Great Britain's Guardian newspaper recently asked the nanotech question of the millennium: Should we be scared?

After reading the article, my conclusion is, "yes," we should be scared. We should be very scared. Not scared of nanotechnology in itself, but of this line of understanding that is so thin (thinner than a human hair?), we do not even realize that are failing to communicate. We are tricked into believing that we all have the same elementary understanding of what the argument is about.

This Guardian story fascinated me because it was a very informative report on nanotechnology as it exists in the lab today. Yet, a "voice" from the writer's keyboard, which may as well have come from the other side of a black hole, chimes in at random, making me wonder whether the narrator has read his own report.

    "And the term has been stretched by scientists keen to be involved in the nanotech revolution. For them, anything remotely small becomes nanotechnology."
Which scientists are guilty of this crime? He doesn't say. This "voice" then fades away again, and we're back to reading a fairly accurate description of nano as it exists today.

Then, the "voice" comes echoing again from somewhere in the space-time continuum.

    "Even if scientists knew how to build things from individual atoms and molecules, though, it's questionable whether they would know quite what to build."

Really? Well, in the universe I live in, the scientists who are working on bottom-up assembly are doing so because they know exactly what they want to build - from better computers to better clothing, and all levels of importance and frivolity in between.

It's clear that there are two concepts, two universes, of nanotechnology dancing a bolero – at times standing head to head, other times abruptly stamping and turning.

For now, the chemicals and materials industry have taken the name and the mantle of nanotech "reality." Yet it is molecular nanotechnology, as yet in the realm of the theoretical, that commands the real passion. This thing, this creature or creator, from a parallel universe, continues to weave its way into our debates over policy, ethics and possible futures.

Last month, Eric Drexler floated a new word past me - Zettatech - asked for my reaction, and then swore me to secrecy. The word is out now, and I'll have more to say on it later.