Wednesday, December 24, 2003
Ronald Bailey, in his very reasonable piece about the "growing peril" of a nanotechnology moratorium," asserts that anti-nano activists "cannot be lightly dismissed."
I agree to a point, having made similar assertions myself, but after speaking and listening to a number of business and government leaders, I can't help but think that activists like Pat Mooney of the ETC Group might be the best thing that's happened to the nanotech industry.
When it comes to the environmental debate, the handful of people who call for a moratorium on nano research conveniently play the role of the straw enemy of nanoprogress, since their pseudoscience can easily be attacked. That is what I was thinking as I listened to Phil Bond, the U.S. Commerce Department's undersecretary for technology, give an eloquent speech recently in Chicago. He told the audience of businesspeople that a nanotech research moratorium would, itself, be "unethical" because it would delay development of technologies that could improve the quality of human life and the environment.
Of course, you can't argue with that. He's right. However, in effect, Bond and others are rallying the nanotech troops by telling them who their enemies are, and warning of dire consequences if these enemies crash through the city walls and begin to plunder and pillage. The only way to fight is to gather around the "correct" nanotech vision as defined by the government and business community.
I'm not talking solely about the marginalization of the kind of nanotechnology proposed by Drexler and others. Since the science behind molecular manufacturing is too complicated to debunk in sound bites, they needed a Rick Smalley up there to misrepresent Drexler's ideas, and then open the straw Drexler up to ridicule.
But the more-subtle trick is that by identifying enemies – whether it's environmentalist hippie wackos or science-fiction enthusiasts with no social lives – the business community has taken control of the nanotechnology vision and agenda.
Business interests, of course, represent an important piece of the total nano puzzle, but it is not the only piece. I have nothing against business. Some of my best friends are … Well, I also believe in the American cliché that greed can, indeed, be good, if you tap into corporate self-interest. DuPont is on the advisory board of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology because it makes business sense to be there. You can also expect some new studies on the environmental impact of nanomaterials to come out of DuPont in the coming months. The company certainly does not want to find out a few years from now that its products are harming people or the environment – or at least are perceived to be harmful. Bad for business.
I also believe that business is a necessary tool to enable the larger vision. Businesspeople can be visionaries, themselves. I've even met a few. But they, alone, almost by definition, will not necessarily follow through with the high-minded ideals espoused now by government and business leaders – not when the profit motive is the only guiding principle.
Do you want proof? Well, wasn't the Internet supposed to enable a new world of democratic participation and equal access to information? Sure, we'll get closer to that ideal, eventually. But right now, with commerce the sole driving force of the Internet Revolution, we have only one truly successful e-commerce model: pornography.
So, since everybody is doing a "year in review" piece, here's mine in a "nanosecond." Nanotech purists cannot see how nanotechnology could be treated as merely a business proposition, while businesspeople cannot see how it could be treated as anything else.
And that brings us to 2004. Here's to a truly nano New Year.
Happy Holidays to all.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/24/2003 12:39:00 PM
Tuesday, December 23, 2003
By popular demand, enjoy:
- 'How The Schmirk Stole Nanotechnology'
(A Fantasy of Science)
With abject apologies to Dr. Suess
By J. Storrs Hall
Every Nerd down in Shopton
Was a Future-o-phile...
But the Schmirk
Thought the future they wanted
The Schmirk hated the future! Hated nanotechnology!
Rejected the vision, no hint of apology!
Wanted people to age without cell repair,
and never have cars that could fly through the air.
(It is not understood, what could cast this great pall,
Tho t'was rumored his brain was two sizes too small.)
Nobody knows why, but consider the following:
The Schmirk had a penchant for public-trough wallowing.
If the Nerds got the grant money, surely, he figured,
his own cut of the take was quite sure to be jiggered.
For the stuff that he claimed he could do in his lab
Looked, beside nanotech, just a bit drab.
So he stood in his lab with his anger fermenting,
for surely in Shopton the Nerds were inventing.
Molecular gadgets! Atomically true!
Tips that did chemistry! Undid it too!
Assemblers to build us a bridge to the stars;
Programmable matter; and yes, flying cars!
Whatever his motives, the Schmirk, on the eve,
of a great science breakthrough, could only feel peeve.
He hated the Nerds and their whole future vision,
And sneered at their plans with no little derision.
"They're playing with molecules," muttered the Schmirk.
"They're building machines, and they're making them work!"
"They've designed nanofactories!" Snarling and scoffing,
"Home synthesizers are soon in the offing!"
Then he growled, with his schmirk fingers nervously drumming,
"I MUST find a way to keep nano from coming!"
It was quite bad enough they would have flying cars,
and personal spaceships, and houses on Mars;
But the thing that most greatly disgruntled the Schmirk,
Was the prospect of people not having to work.
They would chatter and travel and party and play,
Oh, they'd play, and they'd play, and they'd play EVERYDAY!
That was something the Schmirk couldn't stomach -- No way!
So he sneered with a scowl and a frown on his brow,
"I MUST keep this Breakthrough from coming!
Then he got an idea!
An awful idea!
GOT A WONDERFUL, AWFUL IDEA!
"Here is what must be done," said the Schmirk with a sneer,
And he called in his minions from far, wide, and near.
"We'll discredit the science, spread doubt and derision,
Politically swaying the funders' decision!"
And he quickly distributed papers and articles,
Detailing troubles with moving small particles.
Then the Schmirk told his minions -- they, scientists all,
All grasping for funding for labs large and small,
"That isn't physics, materials science,
Not even chemistry; join my alliance --
It doesn't matter what you used to do;
We're ALL doing NANOTECHNOLOGY too!"
So they went, hat in hand, down to old Foggy Bottom,
And they dickered for grants -- and by cracky, they got 'em!
"See? WE're nanotech now," said the Schmirk in a huff.
"You Nerds down in Shopton, you're pretty small stuff."
We've got the funding, and we've got the labs,
And all the ideas you had, they're up for grabs."
But the Schmirk didn't stop at that -- "No," he averred,
"I'll stop any funding for even one Nerd!"
So he called in his minions again, did the Schmirk,
And said "Find me proof that THEIR nano WON'T WORK!"
So his minions at once hurried back to their labs,
And prodded and poked what they had on their slabs,
And dickered and whined till their voices were shrill,
And returned to the Schmirk and said, "Sorry... IT WILL!"
But the Schmirk wasn't flustered. "No problem," he said.
If I can't find the proof, I'll invent it, instead!
So he stuffed up a strawman or two, very fat,
and blustered importantly, right through his hat.
He baited and switched! He insulted and slurred!
He postured and pandered -- but spoke not a word
Of a technical nature; the crafty Schmirk knew
How to stay off the subject of what's really true.
So he jawboned and backbit and spread innuendo,
And claimed the Nerds were just playing Nintendo;
It was just science fiction, religion, and games;
While calling them "dreamers" and other bad names.
So the Schmirk got the funding -- he got ALL the money.
No bureaucrat noticed that something was funny:
He'd promised them nanotech wonders and fun,
telling everyone else that it couldn't be done!
Then the Schmirk took the money, with morals quite stinky,
back to do yesterday's science ... how dinky!
Then a funny thing happened -- in labs the world over,
People saw that TRUE nano could put them in clover.
So in spite of the ridicule, quashing their fears,
They soon started building molecular gears,
Also bearings and shafts -- with no help from the voters,
The next thing you saw was molecular motors.
Then came the announcement, with no warning tremblor,
Someone had successfully built an assembler!
The Schmirk was astounded, as if by a blast;
He hadn't stopped nano -- just made US come last.
And then, for what may be the first time that year,
A new thought occured -- and it wiped out his sneer:
For while, as the Schmirk stood and wrestled the thought,
He learned what for years he'd pretended he'd taught:
What if knowledge and science were not just a game?
Maybe truth -- for its own sake -- was better than fame?
And then the true meaning of science burst through,
And the Schmirk realized something the Nerds always knew:
Nature's book never closes. The knowledge is there
For any who'll read it -- if only we dare.
T'isn't quite clear what happened; but some people say
That the Schmirk's tiny brain grew three sizes that day.
So he hurriedly went to the lab, it appears,
To work on molecular motors and gears.
So he now helps humanity reach for the stars,
And he himself -- the Schmirk --
built the first house on Mars.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/23/2003 01:32:00 PM
Monday, December 22, 2003
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/22/2003 12:37:00 PM
Wall Street Journal columnist Alan Murray says President Bush plans to call for a "moon shot -- or its moral equivalent -- in the State of the Union address ..." Murray writes that what's needed is a "national goal that all Americans can feel good about," and he has a few suggestions (subscription only). Here's one:
- There's also probably a worthy national goal in the field of nanotechnology, but I haven't figured out what it is. The Commerce Department's Bruce Mehlman insists the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level promises "more change in the next 30 years than we saw in all of the 20th century." In a recent speech, he offered this as an example: "Imagine having your clothes adjust to changing weather conditions, monitor your vital signs, or protect your wounds." Hmm.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/22/2003 08:58:00 AM
Friday, December 19, 2003
Century City: “To Know Her, has the lawyers working
on a nano-rape. A woman’s ex-boyfriend injects her
with nanobots so he can feel everything that she feels."
tvtome.com says Century City, a CBS show that will launch in January,
is a "legal drama set 50 years in the future that will speculate
on how the legal system will change by then."
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/19/2003 10:12:00 AM
Thursday, December 18, 2003
Sorry again for the prolonged NanoBot silence. I'm on another deadline cycle, and I spent an unusual amount of time writing my column for the January/February issue of Small Times Magazine. As you might have guessed, I'm writing about the nanotech bill. I'm feeling some extra self-imposed pressure on this column because of the unique nature of my particular readership, which is a mix of business leaders, government officials, scientists, futurists, molecular manufacturing proponents and journalists.
I've taken positions that might annoy some of Small Times' core business readership, so I need to take extra care (not that I don't ordinarily do that, anyway!). I have a feeling that every word will be scrutinized and criticized.
I'm a big boy, and I can take it. But I've gathered a great deal of insight from the major figures on all sides of the debate over nanotechnology's future, and feel an extra sense of responsibility to make sure I characterize their positions properly, even if I ultimately disagree with them. What I don't want to become is simply another loud voice. It's tough to do that in 850 words, so some of what was left on the cutting room floor will end up on this blog.
Small Times doesn't like me to give my magazine stuff away for free until after the print edition comes out, so you'll need to wait until mid-January to read it. Basically, though, I simply ask a few questions. Isn't our nanotech future too important for only one model to be deemed legitimate, and the others marginalized? And who's driving?
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/18/2003 12:12:00 PM
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
I've rarely strayed from nano on this blog, but I'll do it now because ... well, because I can. My brother bloggers at Slashdot are all abuzz over a cool new product built by my actual genetic brother. Gloolabs, whose CTO is this Dan Lovy character, produced a new Java powered home entertainment device that will simplify sharing computer music files among computers and stereos in connected homes. Gloolabs' Gloo is Java middleware that puts an iPod-like interface on music files it "discovers" around the network. Gloo is available now on one device that runs embedded Linux.
Gloolabs is currently taking orders for the $250 MacSense HomePod, the first Gloo-based device, which will ship in January 2004. A limited quantity of the $350 Developer Edition is available now.
The open-source nano people who read this blog might be interested in knowing that Gloolabs is currently bootstrapping a Gloo developer community. Maybe the NanoBot readers who are trying to build a desktop molecular assembler could add a Gloo feature to make it play some cool tunes while you plot world domination.
Oh, not mentioned on the Gloo site is the fact that another of my brothers, Elliot Lovy, is one of the tireless behind-the-scenes coders. Yes, I encourage shameless nepotism. Prove you're related to me and I'll promote your product. OK. Back to nano ...
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/17/2003 03:13:00 PM
Tuesday, December 16, 2003
Dean Takahashi, in his Mercury News report on Nano-Tex, does something that I haven't seen in most other general-interest "nanopants" stories. He drives directly to the scene of the collision: the crossroads of nanobusiness and nanoscience. He does it in just four concise paragraphs. Pay special attention to the last one.
- On the other hand, some would argue that Nano-Tex's brand of nanotechnology, which assembles a tiny but simple structure at the nanometer scale but doesn't create any complex devices at that level, isn't really nanotechnology.
"It's really just better chemistry,'' said Robert Morris, director of the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose. "It doesn't mean that nanocomputers are just around the corner.''
Nano-Care inventor David Soane counters that Nano-Tex really has created a nanotechnology product because the company designed its chemicals to assemble themselves into precise structures on a molecular level. "There really is an art to it,'' said Soane, who serves as Nano-Tex's chairman.
On a business level, it's irrelevant whether Nano-Care is "true'' nanotechnology. In just a couple of years, Nano-Tex has licensed Nano-Care to about 50 apparel companies. Sprayed onto jeans, it is the stuff that makes clothes sold by Levi's, Eddie Bauer, Gap and Old Navy stain-resistant."
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/16/2003 03:30:00 PM
The New York Times is running a letter to the editor from Eric Drexler in today's Science section. In it, Drexler responds to last week's NYT piece on the molecular manufacturng debate. Drexler believes the reporter framed the issue improperly by focusing, again, on "nanobots," rather than his real molecular manufacturing ideas.
However, according to a note Drexler forwarded to me, the Times discarded a key quote from his letter and modified the last sentence, thus failing to completely set the record straight.
Here's a link to today's edited letter as it appeared in the New York Times (You'll need to register for free to read it), and below is the original, unedited text of the letter, as sent to me by Drexler:
- To the Editor:
Re: "Yes, They Can! No, They Can't,'' (Dec. 9): The article says the nanotechnology debate is about "whether it is possible to build a nanobot.'' This ignores the central issue - the feasibility of molecular manufacturing - in which nanobots play no role. Indeed, the article quotes my statement that nanofactories will use "no swarms of roaming, replicating nanobots.''
The article neglects critical policy and security issues. Molecular machinery will increase manufacturing productivity a million-fold, yet our national nanotechnology effort now excludes work toward this goal. In a competitive world, continuing this policy would amount to unilateral disarmament.
Focusing on imaginary nanobots may appeal to a fraction of your readers, but it leaves the serious science and policy issues unexamined.
Dr. K. Eric Drexler
Los Altos, Calif.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/16/2003 07:03:00 AM
Monday, December 15, 2003
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."
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
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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/14/2003 10:44:00 PM
- Build your own home-brew scanning probe microscope here and scanning tunneling microscope here.
- From 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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/14/2003 12:01:00 PM
Saturday, December 13, 2003
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.
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
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/13/2003 09:53:00 PM
Friday, December 12, 2003
is allegedly fighting the "Gray Goo-Goo" menace.
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!
I 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 Google 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 Midwest. 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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/12/2003 09:10:00 AM
Wednesday, December 10, 2003
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.
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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/10/2003 01:25:00 PM
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
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?
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/09/2003 01:18:00 PM
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."
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/09/2003 08:09:00 AM
Sunday, December 07, 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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/07/2003 11:31:00 PM
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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/07/2003 11:02:00 PM
Saturday, December 06, 2003
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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/06/2003 04:39:00 PM
Friday, December 05, 2003
Yet 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 About.com. 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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/05/2003 05:46:00 PM
Thursday, December 04, 2003
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
- Charles Choi of UPI says the nano act "just might live up to its potential."
- Sittin' on the Quantum Dot of the Bay
- Sen. Wyden brings it home to FEI
- Quantum Investing author Steve Waite predicts Nanosys IPO in 2004 or 2005, but look what happened to Nanogen's share price just yesterday.
- Nanometrics isn't nano, but don't tell that to investors
- "Howard's view has since been firmly backed up from other quarters."
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/04/2003 08:54:00 AM
Wednesday, December 03, 2003
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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/03/2003 03:24:00 PM
- "… kind of entertaining to see two reknowned academics get pissy with each other."
- "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.'"
- 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."
- “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.”
- 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 …"
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.
- 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."
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/03/2003 10:07:00 AM
- Mitsubishi's house that bucky built
- Show me the nano money
- Now, isn't that special ...
- Better living for DuPont
- The NanoCommerce revolution will be blogged
- Nanotubes, don't make me have to separate you
- I never met a law of physics that wasn't meant to be broken
- A chemist believes in, yet dreads, molecular-scale manufacturing
- Nano is Moto's 'secret sauce'
- Memories of the way we will be
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/03/2003 09:04:00 AM
Tuesday, December 02, 2003
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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 12/02/2003 01:18:00 PM
Monday, December 01, 2003
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
With 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.
Posted by Howard Lovy at 11/30/2003 11:47:00 PM