Tuesday, January 06, 2004

It's about vision, not nanobots

A reader affiliated with the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office challenged me recently on some of my commentaries on molecular manufacturing as a policy goal. The reader said that government funded research on "nanoscale manufacturing" is already under way, pointing me to these projects.

I responded that those are all very worthwhile areas of study, especially since they appear to reflect a healthy balance between the advancement of nanotech as both a business and a science. Government funding for these kinds of projects -- on a piecmeal basis -- has been going on for a while, and I'm certain will continue. These researchers are the ones who are doing the important work, away from the spotlight, and will emerge with some amazing discoveries in nanoscale manufacturing.

In fact, the spirit of these kinds of grants runs counter to the words I'm hearing from some government and business spokespeople, who have declared nanoscale self-replication (and I'm not certain that the projects cited delve into that) to be impossible.

To me, the separate issue is one of government vision and priorities. My main argument is that U.S. policymakers need to rise above the commerce side of the debate and help encourage development of nanoscience without letting business interests become the sole driver of the research. As this NNCO reader pointed out, that is not entirely the case, but reading the nanotech bill alone, you'd think that the government's central goal was to spin off companies and develop new products. Is that it?

The proposed center to study nanotech's impact on society is a step in the right direction, but with only one model of nanotechnology deemed legitimate, I'm not certain what exactly will be studied. Many of the "societal and ethical implications" research that I've come across either assumes that molecular manufacturing is feasible, or is concerned with how to fight negative or misleading images of nanotechnology.

In other words, is the study of "societal implications" another way to control the message by stamping out all "incorrect" images of nanotech? It's very bizarre. I hear all the time that the nanotech business community and the government want to avoid another "GMO"-type controversy. So, its solution is to create a center on ethics that will discuss how to manage and conrol image and public perception?

It was determined that a feasibility study on MNT was not the best use of government resources, but a center for image control was deemed money well spent.

As the NNCO reader pointed out, though, there is research going on in molecular manufacturing -- even government-sponsored research -- just as there are government-funded projects to study societal and ethical implications. As the nanotech bill was being formulated, though, it was determined that research into societal and ethical implications should come together into a new center, while research into nanoscale manufacturing -- for various reasons -- was determined to be too "out there," not the best use of government resources and certainly not worthy of a national goal.

Shameless self-promotion

First, you learn it here, then from every fool on the street.

Monday, January 05, 2004

Unauthorized uses of 'nano'

britneyCease and desist orders are being sent to the following perpetrators:

    Britney Spears' Nano-Nuptials

    The fruit passes under the Autoline, which needs barely a nano-second to identify each piece by size.

    Celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the school, St. Catherine had a Nano Nagle celebration on Nov. 21.

    Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano

News in a NanoSecond


Friday, January 02, 2004

Love in the Time of Crichton

Michael Crichton's "Prey" is in paperback, and apparently available in Thailand. Here's a piece of a review from the Bangkok Post:

    "Authors are expected to exaggerate to make their point and Crichton is no exception. Having characters assume shapes of one another, change sex, appear and disappear, kissing the choice way of passing on infections are a bit much. Not least when bodies turn to dust, then reform.

    "Swarms of micro-processors and laboratory-developed molecules have intelligence and are able to reproduce, melting down micro-chips in human machines. They enter the engineers via kissing at the facility, with the exception of Jack and his assistant Mae."

Makes you wonder whether Rick Smalley's argument against molecular nanotechnology was based on a reading of "Prey":

    "You still do not appear to understand the impact of my short piece in Scientific American. Much like you can't make a boy and a girl fall in love with each other simply by pushing them together, you cannot make precise chemistry occur as desired between two molecular objects with simple mechanical motion along a few degrees of freedom in the assembler-fixed frame of reference. Chemistry, like love, is more subtle than that. You need to guide the reactants down a particular reaction coordinate, and this coordinate treads through a many-dimensional hyperspace."

Speaking of "Prey," I thought I'd make myself known on the Michael Crichton message board and see if anybody in that audience is interested in delving deeper.

And from NanoDot, comes news of a speech by Crichton at CalTech, in which he derides "consensus science." Crichton says:

    Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had. Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics."

Apparently, Mr. Crichton has been following nanotech nonfiction, as well.

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Update on human nanofactory experiment

dababe      kid

Excellent, excellent. My experiment in bottom-up molecular manufacturing is proceeding as planned. Note the self-assembly evident between Nov. 3 at left and Dec. 29 at right. The subject is apparently a future NBA or WNBA star. Gender is still undetermined, as the specimen would not hold still long enough, yet it seems to resemble my wife in its tall physical stature. Spouse says the creature's apparent "monkey head" (photo at right) must come from my section of the gene pool.

News in a NanoSecond

Monday, December 29, 2003

News in a NanoSecond

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

2003: The Year of the Straw NanoMan

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.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

'How The Schmirk Stole Nanotechnology'


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
    Was VILE!

    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!
    ...But HOW?"

    Then he got an idea!
    An 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.

Monday, December 22, 2003

News in a NanoSecond

  • Italian "nano" story before Google English translation … and after
  • Nano's beginning to look a lot like commerce
  • Amen, brother George; your son is living proof that the children are skeptical, not "scared."
  • Speaking of "new chemistry …"

Bang! Zoom! To The Moon!

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.
Hmm, indeed.


Friday, December 19, 2003

News in a NanoSecond


  • Here's a TV episode plot synopsis via Filmjerk.com:
    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."

  • weevil

  • Scientists hatch their weevil plans for living nanosphere factories.
  • Christine Peterson's Elements of Vision
  • Nonspooky nanopundit
  • Discuss

    Thursday, December 18, 2003

    Agitation anticipation

    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?


    Wednesday, December 17, 2003

    Eine Kleine Nanomusik

    homepodI'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 ...


    Tuesday, December 16, 2003

    Is nano business nanotechnology? 'Irrelevant '

    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."


    'All The News That's (---) To Print'

    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.


    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.