Monday, February 28, 2005

NanoBots control the horizontal and vertical

scifinanobots1   scifinanobots2

A couple of days a week, while my wife is at work, my 8-month-old son and I check out what's going on over at the SciFi channel. I like to watch this network to get ideas for stories (just as some of you suspected, right?). Max's attention fades in and out depending on the colors appearing on the screen, words he recognizes or whether he's busy doing some repairs on his Radio Flyer Retro Rocket (his favorite toy, of course).

Well, a few days ago we came across a nanobot-themed episode of the newer version of "The Outer Limits" called "The New Breed." I didn't find out until I looked it up online that the episode dates back to 1995.

The episode features your typical scientist -- played by Richard "John Boy Walton" Thomas -- mixing up a few test tubes of nanobots at a university lab. He's on the verge of a cure for cancer, or some other such thing, but of course his spineless employers are so worried about possible "unintended consequences" of injecting these clearly beneficent 'bots that it's unlikely they'll ever let him start human trials.

Of course, a human does start a trial of his own. A colleague diagnosed with cancer, and has nothing to lose, lets the NanoBots bunny-hop all through his bloodstream. The result? Darn things not only cured his cancer, but also his eyesight and made him better, faster, stronger in every way.

Why, those 'bots even made him better in bed!

    Girlfriend: "What's gotten into you? I've never seen you like this before."
Of course, things go wrong. Very, very wrong. He grows eyes in the back of his head (dumb), but a more believable symptom was his skin coating itself with nanobot-built nematocysts, or microscopic stinging cells used for self-protection -- presaging the era of biomimetics.

In the end, however, the only way out was to kill the human along with the nanobots and, quite disappointingly, the scientist learned his lesson and burned some papers that contained, presumably, the secret nanobot recipe.

I couldn't scrawl down the exact wording, but in the end the narrator says something like, "we must take care not to alter nature or risk being burned by the fires of creation ... "

And that's the end of that. ... Or is it? What about the girlfriend, who was on the receiving end of some pretty crafty creatures ...

Question for the class: Who is more influenced by this kind of fiction? Future anti-nanotech activists? Budding young nanoscientists? Impressionable journalists? Nobody?

NanoBot Backgrounder
Antediluvian NanoBots
Nano's most fantastic image
Stop worrying and learn to love nanobots

The FDA's need for speed

Lester Crawford's nomination to become the next commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration could be good news for nanotech companies and others who would like to see the agency put urgently needed drugs on the fast track to approval.

Crawford has said that he's looking for ways to help the FDA change "philosophies and work habits" that have stifled new innovation. He said at a Drug Information Association event last fall that the "sequencing of the human genome and the dramatic advances of genomics, proteomics, medical imaging and nanotechnology, combined with the user fee-supported acceleration of the FDA's product reviews, were expected to fill the R&D pipelines with scores of novel drugs and medical devices. That's not what happened ..."

The National Cancer Institute's Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer is pushing for improvement of this process through a number of "fast-track" mechanisms. Based on Crawford's past statements, it sounds like he's going to be very receptive to these new ideas. (Of course, he'll also need to deal with those who say what's needed is a slower track, based on recent bad calls by the FDA).

NanoBot Backgrounder
FDA tries to get a virtual grip on nano
Living on nano time
Dendrimers could have cancer in their clutches

He did say 'fantastical'

The beginning of the story was intended to be along the lines of "You've read the fiction, now here's what actually going on" and that's why I put in "fantastical" and "rampaging" (which I thought made it sound silly). I guess I could have made even snarkier. (I considered mentioning Crichton and Prince Charles explicitly, but the sentence was already long and becoming unwieldy and after all, I didn't want to give that much attention to what I didn't think was real.) The only similar reaction to yours was an email from Nathan Tinker from the NanoBusiness Alliance. Most people, I think, read it in the sense that I intended.

Kenneth Chang
Science reporter
The New York Times

Well, now I did say it was a "Great NYT piece on nanotech ..." You're probably the unjust victim of a gut reaction from a trigger-happy blogger who was eager to use your piece to try to make a larger point (a general criticism of mainstream media nanotech coverage that I think still stands).

Now, here's a great thing about blogs. They can be participatory. I'd be honored if you'd allow me to run your note in defense of your lede on my blog.

Thanks for your note, Kenneth, except I'm not certain that Nathan Tinker would enjoy being mentioned in the same sentence as Howard Lovy.


NanoBot Backgrounder
"Smalley, you ........ ...."
Pogue does the pants

NanoBot needs you, Part II

I felt a little foolish last week, requesting money from my readers -- a bit like Oral Roberts telling his flock that God would "call me home" unless I raised $8 million. Well, I managed to raise a couple hundred, and I thank everybody who pitched in. It was at least a show of hands from those who really do value the service I provide.

I had no idea that I was wandering naively into a kind of snake pit. For a "blogger," I really don't pay all that much attention to the "blogosphere" So, I did not know that I would take a few hits from the blog mob for "holding out the tip jar." To me, as a writer who's been doing this for a while, it made sense to see whether anybody wanted to pay me for my writing.

I'll say just a few words about all that, and then I'll get back to providing as much free nanotech coverage as I can.

What may set me apart from other bloggers is that this is not a hobby for me. I was a journalist before blogs existed, I'll be one after they morph into something else entirely. I also write for other publications and do consulting work for real money. But the blog is something that I put some extra time into because I believe in it as a vital part of this worldwide nanotech discussion. As I've written before, nanotech "news" is not your traditional "top-down" process. The discussion, itself, is just as important.

Unfortunately, the tradeoff is the more time I spend on the blog, the less time I have to write for money. And this has reached crisis proportions. So, again, my question to my readers is whether the blog is worth keeping alive. To help you make this determination, I'll give you a little hint of what I've been working on behind the scenes -- to the point of near exhaustion.

My goal for NanoBot is to move beyond just one guy and one blog. I'm looking to make this into a worldwide discussion. My dream is to, once again, be a news editor for a team of worldwide correspondents covering nanotech, and prompt an even larger number of professionals, policymakers and interested observers to join the conversation.

Many people have advised that I should launch my own premium newsletter. I'm certainly capable of doing that, and I have had plans in the works for newsletters focusing on nanotech as it relates to the environment, medicine, culture, defense and other issues that I write about on these pages. But to launch them now would make me just another guy launching a premium nanotech newsletter. It's not what I do. What I would need to do first is create these communities of interest, building on what I've created here during the past couple of years.

NanoMedicine, NanoEnvironment, NanoEthics, NanoEngineering, NanoCulture, NanoDefense, the whole mish-mash that you see over here, could each branch into separate NanoBot-affiliated sites, discussions, bulletin boards, matchmaking services, search engines, open-source networks, job sites, whatever the community itself would demand. What I bring is the ability to get discussions going, a worldwide audience and a reputation as the top journalist covering nanotech. Instead of lots of niche nanotech publications struggling to be noticed, just look for that NanoBot label and you'll come to expect a certain kind of community and coverage -- one that leaves everybody free to exchange ideas because it does not exist to hype anything or dismiss anything. Just keep all blows above the belt and please don't libel anybody.

I picture a front-end journalism presence through a combination of traditional news coverage and expert bloggers and journalists in key areas within those fields. I would especially like to see NanoBot-affiliated bloggers in the new university nanotech centers and degree programs being launched all over the world. On the back end would be, perhaps, some physical publications or premium newsletters depending on what the readers are demanding and what I believe advertisers could support.

To me, it doesn't matter if you're a Drexlerian or Rastafarian, if you want to plug into a worldwide nanotech education/information network that is not owned by any government or business interest, the NanoBot family will be the place to go.

That's the dream ... at least, part of it.

Do you want to see this happen? Please consider donating through the button below. Perhaps even more importantly, do you have a skill you can donate? I've got the journalism part down and could gather together a team of the world's best nanotech writers who are all eagerly awaiting my next move. I'd love some help from experts in Web hosting and design, ad sales, subscription services, marketing and PR, and anything else it would take to move this experiment from a blog to a business.

NanoBot needs you.

Friday, February 25, 2005

UK misses chance to defuse nanotox issue

Blogger's Note: You read the ETC Group's take on today's nanotech events in Britain. And now, for something completely different, here's the counterpoint from author, professor and dapper 007-ish Brit Richard Jones. -- Howard

By Richard Jones
Physics Professor, University of Sheffield,
Author of Soft Machines
and NanoBot Correspondent

JonesThe Minister of Science, Lord Sainsbury, used the occasion of the opening of an exhibition on nanotechnology at the Science Museum today to announce the Government's response to the Royal Society Report "Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties". I was present at the opening, having got my invitation on the strength of having done some fact checking for the museum, and for having let them have the use of a short film we'd made at Sheffield.

I'd actually debated with myself whether the event would even be worth the trek to London - the word I'd been hearing was that the Government was essentially going to accept the report in full. This would have been significant, in that it would have put the UK ahead of the rest of the world in regulating nanotechnology and studying its potential consequences in advance, but it would have made a fairly dull story. The Science Media Centre, which operates as some kind of rapid response unit to give a pro-science side to stories such as this, had rung me up to see if I was going to be around. They were saying that they weren't seeing a lot of interest from the media.

On the other hand, Jim Thomas from the ETC Group had put out a press release predicting that the response would fall short in the way of action; Jim was clearly going to do his best to make a story out of this.

So I turned up at 9 am at the back door of the Science Museum for the launch. A quick tour of the exhibit showed me that the museum had done a creditable job of showing off nanotechnology, albeit very much at the incremental end of the discipline. My invitation even included a swatch of fabric from Nano-Tex, inviting me to pour water over it. Its special properties, the invitation told me, were because it had been treated with nanosized molecules. I wondered what other sorts of molecules there are.

But serious business awaited - printed copies of the government response were available, and I could see ETC's Jim Thomas in a huddle with Greenpeace's Chief Scientist, Doug Parr, speed-reading the 26 page document and comparing notes. Time for me to get a copy and do the same.

One look at the Royal Society press release showed me that Jim's premonitions about the event were closer to the mark than mine. Headed "Government commits to regulating nanotechnologies, but will it deliver?" the release led with the disappointment of the RS panel's chair, Ann Dowling, that no new money was promised for research to underpin new regulation. I'll analyse the Government's response in more detail on Soft Machines, but it essentially consists of warm words and promises of more reviews and more committees. I'd reread the RS report on the train down, and I'd been reminded that it really did have some quite strong conclusions and some very specific recommendations. Again and again, these recommendations were simply evaded. A couple of examples suffice to give the flavour.

  • RS: "We recommend that Research Councils UK establish an Interdisciplinary Research Centre to research the toxicity of manufactured nanoparticles
  • Government ... Government accepts the need for better coordination of relevant nanotechnology research... There is a need to establish a forum ... Dept of Environment, Fisheries and Rural Affairs will chair a research coordination group...
  • RS: "We recommend that chemicals in the form of nanoparticles or nanotubes be treated as new substances under the existing Notification of New Substances (NONS) regulations...
  • Government: The Government accepts that a chemical in the form of nanoparticles may exhibit different properties ... chemicals will continue to be regulated under NONS ... the regulations do not require re-notification for different physical forms... it may be that additional tests may be required for a chemical in the form of a nanoparticle, but this will vary on a case-by-case basis.
The moment had arrived for the minister to take to the podium. Rapidly moving on from the ostensible purpose of the visit - to open the exhibition - we moved on to the main business. The government wants the UK to be a world leader in the technology, but also a model of best practise in regulation and dialogue ... the government welcomed the Royal Society's excellent report ... there'll be a review of current safety regulations ... a new cross government group will coordinate all aspects of research... results of a new program to facilitate public dialogue will shortly be announced.... Then it ended, so abruptly that people took a few moments to notice they were supposed to clap.

The first question from the floor came from Greenpeace's Doug Parr. "All you've announced is processes. Will you make a commitment to implement new regulation at the end of these processes?" The answer danced around, talking about the importance of the transparency of the processes. The minister did commit to change regulations if gaps are found, but qualified this by talking about the need to pin down very carefully whether gaps existed. And in the case of environmental releases, he thinks this is already covered by existing regulations.

ETC's Jim Thomas was next, cunningly slipping in two questions. "The RS rejected a moratorium on the grounds that we'd have quick action to amend the regulatory regime. Now we're faced with further reviews, what are you going to do about the existing consumer products that contain nano-ingredients?"

The minister responded firstly by talking about all the natural nanoparticles that we already were exposed to, then said society would grind to a complete halt if we stopped everything, then talked about the adequacy of existing guidelines and consumer regulations. Jim's second question concerned the absence of attention given in the response to longer term issues - how the technology might affect the poor, the disabled, the issues of control over technology. The minister gave this question short shrift, more or less saying that as we don't know how the technologies will be applied in the future, it was impossible to know what their social implications would be, and thus it would be pointless to study them.

The next question came from the reporter from "Research Fortnightly", a trade rag for scientists devoted to the pressing issue of where their next grant would come from. "Why was there no new money?" The new coordinating group will draw on existing research council and government department funds, the minister said, there've been big increases in research council budgets... " What if the research councils don't choose to spend their money in this way?" They will, it's all fascinating scientific stuff, he argued. There was a question from the Guardian reporter, but I didn't hear either the question or the response. Then the minister swept off.

In the scrum that followed, I could see Jim Thomas and his PR man very effectively chasing the journalists to give them his no doubt doom-ridden view. In a novel departure for me I had a press handler too; Lorna from the Sheffield University press office had come down, and did a great job of letting me lurk shyly in a corner while she fished out journalists for me to talk to. We'll see if anything I said was coherent enough or interesting enough to make it into their stories later.

I return probably more in agreement with ETC and Jim Thomas than I ever thought I would be. The UK government had its chance to lead the world in introducing sensible regulation and responsible dialogue about nanotechnology, but it hasn't taken it. For the cost of few million it could have defused the nanoparticle toxicity particle issue, but it's chosen to let it slide on, obscuring the many more interesting and serious issues that will arise as this technology develops. The Science Museum should have got someone else to open their exhibition.

NanoBot Backgrounder
UK sets up a fragmented nanopolicy

UK sets up a fragmented nanopolicy

Blogger's Note: British Science Minister Lord Sainsbury's long-sought reaction to a yearlong Royal Society study on environmental and societal implications of nanotechnology is to ... um ... request another study. Well, in fairness to his lordship (or whatever you're supposed to call him) every major report on nanotech and the environment released during the past four years has concluded that more study is needed. I've written ad nauseam on the Royal Society report here, here and even for the Wall Street Journal here. So, I'm adding other voices. Ladies, germs and mad scientists, I give you Jim Thomas of the ETC Group. Yes, that ETC Group -- the one that wants a moratorium on all nanotech research. Be polite. -- Howard

By Jim Thomas
ETC Group UK Program Manager
and NanoBot Correspondent

thomasHere's my quick impression having just got back: Firstly that the UK Government has wimped out - no specific regulatory proposals (although there will be regulation), no new money for research, no mention whatsoever of addressing societal issues. Nobody seemed very happy with it.

They (the UK govt) have set themselves up for a fragmented and confusing nanopolicy. Basically they have commissioned another review (granted, a more detailed one) of regulatory gaps to report by the end of the year. They have decided to fragment decisionmaking across nine existing advisory committees and various government departments with a new internal government body (Nano Issues Dialogue Group) to try to make sure all those departments talk to each other. They have upset the Royal Society by offering no new money for research into nano-risks and rejecting the idea of a centre of excellence for advice on nanorisks - so that research and advice on nanotoxicology will be fragmented too.

To top it all there is nary a whisper of how to address big societal questions. Lord Sainsbury explicitly said he didn't feel it was government's role to try to forecast or prepare for the societal, economic and ethical disruptions that nanotechnology will bring: "We don't know what the social implications will be, therefore I see little value in considering them".

More specifically he compared the position of nanotech today with the position of computing in 1947 when the prediction was that we would only need around 12 computers and couldn't have foreseen how transformative computing would be. He went on: "We don't even know a half or a quarter of what [nanotech] applications will be".

He's obviously a believer in the school of Nano's revolutionary impact but reckons society will just have to like it or lump it. I find this societal laissez faire astonishing and dangerous. Of course it is government's role to try to forecast what impact technologies will have - they are spending billions of taxpayers money on developing those technologies and good governance depends upon having some sort of assesment of what the future might look like and planning for it. Also in so doing he explicitly is ignoring the Royal Society's warning that the biggest issues to arise from nanotech are likely to be issues of who controls the technology and who benefits. There are seeds of trouble being planted here I think.

The slightly better news: There will be some sort of public dialogue on nanotech facilitated by government (but its fairly vague and will 'inform not define' policy). Also the government supports a two-year sort of moratorium on environmental remediation applications of nanoparticles and will work with industry to prevent or reduce environmental releases of manufactured nanoparticles.

Anyway, read it yourself here.

ETC will, of course, produce a fuller commentary soon.

Update: The conversation continues at Slashdot -- Howard

NanoBot Backgrounder
ETC Group Reacts
Britain balances science, economics, perception
WSJ is down with nano

Thursday, February 24, 2005

NanoBot needs you

I've tried to avoid doing this as long as possible, but it's time now to throw myself on the mercy of the blogosphere and ask whether you believe NanoBot is worth having around. If so, please consider donating through the PayPal form below, through Amazon or by buying an ad through Blogads. I'm not very good at asking for money, so for once I'm short on words. NanoBot is in danger of coming to an unceremonious, crashing halt. Information needs to be free, and nanotech information in particular needs an open and free forum such as this one. I hope you agree.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Rational science for an irrational world

Nanotech -- even within the narrow definitions of nanotech that we can all agree upon -- cannot be viewed outside the cultural, societal and even religious contexts in which it is emerging. Scientists should know, both by bitter experience and by opening up a history book to just about any era, that most of humanity does not accept or reject a scientific or technological innovation based purely on the data put before them.

It's one of the issues I attempted to bring to light in my NanoKabbalah report for Salon a few months ago and in the lively discussions that followed.

Here's a report on a new study that reflects this science/cultural clash perfectly. Actually, the researcher's own internal confusion his study caused is also a further illustration of this dance between rational science and irrational humanity:

    A new analysis of research into public perception of science in 40 different countries appears to have proven a widely-held assumption - that the more a person knows about science, the more they support scientific activity.

    ... Despite having established this link, however, Dr (Nick) Allum (from the University of Surrey in Guildford) warns that it is not reasonable to assume that improving people's scientific knowledge will boost public support for research, or encourage more young people to study scientific subjects.

    ... Dr. Allum argues that an individual's level of scientific knowledge is just one of many factors explaining their attitudes towards science. He believes that other factors, such as moral values, religious beliefs and political leanings, may be far more important.

    So despite having established a link between public levels of scientific knowledge and their support for the field, it appears that the job of boosting popular support for science will require more than simply additional science education. 'It's all horribly complicated,' admits Dr Allum. More here

Religion. Superstition. Ideology. Dogma. Scientists can ignore them, mock them, place themselves above them at their own peril. As the results of this latest U.S. election shows, they could end up scratching their heads and wondering why they're again the loyal opposition.

I'm not only talking about the religious right, but also those on the dogmatic left who have already tried and convicted nanotechnology based on their own fervent, religious-like preconceptions of how the world works to screw he poor and the environment.

Left on the cutting-room floor in NanoKabbalah was this (and these are, admittedly, some notes and thoughts that need further development, so go easy on me):

    ... Not the abstract "society" of a scientist's dream - one that will listen to scientific explanations and reach "correct" conclusions based on the strength and logic of their arguments, but the real society that's out there - the one that laughs at, or adores, Madonna and wears red strings, the one that crowds around old barns in run-down villages to gaze at a stain that they swear is the image of the original Madonna, the one that drops to its knees and faces Mecca five times a day, or faces toward Jerusalem every Friday night to welcome the bride of Shabbat.

    That's the true "society." The SciFi fantasy of a society ruled by science and logic will never come to pass. But the way the science establishment interprets "societal and ethical implications" is a top-down process - first defining the parameters of the debate and dictating scientific truth, then beginning the ethical discussion with that set of limited assumptions.

    The biotech industry was set back five years due to public rejection of genetically modified organisms. While scare tactics and pseudoscience by the environmental movement was partly to blame, so too was this "top-down" attitude taken by a scientific establishment that was much too self-important to bother with public attitudes and perceptions.

    These days, there are many people who feel religious in a kind of "spiritual" sense, and pick and choose what they want from a salad bar of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and others.

    The trend toward Kabbalah - which itself borrowed from the ancient Greeks and Buddhism - is part of this phenomenon. This new, vague "spirituality" is an entirely different phenomenon than closed-minded, violent fundamentalism within all religions that you so often see in the news.

    No, this "other" kind of religious renewal is even the ethical foundation for many on the left, and for some in the environmental movement who are now beginning to filter nanotechnology through this worldview.

    So, when they see their foundations being simplified or falsified and mocked by the science community, it's really not a surprise that they end up thinking of science as part of the problem, since scientists appear to lack any kind of moral or ethical roadmap to guide them along as they develop this new technology.

There is much more to be said about this, including the question of technology for "human enhancement" (which promises to link nanotech to the next "stem cell style" political/religious uproar), but I'll stop here for now.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Zeno, nano and quantum cwaziness
The fundamental (not fundamentalist) 'why'
NanoKabbalah Jihad
Barking at scientific dogma
NanoKabbalah in Salon on my birthday: Coincidence?

Monday, February 21, 2005


Great NYT piece on nanotech, except why this idea again? "... rampaging nanorobots capture the most attention."

"Capture the most attention" where? I can't think of any legitimate news story that seriously considers "rampaging nanorobots," except when news stories assert that those little things capture the most attention. (Yes, like Major Major of "Catch-22," the only time you're allowed to see them is when they are out.)

Are we talking about a poorly written Michael Crichton novel and some video games and SciFi series? If so, then they should say so. But, then, that would never make it past an editor -- to mix fiction and fact like that. So, you need to present media coverage of "rampaging nanorobots" as if it were fact.

OK. Stuck in a quantum loop. But my rant is over. Here's the story.

Tiny Is Beautiful: Translating 'Nano' Into Practical (The New York Times)

    nanonytIn the hip science of ultrasmall nanotechnology, fantastical future possibilities like rampaging nanorobots capture the most attention, but the first fruits of the field have been more mundane: tiny bits of mostly ordinary stuff that just sit there.

    Yet these bits - nanoparticles - gain wondrous new capabilities simply because they are so small.

    Nanoparticles of various sorts are already found in products like sunscreen, paint and inkjet paper. More exotic varieties offer promise in medicine for sensitive diagnostic tests and novel treatments: the detection of Alzheimer's disease by finding a protein in spinal fluid, for instance, or nanoparticles that heat up and kill cancer cells.

    Some nanoparticles are not even on the cutting edge.

    Medieval artisans unknowingly became nanotechnologists when they made red stained glass by mixing gold chloride into molten glass. That created tiny gold spheres, which absorbed and reflected sunlight in a way that produces a rich ruby color. More here (registration required)

Related Story
Heading South, Looking for an Edge (The New York Times)

NanoBot Backgrounder
The Dark Tower of Babel
Where is the hype?
Nano Product Radio

It's good to be a blogger with tenure

I've told communications professor David Berube before that he's my hero in that he's figured out how liberal-arts guys can make a living off the scientific community. His book, "NanoHype," is about to be released and his University of South Carolina NanoCenter is likely to be chosen as the federal government's official nano-ethics center. Berube recently launched his own NanoHype blog, one of many new nanotech-themed blogs. I asked Berube what he's going to say and how he's going to say it:


    So, as a way of introducing your blog to my audience, tell me a little bit about the reason you're launching it, what goals you hope to accomplish. Also, let me ask you the same question I asked at the Foresight conference last year. Assuming your university becomes the official nano-ethics center (can't remember the official name it's being given these days), how can you avoid becoming, as I've described before, a Center for Nano Image Control?

    Also, it's no secret that the U.S. government's nanotech program is not always thrilled with what I write, but the worst they can do to me is say bad things about me (Although, I have noticed that the Internal Revenue Service has been on my site lately. Hey, go find a blogger who makes money! I've got nothin'!). But you're going to be working under government grants. What will happen when you write something controversial?


    Hey, Howard. Hope you are well.

    The blog is a way for me to speak about materials that cross my desk. Initially, I am going to review publications about nanotechnology. In the process I will ask some questions and raise some issues. While I am funded by some federal grants, I am a full tenured professor and my salary is not dependent on my capacity to bring in grant money. While undoubtedly it may be partially responsible for some pay for performance increases and some release time from teaching duties, that is it.

    Knowing me as well as I do, I can predict that I will be speaking out at certain times. For example, I will be reviewing conferences I attend and I am sure I will say some things that are not flattering about some of the presenters. As an academic, I am comfortable with people rejecting what I have to say and disagreeing with me. A healthy debate on applied nanoscience and nanotechnology is what I am purporting to create here at South Carolina. The blog will be associated with our NIRT site and maybe with the Center, if we get it.

    I understand the power of the blogosphere and how important it was in the last election. I think that when we discuss reaching out to stakeholder and engaging nanotechnology and the directions of the NNI upstream, the blogosphere might be one of the venues to do it.


NanoBot Backgrounder
NanoSight, NanoScheme and NanoHype
and ... action!
Wanted: NanoEthicist at Penn

Operation Love My Brother

My brother in the U.S. Marines arrived in Iraq recently. Last week, I invited him to tell NanoBot readers about some of the military technology he's using over there or some types of materials or weapons he and his fellow Marines wish they had. Well, looks like the military sensors let this one through, so I'll let LCpl Mickey Lovy take it from here:

    Hey Howie! (Blogger's Note: Yeah, my family calls me Howie)

    Thanks for dropping a line back, It's always great to hear from you. I wish I could give you something more interesting than this, but a lot of the trouble we've been having with our computers and technological ... stuff has been the result of sand. We cover everything up when we're not using it (computers, keyboards, etc.) but the lifespan of anything we have over here that takes in air to cool off processors is really short because sand gets in everything.

    I know this is not a new problem for the computer world and there are a lot of products out there to help out with this, like compressed air and plastic shields for keyboards, but that stuff is hard to come by in a combat environment. If there was some way to actually manufacture the electronics with some sort of defense against debris and dust, we would have our equipment for a lot longer and spend more time doing our jobs than ordering new gear.

    Once again, this is not a groundbreaking revelation here. I'm sure other much smarter people than me have given the issue a lot of thought but maybe you have been researching some sort of nano-type coating or self-cleaning circuitry or tiny molecule sized French maids that dust off microprocessors every hour. I don't know, that's your field. More suggestions to come.


OK, nanotech world. You have your marching orders. What can you do to help my brother (and the 150,000 other U.S. troops serving in Iraq)?

NanoBot Backgrounder
Let's trade a 'bot for a bro' on the battlefield
Upsourcing to India for aircraft nanomaterials
Operation Nanotube

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Men: Can't live with 'em, can't screw with their DNA

Dear Howard,

I thought, if it's not too big of an imposition, that you might be able to point me to information on this. I'm writing humor for my column, and I can't bear being scientifically incorrect. I'm thinking of suggesting (tongue in cheek) that somebody shrink themselves down to nano-size and get in with a screwdriver and start tinkering with somebody's DNA. Again, tongue in cheek, but I do want to be correct on nano -- whether it's the right size to shrink to if you were going to tinker with somebody's DNA. Hate to be one of the wrong information propagators. If you don't have the time or inclination to respond, I understand. Best, -Amy Alkon, syndicated columnist

Hi, Amy,

Well, I wouldn't want to anger a goddess, so I'd better respond. I enjoy tongues in cheeks, by the way, especially with the science crowd that reads me. Wakes them up a bit.

So, in answer to your question, a DNA molecule is about 2-and-a-half nanometers wide. To be considered "nano," a technology should generally be smaller than 100 nanometers, so you're definitely in the territory of my prefix. Here's more info than you need: Most animal cells are 10,000 - 20,000 nanometers in diameter, so nanoscale devices are tiny enough to enter cells and analyze DNA and proteins. That's how you can cure cancer or do some malicious tinkering with a screwdriver.

Hope this helps, and please send me a link when it runs. My geek audience will love it.

Oh, and here's an illustration of how big nano is.

And do you mind if I run our little exchange on my blog?


Not at all. ... If you're so inclined, you can link to my blog, where I rail against religion and for science, among other things.

Thanks so much for your response. And thanks, in the face of all this irrational primitivism taking over our country, for being yet another person on the side of science and reason. Best, -Amy


Hmmm. Well, then, I'm hesitant to let you take a look at the link below. ...

NanoKabbalah in Salon on my birthday: Coincidence?


Epiblog: Well, I haven't heard from rational, reasonable Amy since I sent her the NanoKabbalah link. Damn. Why, oh why do I always write inappropriate things! Anyway, here's an excerpt from Amy's column, which it turns out did not incorporate my useful nano facts (I responded too late for her deadline).

    advicegoddessDear Amy: I got irritated reading your advice to "More To Love," the wife who went from size 3 to size 14. Your contention: She needed to lose weight because her husband couldn't change what he was attracted to. My view? Men are shallow because we allow them to be. If her husband is justified in not loving her for better or worse, isn't a woman equally justified when her spouse loses his Wall Street job and she claims she can't "push a button" and be attracted to a high school math teacher? I'm glad we're learning about how we're wired, but the last thing we need are all these reasons why blindly following our instincts is perfectly normal, and why any attempts at improvement are futile. Where, in your model, does rational thought come into play?

    Let's Get Modern

    Dear Modern: What makes more sense for "More To Love" — cutting back on Fritos and joining a gym … or shrinking herself down to nano-size, going in with a tiny screwdriver, and rewiring her husband's DNA? More here

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Remember, we know more than you do

... and What Would You Know About It? (TNTlog)

    A year ago the nanotech blogsphere was full of assorted science fiction freaks, wannabe journalists, boosters, braggarts and other such intellectual flotsam and jetsam. While an oft touted advantage of the blogging revolution is that anyone can have their voice heard, it also meant that anyone who had read a synopsis of Engines of Creation could set themselves up as a nanotech expert. A little knowledge is both a dangerous and a tedious thing.

    While there is still a lot of speculative froth out there, we note a growing trend for serious discussion on nanotechnology, led by that most unlikely of revolutionaries, the Great British Scientist. Blogs such as Richard Jones’s Soft Machines and Martyn Amos’ Complexity, Nanotechnology and Bio-computing are run by real scientists and contain real discussions of nanotechnology and converging technologies. More here

You know, you're right! I didn't know what I was thinking. Scientists, go write about yourselves, and we in the public will read with wide-eyed wonder about the amazing work you're doing and thank you for lowering yourselves to speak what you consider to be our language. Thank you, thank you. Now, let's see if we can't get political and military leaders to write about themselves, too, since they are much better qualified than journalists, bloggers and others among the lower castes to tell us what we need to know. Now, gee, I'm going to have to find a real job. What's the market these days for flotsam and jetsam?

NanoBot Backgrounder
Wanted: Independent nano watchdog
Wanted: Independent nano watchdog - Part II

Let's trade a 'bot for a bro' on the battlefield

Robot soldiers might someday replace the real thing, says the New York Times in a story syndicated around the world.

    "Robots in battle, as envisioned by their builders, may look and move like humans or hummingbirds, tractors or tanks, cockroaches or crickets. With the development of nanotechnology -- the science of very small structures -- they may become swarms of "smart dust." The Pentagon intends for robots to haul munitions, gather intelligence, search buildings or blow them up.

    "All these are in the works, but not yet in battle.

These battlebots couldn't be deployed too soon for me. My baby brother in the U.S. Marine Corp. just arrived in Iraq. He sent an e-mail to the family this morning ("It's a long line to get to the Internet out here") saying that he's enjoying the taste of sand inside the chow.

I wrote back, telling him of my desire that he have a completely dull time over there for the next year. "I'm talking boring. Very boring! I want you to go crazy with BOREDOM over all your desk jockeying!"

I also extended him an open invitation to tell NanoBot readers about some of the military technology he's using over there or some types of materials or weapons he and his fellow Marines wish they had. If he's smart and doesn't want to get into constant trouble like his big brother, he'll probably continue to write about the chow and little else. But, we'll see.

Meanwhile, my prayers are with LCpl Mickey Lovy for a dull time and a safe return.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Operation Nanotube
Military, Media and Mishpucha

'Nano Breaker' breaks wind


Nano Breaker
A pointless game with few redeeming qualities.
(By Ivan Sulic,
    According to what we've learned from previous developer interviews, Nano Breaker was designed as an action game that would convey the extremely violent results of fluid futuristic melee combat. As is often the case, paper proposals do not live up to real world standards. Here, the final product is a markedly mundane experience that neither strikes us as being particularly violent nor particularly action packed, since the word action usually goes hand-in-hand with excitement, which this one actually features little of.

    nanobreakerIn 2001 the United States established an island facility to research and develop nanotechnology for implementation in military and civilian life. To eventually reach this widespread end, the United States collected the world's foremost scientists, analysts and businessmen and then formed a secluded community out of them. This small isolated town of renowned folks resulted in nearly 20 years of positive scientific breakthroughs in the field of nanotechnology.

    Toward the end of the island's prosperous life and the beginning of this game's adventure, the created nanotechnology was injected into every resident of the island and used throughout the facility to better the lives of its inhabitants and further the government's reckless steps into a new technological era. As is the way of efficient machines, the central computer that controlled these microscopic robots malfunctioned and instructed its entrenched nanites to forsake their previous programming and begin self-replicating, whereupon they would consume the flesh of humans and the steel of cities so that they could become monstrous, impractical things. These gigantic mosquitoes, crawly demon-things, huge waving phallic symbols, and spewing seashells of puss were then used to annihilate the island's population and the military's initially feeble attempt at intervention. This is apparently the way of jerks. More here

Related News
Cyborg hero uses shape-shifting plasma blade to save humankind (Gamespot)
Bloody breaker breaks boundaries, bones (The Triangle, Drexel University)
Nano Breaker Website Opens (
You won't be able to scrounge up much of anything to really like about Nano Breaker (Gamespot)

NanoBot Backgrounder
Crossing the blood-game barrier
Blood-sucking Nanomachines

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


sari"It seems that the appeal of loveless sex to the average coed is its convenience. It requires the commitment of a De-Cal instead of a five-unit lab course. But would you rather study the social commentary in The Simpsons or the practical applications of nano-technology in the 21st century? Does the "easy way out" mean it's less rewarding? That, ole chum, is up to you. Another old professor trick: make all complicated questions rhetorical."

Sari Eitches
Daily Californian "Sex on Tuesday" columnist

Spin, spun, done

One great thing about Cypress Semiconductor Corp. CEO T.J. Rodgers is that he is not cryptic in his public statements. You don't need to read between the lines to get the feeling that he's pretty fed up with the time and costs associated with MRAM development. He's dumping subsidiary Silicon Magnetic Systems, the Cypress spintronics spinoff he set in motion out of frustration with MRAM partner NVEC's progress.

This news is sure to prompt the NVEC short-seller peanut gallery out of their shells as this again puts the status of NVEC's technology in limbo.

But those who read my NanoMarkets report on nanostorage last year already knew that Cypress did not expect to make much money off of MRAM and that the company would be an "also ran" in MRAM.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Cypress: An also-MRAM
Spin there, done that

NanoSight, NanoScheme and NanoHype

Photo by Adam Keiper

Pictured from left is Dave Rejeski of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Neil Jacobstein of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and David Berube of the University of South Carolina.

Blogger's Note: I apologize to those who have been waiting too long for Adam Keiper's last dispatch from the "molecular manufacturing hearings" (I should really come up with a catchier title -- "MoleGate?" "Committee on UnNanopants Activities?" "The Contra-NNI Hearings?"). Family duties called me away from my computer for a few days. Someday, perhaps I'll have a team of NanoBot bloggers working around the clock for you. A man can dream, can't he? Anyway, here's what Adam filed for me on Feb. 11. Thank you, Adam, for your great work and thanks, also, to those who are contributing to the discussions on this site and others. -- Howard

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

The National Research Council committee that spent last week examining the feasibility of molecular manufacturing wrapped up the public portion of its workshop with a discussion of the “impacts and implications” of nanotechnology.

The workshop’s final panel included three presenters with starkly different perspectives:

  • David Berube, professor at the University of South Carolina. The title of Berube’s forthcoming book, NanoHype, gives a good indication of his take on nanotech talk. He believes that the development of molecular manufacturing is at least 50 years away, making it reasonable for nanotech research funded by the public purse to have “a more immediate focus.” When it comes to nanotechnology, there has been “hype from all sectors,” Berube said, and the “time frames are muddled” so that wildly disparate kinds of nanotechnology get conflated. Berube also criticized the oft-heard comparison of the potential effects of fears about nanotech to the paralyzing fears about genetically modified foods; this comparison, Berube said, was an act of “rhetorical prestidigitation” intended to make a nano crisis seem more urgent than it really is. (Berube, incidentally, is a lead investigator on one of the four proposals vying for the huge grant from the NSF to establish a Center for Nanotechnology in Society. That grant is expected to be awarded later this year.)
  • Neil Jacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. Jacobstein takes strong exception to the notion that molecular manufacturing is five decades away; he thinks it likely to come “a lot sooner” than that. The core of his presentation is a discussion of the Foresight Guidelines for the safe development of nanotechnology. These guidelines, modeled on the Asilomar scheme for coping with the development of recombinant DNA technology, have evolved several times since their original incarnation five years ago. The latest version, which Jacobstein co-authored, comes with scorecards that let any individual or company working toward advanced nanotechnology assess how well they comply with the guidelines.
  • Dave Rejeski, director of the Foresight and Governance Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Rejeski emphasized the unpredictability and contingency involved in the development of advanced nanotechnology, and cautioned against holding a number of “dangerous assumptions,” like the assumptions that the public will accept advanced nanotechnology, that press coverage will be fair and accurate, and that nanotech won’t be used by terrorists. It is very difficult for policymakers to keep apace the with accelerating rate of technological and industrial change, Rejeski said, warning that “there’s nothing more dangerous than a surprised politician.” What policymakers need, he argued, is an improved “ability to see all sides and to manage what’s going on” -- not merely foresight, but what David Gelernter has called “topsight.”

The presentations from those panelists was followed by some questions from the committee and then a few rounds of closing comments from the other panelists and observers in the room. This discussion included a few interesting remarks about the millions of taxpayer dollars presently being spent on “education and outreach” to persuade the public of the wonders of nanotechnology.

During the workshop’s final minutes, Eric Drexler make closing remarks arguing that “at this point, there is a large weight of evidence -- detailed quantitative analysis -- indicating that large-scale molecular manufacturing is feasible.” [Author's note: The original version of this dispatch here included a quotation from Clayton Teague, head of the NNI, responding to Drexler by saying, “I agree with you very much, and I think you’ll find everyone on the NNI thinks that it is something of international importance.” I have since been granted a glimpse of part of the unpublished transcript of this NAS meeting, and it shows that Teague's remark was not directed at Drexler; it was in response to someone else and on a different subject. I apologize for the mistake, caused by rapid note-taking and hasty blog-reporting, and any confusion it may have created.]

Most of the day was characterized by similar attitudes of agreement and agreeableness, with a few supporters of molecular manufacturing expressing their considerable surprise at the committee’s “open-mindedness.” Although most of the committee’s work is done behind closed doors and no tapes or transcripts of this workshop will be made available to the public, the plain fact is that no recording could capture the full atmosphere of the three-day workshop, in which some of the most important work happened off-the-record, in the conversations over meals and during breaks between panels. There were indications of conciliation and comity, and there seemed to be new avenues of communication and cooperation, between representatives of the government, nano-commerce, and the molecular manufacturing community.

Of course, it remains to be seen just how deeply various hatchets have been buried -- and the report produced by this nanotech assessment committee will have a lot to do with whether they stay buried. The final report is expected early next year; an interim report is scheduled to come out in four months.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Molecular manufacturing: Who needs it, and why?
Molecules, machines and miracles
Molecular manufacturing back on the table
My grassroots are showing

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Today, he is a (nano) man

I spent yesterday ripping up 401, 403, QEW and I-90 driving my kids from Detroit to Boston for my nephew's Bar Mitzvah. I'm in Concord, Mass., now, trying to brush up on my Hebrew so as not to completely embarrass the man of the hour.

Meanwhile, Adam Keiper has been busy sending me more dispatches from D.C., and I'll try to post as much as possible over the weekend. Thanks for your patience, as I know there is a great deal of interest in this National Research Council meeting on molecular nanotechnology.

And, in case you're wondering, my nephew is gettting two gifts from his nerdy nano uncle: Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything," and Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation."

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Molecular manufacturing: Who needs it, and why?

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2005 -- Today’s presentations before the National Research Council committee studying advanced nanotechnology concluded with a trio of panelists describing their research and offering their assessment of the current state of the artin advanced nanotechnology. Their presentations were too technical to describe in detail here. The presenters were:

The rest of the day was spent in a rambling discussion that included the committee, the panelists, and even the unofficial observers around the room. Instead of recounting the entire inconclusive and unorganized conversation, here are a few choice quotations from the afternoon:

Carlo Montemagno: “I've been offered to have a lab set up for me, with a staff and 10,000 square feet, all set up with the wave of a hand, no problem, many, many times - in China.”

Neil Jacobstein (from the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing): “The criticisms [of the NNI made by supporters of molecular manufacturing] weren't made in order to get funding.... The criticisms were made because we're interested in shifting the priorities of the NNI toward molecular machine systems.... There's no issue about a conspiracy or anything like that - it's just that we thought that the priorities were on the low-hanging fruit ... and there was a great deal of skepticism” from NNI about the more long-term, high-risk, revolutionary interpretation of nanotech."

Eric Drexler: “What’s on my wish list: ... A clear endorsement of the idea that molecular machine systems that make things ... with atomic precision is a natural and important goal for the development of nanoscale technologies ... with the focus of that endorsement being the recognition that we can look at biology, and beyond.... It would be good to have more minds, more critical thought, more innovation, applied in those directions.”

Maynard Holliday (committee member, Evolution Robotics): “Maybe we do need some kind of DARPA-like area in the NNI” to fund high-risk projects.

Thomas S. Hartwick (committee member, consultant): “I’ve been through a couple of [technology] revolutions ... so I’m very impressed with how technology goes ... I believe people should dream big dreams.... [But] it drives me crazy when computations are made without taking into account ... all the problems that go along with manufacturing.... So please, as the field matures, don’t decouple computation from the reality of that world.”

Kathleen M. Rest (committee member, Union of Concerned Scientists): “We still haven’t really talked about is molecular manufacturing desirable. ... I think it’s going to be important to us to look at the kind of societal needs ... that we could possibly address” with nanotechnology. “Because, after all, we’re talking about using public funds for investment” so the research should be directed “at least in the back of our heads” toward “some public good.”

And as a bonus, here’s one more quote -- an audio clip from Eric Drexler’s presentation in the morning, in which he responds to criticism that molecular manufacturing seems to promise too much, that it will have too broad a range of applications. The clip is about one minute long, and you can hear it in the following formats: MP3, Real Audio, Windows Audio, or Quicktime.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Molecules, machines and miracles
Molecular manufacturing back on the table
Nano Does D.C.

My grassroots are showing

GRASSROOTS GOVERNMENT: Nanobot blogs Congressional Nano Caucus news conference (Tapscott's Copy Desk)

    It's small - hey, it's a nano thing, you know - with only a handful of members but the Congressional Nano Caucus held a joint news conference today on Capitol Hill with members of the NanoBusiness Alliance, commenting on President Bush's proposed 2006 budget for science and technology programs.

    ... What was more newsworthy was the fact Adam Keiper, managing editor of The New Atlantis, blogged the Congressional Nano Caucus/NanoBusiness Alliance news conference for Keiper is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a NanoBot correspondent.

    ... NanoBot put the Capitol Hill news conference on the screens of anybody and everybody. It would have been no difficult task to enable NanoBot visitors to ask questions of the news conference participants. That in a nutshell is the power of Grassroots Government - using the Web to put governors and governed in the same place, regardless of their location, to discuss what should be done. More here

NanoBot Backgrounder
Nano Does D.C.
Molecular manufacturing back on the table

Molecules, machines and miracles

Photo by Adam Keiper

Eric Drexler, far right, looks on as IBM's Don Eigler, second from left, describes molecular manufacturing as "speculation," "supposition" and "fantasy." At far left is Peter Cummings of Vanderbilt University. Sitting next to Drexler is Ralph Merkle of Georgia Tech.

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2005 -- Eric Drexler fathered the modern field of nanotechnology more than two decades ago. Today, he presented his ideas to the committee tasked by the National Research Council with studying America’s nanotechnology program. Now, as the committee returns from a private lunch, it isn’t clear what they make of Drexler’s ideas – there was clearly significant skepticism from some members of the committee, but Drexler's ideas were treated seriously.


Drexler’s presentation was an overview of molecular manufacturing. The heart of his presentation was an animation showing what a desktop nanofactory might look like. The purpose of the animation, he said, was to demonstrate that molecular manufacturing was “not nanobots … not goo …and not magical.” It would be a “deep and profound revolution,” but not an unattainable one.

To draw a clearer distinction between his own vision of nanotechnology and that of the government nanotechnology program, Drexler showed a slide depicting two fundamentally different objects: a huge boulder and a small, delicate pocket-watch. The boulder represents today’s nanotechnology, he said: “a nanoparticle of about 100 nanometers.” The pocket watch represents the sort of nanomachine encompassed in his vision of nanotechnology. To talk about the great potential of nanotechnology while only funding research on conventional nanotechnology inflates expectations, Drexler said, and makes the public “feel like there is hype in the system.”

Drexler admitted that there is of course an enormous “implementation gap” between our present tools and theories and those needed to achieve molecular manufacturing, and he warned that the gap couldn’t be bridged under current National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) policies. His take on the government’s approach to molecular manufacturing: “Not only are they [the NNI] not doing it, but they have been discouraging it.” He contrasted this with other governments, saying that the U.S. has a number of “known international competitors,” and mentioning that India’s president recently cited Drexler’s book "Nanosystems." (He didn’t mention, though, that there is no clear reason to think this foreign competition is doing serious work yet.)


Soon after his presentation began, members of the committee – biologists, chemists, physicists, and assorted men and women from industry and academia – engaged Drexler with critical questions about his basic theories; Drexler, in crisp sentences, responded to each question carefully. Committee member Paul Schaudies, for instance, a microbiologist from SAIC, pointed out that we don’t understand how cells work – “there are a whole lot of little boxes here that say, ‘A miracle happens here’” – so how could we possibly solve the questions required to develop molecular manufacturing? Drexler’s response: “Engineers deal with the knowns,” so it won’t be necessary to solve all the mysteries that pure scientists might want to solve.

Drexler’s solo presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring Drexler, Don Eigler of IBM, Peter Cummings of Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Labs, and Ralph Merkle of Georgia Tech. Eigler is best known for his arrangement of 35 individual xenon atoms to spell out the letters “IBM” in the 1980s. (“I suspect,” he said, “that I am the only one you [the committee] will hear from that has physically assembled a molecule using techniques other than biology or chemistry.”) He launched a blunt criticism: “Molecular manufacturing belongs in the realm of what I would call supposition, or speculation.” He drew an analogy to the ancient Greeks' speculating about human flight using feathers and wax. “What we do not need,” he said, “is an Apollo Project for molecular manufacturing.”

Drexler objected to Eigler’s use of “charged language” – words like “speculation” and “fantasy,” which “will not encourage people to come forward” with proposals related to molecular manufacturing.

Peter Cummings, speaking in clipped sentences with a strong Australian accent, described his study of fluctuations that might pose difficulties for molecular manufacturing – fluctuations that might, for instance, cause nano-machines to run backwards. But he conceded that “this is not a showstopper” for molecular manufacturing.

Ralph Merkle argued that, in order to develop molecular manufacturing, “What we lack at this point is the will ... to be bolder in what we’re willing to consider.”

The panel ended with questions from the committee about what concrete proposals would constitute reasonable next steps toward the development of molecular manufacturing. What would you do, one committee member asked the panelists, “if you had unlimited resources?” The only answer came from Drexler, who argued for improvement of the tools that would be required or molecular manufacturing, demonstrations of assembly and motion of nanosystem components, and the development of a “first-generation machine” similar to a ribosome.

During the lunch break, as the committee met behind closed doors, the government officials who started off the workshop yesterday – U.S. nanotech head Clayton Teague and White House technologist Celia Merzbacher were spotted sitting down to a lunch with several leading figures from the pro-molecular manufacturing camp, including Drexler. Now, after lunch, the committee has reassembled and is hearing about the current state of the art in nanotech research.

Please stand by

Adam Keiper is sending me more dispatches from D.C., but I'm juggling many duties at once, including some work for pay and -- most importantly -- reading an excellent tale of horror, hunger and counting called "One Hungry Monster." My 8-month-old son is enjoying it, too.

Pardon the past and future editing errors, too, as I edit with one hand, take care of a baby with the other. I'm not kidding when I say blogs are the first rough draft of the first rough draft of history ...

Molecular manufacturing back on the table

Photo by Adam Keiper

Clayton Teague, the director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office; and Celia Merzbacher, from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Blogger's Note: I'm unable to attend the events in D.C., but sitting here at home, reading dispatches from the priceless (literally, since I'm not paying him) Adam Keiper, I cannot help but feel at last that my work for the past couple of years has made a significant impact on the debate over nanotech's future. Every once in a while, I get a needed boost like this to make me feel like my the sound of my writing is not merely that of one blogger falling. -- Howard

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2005 - The National Research Council (NRC), the operating arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, has begun work on a controversial evaluation of the direction and investment of America's national nanotechnology program.

The evaluation was required by the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, passed by Congress and signed into law in late 2003. An early version of the legislation called for a "study on molecular manufacturing" that would "develop, insofar as possible, a consensus on whether molecular manufacturing is technically feasible," including a timeframe and a research agenda. But this provision was stripped from later versions of the bill, upon the advice of the NanoBusiness Alliance (as first reported by the proprietor of this blog). The final version of the bill instead called for an assessment of the feasibility of "molecular self-assembly" -- a meaningless request, since molecular self-assembly has already been achieved. The controversy over the study thus exposed a widening rift between (on the one hand) those who believe that nanotechnology is an important but fundamentally evolutionary advance and (on the other hand) those who believe it to be thoroughly revolutionary.

Serious work on the study got under way Wednesday in a workshop open to the public, but largely unnoticed by the press, as a committee of outside experts assembled by the NRC began to wade into the thicket of confusing terminology and conflicting views about nanotechnology. It became apparent fairly quickly that the committee intends to interpret its mandate broadly, and to seriously scrutinize claims about molecular manufacturing.

The workshop's first panel featured two government officials: Clayton Teague, the director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office; and Celia Merzbacher, from the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. They discussed the history, goals, and grant-making procedures of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). But the core of their remarks was a sort of warning to the committee to focus its intentions narrowly on a few subjects of relevance to the NNI, and not to look into the more far-out possibilities and implications of advanced nanotechnology.

But the committee would have none of it. The key question before the committee, one member said, is whether there is "a form of molecular manufacturing," something "that will in fact revolutionize how we make things." After all, he said, "that's why we have a National Nanotechnology Initiative."

Another member of the committee, Alan Goldstein of Alfred University, agreed. If the committee doesn't look into molecular manufacturing, he said, "we can all go home!" The question before the committee, according to Goldstein, is whether there is "something more profound here" than the materials science that "is predominant in" present-day nanotechnology." By the end of the first session, several other members of the committee had voiced similar sentiments.

The intended aim of the second session was "establishing a common language," an attempt to sort through the many meanings of the terms related to nanotechnology. It featured four panelists:

  • John Randall, CTO of Zyvex Corp. He tried his best to lay out definitions for a number of basic terms ("molecular self-assembly," "molecular manufacturing," "molecular self-organization," "molecular self-replication," etc.) but ultimately concluded that it was difficult to nail some of them down, and that there would "probably not" be widespread agreement on questions of nano-terminology.
  • Chris Phoenix, research director for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, argued that concepts were ultimately more important than terms, especially since nano-definitions keep changing. (He has nevertheless recently written about these slippery definitions.) He made an interesting comparison between molecular manufacturing and quantum computing: Both are very interesting theories with no real-life developments in the offing -- so, by extension, he argued, molecular manufacturing should be accorded the same sort of respect that quantum computing enjoys.
  • Nad Seeman, NYU professor. He chose to completely forego the debate over terminology, and instead gave a slideshow (similar to one he has given before) that describes some of his work.
  • Ari Requicha, of the USC Lab for Molecular Robotics. Rather than give his own highly interesting slideshow, Professor Requicha criticized the government's definition of nanotechnology, which uses the term to describe the manipulation of matter between 1 and 100 nanometers. That definition makes no sense, he argued, since it is at once both too broad (including things like thin film technology that ought not to be considered nanotechnology) and too narrow (since it excludes things like the control and exact placement of individual atoms, like the famous placement of 35 xenon atoms to spell out "IBM").

During the course of the day, the committee also discussed the shortcomings of the NNI's grant-making processes. Professor Requicha criticized nanotechnology research grants as being "upside-down": The NNI funding panels are "extremely conservative," which means that those who are truly interested in taking risks and doing basic research have to go to DARPA, "which is supposed to [fund] applied" science. One member of the committee, Harry Lipsitt of Wright State University, wondered aloud what would happen if the National Science Foundation was confronted with a nanotech proposal so radical that it "had no peers" -- that is, a proposal that couldn't be satisfactorily peer-reviewed. There was also some discussion about whether the committee, or its staff, could get ahold of the nano-research proposals that have been rejected by the government, the better to assess whether the NNI is wisely directing the nation's nanotechnology research program.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sharpest voice from the committee in favor of studying molecular manufacturing was that of Peter Diamandis, the moving force behind the X Prize competition that resulted last year in the first private manned spaceflights. "Remember, a breakthrough is something which, the day before it was a breakthrough, was nonsensical," he said. Dr. Diamandis said there was a "stigma" associated with research in advanced nanotechnology, similar to the stigma once associated with space tourism -- which the X Prize ("my small experiment") put to rest. (Diamandis is an advisor to the Foresight Institute.)

The workshop today was held in a conference room in the Academy building in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, across the street from the State Department. It resumes this morning with presentations from the NanoBusiness Alliance, the Foresight Institute, and Eric Drexler.

India's president urges IT to go nano

India should become leader in Nanotechnology: Kalam (Silicon India)

    President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam today urged the IT industry to strive towards becoming leaders in nanotechnology products, especially in the nanoelectronics area.

    Addressing the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) 2005 business summit, the president said Indian companies should become leaders in nanotechnology and should invest $300 million towards the nanoscience and technology research in partnership with like-minded multinational companies for the research, development and volume production of nanoelectronic devices.

    "This knowledge product development is a challenging area such as embedded software, networking software, real time software and integrated software for bio, info and nano," he said. More here

Related News
US arms sales to India tripled in 2004 (New Kerala)

NanoBot Backgrounder
Upsourcing to India for aircraft nanomaterials
Intelligence on (and in) India
India pledges irreverence to science past

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Nano Does D.C.

Photo by Adam Keiper

From left, Sean Murdock of the NanoBusiness Alliance; Sen. George Allen, R-Va.; Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Sharon Smith, director of Technology at Lockheed Martin; Chris Mather of NorTech; and Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9, 2005 – It's a busy week for nanotechnology in the nation's capital, with a legislative blitz on Capitol Hill from the NanoBusiness Alliance, and a major nanotechnology workshop being held at the National Academy of Sciences.

First, the legislative side of things. the NanoBusiness Alliance -- a U.S. lobbying group -- is bringing a fair number of executives from nanotechnology companies around the country to Washington for meetings with members of Congress and congressional staffers. This event was nicely timed to coincide with the release of the Bush administration's new budget for fiscal 2006, which is of course a subject of great interest for this crowd, since federal spending on nanotechnology is on the rise. (It will soon cross $1 billion per year.) [UPDATE: To clarify, although the Bush administration requested just under $1 billion for nanotechnology in fiscal year 2005, Congress appropriated more than the administration wanted -- so federal spending on nanotech actually crosses the $1 billion threshold *this year*. -AK]

But the federal budget is stretched pretty tight this year and anyone who benefits from federal nanotech largesse wants to make sure his or her chunk of the budget doesn't get squeezed too badly. Hence the value in going door to door on Capitol Hill, asking staffers to learn about the latest nanotech businesses back in their home states and districts. (You can learn more about the proposed federal science and technology budget here.)

For the media, the key event in this nanotech blitz on the Hill was a little press conference co-sponsored by the NanoBusiness Alliance and the Congressional Nano Caucus. The caucus is still pretty small -- it only includes seven senators and about 20 representatives -- but will likely grow with time. It has four co-chairmen, and three of them were present at this morning's news conference:

  • Sen. George Allen, R.-Va., spoke about the importance of investing in nanotechnology: "Ever since the industrial revolution," America has been a technology leader, he said, and we need to maintain that "competitive edge" by investing in nanotech. "I'm competitive -- you might have guessed that from the football background," he joked. "You either make dust or you eat dust." (Given the fears in some quarters about the health effects of nanoparticles and about "smart nano-dust," perhaps that was an unfortunate turn of phrase.) Allen also referred to the job-creating potential of nanotechnology, mentioning by way of example Luna Innovations, a Virginia-based nanotech firm that has created fifty-odd jobs, and is based in a former tobacco plant.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden, D.-Ore., spoke next. He described the "bipartisan and bicameral" support for nanotechnology in Congress, and pointed out that the United States is ranked third in terms of government investment in nanotechnology. (This statistic only works if you include Europe as a single entity, in which case Europe and Japan rank ahead of the United States.) Wyden mentions the often-heard claim that nanotechnology will soon be a trillion dollar market (that claim seems to have originated with the National Science Foundation back in 2001 (PDF, 3.1 MB)). He also mentions Michael Crichton's book "Prey," and refers to the "ethical issues" related to nanotechnology -- specifically mentioning what he calls "gray glop." It will be important, he says, to consider these ethical issues without "freezing innovation."
  • Next, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R.-N.Y., the chair of the House Science Committee, spoke for a few minutes. He pointed out that, despite cuts elsewhere in the federal science and technology budget, "nano is holding its own."
The three congressmen answered a few questions from reporters. One answer in particular might be of interest. When your correspondent asked Senator Allen to speak about the ethical issues that Senator Wyden had mentioned, Senator Allen said he considered them the "biggest challenge" facing nanotechnology -- not the so-called "gray goo" problem or the surveillance concerns or other potential fears that groups like the Foresight Institute might be concerned about, but rather the public perception of those problems. Just because a new technology might cause problems doesn't mean that it shouldn't happen -- after all, "even the Internet can be used in malicious ways -- just think of spyware," he said.

He then spoke of the importance of educating policymakers and the general public about the real facts related to nanotechnology, so they won't be led astray by "assertions, rumors, legends, [and] myths [that] come out of sci-fi or letters to the editor or blogging or whatever." If people pay attention to those who warn about the potential downsides of nanotechnology, then nanotech research might face the same sort of backlash that genetically modified foods have faced in Europe.

There were four other speakers at the press conference:

  • Sean Murdock of the NanoBusiness Alliance, who described nanotechnology as "an investment that we cannot afford not to make" and referred the audience to the recent Business Week cover story on nanotech;
  • Sharon Smith, the director of technology for Lockheed Martin, who described a number of near-term applications of nanotechnology (like lighter-weight and stronger aircraft structures, and sensors with "unparalleled sensitivity"), and even said "I can't think of a single product that we're going to be making over the next several years or decades that's not going to be impacted by nanotechnology";
  • Chris Mather of NorTech, who said that nanotech investment is much lower than it should be, because venture capitalists have had their enthusiastic tendencies dampened by the dotcom bust; and
  • Donn Tice, the CEO of Nano-Tex, a company that makes nano-fabrics, who said that the size of his company is just about doubling every year. It presently has about 100 employees.

And that's it from the NbA / Nano Caucus press conference. I'm heading off now to the National Academy of Sciences building, for the big nano workshop, and will send notes later on how that goes.

Related News
A statement from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

Science: Let's do it in public

Lewis Wolpert: 'Science can be beautiful, amazing, the best way to try to understand the world' (The Independent)

    Science needs your help. We need to find a way to bring the general public and scientists closer together so that they can understand each other better, helping to lead to sensible decisions about both science and those applications of it that affect our lives. There have been attempts to do this, but I'm not persuaded that any have been successful, and there has been little research to find out if they actually had useful results.

    The issue of mutual trust is central. Science can be beautiful, amazing, the best way of trying to understand the world. But it is difficult. My own claim is that if an idea fits with common sense, then it is almost certainly scientifically false. It is as clear as day, for example, that the Sun goes round the Earth. The world is just not built on a common-sense basis.

    Unfortunately, there is no one simple description of the scientific method, other than that of finding reliable evidence to explain events. There is only one correct explanation for any set of observations - and there are many styles of doing science. Scientists themselves can be remarkably ignorant of work outside their special fields, so non-scientists can easily be alienated by science. For most Members of Parliament and senior civil servants, science is an alien culture. More here

NanoBot Backgrounder
Science blinded by culture
Barking at scientific dogma
Nanotech arrogance will meet the Luddite hammer
Stop worrying and learn to love nanobots