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
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.