Friday, July 11, 2003

Nanotechnology at a crossroads between hypothesis and hype

As a way of introducing myself and why I began this blog, I'll give you a condensed version of my column in the July/August issue of Small Times Magazine:

Future historians are going to listen to this era and hear the first whispers of the public cacophony to come. The recurring motif can be summed up in a question -- one that seems banal, but nonetheless will color discourse throughout this century: “What is nanotechnology?” The answer, in this age of relativism, will always depend upon whom you ask. Like the technological gods that came before it, nanotech is perpetually being assembled, reassembled (and perhaps self-assembled) in our own images.

Take a look at this continuing correspondence that might seem to average readers as arcane. It isn’t. Nanotech icons Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley are again proving themselves visionaries, arriving at the soul of the dilemma over nanotechnology’s definition ahead of the pack and then commencing fisticuffs in a preview of the bouts to come.

In one corner, the “Drexlerians” who view molecular self-assembly as true nanotech. In the other are the pragmatists, represented by Smalley, who view their work with nanoscale materials as real nanotechnology while forever banishing self-assembling nanobots to science fiction.

When Small Times launched two years ago, the nano definition was an amusing academic argument. Today, it’s very serious. Enough government money is spent on its development for the public to take notice. Now, cue the headlines about opposition from one-issue activists, sci-fi thriller authors, demagogic policymakers and dilettante British royals. Nanotechnologists can now join the likes of Galileo in the parade of scientists on their way to the political food processor. As we’ve seen in other conflicts between science and politics, it doesn’t matter if fears are exaggerated or fictional, since perception is often reality.

Smalley seems to be trying to halt the slide of public perception by defining nanotech based on what is possible now, rather than what might be possible in future generations. In the process, Drexler’s reputation gets banged around. I asked Drexler about this, and he answered by quoting from a letter he wrote to British MP Ian Gibson: “Attempts to calm public fears by simply denying the feasibility of molecular manufacturing will inevitably fail. A better course would be to show that its consequences are manageable and still distant.” Then, as an aside to me, he added: “Of course, this approach doesn’t work so well if its chief spokesman has to make his case over a chorus of false denials and attacks on his reputation.”

What worries Drexler is the public’s perception of what nanotech is, and what it isn’t. His 1986 book, “Engines of Creation,” inspired a generation of nanotech dreamers. But what is called nanotech today seems mundane to the Drexlerians. How can a JFK-style “we choose to go to the moon” challenge emerge from sunscreen and khakis?

Public perception is of paramount concern in framing the debate, and based on a history of government atrocities (plutonium and syphilis experiments on unwitting human guinea pigs, etc.), it's no wonder that government-sponsored nanotech research gets little respect.

And it’s little wonder that a group of activists carried this history of mistrust with them to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on May 8, when they voiced their concerns over a planned “molecular foundry” -- quite loudly, according to a report in the Contra Costa Times. The report indicated that the activists had little idea what nanotech was, only that they had heard it might be hazardous to the environment -- illustrating what the Financial Times of London calls the “culture of protest” against science. As activists lump nanotech in with the anti-globalization and green movements, this “culture” will become more refined and organized, and the protests will turn increasingly shrill. In Europe, you can actually witness the embryonic battle lines developing.

Meanwhile, separate from the bizarre alternate universe of politics and perception, real nanotechnologists hammer away at the boundaries of the possible. Smalley is working toward a future powered by cheap, plentiful energy, and a team of European scientists is developing nanoparticles that can clean industrial waste, and Nanosys founder Larry Bock looks at this moment in nanotech history with the eyes of an entrepreneur. When Bock looks through the microscope at nanowires and quantum dots, he’s not so concerned with whether Drexler or Smalley would call it nanotech. He sees new ways of making solar panels, and another business opportunity.

It’s at this junction between vision and pragmatism -- Drexler and Smalley -- that we now find ourselves. Now, it really gets interesting. Keep reading.