Sunday, August 31, 2003

'Nanothis or nanothat'

A great beginning to James Pethokoukis' article on nanohype in this week's print edition of U.S. News & World Report: "If you're a science-fiction novelist or screenwriter struggling to make the impossible seem plausible, just insert "nanothis" or "nanothat" as a handy plot device." I would add that it's not necessarily a bad thing to get the public's imagination all fired up like that, if it also inspires them to seek out more information on nanoreality. James quotes me in there, too: "But as interesting and useful as these and other products are -- including 'clear' sunscreens and longer-lasting tennis balls -- it hardly adds up to the next industrial revolution. 'I'd say that the nanomaterials used in sunscreen and khakis are simply the next evolutionary step in the materials and chemicals industries and can trace little of their lineage back to the original vision of Eric Drexler,' says Howard Lovy, [news] editor of the industry-tracking Small Times." Discuss

Friday, August 29, 2003

Navigating the nano-void

I have a column over at Small Times that goes over some of the ground I've covered previously on this site. In short, it says that anti-nano demagogues really can't be bothered with the facts.

And The Lancet, a U.K.-based medical journal, echoed many of the points I've made on this site in an editorial today that calls for more research into nanomedicine. Here's an excerpt:

"The techno-pessimists are using widely held fears about genetically modified organisms (GMO) – they talk of "atomically modified organisms" in nanoscience circles – to exploit modern anxieties about the applications of science in society. Here enters the infamous "grey goo" of uncontrollable, self-replicating, nanomachines. Yet critics have no substance to back up their calls for a moratorium on research."

So, then, in the absence of goo, where can you find real nanotechnology today? The many reporters and editors who have asked me this question might want to pay attention to this Small Times item. Yes, an actual trade show with real nanotech-enabled products. The elbow-patch element will hardly be visible, leaving room for real businesspeople with real business plans, showcasing real nanostuff. There will also be a highly worthwhile debate on the environmental/policy issues I've covered on these pages. More to come on NanoCommerce 2003.


Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Unfrozen Cave Men

A chilly August wind is blowing right here in suburban Detroit, sending shivers through the dearly departed encased in liquid nitrogen at the Cryonics Institute. The institute has been here since 1976, but apparently Michigan authorities had no idea there were actual frozen bodies in there until the Ted Williams saga wound its way to the "wacky news of the week" TV segments and news pages.

"I don't know that we realized there was one in Michigan until then," Archie Millben, enforcement director for the state's Bureau of Commercial Services, told the Detroit Free Press. "Then as a procedure for the public, we started looking into this."

But had Michigan's sleuths only looked, say, on the Internet and numerous newsgroups, they would have seen that the Cryonics Institute has not exactly been hiding out. They've been advertising what they've been doing for a long time. In fact, I can trace some of my interest in nanotechnology to discovery of this institute near my hometown.

So, anyway, heads will probably not roll, but the state has ordered the institute not to freeze any more heads or bodies until they figure out how to regulate it. Is it a cemetery? A mortuary? The state can't seem to classify it.

The Cryonics Institute was founded by Robert Ettinger, whose book, "Prospects of Immortality" (written perhaps not coincidentally in the year of my birth, 1965), inspired hundreds of people to sign up for the ice treatment here or at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in California. For $50,000 a head or $120,000 if you want the whole body preserved, they'll freeze you and then just keep you that way -- despite wars, famines, plagues or power outages -- until a cure is found for whatever killed you.

Then, they'll wake you up, grow you a new body or whatever else you want, and you're off to enjoy Futurama. What will make this happen is, yes, nanotechnology. Brains, bodies, birthmarks, anything will be reconstructed one particle at a time (only without the horrible tumors or wounds that killed them in the first place).

No, these are not Raelians. Some legitimate nanoscientists are involved in this dream, as Mark Frauenfelder reported in Small Times last December. Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas are two of the respected scientists who are helping to bring cryonics out of the fringe.

Our generation will never know if they were crazy, or geniuses, but maybe our great-great grandkids will laugh at us for having laughed at them ... and a few hundred thawed-out eccentrics will be revered as pioneers. That is, if they can keep the air conditioners running at the Cryonics Institute.


T4: Rise of the Nanomachines

California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Garrett Gruener, a venture capitalist with Alta Partners, chose to use the office of one of his nanotech portfolio companies, Nanomix, to beta test his economic platform of tax hikes and spending cuts. Anybody who tells you different is a practitioner of "tooth-fairy economics," Gruener was quoted as saying in today's Oakland Tribune.

He didn't make it clear whether the "tooth fairy" reference was aimed at Republican candidate and time-traveling 'droid Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not the first time a candidate has chosen a nano company as the backdrop for a stump speech. Presidential candidate Joe Lieberman did it last month.

Some Californians do have strong feelings about whether a Schwarzenegger administration would be good or bad for nanobusiness. That was meant to be a cliffhanger. Keep watching this site and Small Times for the sequel.


Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Nano goes back to school for Ethics 101

Despite what you might have read elsewhere about the government/corporate machine damning the ethical torpedoes and going full speed ahead with nano, here's some breaking news from the center of the conspiracy. Declaring that "nanotech also has the potential for unintended consequences, which is precisely why we can't allow the societal implications to be an afterthought," National Science Foundation Director Rita Colwell announced two new grants of more than a million each have been awarded for new studies on nanotech's impact on society.

Recipients include Davis Baird of the University of South Carolina and Lynne Zucker of the University of California, Los Angeles.

These grant recipients will join other government and private initiatives in the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere to make sure environmental and ethical concerns are thought through every step of the way as nanotech moves from a big idea to a big business.

Here's a quick look ahead in the ongoing environmental/ethical/policy debate:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is accepting applications until Dec. 11 for research to determine "the potential impacts of manufactured nanomaterials on human health and the environment."
  • The ETC Group's Pat Mooney plans to increase its activism at various forums around the world, including an event at Regent's College in London, where scheduled to give a talk titled, "Small is Dangerous: The Threat of Nanotechnology."
  • A number of government-appointed and independent panels worldwide will begin discussing the environmental and societal implications of nanotechnology, including: the Nanotechnology Technical Advisory Group, which will help advise the White House; the Health and Environmental Issues Task Force, named by the New York-based NanoBusiness Alliance to develop a library of literature and industry standards; and a British nanotechnology working group named by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering to study nanotech's potential benefits and problems.
  • Green Parties in Europe are preparing their nanotechnology strategies to present to the European Parliament.
  • Forums for debate and presentations on environmental issues will be featured at upcoming industry conferences, including CMP Cientifica's World Nano-Economic Congress in London this November, and an upcoming Small Times Media NanoCommerce conference in Chicago this December. (More details on this will come later).

Welcome back to nanoschool! Should be a fun, informative autumn!


Monday, August 25, 2003

In touch with your inner nano

I banned "Fantastic Voyage" references from staff- and correspondent-written Small Times stories more than a year ago, since the movie reference was overused, and the technology too distant. Maybe I should rethink the policy. A development reported in New Scientist isn't exactly Raquel Welch under your skin, but these nanoparticles do detect cold sores.

This Small Times story and this one from New Scientist also show how you'll someday feel all nano inside.

The story about nano-enhanced MRI does remind me of another Sci-Fi story that is soon to be a major motion picture. Medical diagnostics is just the happy face these evil corporations place on their nanoparticle technology. Don't fall prey to their lies.


Ministry of NanoTruth

From the ETC Group, which brought you such wonderfully titled reports as "Nanotech and the Precautionary Prince" and "Nanotech Un-gooed!" comes a more-subtle, softer title for an upcoming talk – "Nanotechnology: Atom and Eve in the Garden of Eden."

The September event, part of the Environmental Grantmakers Association's annual retreat, will feature a conversation between Foresight Institute founder Eric Drexler and ETC Group head Pat Mooney. I mention this in my column in Small Times magazine's upcoming September/October print edition (you may qualify for a free subscription; operators are standing by), but I had to point it out here, too. Here's part of the blurb promoting the talk:

"Recent studies indicate that nanoscale materials now being commercialized pose potential hazards for human health and the environment."

The "studies" were actually incomplete surveys of inconclusive toxicology reports, commissioned by ETC Group, itself. Even Greenpeace admits that no complete scientific study of the toxicity of nanomaterials has been yet been performed.

"Potential hazards." I suppose that's the environmental movement's equivalent of journalism's favorite word, "allegedly," which gives the illusion of absolving the writer if it turns out the allegations are flat-out wrong. For most responsible journalists, though, "allegedly" is used sparingly and only if the subject has been accused of a crime.

It doesn't matter, though. Like an "alleged murderer" who is later proven innocent, Nano's shady history as an "alleged polluter" is now a part of the permanent record of the information age and will be repeated in infinite news stories.

A less-subtle title for another Mooney speech, by the way, comes with an upcoming event at Regent's College in London, where he's scheduled to give a talk titled, "Small is Dangerous: The Threat of Nanotechnology."

The next issue of Small Times magazine will highlight how the ETC Group and others, buoyed by Greenpeace's entry into the nanotech debate, plan to increase their activism at various forums around the world.


P.S.: Come join the Slashdot fun on this one!

Thursday, August 21, 2003

The Springfield Syndrome

HomerA friend told me last weekend that they will probably find a Homer Simpson asleep at the job at a power plant somewhere in Ohio, and blame him for bringing eight states to their knees. We laughed at the time, but as I learn more about the way the power grid operates, my conviction turns stronger that "The Simpsons" is more documentary than comedy.

A reporter for a tech magazine and Web site (I'll link to it after it appears) called me yesterday, asking me to elaborate on my previous posts about how small tech could help prevent future massive blackouts. I said that microscale technology being tested now, and nanotechnology being proposed, will make up for three key deficits in the current system: Brains, brawn and local control.

New Scientist recently ran an informative piece that re-created the likely sequence of events and also explained where those three elements probably failed last week:

Brains: The reporter I talked to yesterday was as surprised as I was to learn how much the system is dependent on human beings just paying attention on the job. "There are no automatic systems to handle major disturbances," power systems security expert Daniel Kirschen told the New Scientist. "It is done manually by human operators, so the question is did they try to take the necessary action to avoid the outage." The solution? Take humans out of the equation as much as possible. Micron-scale acoustic sensors can listen for trouble on the grid, and then rouse Homer from his doughnut reverie to alert him, or simply take matters into its own tiny hands and shut down the system before the dominoes tumble out of control.

Brawn: "The power network was heavily loaded across the region that day because of high demand, and so there was no room to divert the power supply safely elsewhere," New Scientist reported. That's where Rick Smalley's quantum wires can come in. The nanotube fibers conduct electricity like copper, but are far lighter, so the grid's muscle power can increase in the same amount of space.

Local control: An often-repeated nanotech campaign promise is the micro fuel cell in every garage, powering your car, your house, your life. Then, when your power supply is finished thinking locally, there will be enough juice left over to act globally and sending the excess energy into other networks that need it.

All this, in a tiny microchip wafer. Mmmmmm … microchip waaafferrrs …


Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Smalley's smart eye for a dumb supply

If you don't believe me, listen to Richard Smalley, himself. The buckyball baron co-wrote a Houston Chronicle op-ed yesterday about nanotech and energy. The piece is tight combination of Texas flag-waving, nanotech boosterism and a dash of homeland security:

Seeing the nano-light: "Nanotechnologies also offer the possibility for vast new electrical energy storage capacity that must be tested and connected into the smart grid."

Fear Factor: "But as we saw from the Great Blackout of the Northeast, those inside an island under attack, including all city and state agencies and utilities, are currently on their own for early response."

Remembering the Alamo: "Texas then becomes the first to test nano and other advanced technologies related to transmission wires, environmental remediation, new generation technologies and other developments we can't even imagine now related to the smart grid of the future."

In today's Small Times, Smalley elaborates on how he'd use quantum wires to make the dumb grid a bit smarter and better able to harvest solar energy.

If the troubled summer at Ohio's FirstEnergy is any gauge of the power industry as a whole, it sounds like a smarter automated system might have made up for some pretty dumb human errors.


Monday, August 18, 2003

Nano knowledge is power

"I will get right to the point. Energy is the single most important problem facing humanity today." - Nanotechnology pioneer Rick Smalley, speaking to the U.S. Congress on July 25, 2002

The day the lights went out in Ann Arbor, I grabbed my laptop, thanked fate that I had recently filled my tank, fought horrible traffic home (one 'burb outside Detroit), got to know my neighbors a little better and played Scrabble by candlelight with my wife. On Friday, still no power and water, so we stuffed the dog and our belongings into the car, and headed north to my inlaws' home off the northern shores of Lake Michigan, a rustic area that was, ironically enough, completely unaffected by the sudden loss of power. While enjoying the three-day weekend on the beach, I cursed myself for not running a Small Times correspondent's report, filed last week, on nanotech and electricity.

Well, we can't all be visionaries like Rick Smalley, as you can see from the quotation that began this entry. Smalley has been reciting the energy mantra for more than a year now, and solving power problems is at the core of his call for an Apollo Program for nanotech. He and others are pushing for a federal commitment of billions of dollars to develop nanotech energy applications. When Smalley speaks, people generally listen, but now Smalley's visions seem nothing less than prophetic. Legislators will want to review what he and others have proposed, including harnessing energy from the sun and the Earth's core and developing smart distributed energy networks.

Lux Capital co-founder and fellow nanotech blogger Josh Wolfe has also given Smalley his props for his solution to energy distribution problems: Superconductive "quantum wire" spun from a carbon nanotube "could quickly move extra power from places that have it to those who need it."

Another source that should be consulted is Robert L. Olson, research director of the Institute for Alternative Futures, a nonprofit research group. In a recently published article in The Futurist, Olsen writes: "Fuel cells and other micro-power sources, collectively called distributed generation, will likely emerge as the most economical approach to providing new electrical generating capacity. Micropower on site or feeding a local grid eliminates the cost of distributing power, and in large utility grids most of the cost is actually in transmitting the power rather than in generating it. On-site and local-scale power eliminates grid losses and makes it possible to harness waste heat for heating and cooling."

One reason Olsen is a big believer in hydrogen: It's clean. "The only emission from fuel cells running on hydrogen is pure water." Acknowledging concerns over just how clean hydrogen really is, Olsen writes that it all depends on how it's produced. If you produce hydrogen using fossil fuel energy, then you're still producing greenhouse gases. "The priority our society gives to minimizing climate change will be a major factor determining what kind of hydrogen economy we create," Olsen writes.

I've made a similar argument for nanotech. The technology, itself, is morally and ethically neutral. It's up to an informed, voting public to decide whether to delve into the dark side.

If you're hungry for even more nanoenergy knowledge, look at Small Times' previous coverage of the California crisis, and an excellent overview in a Small Times cover story written by David Pescovitz.

Too bad that it takes a crisis like this to get legislators and citizens to pay attention to the fragility of our power grid, but maybe now they'll see what the nanotech visionaries have seen for years and finally take action.


Thursday, August 14, 2003

Engines of Obfuscation

Meanwhile, in Old/New Europe, the spotlight seekers are stuck in green goo as the real scientists move forward on molecular motors.


Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Playing God with Monsters

Horrified by "There Be Monsters Here" tales, some members of Congress called for a ban on DNA research in the mid '70s. Because those calls were rejected, millions of people around the world can now hope for DNA-based vaccines against AIDS, malaria and other deadly diseases that have destroyed lives, communities and nations.

Here's an illustration: The name of Joseph DeRisi keeps coming up in connection with global epidemics. No, he's not a modern-day Typhoid Mary. Just the opposite. The University of California, San Francisco researcher is using his own custom-built DNA microarrays to look inside the "minds" of some serious serial killers. The "minds" are genes, and his home-brewed gene chips helped solve the SARS mystery earlier this year. Now, DeRisi has chosen malaria as his next victim.

His chips have a way of sweet-talking the nasty parasite's genes into expressing themselves, showing which ones are active when it's brunching on its victim's blood or spreading to other cells. DeRisi found that the secret to malaria's success is its simplicity – regulated by only 10 genes compared with, say, 141 in yeast and more than a thousand in human cells. So, malaria is not the brightest bug in the biosphere, but it does its job with a single-mindedness, turning on each gene just before it's needed – like an assassin pumping his rifle.

As is usually the case with serial killers, malaria's strength is also its weakness. DeRisi tells The New York Times that all you need to do is take out one of the slimy simpleton's regulatory genes, and you'll send it babbling backward toward the evolutionary basement.

The technological breakthrough comes too late for some regions of Africa that are suffering a resurgence of malaria. But reading news of both the breakthrough and the outbreak clarifies for me what could be sacrificed on the altar of precaution if it's not tempered with knowledge that risk can also bring reward.


P.S.: This post has just been Slashdotted, so there is sure to be some lively debate on this subject over there, too. Welcome, Slashdot readers. Come back often!

Making an assay out of ourselves

Great to see a micro/nano company that doesn't take itself so seriously that it's above using a pun (the lowest form of humor, seen often on this Weblog) in its slogan.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Movin' Through Casimir

Nano isn't my only obsession. The other is the ultimate fate of the universe. Really. Just ask my wife. ("Why bother scooping the dog poop in the backyard if there isn't enough mass in the universe to guarantee its continued existence?")

Last I heard, the universe doesn't contain enough stuff to reverse the Big Bang and create nature's ultimate recycling machine: The Big Crunch. Before this disheartening news hit a year or so ago, it was comforting to think that my atoms would be re-used in the next spin cycle. But, no, instead the universe will coast, dim and fizzle.

The only hope? An escape hatch. And nanotech, of course, is coming to the rescue. Purdue physicist Ephraim Fischbach – oh, you beautiful, bald man – spends his time like a mime pretending he's encased in glass, feeling the space around him, hoping his hand slips into another dimension. The goal might be generations away, but – like Tang and joysticks to the Apollo program – the search can lead to some wonderful discoveries along the way.

One of them is a new way of measuring Casimir force on the nanoscale. You can read the details here. Simply put, Casimir force is the result of our constant bombardment by the photons of light that surround us. We big people don't feel it, but when scientists try to make things happen on the nanoscale, these photons can literally clog up the gears and get them to behave unpredictably. Scientists, and those who want to exploit their discoveries, hate unpredictability.

So, Fischbach and friends may not have opened the door to another dimension, but they have helped place nanoscientists into a zone where they can learn how to crack the whip and make molecules behave. The result might be computers or fiber optics that use photons as workhorses.

Regarding the fate of the universe, I guess I shouldn't be getting my superstrings all tied in a knot. There's time.


The Electric Kool-Aid Nano Test

A great deal has been written in the popular press recently about the slippery definition of "nanotechnology." At Small Times, we often subject the word to unspeakable torture in our attempts to extract information on whether a company conforms. Here's a little peak behind the scenes in an e-mail exchange between correspondent Jack Mason, staff writer David Forman and me.

From: Jack Mason
Sent: Wednesday, August 06, 2003 12:07 PM
To: Howard Lovy
Subject: Chlorogen: Plant-Made Drugs

Harris & Harris just invested ... I think this kind of "wet" bionanotech is fascinating.

Chlorogen Inc. is focused on developing plant-made drugs and vaccines for the treatment and prevention of human diseases. Its patented chloroplast technology permits the expression of foreign proteins only within plant chloroplasts. According to Chlorogen, this provides two significant benefits. First, the chloroplast technology dramatically enhances the protein production of a cell. Second, because chloroplast DNA is not inherited through pollen, Chlorogen's technology can prevent foreign genes from being transferred to other crops through pollen. Chlorogen's initial focus will be on developing pharmaceutical proteins in tobacco.

From: Howard Lovy
To: Jack Mason; David Forman

Thanks, Jack! I'm forwarding this to David, who will determine whether this is nanotech and write a brief if it is.

Howard Lovy
News Editor
Small Times Media

From: David Forman
To: Howard Lovy; Jack Mason;

The big question (and I certainly don't have the answer) is whether 'wet' bionanotech is just biotech. Any takers?

From: Howard Lovy
To: David Forman; Jack Mason;

No. THIS is an example of wet nanotech.


From: Jack Mason
To: David Forman; Howard Lovy

I think it can be argued both ways:

On the one hand, biotech has been using genetic engineering to do similar things, like produce human insulin with bacteria, for a long time.

On the other, the degree of control and complexity of what might be produced by such modified biofactories seems to be a level of growing sophistication that at least borders on a new category one might call bionanotech.

I've been rereading Drexler's Engines of Creation, and am reminded that he talked about protein engineering and DNA synthesis as being both models for and precursors to his idea of molecular manufacturing.

One other thought ... I just finished James Watson's excellent book DNA: The Secret Life. The complexity of the DNA molecule, and the tremendous abilities science has developed to manipulate such infinitesimal stuff, makes me wonder if biotech really is an advanced nanotechnology, but one that merely developed without benefit of the 'nano' prefix.

From: Howard Lovy
To: David Forman; Jack Mason;

Well, here's the official Small Times definition of nanotechnology: "The creation, use or manipulation of matter on the nanoscale to take advantage of properties that reign at that scale. Typically, this is defined as 100 nanometers or below."

The judgment call we make every day is that "take advantage of properties" part of it, and you can argue that we've been pretty loose on that with other applications (nanocoatings, textiles, etc.)

Here's the company's description of the technology. The key phrase there is: "Chlorogen has invented and patented genetic sequences or regulatory signals, which tell foreign genes to function within the chloroplasts and only the chloroplasts."

You could argue that if it wasn't nanoscale, it wouldn't work – but does it take advantage of any "special properties?" Not sure. We'd need help from somebody with some initials after his name.

From a news standpoint, though, Harris & Harris – a company that specializes in nanotech investments, therefore is always on our radar – decided to invest in this company. Let's find out why, and let them tell us whether they see it as nano, bio, potato or potawto. Either way, let's not call the whole thing off. It's probably a brief.

P.S.: Harris & Harris' investment in Chlorogen has generated some "Nanalyses" over at Nanalyze.


Monday, August 11, 2003

Are you trying to seduce us, Sen. Lieberman?

Sen. Joe Lieberman, writing in his online diary after his July visit to Nanosys Inc. in Palo Alto: "In a line that reminded me of 'The Graduate,' one of my tour guides called nanotechnology 'the next plastic.' " Discuss

NanoBot Reprise

Nice to see some of my previous rantings on this page echoed to a larger readership by political reporter, analyst and fellow blogger Declan McCullagh.

Take a look at Return of the Green Luddites on CNET.


Sunday, August 10, 2003

Backlash: The Prequel

"It's been observed that nanotechnology is the first technology to spawn a backlash before it has even been developed." James, my brother, that about says it all.


Friday, August 08, 2003

Do they know it's nanotime at all?

Jet-setting nanopersonality Tim Harper writes an intriguing column that briefly addresses an issue that will make its way onto the global agenda: Nano-Haves and Nano-Have-Nots. It's really a stepchild of the broader issue over access to technology and its benefits that some file under the general class-warfare category pitting the developing world against the developed. As I've said before, nanotechnology is in danger of not only being classified as a form of pollution, but also as another form of oppression by industrialized nations and is sure to find its way onto the anti-globalization movement's agenda. The industrialized and developing worlds, as Tim says, should talk to one another about an exchange of technological and monetary resources for skilled and educated workers, then we can all join hands in a "We Are the World" sing-along while enjoying the benefits of a nanotech-enabled, healthy, poverty-free world. We just need to get the word out about the various ways nanotechnology can help the world's impoverished regions. The solution, Harper points out, is "communication." But while conference calls to Kabul are all well and good, nanotech rock stars like Harper need to think on a grander scale if they're going to drown out the voices of the closed-minded. How about NanoAid? I wonder what Bob Geldof is doing these days. Discuss

Giving business the nano

Even if Motorola memory pioneer Herb Goronkin's appointment as NanoBusiness Alliance co-chairman is only an honorary title, it's still a thrill to see the group attach to its leadership list a representative from the third level of the nanotech triumvirate: science. With fellow co-chairmen Newt Gingrich and Steve Jurvetson representing the political and financial, a layer of technical know-how needed to be spread among the bread and bluster. The name of Goronkin may not appear with all the neon flash of the other two, but Goronkin brings the NanoBusiness Alliance something more valuable than star power: the ability to form, well, business alliances. As Candace Stuart reported in an in-depth Small Times profile earlier this year: "He's crafted partnerships with groups as varied as the industry and trade office of Japan and the research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense to keep his programs moving forward." Goronkin's latest program before retirement was MRAM, which uses the spin properties of electrons to create memory chips that don't go senile when they're turned off. His appointment sounds like a great way to put more "nano" into NanoBusiness. Discuss

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Exit 'The Matrix,' please

This news story, Power from blood could lead to 'human batteries', has been cycled, recycled, spun and dried on news sites and blogs for the past couple of days, partly because the writer was smart: He inserted a "Matrix" reference.

Between the overused "Fantastic Voyage" references and the cottage industry that revolves around making "Star Trek" technology a reality, it appears that many writers are convinced that the only way to make science breakthroughs understandable to average readers is to compare the resulting technologies to their counterparts in popular mythology. The movies, of course, are among our few common, worldwide reference points, so conjuring up "Matrix" images makes the story more likely to be picked up by news outlets around the world.

The problem is that potentially life-saving technology is being presented, again, as potentially sinister. There is, of course, a dark side to any technology, so why not do a little extra reporting to flag the potential misuses? That would take a little more work, though.

I'm admittedly geekier than the average bear, but the thought of nanobio generators being used to power implanted devices like pacemakers is cool enough to hold my interest – without the writer prodding me with the image of Keanu Reeves as a AAA battery attached to a worldwide screen saver encrypted to enslave humanity.


Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Sent to the Precautionary Principle's Office

Jared Blumenfeld, director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment, gives an effective defense of the Precautionary Principle in Monday's San Francisco Chronicle. The city just enacted a law that requires the "do-no-harm" precept to be taken into consideration when it makes decisions on the environment.

In a previous post on Greenpeace's nanotech study, I talked about my general agreement with the Precautionary Principle, but I also argued that it's too early to apply it to nanotechnology, since not enough is known about nanoparticles to even have a doubt.

Blumenfeld makes an effective case for the principle when he looks back at how failure to follow it created problems with lead and asbestos. He urges that "environmental decision-making be based on rigorous science – science that is explicit about what is known, what is not known and what may never be known about potential hazards. "

Sounds great so far, but the alarm bells go off for nanotech advocates when he writes: "Unfortunately, in today's regulatory system, lack of proof of harm is usually misinterpreted as proof of safety."

I'm not sure if that's a misinterpretation, or simply the human urge to progress despite an element of risk. If we didn't have the instinct for taking risks, I'd be chiseling this message on a cave wall.

When Blumenfeld correctly acknowledges that "a risk that is unnecessary, and not freely chosen, is never acceptable," he encapsulates perfectly the nature of the current nanotech/environment debate. When you read on this Weblog, in Small Times and in increasingly frequent reports in the mainstream media about the need for a worldwide conversation about the "societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology," it's precisely these questions that society needs to answer: "Which risks are necessary? If we choose to take a risk, was the choice made freely?"

As nanotech comes of age, variations of these questions are going to be heard for decades and centuries to come.

But, we're only talking about San Francisco. What do they have to do with the rest of the world? For one thing, the city is usually galaxies ahead in its approach to social, political and technological issues. The rest of the country will eventually catch up, and look to San Francisco for precedent. We need to pay close attention as a nebulous concept like the Precautionary Principle – complete with subjective definitions of "acceptable risk" – becomes codified into law.


Gender splendor

The two or three people who read my rant on gender selection technology should take a look at author and journalist Jenn Shreve's well-written guest blog on BoingBoing – a site co-edited by Small Times correspondents David Pescovitz and Mark Frauenfelder. (Yes, I did give Mark an assignment in the South Pacific and I'm hopeful for Small Times' first Rarotonga dateline.)

Shreve found an advertisement for gender-selection firm MicroSort, whose technology was featured in this Small Times article a couple of years ago, and communicates a similar point with much more eloquence than I was able to achieve. Plus, she spurred some interesting discussion from readers. Very nice work.


The Shift of Foresight: Going Mainstream

It's nice to see that the nano-seers at the Foresight Institute, a group of nanotech enthusiasts whose ruminations were once considered a bit too esoteric for general consumption, are finally getting some respect from mainstream business publications.

Silicon Valley Biz Ink's recent interview with Foresight President Christine Peterson helps send a message to the general business community that it needs to wake up and catch up on what all these messy-haired, rumpled eggheads have pondering in obscurity for years.

In the interview, Peterson gives some advice for the summer, warning that the zinc oxide nanoparticles in some brands of sunscreen "may have health issues." (For more on this, see: Survey finds the smaller the size, the bigger the possible risks.) "So I wouldn't necessarily advise you run out and buy the sunscreen right now, certainly not for your children," she told Biz Ink. "But I think studies will be done and we'll have an answer pretty soon about whether this is a good idea."

At the same time, though, she expects that the first benefits from nanotechnology, in the next two or three decades, will come from "clean manufacturing," replacing the old techniques of leaving behind "leftover atoms and molecules that end up often in the water and in the air. There's no excuse for this; nature doesn't do it that dirtily."

Peterson said that while it's "unusual for a new technology, with applications so far off, to have so much being spent on ethical issues," she remains true to the name and spirit of her institute. Like a good nano-scout, she emphasized the need to be prepared: "Fortunately, we have quite a bit of time here – perhaps a couple of decades or more to look at this issue and figure it out in advance."


Monday, August 04, 2003

'Green chemists' are not a bunch of oxymorons

The Register-Guard of Eugene, Ore., ran an informative guest column from James Hutchison, an associate professor of chemistry and director of the Materials Science Institute at the University of Oregon. "Political activists fail to recognize that nanoscale materials are nothing new. They exist naturally in the environment ..." Hutchison writes. His lab is heavily involved in "Green Chemistry," and if you think that's an inherent contradiction, take a look at some of his fascinating research and his 2001 article in Chemical & Engineering News, Nanoscience Turns Green (PDF). Discuss

'Grey goo will bury you'

Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your pants stains.


Caveat Emptor Nano

Today's Reuters story, Overused, Misused Nano Becoming Pervasive Prefix, reminds me again of what NanoBusiness Alliance Executive Director Mark Modzelewski wisely told Small Times reporter David Forman a few months back following an apparent nanoscam that hit the industry: "The nanotech community might be a particularly attractive target to these 'bad people' because it has been so effective at generating buzz and attracting cash. 'With those dynamics they need to be more careful and frankly more cynical,' Modzelewski said." The same advice, of course, should be given to consumers, in general. But most American consumers intuitively know that products do not necessarily match their labels, and it's another sign that nanotech has arrived that the Mr. Haneys of the world will try to resell their snake oil with "nano" packaging. Anyway, it's nothing new. The magic "nano" prefix has been the marketing term of choice from the U.S. to China for a few years now. How to tell nano from no-no? Well, read Small Times and the NanoBot, of course, and we'll help you sort it out. Discuss