Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Operation Inform Chad

I have great respect for Chad Mirkin, but this interview in BusinessWeek shows how ill-informed even a top nanotech scientist and entrepreneur can be.

    Q: What about hype? Are there areas where investors risk being sold a bill of goods?

    A: Robotics. I'd love to see an article [saying] that nanotech is not about nanobots. There are almost no credible efforts that focus on that goal. There are certainly no credible business efforts. This [topic] is dominated by Hollywood and by some folks that aren't very informed. More here

Professor Mirkin, there are, indeed, credible efforts to focus on that goal. You have simply not read about them because the nanotech PR sheets that cover your work have locked arms with the U.S. government and business communities in pushing those efforts to the margins. That's changing, of course, as the nanotech B2B media model goes down in flames and a wider segment of the public begins demanding understandable information about nanotech of all stripes. (Yes, shameless plug for NanoBot).

However, you're correct in saying that there are no credible business efforts, since those working on true molecular manufacturing (no, not textiles and cosmetics) are doing it despite the lack of short-term ROI.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Just who the hell do I think I am?


Anonymous said...

If conspiracy theorists, nanoroboticists, journalists and assorted amateur nutcases now lecture university professors about nanotechnology, have the lunatics finally taken over the asylum?

Really, Howard, you should learn to separate science from fantasy. Wasn't fact checking covered in journalism 101 or are you so scientifically illiterate that receiving an award from Foresight means that you will regurgitate any clap trap without question?

Howard Lovy said...

I'm sorry, you, Anonymous in the corner. Yes, you, the one flicking paper footballs and impressing us all with your ability to form two paragraphs without communicating anything but insults. Did you have any specific question or criticism you'd like to address to the class?


Anonymous said...


you could start by explaining the somewhat empty staement "as the nanotech B2B media model goes down in flames and a wider segment of the public begins demanding understandable information about nanotech of all stripes."

Are you seriously suggesting that this blog is some kind of samizdat that scientists and governments around the world are working to supress?

Howard Lovy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Oh Howard, haven't you heard? Professors never make mistakes. Never. They're always right about everything they say, even when another Professor says just the opposite, in which case, they're both right.

Geoff Hutchison said...

Respectfully Howard, I don't really see your concern here. I think if I cornered Prof. Mirkin in the hall and asked him about research on nanobots, he'd give me pointers.

But he's being interviewed by a business magazine and asked about investing in nanotech. So naturally he says that nanotech is not just nanobots, and there aren't any credible business efforts--particularly true for the audience of Business Week (which may not be interested in truly long-range venture capital). He acknowledges a few efforts--though there are "almost none" (true, when compared with other areas of nanoscience and nanotech research).

So what is your criticism of Chad? Seems like the correct answer to give to a business magazine about investing in nano.

Howard Lovy said...

Oh, now there's no need to write anything "respectfully" to me.

It's interesting you bring that up, though, since from an investment standpoint I have heard absolutely nobody hype up "nanobots." The investment and business communities have gone out of their way to make it clear that anything resembling this vision is not anywhere near the realm of near-term or even the possible.

So, where exactly is the "nanobot" hype coming from? I read the hype only in mainstream publications that always lead with statements like "nanotechnology will someday lead to atom-by-atom assembly of materials and will slice, dice, cure cancer and get rid of unwanted lipstick on your collar ..., etc."

Despite the name of this site -- which started out as a form of sarcasm, really -- you won't read that kind of hype from me. I point out some of the real work going on along the margins of nanotech because ... well ... because most of the science media are along for the ride and write about molecular manufacturing with a kind of annoying, derogatory snear -- much like the tone obviously taken by Mirkin.

I suppose many people in my profession suffer from a kind of "Stockholm Syndrome" and take on the attitudes of those whom they are supposed to cover from a distance.

Mirkin's dismissal of longer-term nanotech as dominated by Hollywood and the ignorant cannot be viewed in a vaccuum. He's repeating a mantra that I've heard during the past four years or so from the nanotech business community -- this idea that nanotech is about pants and cosmetics and not at all the way the general public (not only Hollywood and the ill-informed) view nanotech.

Then, a strange thing usually happens. When the investment and business community really get going past their sale pitch of scratch-free and stain-free coatings to try to get folks on board, they then go off and do what the mainstream media do ... and Hollywood ... and the "ill-informed" and talk about the long-term vision of nanotech that will build anything you want atom-by-atom, curing cancer, erasing famine and disease and even locating lost socks behind the dryer, etc. ...

In other words, they are all selling the same bill of goods. The difference is that the more-politically savvy of the nanotech scientist/entrepreneurs -- like Chad Mirkin -- know that they need to be vocally dismissive of the long-term vision at this point in time because that is the way to attract the right kind of attention, get the short-term money, get in good with the political people in charge of the money and so forth. But even with in that world, there is always, in the background, this promise that to invest in nanotech is not to simply invest in the same old chemical and biotech companies -- only downsized -- but rather in something that will ultimately change the world.

Isn't that why nanotech is so exciting? It's certainly why I've chosen to write about it for a living. If I thought that I'd spend years of my life chasing down stories of better clothing and sports equipment, I'd go back to covering something that makes a real difference in people's lives, like my local school board.

No, Mirkin knows better. Of course there are no credible business efforts going on in nanoscale robotics. And if there are BusinessWeek readers dumb enough to invest in that and expect some short-term ROI, then there is also a bridge in my hometown of Detroit, which crosses over to Windsor that I'd like to sell them. Hell, I'll throw in the tunnel, too.

However, Mirkin, ultimately, is selling a vision, a concept, a long-term promise that nanotech will ultimately create material on the nanoscale that will work some miracles. Call them nanobots or call them, as he did, materials that will rebuild "the earth as we know it, atom by atom."

Same goal, same vision, but different means of getting there.


Anonymous said...

Howard, very well observed and described. Your last comment has to be one of the best I´ve been reading here since day 1. Definitely a keeper in my argument arsenal against the nay-sayers.

Howard Lovy said...

Thanks, Mom! I love you, too! (Can't think of who else would say such nice things about me in public).


Anonymous said...

Well usually what we do in a situation like this debate is we do a little research. If there is indeed a focus on nanobots then well find the info and source it. Otherwize your just flapping your gumms.

I am majoring in nanotechnology in Dallas. Chad is one of my assignments to say the least.

I don't know if what this critic says is true . But if it is I assume he could deliver some info that might substaniate his claim. Wouldn't you think ?