August 13, 2004

Nanobotic Evolution

Kurzweil AI points to two stories this morning that are especially interesting when considered together:

Protein-Based Nanoactuators

Protein-based nanoactuators can now be controlled rapidly and reversibly by thermoelectric signals. In a living creature, contracting or relaxing of muscle tissue is carried out by motor proteins called actomyosin. Scientists designing nano-scale devices would naturally like to emulate the efficiency and compactness of the muscle-moving molecules. A key issue is the controlled rapid activation of the protein motors through simple means.

And that's what researchers at Florida State University have done. They have set up a flow cell in which motor molecules (which can remain viable for days when refrigerated) can be thermally activated into motion in a controllable and reversible way using only input wires which provide a controlled amount of heat.

And…

When Machines Breed

Paul Layzell is a specialist in the budding field of evolvable hardware. Simply put, he helps machines design themselves, using principles borrowed directly from biological evolution.

Layzell once used genetic algorithms to build an oscillator circuit. Some of the solutions were textbook, but one unusual run designed a circuit to take advantage of the radiated hum of the computer he was working on.

In other words, it cheated. The circuit had hacked the system by becoming a radio.

Evolutionary processes have been used in software design since the 1960s.

What is new, however, is the application of evolutionary processes in the hardware realm. Thanks to reconfigurable devices such as the field programmable gate array (FPGA) -- the microchip designer's equivalent of an Etch A Sketch -- and increasing computational power, researchers who once performed simulations of new circuits with an eye on the clock are suddenly free to let their designs evolve for a while just to see what happens. One might not be sure that one understands how a given circuit achieves what it is supposed to, but if it works, is that really a problem?

This is a huge paradigm shift. We don't have to understand our machines anymore. How long until some enterprising researcher programs a simulation of certain tools that we have at our disposal – protein-based nanoactuators could be one such tool – and then lets the computer evolve a plan for a self-assembling nanobot?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:49 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

July 12, 2004

A Modest Proposal

The Prince of Wales is once again warning about the dangers of nanotechnology:

The Prince acknowledges nanotechnology is a "triumph of human ingenuity".

"Some of the work may have fundamental benefits to society, such as enabling the construction of much cheaper fuel-cells, or new ways of combating ill-health," he says.

But he adds: "How are we going to ensure that proper attention is given to the risks that may... ensue?

Your Highness, maybe you ought to think about joining the Foresight Institute, where they've been planning for nanotechnology for more than a decade — including giving the "proper attention" to the risks involved.

If money is tight, there are several membership options available.

Posted by Phil at 07:27 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

July 05, 2004

Why It 'Can't Be Done'

Lawrence Lessig writing for Wired:

But as Clayton Teague, director of the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office, later told me, it's hard to call molecular manufacturing "impossible" when it's precisely what living cells do every moment of the day. It may be hugely complex, he said, and as all agree, it is certainly years away. "But I would hesitate," this sensible administrator admitted, "to call it impossible."

So why do some scientists say it can't be done? As the editors of Chemical & Engineering News put it, Smalley's "objections go beyond the scientific." They are a strategy - if so-called dangerous nanotech can be relegated to summer sci-fi movies and forgotten after Labor Day, then serious work can continue, supported by billion-dollar funding and uninhibited by the idiocy that buries, for example, stem cell research.

Given the politics of science, this strategy is understandable. Yet it is a strategy inspired not by the laws of nature but by the perverse nature of how we make laws. We are cowards in the face of Bill Joy's nightmare. We dissemble rather than reason, because we can't imagine rational government policy addressing these reasonable fears.

He is right on the money, as usual. Something has got to change. Government, which tends to put the I's in "institutionalize" anyway, begins to look particularly mossbacked in an age of accelerating change. Perhaps we're going to need a singularity of a different sort?

(via InstaPundit)

Posted by Phil at 11:26 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

May 18, 2004

Modzelewski Employment Watch Day 98

Mark Modzelewski is stepping down as director of the Nanobusiness Alliance to join Lux Research Inc., a nanotech firm.

No word on whether Lux is undertaking Drexlerian nanobot research.

Via Instapundit

Phil's right. Things ARE getting better all the time.

For a history of the Modzelewski Employment Watch see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 03:35 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

May 02, 2004

Tipping Points

Chris Phoenix on tipping points:

...[U]p to a certain point, we won't see the power of this technology, but the advantages will develop rapidly once that point is reached. This is not how humans expect things to work -- we expect a linear progression. But a tipping point is nonlinear. If we don't recognize it in advance and plan for it, it will take us by surprise.

Chris points out that we have experienced two such tipping points in the history of technological development: the first occured when precision became a function of machinery (rather than human skill); the second occured when the same thing happened with reliability. The next tipping point is yet to come, and it has to do with complexity. When machines can rotuinely create machines more complex than themselves, we're there.

Chris claims that this tipping point is at least as significant as the other two. I think it may turn out to be more significant than the two that preceded it, if only because it builds on them and helps to further exploit the advantagesbrought about by the other two. Moreover, it occurs to me that the ability of machines to produce ever more complex machines is an essential ingredient in the coming singularity.

By all means, read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 10:16 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

April 30, 2004

DNA 2.0

It's the hardware/software system that manages the contruction and ongoing maintenance of the human body. Now some genius wants to upgrade it — actually, replace it with a whole new system.

And I mean that quite sincerely. The genius is none other than Ray Kurzweil:

Ray Kurzweil has proposed a nanobiotechnology research program to replace the cell nucleus and ribosome machinery with a nanocomputer and nanobot to prevent diseases and aging and another program to create defensive technologies against rogue designer viruses.

Kurzweil presented the ideas in a keynote at the recent "Breakthrough Technologies for the World's Biggest Problems" conference on April 28, sponsored by the Arlington Institute.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 12:48 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

April 28, 2004

Glenn Reynolds on Nanotech's first IPO

Don't miss Glenn's Tech Central Station column: "Beyond the Nano-Hype."

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:01 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Here Comes the Drain Again

I finished reading Atkinson's Nanocosm last night. It is a great read for anybody who has an interest in the state of the art (well, last year's state of the art – this industry moves quickly) in nanotechnology.

I'm even beginning to understand some of Atkinson's criticisms of Drexler. He saved his best anti-Drexler bombshell for the last chapter, "Nano-Pitfalls." Still, my one criticism of the book is the repetitive and tiresome attacks on Drexler:
K. Eric Drex, K. Eric Drex / The man who dispensed with reality checks
I'm not kidding. That's an actual quote from page 145. I can just imagine Drexler responding, "Oh yeah? I'm rubber and you're glue…"

Any good book needs both protagonists and antagonists. Atkinson's book is filled with worthy protagonists from around the world, but he settled for just the one antagonist. There were better choices. He came close to finding one in this conversation with Dr. Tsunenori Sakamoto, "deputy director of international affairs for AIST, Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology":
"[Japanese] revenue from semiconductor chips peaked in 1987, when Japan had 50 percent of theworld market and the U.S. had 35 percent or so…since then the U.S. has had a steady gain and Japan a study decline. Our latest figures show the U.S. with 57 percent of the world market, more than we had fifteen years ago. Japan's share is down to 29 percent and apparently, still falling… [said Sakamoto]"

…I strongly suspect that the sales curves he's showing me are capital-investment curves, shifted five years to the right… I ask him about this…

"What is there to say? In the 1970's, when money was much more scarce, Japan somehow found nearly $600 million U.S. to capitalize its semiconductor R&D. That subsequently paid off twenty times over. But we got complacent…

[From page 221]
Atkinson should have targeted as antagonists (as Phil did yesterday) those who have become complacent about R&D spending in the U.S. and elsewhere. We are cutting back in many areas of research and simultaneously making it more difficult for foreign brainpower to come to our country. I understand our need for defense in this dangerous time, but this doesn't bode well for the U.S. in the next five to ten years.

And what are Japan's goals?
Dr. Tsunenori Sakamoto showed me an AIST chart that divided nanotechnology into various areas-electronics, smart structures, materials, pharmaceuticals. Each area fell into one of three categories. The first was Japan Dominates in Three Years. The second was Japan Dominates in Ten Years. The third was Japan Dominates in Twenty Years. No area whatsoever was allotted a category for second place.

[from page 254]
Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:17 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 23, 2004

Failure to Communicate

Right now I'm working on four books – and that's a bad habit. I should start a book and finish it before taking up another. I end up getting the ideas from different books jumbled up together. Is it really true that President Taft broke the four minute mile? That just doesn't seem right. Anyway, the current books are: All of these books are, so far, very interesting and I recommend them all. Oryx and Crake is a very dark dystopian novel that's not for everyone. It's a weird and depressing cross between Frankenstein, Mad Max, and the book of Genesis.

Nanocosm is interesting combination of breathless anticipation of the future of nanotechnology and utter disdain for Drexler. At several points in the book the writer, William Atkinson, is not at all shy about expressing his low opinion of Eric Drexler.

I wanted to dislike Atkinson's book (he and Modzelewski would probably get along great), but at the same time I got caught up in his enthusiasm for nanotech's possibilities. For example, Atkinson has no problem with the concept of molecular self-assembly. I found myself wondering why he dislikes Drexler's ideas so much.

I can't help but think that Atkinson would hate Drexler's ideas less if he understood them better. Atkinson's problem is that he envisions Drexler's nanobot as an atom-sized R2D2. If that is what Drexler really has in mind, I would agree. If you had to make R2D2 the size of an atom, what exactly would R2D2 be made of?

Drexler's vision of nano is not macroengineering made small. Perhaps part of the problem here is the term "nanobot." The "bot" suffix obviously is short for "robot." Nanobots, obviously, will not look like R2D2. They will be more like viruses, bacteria, or a protein.

A good example is the work being done at Sandia National Laboratories. (Newsweek via KurzweilAI):
Called a motor protein, it has two little feet on one end and a tail that can grab things on the other. Once a special chemical is added to the solution in which it resides, the protein begins moving along strands of fiber that are one-fifth the width of a human hair, says Bruce Bunker, a Sandia researcher who's in charge of the project.

He's betting that his experiment could play a part in heralding the arrival of a new era in manufacturing…

…scientists recently have made so much headway in designing artificial molecules that self-assemble in a predictable pattern -- an outgrowth of steady increases in research funding for such projects worldwide.

About one-quarter of the 2,000 or so nanotechnology projects the National Science Foundation now sponsors involve self-assembly -- and funding for nanotechnology should grow about 20% year-over-year, to $305 million, in fiscal 2005, says Roco. Total federal nanotech funding through a program called the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which Roco helps coordinate, should reach nearly $1 billion next year.

…Even that figure is likely to be overshadowed by private funding.
The big dream of nanotech is to develop self-assembling molecules that work at our direction. This is what Drexler and Atkinson both envision. What we've got here is... failure to communicate.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 01:47 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

March 29, 2004

Modzelewski Employment Watch Day 48

Glenn Reynolds discusses how the Nano Business Alliance has shot itself in the foot with its backlash-avoidance strategy:

Nonetheless, because of its worries about science-fiction-based fears where mature nanotechnology is concerned, the nanotechnology industry has mostly succeeded in exaggerating concern about shorter-term fears. Afraid that nanotechnology might be associated with lethal (and implausible) sci-fi robots in the public mind, it has produced a situation in which nanotechnology may come to be associated with lethal (and more plausible) toxic buckyballs instead. Call me crazy, but that seems worse. This ham-handed approach to public relations has the potential to do real harm to the industry, and in the process to a technology that the world desperately needs.

If they're smart, the Nano Business Alliance will capitalize on this opportunity to clean up their image. If they decide to let Modzelewski go, they can point to his misrepresentation of the technology — rather than or in addition to his "unique" personal style — as the primary reason for needing to make a change. Of course, he "misrepresented" the technology by presenting it exactly the way they wanted him to, but now that the image of the technology they asked him to create has an image problem of its own, somebody is going to need to take the fall.

A tough break, but that's life in the world of big business. Or rather, very small business.

Previous entries in this series here and here and here and here.

Posted by Phil at 08:42 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 24, 2004

New Cancer Treatment

A cancer treatment that is more effective and less invasive than chemo may be on its way. Researchers have developed a method to fine-tune dendrimers to seek out and destroy cancer cells.

Researchers at the University of Michigan's Center for Biologic Nanotechnology hope to prevent that problem by developing "smart" drug delivery devices that will knock out cancer cells with lethal doses, leaving normal cells unharmed, and even reporting back on their success.

The U-M group is using lab-made molecules called dendrimers, also known as nanoparticles, as the backbones of their delivery system. Dendrimers are tiny spheres whose width is ten thousand times smaller than the thickness of a human hair, explains physics doctoral student Almut Mecke. "These spheres have all sorts of loose ends where you can attach things---for example, a targeting agent that can recognize a cancer cell and distinguish it from a healthy cell. You can also attach the drug that actually kills the cancer cells. If you have both of these functions on the same molecule, then you have a smart drug that knows which cells to attack."

Previously, dendrimers had shown a nasty and indiscriminate tendency to poke holes in cell membranes with their sharp edges, making them as big a threat to healthy cells as they were to cancerous ones. Researchers have found that this tendency is due to the electrical charge that the nanoparticles carried. With the charge removed, dendrimers can be introduced into healthy tissue and cause no damage. Moreover, they can be fine-tuned to seek out only the cancer cells and destructively bind with them.

Early experiments with mice have had positive results. Stay tuned.


via KurzweilAI

Posted by Phil at 06:57 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 16, 2004

The Technology Solution

The world changes, and all that once was strong now proves unsure. How shall any tower withstand such numbers and such reckless hate?

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

I quote these words from The Lord of the Rings in reference to the horrifying terrorist attacks that occurred last week in Spain, although they could be applied equally well to any number of atrocities that have been perpetrated by Al Qaeda and their ilk. The movie version of Theoden’s rhetorical question may be even more to the point: “What can men do against such reckless hate?” What, indeed? Stephen Green, starting with the (increasingly likely) assumption that it was Al Qaeda who carried out the Madrid bombings, has proposed an answer — kick ass and take names, and never mind about the taking names.

But there is no appeasing people who kill because they think the blood of infidels looks prettier splattered on a wall. There is no negotiating with people who think you're less than human. We cannot show even a hint of weakness, when our self-declared enemies think our liberal natures make us weak.

VodkaPundit reader John Cunningham amplifies these comments and comes to a conclusion that Stephen never intended:

It's way past time to take Islamofascism seriously. We have to drain the swamp where the vermin breed—nuke Mecca, Media, Riyadh, non-nuke wipeouts of all govt areas in Damascus, Teheran, Cairo, raise a foreign legion mass army, officered by Americans for a long-term reeducation in the Mideast, a no-bullshit war to the knife. Foreign muslims out of the US, without exception. Citizen muslims get a free ticket and $$ to leave, or onto reservations, with serious fences around them.

Stephen rejects this idea out of hand as being the “the nuke 'em all and don't let even God sort 'em out” approach, which he describes as being as reprehensible as the one we’re fighting. But several readers take issue with his objections:

We have to also admit, and probably should proclaim loudly, that Cunningham's plan is Plan B. Either the middle east transforms itself into freedom loving and peaceful democracies. Or else it will be wiped off the face of the earth. Yes that would mean killing a lot of innocent Muslims.

—-

To publicly denounce the "final solution" is to go to a street fight with boxing gloves. The laws of Darwin have not been suspended because we have the UN and cheese in aerosol cans. MAD, highly modified, still has merit in a world of "stateless" mass destruction, in that it rekindles the sensibilities of the rational majority within which the terrorists hide - eliminating aid and comfort to the enemy.

—-

If, at some point a line is crossed and your response becomes to make islam a religion as dead as that of the Maya than what do we save by waiting? I submit that after first use of nuclear weapons by islamofascists extinction of islam should be a real possibility because that way at least some will be saved that would be killed by them otherwise.

Our friend Karl Gallagher comments that he can visualize scenarios in which he would approve of such an approach, but that he would rather we didn’t “get our souls that dirty.”

I think he’s right to be so concerned. Personally, I’m with Stephen.

First off, I consider any talk of a concentration camps or a “final solution” to be utterly beyond the pale. Whatever the right course of action is — and I don’t pretend to be an expert — we don’t need to go borrowing tactics or language from the freaking Nazis. Another commenter wrote that we should emulate Rome in its war against Carthage. Granted, the Roman Empire may not have been quite as monstrous as Nazi Germany, but that isn't saying much, now is it?

The question of whether, when, and how to use nukes is a tricky one. Again, I don’t claim any particular expertise in military strategy or tactics. But I don’t mind going on the record saying that I think massive pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes against the entire Muslim world is a Very Bad Idea. Which doesn’t mean that we should rule out ever using them. We may be left with no alternative.

That’s really the problem: lack of alternatives. All the choices we have are 20th century vintage (or older). Putting all moral considerations aside for a moment, nukes, concentration camps, and Final Solutions are out of date. They are yesterday’s answers. And they weren’t — to put it mildly — particularly good answers even then.

All this talk of concentration camps and massive use of nukes comes from a desire to achieve two basic aims: neutralize the terrorists and eliminate their infrastructure. President Bush’s War on Terror, as it is currently conceived and is being prosecuted, is working towards those two aims. The more extreme approaches are raised out of frustration by those fearing that the current effort may be brought to an unsuccessful conclusion, or that it may not be enough. What can we do, they ask, to ensure that our aims will be met?

Well, I won’t deny that unleashing our own brand of reckless hate could be one way of making sure the terrorists are neutralized and their infrastructure is eliminated. But I wonder if technology couldn’t provide us some less morally compromising means of achieving the same ends. Here are the options that I would like to see us add to our arsenal, options that could be ours in a few years to a few decades if we were to put the appropriate resources behind nanotechnology and related research.

Neutralize the Terrorists

We could make the US virtually terror-proof. It would require a couple of things we don’t currently have:

Truly Secure Borders
First off, we would need to plug any gaps we currently have in aircraft or boats arriving illegally in this country. I don’t know how big a problem that currently is, but we presumably have the capability to fix it now. It would just be a matter of allocating resources. All cargo, luggage, and personal effects entering the country would come through channels, meaning they would be subject to a quick and fool-proof scan — down to the molecular level — which would not allow the tiniest trace of questionable nuclear, biological, or chemical material past. An array of billions of nanoscale machines would literally pass through each item, providing an inside view of a thoroughness that no X-ray or ultrasound could ever approach. The procedure would be quick and completely non-intrusive. People would never even know that they and their items were being scanned.

Truly Secure Public Places
The bad news is that we’re going to lose what shreds of personal privacy now remain. (If it makes you feel any better, we probably never had as much as we thought, anyway.) The good news is that the scanning technology mentioned above will be just about everywhere. So if sleeper cells are currently sitting on nasty stuff already in the country, or even if they get ambitious and start manufacturing WMDs, they’ll never get anywhere with them. Today, a murderous psychopath in Spain or Israel can strap some explosives to his chest and hop onto the train or bus (or into the pizza parlor) of his choice. Nano-scale machines will operate ubiquitously in every public place, set to detect the slightest indication of danger and relay intelligence of it either to the cops or mechanized agents who can step in and shut down the would-be perpetrator. In later implementations, the detection and neutralization functions will both be handled by nanomachines — meaning that the terrorist’s weapon will be deactivated before he even know what’s happening. A terrorist will have less chance of getting a bomb (or other weapon) onto public transportation or into a shopping mall than a criminal today would have of wheeling a Spanish-Armada-era cannon into a police station and loading and firing the thing. Airplane cockpits will be truly impenetrable, not that a would-be hijacker will be able to get a box-cutter, much less a pair of explosive shoes, on board in the first place. But even if an unarmed aggressor decided to try to do some damage to his fellow passengers, he would be taken out of action by a microscopic “anesthesiologist” before he ever knew what hit him.

I’m painting in broad strokes here. The capabilities described above will require some major breakthroughs in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. There are many things that the terrorists could do to try to work around these limitations, and many more scenarios of how we could use the technology to stop them, but you get the idea. The point is that there are plausible technological ways of rendering the weapons and tactics of terrorists useless.

Eliminate Their Infrastructure

That, however, is only half the battle. Once we make the US and such of our allies as we deem it prudent to share this technology with terror-proof, we still need to close down the infrastructure that creates terrorists. Otherwise, we’ll be in a waiting game — afraid that some Saddam or Osama clone might get his hands on military-grade nano or AI. We need to press the technological advantage while we have it.

Eliminating the jihadi terrorist infrastructure need not involving killing millions of people or trying to make Islam a dead religion. Perhaps there is a reformist option. Many have pointed out that if there truly is a peace-loving, non-aggressive core of Muslim faithful worldwide — and I for one believe that there is — then the real trick here is to get them to take responsibility for shutting down their murderous coreligionists and the system that produces them. Killing the majority of peaceful Muslims will not help in this effort, nor will destroying their religious shrines.

Rather than nuking Mecca, why not cover it with a diamondoid geodesic dome that reaches, say, a couple thousand feet or so down into the ground? We could then announce that the dome will be removed exactly ten years after free elections are held in the last Islamic country that falls into line with a list of requirements, which might include:

Freedom of religion
Equality for women
Free elections
Rule of law

Islam isn’t killed; it’s just put on hold while the Islamic world catches up with the rest of us. The ten years will be extended by one for every life lost due to terrorist action (or every life lost fighting terrorism) in the intervening period. It will also be extended by five years (a very conservative number) for every terrorist attack foiled in the interim. Muslims will demand that the reforms take place so that they can fulfill the obligations of their religion; when they have purged the jihadis from their ranks and demonstrated their ability to participate in global civil society, the dome will be removed.

Alternatively, if a few decades go by and tremendous progress is made in some countries, while others remain strongholds of repression and violence, we might tweak the strategy. Maybe we’ll take the dome off Mecca and put domes in place over the hold-out-countries.

Problem solved.

Posted by Phil at 10:29 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

March 05, 2004

Modzelewski Employment Watch Day 24

In response to the online criticism, F. Mark Modzelewski, the president of the Alliance, wrote an article mocking the “bloggers, Drexlerians, pseudo-pundits, panderers and other denizens of their mom’s basements” who had developed “an elaborate fantasy about how molecular manufacturing research work was pulled from the bill by some devious cabal.” In fact, another NanoBusiness Alliance official had already admitted to a reporter that the Alliance had approached the staff of Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, to have the study removed from the legislation.
That took some nerve.
Were it not for Eric Drexler and his ambitious vision of molecular manufacturing, no one would have heard of nanotechnology today—and the federal government would certainly not be investing billions of dollars in nanotech research if they knew only of Modzelewski’s modest mainstream aims. When lawmakers in Washington discuss the industrial potential of nanotechnology, they aren’t thinking about stain-free nano-pants, but about molecular manufacturing, as envisioned by Drexler. It is that vision in which the politicians think they are investing.
Regardless of your position on exotic nanotech, if this is what Congress thinks they are paying for, isn't it reasonable to determine whether these ideas are meritorious?

This is the tightrope that Modzelewski is attempting to walk. He wants the money that Drexler inspires, but calls Drexlerian expectations "comic relief." He's the college slacker who makes fun of his parent's hopes for him while writing home, "No Mon, No Fun, Your Son."

Read the whole article.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:13 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 01, 2004

Spongebob Nanopants!

Excuse the title, but this is just too good. Back during the Drexler/Smalley debates, Drexler argued that "The ultimate existence proof of the feasibility of a molecular assembler is life itself."

Smalley responded that life is "wet nano" - that many things that may be possible in molecular biology will prove impossible to duplicate with "dry" nanomaterials.

Late last week Dan Morse of the University of California announced that the sponge is teaching them how to make nanoscale semiconductors.
"We are now learning how to harness the biomolecular mechanism that directs the nanofabrication of silica in living organisms," says Morse. "This is to learn to direct the synthesis of photovoltaic and semiconductor nanocrystals of titanium dioxide, gallium oxide and other semiconductors –– materials with which nature has never built structures before."

Most recently, Morse and his students have made advances in copying the way marine sponges construct skeletal glass needles at the nanoscale. The research group is using nature's example to produce semiconductors and photovoltaic materials in an environmentally benign way…
I find the irony rich. Morse is using the example of a sea creature to create semiconductors and photovoltaic materials that can be incorporated in electronics – the driest of dry technologies.

It looks like nano has moved beyond nanopants.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:25 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

Modzelewski Employment Watch Day 17

Glenn has all the details.

Posted by Phil at 08:34 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 19, 2004

Nanobooks

Check out these two nanobooks (html format):

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 04:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 17, 2004

Running Out of Time


[ Welcome InstaPundit readers. Please feel free to have a sniff around. In addition to the entries linked below, there's more on nanotechnology here and here. Also, if you're interested in topics such as therapeutic cloning or understanding the human lifespan, you might want to check out the Longevity Meme's now blog, Fight Aging! ]


Reader Alan C. comments on the appropriateness of our Modzelewski Employment Watch (also here) with this quip:

Give the man a break. He found us $3.7 BILLION dollars.

Well, even giving him sole credit for this achievement — which is highly dubious — by his own words, Modzelewski wants to make sure that none of this money goes to the support of what he calls delusional fantasies.

Meanwhile, consider this report from Chris Phoenix, currently attending an IEEE Conference on Nanoscale Devices & System Integration in Miami:

So, when the "Nanhattan Project" finally gets started, it will have absolutely no problem finding not only dozens of nanoscale techniques, but people willing and able to combine them. These are not world-class researchers—they're grad students and postdocs. Well, maybe these days the grad students are the world-class researchers. No wonder the dinosaurs are scared.

And well they should be. I'm wondering if unemployment is the real danger, or whether we should re-title our series, making it the Modzelewski Relevancy Watch.

Chris Phoenix concludes:

Could we have diamondoid molecular manufacturing in five years? There's no doubt in my mind that we could. If we really tried, we might have it in three. Of course, that doesn't mean we will—but the important technologies are mature enough to be portable, so if we don't, someone else will... soon.

We're rapidly running out of time to prepare.

Five years away is a reasonable time frame to start thinking about business applications. The Nano Business Alliance in general, and Modzelewski in particular, are running out of time to get their thinking straight on this issue.

They can turn it around pretty quickly if they want to. Or they can stay true to form and have Modzelewski issue a statement declaring that the IEEE is nothing but a bunch of Star Trek fans and pot-smokers.


UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds reports on more delusional reporting about self-replicating nanosystems or some such nonsense.

Posted by Phil at 06:03 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 14, 2004

Nanotechnology and Aging

Some interesting perspectives:

I'm convinced that in the real world, the development of benefits to slow, stop, prevent, or reverse aging hinges on our success in surviving the earlier stages of nanotechnology.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 10:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 13, 2004

Nano Grows More Life-Like

The other day it was bacteria generating nanospheres. Now we have nanotechnologists taking their cue from plants, using photosynthesis as the inspiration behind new nano-assembly methods

Nanotechnologists have recently succeeded in their attempts to build molecular systems based on highly efficient versions of the molecular "machine" that plants use to turn sunlight into energy. Such molecular-assembly machines could be used in many applications, including sensors and other electronic devices.

This breakthrough might also have something to say about our recent discussion of the difficulties surrounding using hydrogen as an energy source.

Working with researchers at the University of New Mexico's Center for Microengineered Materials, Sandia scientist John Shelnutt has created convoluted platinum structures that might be used to split hydrogen atoms from water molecules, leading to a light-driven source of hydrogen.

Cool!


Via Kurzweil AI

Posted by Phil at 10:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Modzelewski Employment Watch DAY 3

Eric Drexler himself has something to say on the subject:

These false denials of real opportunities and dangers, coupled with a questionable PR strategy, make the nanotech industry increasingly vulnerable to a public backlash.

Emphasis added.

Posted by Phil at 10:24 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 11, 2004

Bacterial Nanotechnology

Here's a fascinating development, as found on KurzweilAI:

Pulickel Ajayan, professor of materials science and engineering at Rensselaer, and geobiologist Ronald Oremland reported that three different kinds of common bacteria “grow” the element selenium in the form of uniform nanospheres. The nanoscopic balls exhibit vastly different properties than selenium that is found as a trace mineral in topsoil.

The research could lead to the production of nanospheres, nanowires, nanorods, and other nanostructures with precise atomic arrangements for smaller, faster semiconductors and other electronic devices.

Well, this is rather awkward.

Do you suppose someone could have a talk with those bacteria and explain to them that the level of precision they're achieving is not possible?

Posted by Phil at 11:39 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Modzelewski Employment Watch DAY 1

Here's the latest email to Glenn Reynolds from Modzelewski, Executive Director of the NanoBusiness Alliance:
The industry is not hiding from any real problems by ignoring your delusional fantasies and rantings, any more than one truly ignores a wino's claims on skid row that bugs are crawling under his skin. The very really issues of nano-health and environmental issues as explored by "real" research in the Washington Post is a matter entirely unrelated to your nutty diatribes. It's a matter the industry does take seriously and has been addressing for some time with research, discussion and taskforces. Because matters such of this are so grave and serious, we avoid mixing in the comic relief of the writings of Eric Drexler and yourself the subject.

I must say I pity the tax payers of Tennessee that pay your salary as well as your students who will enter the job market with a head full of rocks (or perhaps molecular manufactured nanorobots) after listening to you.

Keep up the weird fight. Lord knows I do get a laugh from it,

m.

F. Mark Modzelewski, Executive Director
NanoBusiness Alliance
New York, NY
www.nanobusiness.org
This was the third such email by Modzelewski to Dr. Reynolds (the second publicly published). It's this sort of intemperate and insulting language from Modzelewski that's got Phil fired up for an email campaign.

I agree. This guy should spend less energy on ad hominem attacks than debating "the very really issues." Anybody want to take bets on how long he keeps his job?

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 08:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

February 09, 2004

Write All About It

The Everlasting Phelps suggests that it's time to start an e-mail campaign against Mark Modzelewski and his nasty comments about anyone whose vision of nanotechnology is more expansive than his own as well as his personal attacks on Glenn Reynolds. I think this is an excellent idea, and I intent to to send a message to all of the companies listed.

I hope others will do the same.


via Responsible Nanotechnology

Posted by Phil at 07:45 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

February 04, 2004

Meanwhile, In Japan...

...the phone company is doing 3-D nanofabrication via electron beam lithography. With this process, NTT is going to be able to manufacture electronic components of 10 nanometers or so in length.

Yep, that's pretty small.


via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 01:50 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 03, 2004

Nanoblogosphere

Howard Lovy gets the credit for introducing this term to the blogger lexicon. (Or should that be "the blame?")

Anyhow, Howard has a good round-up of nanoblogosphere reaction to the Mark Modzelewski flap last week. Actually, it's a good round-up with one glaring omission, but nobody's perfect.

Posted by Phil at 09:10 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 01, 2004

Nanotech vs. Cancer II

So many developments, it's hard to keep up with them all...

Inhaled Nanoparticles Could Treat Lung Cancer

Tiny particles that can be delivered through an asthma-style inhaler have destroyed lung cancer cells in a lab dish and will soon be tested in animals.

Developed by researchers from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, the drug delivery system uses "nanoparticle cluster bombs" to treat cancerous lung cells.

"Based on what we've been able to do so far, we have practical hopes that a new lung delivery platform for lung cancer can be established," says researchers Raimar Loebenberg.

Once again, the big advantage of the "cluster bombs" delivered by the inhaler is that they target cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone. I hope the folks in the chemo therapy business are paying attention.

Posted by Phil at 04:16 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 31, 2004

Nanotechnology vs. Cancer

Forbes reports that the National Institutes of Health have published a set of future-looking scenarios called the Roadmap for Medical Research. Nanotechnology figures heavily in the NIH's plans, particularly where the treatment of cancer is concerned:

[N]owhere is the use of nanotech in medical advances more critical than at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which sees the potential for nanoscience to dramatically enhance our ability to effectively detect cancer, deliver targeted therapeutics and monitor the effectiveness of cancer interventions.

Read the whole article to get a better picture of the kinds of developments they're talking about. This section, in particular, got my attention:

Another entirely new platform for cancer therapy is being developed by James Baker, the director of the Center For Biologic Nanotechnology at the University of Michigan. His is based on dendrimers, molecules shaped like spheres and made up of nanoscale polymers in a very specific pattern, sometimes resembling a complex snowflake.

Baker has functionalized these dendrimers to create smart-therapeutic nanodevices that will be used to treat disease. One type seeks out and recognizes only cancer cells. Another type can diagnose what type of cancer it is, while a third type of dendrimer is able to deliver drugs to destroy it. A fourth type can report the location of the tumor to a doctor (a labeling molecule for X-ray or MRI), and yet another can confirm that a cancer cell has been killed. Typically each one of these processes is lengthy, expensive and indiscriminate towards healthy cells. Integrating them into one larger molecule creates a nanodevice able to perform them all at once while leaving healthy cells unscathed.

Think of it: a treatment for cancer that doesn't make you vomit or cause your hair to fall out. And that might actually work.

As I noted a while back, this would be what Glenn Reynolds would classify as a "major" (rather than a "spooky" development) in the nanotechnology space. These are the kinds of breakthroughs that are going to lead us to true nanotechnology. (Including the spooky stuff.)


via KurzweilAI.net

Posted by Phil at 08:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 23, 2004

Why Am I Not Surprised?

So the state of California has this little project where they claim to be preparing for the future (good idea). And so they decided to write up a report on Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (good idea). But then when they finished their report, it turns out that it doesn't actually say anything about nanotechnology, outside of a lone sci-fi scare scenario.

Not really unexpected, but depressing anyhow.


via Howard Lovy

Posted by Phil at 05:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 22, 2004

New Blog

Check this out: Responsible Nanotechnology. From (of all people) the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. Lots of interesting material; well worth your time.

Posted by Phil at 02:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 12, 2004

The Vision Thing

Howard Lovy:

My main argument is that U.S. policymakers need to rise above the commerce side of the debate and help encourage development of nanoscience without letting business interests become the sole driver of the research. Reading the nanotech bill alone, you'd think that the government's central goal was to spin off companies and develop new products. Is that it?

Sadly, as Rand Simberg will attest, our government agencies are (to say the least) a little deficient in their ability to crank out vision. At least where nanotech is concerned they are interested in commercialization of the technology. NASA, on the other hand, seems to want to keep space travel as a government monopoly forever.

Maybe a lack of vision is part of the price we pay for our vapid, superficial, "good guys vs. bad guys" approach to politics. Why would anyone capable of any depth of thought consider politics as a career?

Posted by Phil at 10:08 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 31, 2003

The "Monkey-Head" Part Just Happened

Posing all this time as a journalist, Howard Lovy now reveals that he is, in fact, a renegade nanotechnology researcher, engaged in—I know it sounds incredible, but he's really doing it—the creation of a human being via molecular self-assembly.

Way to go, Howard!

UPDATE: It occured to me after reading this over that I'm not really giving credit where it's due. Howard has played a signifcant role in this work, no doubt, but I think his colleague on the project is doing the real heavy lifting, and should be appropriately acknowledged and congratulated. All the best to both of them.

Posted by Phil at 12:25 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

December 26, 2003

An Iranian Perspective

Here's evidence, via Ray Kurzweil, that the rest of the world is not only paying attention to developments in the field of nanotechnology, but beginning to consider seriously what the implications of these developments might be. SamGhandchi, the Editor/Publisher of IranScope writes as follows:

The same way, the nanotechnology can be the most important technology that may replicate fuel cells, to put an end to the age of oil, and not only it would impact the economy of oil producing countries like Iran, but it can change the whole economy of energy production in the world, which is the basis of all industrial production worldwide, and can make a huge impact on poverty and wealth worldwide.

Basically scientists, in the last 300 years, have been describing the world by various formulas, and if genetics has been one of the first sciences to use this knowledge to remake a part of the natural reality in a controlled way, nanotechnology can remake everything in the world more intelligently, and it can create the environment for intelligent tools to be in an effective interaction with the physical world, and change nature to a wealth producing reality for the human species, and at the same time help us to go beyond our own biological limitations and deal with issues like cancer. There is so much at stake here that leaving this work, can hurt any nation, and the whole world at large, from the real potentials of our times, and can seriously impede the development of post industrial global society.

I'd sure like to see more of this kind of analysis in the US media. Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 08:43 AM | Comments (20) | TrackBack

December 18, 2003

Mapping the Development Space

In his Tech Central column, Glenn Reynolds introduces four categories of nanotechnology developments:

  1. Fake (where it's basically a marketing term, as with nanopants);
  2. Simple: high-strength materials, sensors, coatings, etc -- things that are important, but not sexy;
  3. Major: advanced devices short of true assemblers;
  4. Spooky: assemblers and related technology (true Molecular Nanotechnology).

This as good a breakdown as I've seen. These kinds of categories can be very helpful in analyzing developments in the field. The placement of a particular development into one of these categories can be derived from the answers to two questions:

  • What is the overall societal impact of this development?
  • What significance does this development have in leading towards true Molecular Nanotechnology?

Take any particular development and rank it on a scale from 0 to 10 in terms of its impact in these two areas. The answers to the two questions provide a set of coordinates that you can use to plot a particular development in one of the quadrants shown below. The quadrants match closely to Glenn's categories, although I think we have to hedge "Spooky" just a bit. We haven't had any truly spooky developments yet. But anything that scores higher than five on both questions is at least getting close.

So let's look at a few items either that Glenn mentioned or that we've covered in the past few months here on this site.

Development

Analysis

Soc.
Impact

Tech.
Impact

Nano Pants

No real contribution to the field of nanotechnology. Only slight impact on society (about the same as most other "pants breakthroughs.")

1

0

An important step towards true molecular manufacturing technology, but in and of itself not likey to change life as we know it.

2

8

In addition to the obvious crime-fighting applications, the availability of such fabrics will have a tremendous impact on the garment industry (especially where outdoor/sporting clothing is concerned) and will lead to significant changes in what we consider appropriate building materials for homes or modes of transportation. Still, it does little for the advance towrads molecular manufacturing.

7

2

A key piece of infrastructure needed for molecular manufacturing. Again, not likely to change the world on its own.

1

7

Self-Assembling
Nano-Transistor

Self-assembling components are crucial to the development of molecular manufacturing. The availability of such components promise to have a huge impact on every aspect of life.

9

9

The ability to use nanoparticles to fight diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's will have a substantial impact on society as whole. Developing such techniques will also play some part in helping to move the field along.

8

4

So if we chart these developments out, we get a development space that looks something like this:

A few caveats about this diagram of the nanotechnology development space:

These are probably not enough examples; we need a bigger chart covering dozens of developments in the field.

The axes may need work. The self-assembling transistor is given a high score for societal impact based on the potential impact of self-assembly, generally. Maybe this doesn't make much sense when the nano-bucket and nano-rotor were given relatively much smaller scores. I think the Y axis works, but the X axis may need some retooling.

The scoring is based on one man's opinion (doing the best he can!), but what we really need is a synthesis of views from a number of different industry analysts. As with the developments shown, the more and varied the participants, the more valuable the analysis.

Even so, with all these caveats is mind, there are a few things to be gleaned from this map of the development space:

There is activity throughout the entire space; something is happening in each of the four quadrants.

The developments listed form a circle around the edge of the space. This could indicate that much of the activity within each quadrant is occuring in isolation, with distinct groups persuing their goals for distinct reasons. As the field matures, I would expect to see the developments more evenly scattered, with most of the developments ocurring around the axes, not the edges.

Anyhow, this is a start. I'd appreciate some input on the category definitions and whether these items are ranked correctly.

Posted by Phil at 11:56 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

December 15, 2003

Memes Like a Good Idea

Howard Lovy on the nano-meme:

[T]here is an independent nanotech movement. It is composed of tiny, autonomous cultural ideas and associations that are self-assembling, and even self-replicating, until eventually it will become so pervasive that it will be impossible to ignore.

And that's when those who represent nanotech interests in government, business and the media will finally look beyond their insular world of scientists, businesspeople and self-congratulatory speeches and prizes to see, much to their surprise, that nanotechnology became embedded in popular thought and mythology without any guidance from them. Depending upon the nature of the nano meme, the "official" nanotech community will either launch campaigns against it, or take credit for its existence.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 05:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 07, 2003

Howard Lovy and "The Children"

This is even better than my polar bear analogy:

A few cycles of the sun ago, I gave a talk in front of the clan's children titled, "Be a Scientist, Save the Flat World." Leading up to my visit, the students were asked to chisel an essay on "Why I Am a Cave Geek." Of the essays I read, nearly half assumed that human-created fire was possible, and most were deeply worried about what would happen in their future as fire spread to the edge of the world. I did what I could to allay their fears, but there is no question that many of these youngsters have been told a sleep-on-the-ground-time story that is deeply troubling.

You and cavemen around you have scared our young. I don't expect you to stop, but I hope others will join with me in turning on the sun, and showing our cubs that, while our future in the real world will be cold, with a coming Long Period of Ice, there will be no such monster as the human-replicated fire of your dreams.

What are you waiting for? Read the whole thing.


via Rand Simberg

Posted by Phil at 07:35 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

December 01, 2003

Assembler Debate Heats Up

Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley are finally having it out one-on-one over the issue of nano assemblers in the current issue of Chemical and Engineering News. Since the nanotechnology bill has passed both houses of Congress and is awaiting the President's signature, and in light of the fact that there's a certain amount of confusion as to how far the bill is going to take us in the direction of molecular manufacturing, this debate couldn't be more timely.

The difference of opinion between these two nanotechnology luminaries originated in 2001 when Smalley blasted (via misrepresentation) some basic molecular manufacturing concepts in an article in Scientific American. Drexler responded by issuing an open letter to Smalley challenging him to debate these issues. The crux of their original disagreement was whether nano-assemblers as envisioned by Drexler would require the use of tiny pincers to move atoms around. As explained by Smalley, any such mechanical pincers or fingers that could be built would be either too "fat" or too "sticky" ever to work. Drexler countered that these "Smalley Fingers" (as he dubbed them) are a straw man that have nothing to do with the basic concepts of molecular manufacturing that he has developed:

I have a twenty year history of technical publications in this area and consistently describe systems quite unlike the straw man you attack. My proposal is, and always has been, to guide the chemical synthesis of complex structures by mechanically positioning reactive molecules, not by manipulating individual atoms. This proposal has been defended successfully again and again, in journal articles, in my MIT doctoral thesis, and before scientific audiences around the world. It rests on well-established physical principles.

In the new debate, Smalley immediately concedes this point and even takes to calling these things "Smalley Fingers" himself.

In the infinity of all conceivable ideas for self-assemblers, we agree that at least this computer-controlled "Smalley finger" type of assembler tool will never work.

Drexler goes on to explain the kind of assembler environment he has in mind:

These nanofactories contain no enzymes, no living cells, no swarms of roaming, replicating nanobots. Instead, they use computers for digitally precise control, conveyors for parts transport, and positioning devices of assorted sizes to assemble small parts into larger parts, building macroscopic products. The smallest devices position molecular parts to assemble structures through mechanosynthesis--'machine-phase' chemistry.

Direct positional control of reactants is both achievable and revolutionary; talk of additional, impossible control has been a distraction.

Smalley, however, just can't buy in:

I see you have now walked out of the room where I had led you to talk about real chemistry, and you are now back in your mechanical world. I am sorry we have ended up like this. For a moment I thought we were making progress.

You still do not appear to understand the impact of my short piece in Scientific American. Much like you can't make a boy and a girl fall in love with each other simply by pushing them together, you cannot make precise chemistry occur as desired between two molecular objects with simple mechanical motion along a few degrees of freedom in the assembler-fixed frame of reference. Chemistry, like love, is more subtle than that. You need to guide the reactants down a particular reaction coordinate, and this coordinate treads through a many-dimensional hyperspace.

Smalley seems inordinately fond of his "love" analogy for chemistry. It's hard to imagine a scientist taking a more obstructionist position toward his own field. You can't understand this. It's like boy meets girl. It's the birds and the bees. It's magic.

Ralph Merkle counters in Foresight's official press release on the debate:

Ab initio quantum chemistry calculations don't involve love, or mushing, or pretending. For example, a carbon-deposition reaction which a colleague and I studied using standard quantum chemistry methods moves a carbene tool along a barrier-free path to insert a reactive carbon atom into a dimer on a diamond (100) surface. The tool is then twisted 90 degrees, breaking an internal pi bond, and pulled away to break the remaining sigma bond, leaving a single carbon atom bonded to the dimer on the surface." Merkle adds, "Further computational chemistry research into fundamental mechanosynthetic reactions should be an integral component of any national nanotechnology program. Smalley's metaphors merely cloud the issues.

Smalley concludes with this disturbing story:

A few weeks ago I gave a talk on nanotechnology and energy titled "Be a Scientist, Save the World" to about 700 middle and high school students in the Spring Branch ISD, a large public school system here in the Houston area. Leading up to my visit, the students were asked to write an essay on "Why I Am a Nanogeek." Hundreds responded, and I had the privilege of reading the top 30 essays, picking my favorite five. Of the essays I read, nearly half assumed that self-replicating nanobots were possible, and most were deeply worried about what would happen in their future as these nanobots spread around the world. I did what I could to allay their fears, but there is no question that many of these youngsters have been told a bedtime story that is deeply troubling.

You and people around you have scared our children. I don't expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.

Presumably, Smalley will be in Alaska next week telling children that they don't need to worry about being eaten by polar bears because there are no polar bears. The question of whether polar bears actually exist is secondary; the main point is that children shouldn't be frightened. It apparently hasn't occurred to Smalley that this "frightening bed-time story" is as gross a distortion of any message ever to come out of Foresight as were his fat and sticky fingers.

But then, that wouldn't occur to him, would it?

Howard Lovy provides an excellent analysis of this debate, which he concludes with cautionary note about why a correct assessment of feasibility can be so important:

What if the scientists who believed atomic power was physically impossible had the ear of the U.S. government during World War II? If you think that's a ridiculous thought, go look up Leo Szilard. He had some crazy idea about creating a nuclear chain reaction so powerful that it could change the balance of power in the world in an instant. He said such harnessing of atomic energy was so dangerous that society should figure out a way to control it. The leading physicists of his day, including Enrico Fermi, said such a thing was not possible. It took a letter from former atom-splitting skeptic Albert Einstein, who by 1939 had come around to the possibilities of uranium, to finally convince President Roosevelt to toss some money Szilard's way for a feasibility study on atomic chain reactions.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps as the debate continues here at home, we should keep a watchful eye on other powers who are already actively working to build the first assembler—whether we decide it's possible or not.

UPDATE: Ray Kurzweil provides a thorough anlaysis of the debate (inlcuding an excellent background on the field of nanotechnology) and Glenn Reynolds has a good round-up of links.

Posted by Phil at 07:18 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 26, 2003

This Plus $3.50 Will Get You a Coffee at Starbucks

So what is this nano-bill really giving us? Glenn Reynolds repeats a point I made earlier this week. It looks like it's going to allow us to prove that we can do something we've already accomplished. Howard Lovy shares in the confusion. Meanwhile, he reports that some nanoderthals are gloating over what it doesn't include.

How sad.

Posted by Phil at 11:28 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 24, 2003

Self-Assembling Nano-Transistor

I missed this last week in the rush to get FastForward out.

From NewScientist:

A functional electronic nano-device has been manufactured using biological self-assembly for the first time.

Israeli scientists harnessed the construction capabilities of DNA and the electronic properties of carbon nanotubes to create the self-assembling nano-transistor. The work has been greeted as "outstanding" and "spectacular" by nanotechnology experts.

I've spent some time pondering whether our progress in nanotechnology should focus on big steps or small steps (this one seems like a fairly big one to me.) Maybe the question isn't really the size of the steps; it's the speed at which they're taking place.

For example: last week I was pretty excited when the Senate (and then the House) voted in the new nanotech bill, with its provision that the National Research Council do a one-time investigation into the feasibility of molecular self-assembly. All we have to do now is get the President to sign the thing, wait a few months/years for the program to be put in place, wait a few months/years for the work to be farmed out, and wait a few months/years for the results to come in and then we'll have an assessment of the feasibility of a future development which, by the way, was accomplished last week in Israel..

Now that's progress.


via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 06:22 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 20, 2003

On to the President

Howard Lovy reports on some paperwork that George Bush will have waiting for him when he returns from London. The nanotech bill (as discussed here and here) has been approved by the House of Representatives.

Posted by Phil at 02:12 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 19, 2003

Why It Matters

Let me offer an explanation as to why I'm so excited by the preceding announcement. Better yet, I'll let Ralph Merkle explain, by way of his review of Nanomedecine volume IIA, currently running on KurzweilAI.net:

To end with a question: do you expect to be alive in thirty years? If so—and most people do—then the development of nanomedicine within that time frame will benefit you directly. The medical nanorobots we are talking about could save your life, the lives of your loved ones and the lives of your friends. This is possible and even likely, but not inevitable. How long it takes to develop this life saving technology depends on what we do—it is not happening according to some cosmic plan, with a date engraved in stone that neither you nor I can change—but rather it will take as long as we let it take. Yes, thirty years is a long time. Yes, most people have a hard time thinking about the next year, let alone the next decade, let alone a few decades hence. But if we don't act today, then we might one day wake up in a future where we are old and infirm and the promise of nanomedicine is still just that: a promise. To paraphrase a famous slogan: think long term, act short term.

That's why I'm excited. The senate has approved a short-term action that might just be the beginning of a much longer term for all of us.

Posted by Phil at 09:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nano Bill Passes

Howard Lovy is tracking the latest developments on the Senate's compromise nanotech bill, which has just passed.

Here's the best part:

Proponents of molecular manufacturing (see my previous post) will be happy to see this:
STUDY ON MOLECULAR SELF-ASSEMBLY- As part of the first triennial review conducted in accordance with subsection (a), the National Research Council shall conduct a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale.

Damn. Too bad molecular manufacturing is impossible, or this would be really exciting.

Posted by Phil at 09:48 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 17, 2003

I Knew There Was Somebody Who Could Explain It

Dave Barry on the Space Elevator:

No, seriously, the scientists want to use the elevator to launch stuff into space. One of them is quoted as saying: ''The first country that owns the space elevator will own space.'' Laugh if you want, but those words are eerily reminiscent of an equally bold prediction by Chester Gould, the man who created Dick Tracy. Gould once stated: ''The nation that controls magnetism controls the universe.'' People scoffed, but in 1963, a vehicle called the Magnetic Space Coupe, based on Gould's theories, actually flew to the Moon, and returned safely, in a widely syndicated comic strip.

It remains to be seen whether the space elevator will achieve that level of success, but the Los Alamos scientists are confident. Their plan is to build it using ''carbon nanotubes,'' which, in layperson's terms, are nanotubes made out of carbon.

I believe this is the kind of excerpt where Glenn would add an "indeed."

Indeed.


via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 03:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 07, 2003

Thinks He's Perry Mason or Something

Howard Lovy is on the Case of the Misleading Metaphor. The metaphor in question is the one where biological systems are used to explain how self-replicating nano-systems will work. Ralph Merkle says that that is a particularly unfortunate analogy:

"I think one of the fundamental things which is not understood at this point is that artificial replicating systems, manufacturing systems, are going to bear about as much resemblance to the biological variety as, say, a 747 bears to a duck," Merkle said.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Phil at 01:06 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

November 04, 2003

Cancer's Silver Bullet May Be Gold

And very small. We're getting closer all the time, folks:

Gold "nano-bullets" could seek and destroy inoperable human cancers, suggest new studies by US scientists.

The tiny silica particles are plated with gold and heat up when near infrared light (NIR) is shone on them. This kills the cancer cells. Tests on human breast cancers, both in the test tube and in tumours in mice, were highly successful, the researchers report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The nanoshells are designed to absorb near infrared light and convert that light to heat," explains Jennifer West, who led the study at Rice University, Houston, Texas. This is possible because the body's normal tissues are "essentially transparent" to NIR.

But does it work?

When the nanoshells were added to human breast cancer cells in the test tube, and then exposed to both NIR, 100 per cent were killed, says West. "And we saw no changes in cell viability with just nanoshells or just the laser - it's a true on/off situation."

The team also injected the nanoshells directly into the tumours of living mice and applied NIR. The tumours were destroyed within days.

Now all we need is a way to detect these tumors while they're still tiny. This nano-bullet approach can potentially prevent cancer from returning as well as from ever getting a foothold in the first place.


UPDATE: Meanwhile, keep drinking tea and eating ginger snaps.

Posted by Phil at 06:55 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 03, 2003

What Color is Your Nano Goo?

Howard Lovy is looking for someone to settle a little bet for him:

We're told that true molecular manufacturing is impossible. That's what eminent scientists have told Congress, anyway, and that's the focus of many spirited debates among the nanorati. The National Science Foundation can't seem to make up its mind, labeling large-scale self-replication "very speculative, more like science fiction," yet also part of its vision for the future.

Do you think it's time to settle the bet?

I think somebody will oblige you on that one, Howard, perhaps sooner than any of us expect. I just hope that when it does happen, it happens here in the US or elsewhere in the west. My understanding is that China is funding the daylights out of nano-research, and they are apparently quite confident that molecular manufacturing is possible.

I don't want to seem alarmist. Lovy offers an excellent assessment of alarmist views of nanotechnology:

From the anti-Jewish blood libels of the Old World to the modern mythology of tainted Halloween candy in the New, public hysteria usually begins with the idea that unseen forces are conspiring to poison us or kill our children.

I agree that that particular hysteria is misplaced. Nanotech out of control is mostly a bogeyman. Nanotech in the wrong hands is a very real threat. It's not gray goo I'm worried about. It's Red goo.

Posted by Phil at 11:41 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 21, 2003

Good Nano, Bad Nano

Howard Lovy provides a quick run-down on positive and negative coverage of nanotechnology in the mainstream press. Also, look here if you haven't read his piece on the Foresight Conference.Turns out those nano-crackpots are a pretty respectable bunch.

Heck, I could have told him that.

Posted by Phil at 02:27 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

October 17, 2003

Funding the Wheel

Howard Lovy provides a keen insight into the difficulty of acquiring funding for nanotechnology (and similar) start-ups by treating us to a rejection letter sent to a highly industrious and creative entrepreneur some time ago:

You tell many fanciful stories about what your technology may someday do, yet this "wheel" concept is still just a theory. I realize your team believes it is close to chiseling a proper shape for such a device, but even if a prototype leaves the laboracave, it would need to undergo a series of tests required by the Herd Council before approval could be granted. And we haven't even mentioned mass-production and standardization.

Also, have you ever even considered the societal and ethical implications of such a "wheel" on our society as a whole? Those things could rip up our hunting and grazing land, and even "roll" out of control, destroying all living things in its path.

Read the whole thing. It's both hilarious and sadly familiar.

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October 10, 2003

I Never Had School Projects Like This

I don't link to Nanodot nearly often enough. Check out this discussion, addressing a series of questions on utility fog. It's intriguing that these questions come from a university student working on a class project.

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October 09, 2003

Fighting the Alzheimer's Protein

Speaking of life extension, here's a report on from BetterHumans (via Howard Lovy) on a major nanotechnological development:

Nanoparticles to Detect Alzheimer's

The discovery of small, toxic protein aggregates in people with Alzheimer's disease has led to work on a nanoparticle diagnostic tool to catch them.

Researchers from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles found up to 70 times more small, soluble aggregated proteins called amyloid beta-derived diffusible ligands in brain tissue of people with Alzheimer's disease compared to people without the condition.

Researchers are now working to develop nanoparticle-based diagnostics to detect ADDLs in blood or cerebral spinal fluid.

Wow, I wonder what Michael Shermer will make of this development?

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October 08, 2003

The Future Needs Us

Found on CIO.com (of all places), a thoughtful and eloquent essay by Ray Kurzweil on the dangers posed by coming developments in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics: Promise and Peril of the 21st Century. Kurzweil uses the generic term GNR to refer to these technologies, the same term that Bill Joy used in his (in)famous screed, Why the Future Doesn't Need Us.

Kurzweil does an excellent job of explaining how the kinds of controls recommended by the Foresight Institute will be instrumental in preventing many of the dreaded nightmare nanotechnology scenarios. Moreover, he points out that our defense against abuse of these technologies comes from learning more about them, not from trying to prevent them from arriving. Money quote:

As an example in the nuclear arena, who would have guessed in 1945 that the next half-century would not see a single nuclear weapon (beyond the two dropped on Japan) used in anger? The offsetting factor to the inherent advantage of destructive over defensive technologies is the overwhelming balance of resources devoted to constructive and protective applications compared with malevolent ones.

This is an important analysis of how best to deal with very real challenges on the horizon. By all means, read the whole thing.


via Kurzweilai.net

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September 23, 2003

Getting the Nano Story Straight

Howard Lovy reports that local coverage of nanotechnology can be something of a mixed blessing.


(You may have to scroll down. Howard's permalinks don't seem to be working.)

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September 18, 2003

Nano Computing and Good Times

Intel President and CEO Paul Otellini says that nanotechnology is going to drive rapid changes in personal computing.

"By 2005 our processor transistors will be down to 65nanometres (nm), with all the benefits in reduced size and power consumption that that will bring," said Otellini.

"By 2007 we'll cut that to 45nm, then 32nm by 2009, and in 2011 we expect to be at 22nm, smaller than DNA molecules are wide."

The result of these developments?

By 2010, one billion PCs and 2.5 billion handheld devices as powerful as Pentium 4 systems will be linked in a global computing network,

Otellini also believes that economic good times will soon be back:

"There's a collection of tipping point events going on," he added. "I believe this year we will see double-digit growth in PCs again. I think this is because we've been investing in new products that people want to buy once more."


via KurzweilAI.net

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September 12, 2003

Sino Nanotechnology

When a big nanotechnology breakthrough happens, where do we expect it to take place? The US, right? How about China?

China is now one of the world leaders in newly registered nanotechnology firms, with more than 600 over the past three years, acccording to Helmut Kaiser Consultancy, which is conducting a study, "Nanotechnology in China State 2003 and Development 2006-2010-2015."

China has the advantage of high flexibilty, low labor costs, no barriers for new technologies, young and vibrant society, venture capital, underestimated currency (today about 40 percent to the US Dollar), low taxes, goverment support, and a home market with more than 1.5 billion people for applications, an announcement states.

Via KurrzweilAI.net; the original article is here.

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September 09, 2003

Riding that Nano Gravy Train

Howard Lovy reports on two sizable grants the NSF has recently awarded to study the social implications of nanotechnology. He wonders whether nanotechnology might become a new funding cash cow for university humanities departments. Here he chats with Chris MacDonald, "a philosopher and ethicist at Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia:"

Chris: Seems odd that they’ve chosen to give out just 2 grants, grants that are HUGE by the standards of research in the humanities & social scientists. NSF may be under the misapprehension that ethics/social implications is like the genome project. Unfortunately, I doubt that 2 big, individual research projects will make as much progress as 20 smaller ones would have. Projects on ethics work by generating discussion, which you can’t do with just 2 grantees. Oh, well…I guess it’s better than not funding ANYTHING.

Me: Yes, we were discussing something similar at the office here. There's a perception that the business community - especially in chemicals – sees that there is government money to be had if only they redefine what they do as "nano." The more cynical among us are wondering whether philosophy and social sciences departments in colleges and universities across the country are now putting together their own panels to study the societal and ethical issues associated with nanotechnology in the hopes of government funding. Is that where the money is in your field?

First we had businesses redefining themselves as being in the "nanotechnology" space to secure funding, now universities? Who's next? Superheroes?

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September 05, 2003

World's Smallest Bucket

Another incremental step towards the realization of nanotechnology. It seems as though we're seeing one or two news stories like this every week.

In a typical chemistry lab, the smallest containers hold just two millilitres of liquid.

But despite their size, these tiny glass tubes still contain billions of atoms.

Now, there are "nano test tubes", so small they hold just a few hundred atoms.

Such containers, with a diameter equivalent to about 20 atoms, have been manufactured by experts at the University of Nottingham, UK.

It won't be long before these incremental changes begin to add up in unexpected ways. The nano future may be a lot closer than many of us think.

Meanwhile, while I was not linking to things earlier this week, this excellent summation of the field appeared in The New Atlantis. This article is so good that it made a partial, begrudging believer out of nano-realist Charles Murtaugh. He still says he doubts he'll see any of it in his lifetime, but then he's skeptical about extreme life extension, too. Even so, if Charlie's starting to come on board, I take that as even more proof that things are speeding up.

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August 21, 2003

Nanotechnology Review

Derek Lowe provides a good summary of recent nanotechnology research over on Corante.

Lots of interesting work is going on. The building blocks of molecular machinery and DNA-based computing are being put in place today. Right now.

As Derek so eloquently puts it:

As the citations above show, this research is taking place all over the world. And the pace is picking up. These results are going to look a bit quaint in two or three years; some of them are going to show their age in half that time. (And what the contents page of PNAS is going to look like in about 2020, I couldn't begin to tell you.) I'm just glad to be here while it happens.

Indeed.


via InstaPundit

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August 20, 2003

The Serious Optimism of Nanotechnology

NOTE: My interview with Christine Peterson is going through a final approval by the Foresight Institute before I run it. It should up in a day or two. Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here's the introduction.

Speaking of the Future with Christine Peterson

Candide, amazed, terrified, confounded, astonished, all bloody, and trembling from head to foot, said to himself, "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"

Candide, Chapter 6
Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

Voltaire's revulsion for philosophical optimism was a palpable thing. He dragged poor Candide and friends through hundreds of pages of battles, plagues, torture, and other horrors, always to Dr. Pangloss' absurd refrain that this is, indeed, the "best of all possible worlds." We might think that a short story would have made the point as well as a novel, but it doesn't seem that Voltaire wanted merely to dispute what he considered a shallow and utterly facile system of thought. He wanted to destroy it.

I would have to second that impulse.

The Lisbon earthquake that inspired Voltaire to write his novel was, in a sense, the 9/11 of its day. It was obviously not an act of terrorism, but it was a huge, unexpected catastrophe which raised many questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Imagine anyone (other than an outright terrorist psychopath) having the gall to suggest that 9/11 was not only a good thing, but that it was the best thing that could happen, and a key ingredient in making this world the best place it could possibly be. When we consider that it was this attitude that Voltaire challenged with his novel, we might go so far as to suggest that he should have written a few hundred more pages.

Voltaire's rejection of philosphical optimism is a lynchpin of Enlightenment thinking that remains with us to this day. Unfortunately, that well-placed mistrust has spread, diffusing itself into a sort of vague cynicism towards all hopeful modes of thought. Those who turn up their nose at superficial "best of all possible worlds" scenarios will sometimes hastily shun any sort of optimism. And that's a mistake.

There is a kind of optimism that is not informed by wishful thinking nor driven by a desire to make everything seem (no matter what) to come out "right," but that is grounded in science and driven by realistic extrapolation of current capabilities. This is the optimism that talks not just about benefits, but about risks and downsides and the need for better understanding. Ironically, it is this kind of optimism that tends to gives us our most vivid and positive glimpses into the future. After all, who is really the more optimistic: the philospher who tries to paint a happy face on a tragedy, or the seismologist who works on developing warning systems, and the engineer and the architect who work to design buildings that can withstand the next quake? One takes an image of what we know to be bad and tells us that it's good; the others create an image of good things that can be.

Nowhere is this kind of optimism better exemplified than at the Foresight Institute, and there is no more serious nor passionate advocate of it than the Institute's President, Christine Peterson. I spoke with her recently about nanotechnology, living hopefully, and contending with detractors.

This interview is temporarily unavailable. It will be back online very soon.

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August 11, 2003

Robo Blood

James M. Pethokoukis takes a look at one of the most intriguing proposed uses of nanotechnology. How would you feel about having your blood replaced with a swarm of a trillion little swimming robots?

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August 04, 2003

Nano Nano Nano

It's possible that I was unduly hasty in putting forward my defense for excessive use of the term "nano."

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August 01, 2003

Don't Hate Me

Because I'm nano-beautiful. Howard Lovy and the latest on nanotechnology in the cosmetics industry.

Confidential to the reader who wrote to suggest that I use the word "nano" too much: freaking get used to it or find yourself another blog to read. And have a nice day!

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July 31, 2003

Domino Theory

Very interesting report on Israel and nanotechnology from Howard Lovy's nanobot. Check it out.

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July 29, 2003

Nano Business

Just found this blog via NanoDot. Josh Wolfe provides good insider information on the evolving nanotechnology market. He also provides a free newsletter (for general business news) and a subscription-based newsletter (for hot nanotechnology stock tips).

Two pieces that especially caught my attention:

  • A pithy and very skeptical take on the idea of building a tower that reaches into space via carbon nanotubes.
  • An article that ran in Forbes on how nanotechnology can be used to address the world's energy problems.

Solving energy problems is, of course, one of the proposed "moonshot" goals for nanotechnology. In addition to a proposal from Richard Smalley having to do with using nanotube-based "quantum wires," (which apparently wouldn't create or save any energy, just help us move the energy we've got around better), and a quick dismissal of hydrogen with a promise to say more about it later, the article describes efforts to use nanotechnology to improve current practices related to acquiring energy, to create synthetic fueld, and to faciliate solar energy.

Speaking of hydrogen (not that anyone exactly was), here is a somewhat older piece by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network. Schwartz and Randall propose that we make the cut-over to hydrogen our moonshot. Their emphasis is on the economic and environmental impact of switching to hydrogen. The role of nanotechnology is a secondary concern at best.

Their plan is very well thought out. (Schwartz is pretty much the maestro where drawing up scenarios is concerned.) The plan outlines five steps:

  1. Solve the hydrogen fuel-tank problem.
  2. Encourage mass production of fuel cell vehicles.
  3. Convert the nation's fueling infrastructure to hydrogen.
  4. Ramp up hydrogen production.
  5. Mount a public campaign to sell the hydrogen economy.

I think it would be interesting if the nanotechnology community were to get behind this plan. Nanotechnology could play a key role in the first four steps and could benefit greatly from the the fifth. It's hard to imagine a better proof-of-concept for the field than this would be.

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July 26, 2003

Shirts That Stop Bullets

Earlier this week we saw the introduction of the world's smallest electric rotor. Now here's news of the production of a nano-fiber that may someday play a role in outfitting nanotechnology-equipped super-soldiers.

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have come up with a new fiber four times tougher than spider silk or twenty times more than steel. And what is the key ingredient? ScienCentral News has the answer: carbon nanotubes.

The researchers think that this fiber, which is easy to sew, could be integrated into lightweight military uniforms, protecting soldiers and giving them electronic connections. And they did some early experiments. Here is an image of the fiber woven into a fabric (Credit: Univ. of Texas at Dallas).

But as the author points out, there is one major obstacle, price. Try to buy carbon nanotubes online from Carbon Nanotechnologies, Inc. and you'll see prices ranging from $500 to $900 per gram.

I don't know. Even with a healthy military budget, I'd say that price is going to have to come down.


Via Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends

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July 24, 2003

Little Goals for Nanotechnology

Maybe I got a little carried away earlier.

Maybe the announcement today of the development of the world's smallest electrical rotor does not, as I suggested, reflect a development of the BHAG scale. Perhaps this achievement is more nearly the end result of an LMUG ("el-mug"), a Little, Modest, Unassuming Goal. Glenn Reynolds provides a link to a Wired News story that lists what might be considered the fulfillment of several nanotechnological LMUGs.

One thing is for sure, you can't get to a BHAG without a lot of LMUGs along the way. And just because a goal is little and modest, that doesn't mean it's result is of small significance.

Let's return once again to the example of the first moonshot, the quintessential BHAG. Tens of thousand of technical problems had to be solved in order for this accomplishment to take place. It has often been noted that many of these developments had commercial applications of their own. Two famous examples are Tang and Velcro — which was not actually a NASA invention; it was invented in Germany in 1948 by a fellow named George de Mestral. Still, NASA's use of the handy connective strip on spacesuits certainly played a role in its later widespread commercial use. And in addition to those well-known examples, how about these?

Dozens of other so-called NASA commercial spinoffs included weather and communications satellites, miniaturized circuits, scratch-resistant eyeglasses, shock-absorbing athletic shoes and cordless power tools.

Each of these inventions, big and small, had a role to play in the eventual success of Apollo 11. Likewise, perhaps those of us who are impatient to see the first nanotech assembler, or the first nanobot, or the first cloud of utility fog should take encouragement from some of the baby steps that are currently taking place. As the Wired News article puts it:

Boosters claim that nanotech-derived products may some day cure disease, slow the aging process and eliminate pollution.

But for now, the human race will have to settle for tennis balls that keep their bounce longer, flat-panel displays that shine brighter and wrinkle-free khaki slacks that resist coffee stains.

Come to think of it, I really could use a pair of those slacks.

Posted by Phil at 11:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

World's Smallest Electric Rotor

An exciting headline in this morning's Nature Science Update:

Scientists have built an electric rotor 2,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Its gold blade is 300 millionths of a millimetre long. This sits atop an axle made from a multiwalled carbon nanotube - a molecule structured much like a leek. Gold electrodes at either end of the axle lash the device to a silicon chip[1.]

To think it was only a week ago that I was writing about whether the nanotechnology community needs to adopt a BHAG. The other night, I had the honor of talking to Christine Peterson, President of the Foresight Institute, and I asked her for her thoughts about a big, hairy, audacious goal for nanotechnology. Her take on it was that, whether an official goal is set or net, the big accomplishments are coming sooner or later.*

It just looks like this one came a little sooner. So, what are the implications of this development?

Zettl's nanotube rotor is easy to drive and can operate at great speed, over a wide range of temperature and chemical conditions - even in a vacuum. This lends it to a wide range of applications. Using the gold rotor blade as a mirror to direct and switch light signals rapidly is one possibility. Detecting the presence of certain chemicals attached to its blade by monitoring its resonant rotational speed is another.

This sounds pretty useful to me. Alex Zettl, who designed this rotor, says that he expects to be surprised by the kinds of applications it will soon be put to. I suspect he's right about that.


Via GeekPress


*I'll be publishing a complete interview with Ms. Peterson around the middle of next month. So keep watching this space.


UPDATES: I did some re-thinking as to whether this development, while definitely important, is really Big, Hairy, and Audacious. And here's another little and unassuming, yet still important, development.

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July 18, 2003

Building Nanotechnology to Last

Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory, nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt, 1899

In their book Built to Last, authors Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras review the histories of 18 companies whose management style and underlying philosophy they have identified as being "visionary." The Roosevelt quote above leads off their chapter on goals. According to the authors, visionary companies set objectives that are grand and inspiring. They call these objectives Big Harry Audacious Goals, which they shorten with the nifty acronym BHAG (pronounced "bee-hag").

Collins and Porras cite a number of examples of BHAGs. An interesting example is the decision that Boeing made in 1952 to offer a jet aircraft to the commercial airline market. Fighting perceptions that their company was really a player only in the military market, and a pervading assumption that commercial aircraft would be propeller driven for the foreseeable future, the management of Boeing decided to put everything on the line and build a prototype commercial jet aircraft. The result was the 707, followed by the 727, the 737, and — somewhere along the line — a position of unshakeable dominance in the commercial airline market.

The authors contrast Boeing's performance with that of McDonnell-Douglas (part of a "control group" of non-visionary companies) during the same period. MD decided to play it safe and stick to their established market of propeller-driven aircraft. As a result of this decision, they were late entrants in the jet race and were never to catch up with Boeing.

According to Built To Last, the quintessential example of a BHAG is found not in the business world, but rather in the geopolitical arena: JFK's decision to send a man to the moon "before this decade is out."

President Kennedy and his advisers could have gone off into a conference room and drafted something like "Let's beef up our space program," or some other such vacuous statement. The most optimistic scientific assessment of the moon mission's chances for success in 1961 was fifty-fifty and most experts were, in fact, more pessimistic. Yet, nonetheless, Congress agreed (to the tune of an immediate $549 million and billions more in the following five years) with Kennedy's proclamation [.] Given the odds, such a bold commitment was, at the time, outrageous. But that's part of what made it such a powerful mechanism for getting the United States, still groggy from the 1950's and the Eisenhower era, moving vigorously forward.

Moreover, this BHAG is the reason that the U. S. was and is the only country ever to land a man on moon. Russia had a tremendous head start on us in the space race. And they had what may have been, overall, a better thought-out and more viable approach to exploring space. But they did not have a publicly decreed goal to make it to the moon by the end of the 1960's. And they never did make it. Where going to the moon is concerned, Russia will forever be McDonnell-Douglas to our Boeing.

Now I read where proponents of nanotechnology are looking for a BHAG of their own. Naturally, they take as their inspiration President Kennedy's commitment and the subsequent Apollo program. In the words of venture-capitalist Steve Jurvetsen:

"Whether conceptualized as a universal assembler, a nanoforge, or matter compiler, I think the ' moon-shot' goal for 2025 should be the realization of the digital control of matter, and all the ancillary industries, capabilities, and learning that would engender," [Jurvetson] said in an e-mail message.

The extreme miniaturization that nanotechnology will deliver could "restructure and digitize the basis of manufacturing, if such that matter becomes code," he said.

Meanwhile, for those who like their goals a little smaller, less hairy, and more unassuming, supporters of Richard (Assemblers Will Never Happen) Smalley are calling for a more modest objective: finding a solution to all of the world's energy problems.

Damn, I love this kind of stuff.

But I have to admit that the idea of a nanotechnology BHAG makes me both exhilarated and a little apprehensive. Yes, we might see the achievement of some major nanotechnology goal in a very short period of time. That's exciting. But what would happen next? That's what makes me apprehensive.

Consider what happened after our success with the Apollo program.

I remember seeing the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was a kid and accepting it as a fairly plausible projection of where we would be in our development of space travel by, say, now. There was no reason no to think so. We had just sent the first man to the moon (not 10 years after the first manned spaceflight), and 2001 was more than 30 years away. At the rate we were going, the space station with its regular Pan Am service from earth, the moon settlements, and the Discovery and its voyage to Jupiter all seemed well within the realm of the achieveable. Apollo 11 was the platform on which it could all be built.

But what happened to that platform? John McKnight, in calling for a national monument for the Apollo project, paints a pretty bleak picture:

Today, Pad 34 is rusting away, marked only by those infamous signs reading "Abandon In Place." Today, the three remaining Saturn V's serve as immense lawn jockeys on NASA land. Today, many Americans believe we never went to the Moon at all[.]

What went wrong?

Was getting to the moon the wrong goal to pursue, or did we just go about it wrong? Maybe we painted ourselves into a corner, making that first moon shot happen within 10 years, adopting strategies such as lunar orbit rendezvous — which is a good idea if you're going to the moon, but isn't a whole lot of help if you want to go anywhere else. Maybe our BHAG failed us.

But I don't think so. I can't make myself agree with those who say that going to the moon was not a good idea. Going to the moon was a great idea. It just should have been followed immediately by the next great idea, and then the next one, and then the next one. Our BHAG didn't fail us; it's just the next BHAG failed to materialize. Maybe Neil Armstrong should have said, "That was one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind. And now, on to Mars."

For some reason, we followed up Apollo with Skylab and the space shuttle, which were not really that inspiring — and our unmanned missions to the planets, which were more inspiring, but were not nearly enough to get us to 2001. As the authors of Built To Last are quick to point out, a single BHAG doth not a visionary company (or space program) make. In responding to the suggestion that maybe Boeing wasn't such a visionary company, that maybe they just got lucky with the 707, Collins and Porras have this to say:

[We] would be inclined to agree, except for one thing: Boeing has a long and consistent history of committing itself to big, audacious challenges. Looking as far back as the early 1930's, we see this bold commitment behavior of Boeing when it set the goal of becoming a major force in the military aircraft market and gambled its future on the P-26 military plane and then "bet the pot" on the B-17 Flying Fortress.

And it doesn't stop there.

In 1965, Boeing made one of the boldest moves in business history: the decision to go forward with the 747 jumbo jet, a decision that nearly killed company. At the decisive board of directors meeting, Boeing Chairman William Allen responded to the comment by a board member that " if the program isn't panning out, we can always back out. "

"Back out?" stiffened Allen. "If the Boeing Company says we will build this airplane, we will build it even if it takes the resources of the entire company!"

I wonder whether this kind of spirit still drives the management of Boeing. I hope so. But it's clear that this is not the kind of thinking that drove the U.S. space program in the post-Apollo era. The management that gave us the space shuttle is more like McDonnell-Douglas and their attachment to propeller-driven aircraft then it is like Boeing and their pursuit first of the jet airliner and then of the jumbo-jet.

We need to think very carefully about the lessons that JFK and Apollo (as well as Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas) can teach us about setting a course for the development of nanotechnology. The first moon shot will remain an inspiration to us, but we should view what happened next as a cautionary tale. Maybe it isn't enough to say "We're going to build an assembler" or "We're going to build a nanoforge" or even "We're going to solve the world's energy problems." Maybe there should be a set of sequential goals, or a commitment to define the next goal while still working towards the current one. Whatever objective the nanotechnology community chooses for itself for the year 2025 (or whenever), they need to remember that that goal represents the beginning of something even more than it does the end.

UPDATE: Dean Esmay reports on a less dramatic development in the nanotechnology field. Working towards these LMUGs ("el-mugs," Little Modest Unassuming Goals) is important, too. Here's my own take on a new development (plus some thoughts on LMUGS). Here's another. Here are some more thoughts on whether solving energy problems is the appropriate BHAG.

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