Nano re-created in business’s image; is this the best of all futures?

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Jan. 23, 2004 — The nanotech act of 2003 is certainly one for the history books. Future marketing students might marvel at how a group of salesmen achieved political victory — complete with requisite silencing of dissenters — for an “industry” that does not yet exist.

Nothing against salesmen. In fact, I met a great one this past December at NanoCommerce 2003 in Chicago. Robert Lepman of Arryx Inc. truly loves what he sells, and he’s able to describe it in terms that even a layman like me can understand. It’s a nano “tweezer” that can pick nanostuff up and put it down somewhere else. You’d think that Lepman would have customers lined for miles down Michigan Avenue for a machine that performs such a vital nanotech service.

Well, it would be a lot easier to sell light bulbs, Lepman told me. Customers know where light bulbs fit into the larger picture. Nanotweezers? Yes, it’s cool stuff, but he has to convince potential customers that the product is going to be a vital tool in a nanotech process or product that has not yet been invented.

In general, this is where the “nanotechnology industry” is today. Not an easy sell.

Yet, somehow, that’s what U.S. political leaders bought.

Nathan Tinker, executive vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance, recently filled me in on some of the details. In Washington last fall, alliance leaders told Sen. John McCain’s staff that the House version of the nanotech bill contained a troublesome section — a feasibility study on “molecular manufacturing” and “self-replicating nanoscale machines.”

The wording seemed to bear the trademark of the Foresight Institute, a nanotech think tank founded by Eric Drexler, whose 1986 theories on self-replicating nanomachines drew countless scientists into the nanotechnology field — and triggered the nano journey of one who showed great promise, Richard Smalley.

But scientific inspiration is one thing. Business reality is another. The alliance told McCain’s staff that the government needs to focus on “specific technology areas that have relatively demonstrable market potential in the next 15 years or so” and that offer a “better return on investment,” Tinker said.

“Would a feasibility study really move us any farther along?” Tinker asked me. “If we put $5 million against a feasibility study, because that was the number that was kind of being thrown around, 5 million bucks, what more would we know afterwards? Well, we could take all of Drexler’s writing and put them in a nice little program, we could take the proceedings from the Foresight conferences, and have a lot of information about things that haven’t been done.”

While I’m fascinated by the argument over whether self-replicating nanomachines are possible — especially with strong personalities like Drexler and Smalley taking opposing views — the debate is completely beside the point. It’s a distraction from the central question of why this first-ever piece of nanotechnology legislation was conceived, written, altered and sold purely as a business proposition.

Not that business is always synonymous with self-interest. Sean Murdock, co-founder and executive director of AtomWorks, a Midwest nanobusiness advocacy group, says that he’s personally concerned about nanotech’s larger implications. So I asked him whether this concern is at odds with his role as a nanobusiness advocate. “I don’t think so. I actually think they’re aligned,” he said.

“There’s a concept called coevolution, and the decisions we make today, and how we all go about doing this, will fundamentally effect the development path.” I believe him. All political rhetoric aside, decisions we make today are going to be felt for generations.

I had heard something similar from Foresight leader Ralph Merkle, who’s now helping out a government-funded nanocenter at Georgia Tech. I had asked him how it is that he’s able to live like the legendary Merlin — backwards. How can he be so certain of what will happen in the future that he’s taking steps to prepare for it now. “The idea is very simple,” Merkle laughed. “Figure out where you want to go and start working backwards and say, ‘What are the things that are necessary to achieve that goal?'”

But for now, it is commerce that is driving the nanotech vision, redefining “real” nanotechnology to suit what is best for nano business. Business leaders and policy-makers did this by carefully selecting which theories are the ones the general public is supposed to believe, then marginalizing the rest.

But take a look around. It’s the nanotech of Drexler that pervades our culture. Is Drexler, as Smalley so infamously put it, “scaring our children”? No. In fact, his ideas continue to do the opposite — inspire and challenge them. Kids do not get excited about new nanotech companies and products. But they do enjoy the challenge of proving their elders wrong and achieving what was once thought “impossible.” If some old scientist says self-replicating nanomachines are out of the question, I’ll bet there are a few bright kids out there plotting ways to send comets raining down on that dinosaur.

For now, though, it’s up to the adults to play Merlin and envision a better world in which we would like our children to live. Then, guided by this vision and tempered, yet not ruled, by commercial realities, begin to build it.

The future needs us.


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