TCS Daily

A Tale of Two Nanotechs

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - January 28, 2004 12:00 AM

It's the best of times for nanotechnology. Or is it the worst of times? There's evidence in both directions.

On the upside, nanotechnology is becoming real, with increasing numbers of applications and breakthroughs. Even a dedicated observer of the field (like, er, me) can't keep up with all the new research and applications. And while we're a long way from Drexlerian nanobots, we're a long way beyond mere gimmicks like stain-resistant nano-pants, too.

There's also lots of money in the field, with the National Nanotechnology Initiative offering enough funding to make researchers salivate, and with new nanotechnology legislation having passed Congress and been signed into law by the President.

That's the upside. The downside is that a sometimes-bitter war has been waged within the nanotechnology community itself, between the scientists and visionaries on the one hand, and the business people on the other. The scientists and visionaries want research on advanced nanotechnology -- the sort of thing that can deliver dramatic progress in treating aging and disease, in solving environmental problems, and in developing outers pace -- to move as quickly as possible. And while it's moving, they want a broad societal discussion on the implications of such technology, with an eye toward addressing them before the technology becomes generally available.

The business community feels, er, differently. It's afraid that advanced nanotechnology just seems too, well, spooky -- and, worse, that discussions of potentially spooky implications will lead to public fears that might get into the way of bringing products to market. This view isn't necessarily sinister. Looked at charitably, it represents the belief that once people are used to nano-pants, and to early nanodevices that can treat disease and remedy pollution without being "spooky" (applications which are, as I noted in an earlier column, already on tap), they'll be less inclined to respond hysterically to talk about "gray goo," or fears of nano-weaponry. Let's focus on getting the Wright flyer built, they might suggest, before we start worrying about ICBMs. In the meantime, it's best to focus research on near-term applications, and to dismiss talk of more advanced nanotechnology as speculative, either directly or through surrogates.

As a public relations strategy, there may be something to this approach, though I'm inclined to be skeptical. Playing it close to the vest, and trying to shut down public debate, hasn't been a very effective strategy where other new technologies have been involved, and there's no special reason to think that it will work here.

Nonetheless, that's what's been done. What's worse, it's been done in a rather heavy-handed fashion, serving to alienate (and, in some cases, attempting to vilify) many of the nanotechnology visionaries. As Howard Lovy writes in the nanotechnology trade magazine Small Times:

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. ... 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.

That does seem to be what's going on. The question is whether such an approach is sustainable. I think the answer to that is "no." There are several reasons why that's the case. The first is that a focus on near-term applications may be achievable within the United States, particularly if those who control the National Nanotechnology Initiative's funding pot provide "guidance" in that direction. But even if that works, other nations are apt to take a different approach, and are likely to be more aggressive if they believe that the United States is hobbling itself sufficiently that they might steal a march.

Another is that people aren't that easy to fool. Major environmental organizations are already interested in nanotechnology, and unlikely to be convinced that advanced nanotechnology is impossible. As I discussed in another column a while back, Greenpeace has issued a surprisingly reasonable, even foresighted, paper on nanotechnology. And many other groups are involved. (And the general tone tends to be quite reasonable, and in some ways more accepting of advanced nanotechnology than what we're hearing from the business community. As one nanotechnology researcher said recently: "I expected to be siding with the business people to defend nanotechnology from Luddite environmentalists, only to find that the environmentalists, in many ways, are more friendly to advanced nanotechnology than the business people.") Other critics of this approach abound.

And the final reason is that there's just a lot of enthusiasm among young people for advanced nanotechnology. While chemist Richard Smalley accuses nanotechnology expert Eric Drexler of creating fear ("You and people around you have scared our children") Howard Lovy notes something a bit different:

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.

I think that's right. And while I feel a certain degree of sympathy for the dinosaurs, I think that if the nanotechnology business community, because of the PR strategy that it has chosen, finds itself scissored between the scientists and visionaries on one side, and the environmentalists on the other, it will have cause to regret its rather shortsighted PR strategy. It's too early to predict that outcome now. But, like a lot of things relating to nanotechnology, it's not too early to worry about it.


TCS Daily Archives