TCS Daily

"Exponential" Thinking for the Future

By Jack Uldrich - January 21, 2004 12:00 AM

In 1913, Lee De Forest was prosecuted by U.S. government officials for claiming to potential investors that his company, RCA, would soon be able to transmit the human voice over the Atlantic Ocean. The prosecuting officials argued that his claim was so utterly ridiculous that he was surely ripping off investors. He was ultimately released but not before being admonished by the judge to stop making any more fraudulent claims. The rest, as the old saying goes, "is history."

I start my article on nanotechnology with this story because it serves as a poignant reminder that the relentless forces of technology can lead to predictions that sound nonsensical or unbelievable to people who do not understand where science and technology is headed. The story holds particular relevance to the broader business community because virtually every industry -- including the computer, semiconductor, energy, health care, insurance and manufacturing sectors -- will soon be confronted with seemingly nonsensical and unbelievable predictions that are about to be created by the new and emerging science of nanotechnology.

Many business people are familiar with Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip doubles every 18 months. This seemly simply law has increased the number of circuits on a chip from a mere 2,400 in 1973 to over 200 million today. Late last year, Intel announced the creation of a 90-nanometer circuit which will create transistors measuring on 50-nanometers in length and put more than 400 million transistors on a chip. The development will technically move the semiconductor sectors into the realm of nanotechnology.

The development is however only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The latest draft of the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors states that within ten years most semiconductors will likely be produced with nanotechnology techniques. If you understand exponential growth and nanotechnology it is reasonable to understand how many in the scientific community are predicting that computers will soon become 100 and then 10,000 and eventually one million times more powerful than those we have today.

A cursory review of nanotechnology developments in other fields may shed some useful light on the amount of change coming to other industries. Nantero, a Massachusetts-based company, is developing carbon nanotubes to produce "non-volatile" random access memory capable of storing a trillion bits of data per square centimeter -- nearly 1000 times more than today's best RAM. If successful -- and they are reportedly partnering with some major semiconductor companies -- the entire $100 billion data storage industry will experience seismic change. Longer-term, Hewlett-Packard and others are working on atomic storage resolution, a development which would enable a device the size of a sugar cube to storage the entire contents of the Library of Congress (250 million books).

Two promising nanotechnology start-ups, Nanosys and Konarka, are racing to develop polymer-based solar panels embedded with nanocrystals that are so efficient and flexible that they can be used in everything from clothing to roofing shingles. Their goal is to produce supper-efficient solar cells that can be printed as easily and cheaply as rolls of wallpaper. If successful, the energy and utility industries will undergo a paradigm shift of historic proportions. Nanotechnology advances in the efficiency and effectiveness of solar cell and fuel cell technology portend the day when cheap, clean, sustainable energy can, quite literally, be generated at a person's home.

The prestigious British Medical journal, Lancet, citing the vast potential benefits of nanotechnology in drug delivery and disease diagnosis, recently called for papers in nanomedicine to be published in the spring of 2004. The call is not premature because some nanotech-based drugs are now in FDA Phase I clinical trials and the U.S. government's top expert in nanotechnology, Mike Roco, has publicly stated that nanotech will be the basis for 50 percent of all pharmaceutical products by the end of the decade. In fact, the National Institutes of Health publicly stated last year that by 2015 it believes that nanomedicine will play an integral role in curing a number of cancers. Other nanotechnology developments point toward the day when disease is no longer treated after it has occurred, but rather is prevented before it can occur. Alzheimer's, diabetes, and obesity are just a few of the diseases being targeted by nanotechnology.

These medical advances are obviously good for society but one side-effect is that health care and medical technology companies may see entire product lines -- and their corresponding revenue generating streams -- evaporate literally overnight. Big change is coming to the health care sector and they need to begin preparing for it today.

The earlier diagnosis and treatment of disease will also put immense pressure on the insurance industry. For instance, as diagnostic technology gets more effective and less expensive, people's perception of risk -- and thus their need for insurance -- will be greatly altered. A second issue is that medical advances may radically alter life expectancy projections. What will happen to insurance industry profits if people suddenly begin living well in their 100's as a result of nanotechnology developments? The bottom-line is that the insurance industry is going to face severe pressure in the coming years and some of insurance companies may not survive.

Even mundane industries like the textile industry are being revolutionized by nanotechnology. Nano-Tex now has agreements with Eddie Bauer, Lee Jeans, GAP, and Old Navy to carry a number of products that contain their NANO-CARE technology -- nanofibers that effectively repel coffee, wine and other ingredients from staining the material. The net effect of this simple technology may well be that the demand for the services of dry cleaners (as well as the demand for laundry detergent) may decrease dramatically. Other nanotechnology developments being investigated at the Institute of Soldiering Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology include creating uniforms that can camouflage themselves instantaneously depending on their unique environment -- be it a desert in Iraq or an urban environment in Somali. If a uniform can change instantly, the question the textile and fashion industries must ask themselves is why not a shirt or a sweater? If such a development is possible, how do they begin preparing for that change today?

The food industry is also experimenting with nanotechnology. For instance, Kraft Foods hopes to employ nanotechnology to create foods that can be individually altered with nanotechnology to accommodate the unique taste and health-care needs of individual customers. The bottom line is that the food sector can quite possibly, thanks to nanotechnology, become rivals to the pharmaceutical and health-care industries in the prevention and treatment of disease.

All of these developments -- from computers a million times more powerful, to data storage devices capable of holding millions of books in a device the size of a sugar cube, to super-efficient solar cells, to cancer-curing drugs, to cloths and foods that change on demand -- may sound fantastic. But do they really sound any more fantastic than Lee De Forest claim in 1913 to be able to transmit the human voice over the Atlantic Ocean?

The Faster Rate of Change

Change happens and, due to exponential advances that nanotechnology is enabling, change is only going to occur at an ever faster rate. The best way for each industry to begin preparing for this new reality is to understand the field of nanotechnology.

If they fail to do so their fate may be similar to that of the Swiss watch industry. In 1968, the Swiss controlled 80 percent of the world market for high quality watches. By 1973, their market share had plunged to less than 20 percent and the country witnessed the displacement of 50,000 watch-makers. The reason? A relatively simple technology -- quartz technology -- rendered state-of-the-art mechanical watches obsolete. Nanotechnology has the potential to do the same thing -- and not just to one industry but virtually every industry.

The 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once said "Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science." He was right then and, prophetically, he is even more correct today at the beginning of the 21st century. The future is going to look radically different than it does today and the science of nanotechnology is going to be one of the primary reasons.

Businesses that understand the science of nanotechnology, grasp the power of exponential growth, and keep an open mind to the possibilities which nanotechnology will enable cannot only survive the future they can prosper in it.

Jack Uldrich is the author of The Next Big Thing is Really Small: How Nanotechnology will Change the Future of Your Business (Crown, 2003) and president of the NanoVeritas Group, a consultancy which helps businesses prepare for and prosper from nanotechnology. He can be reached at


TCS Daily Archives