This week’s Economist has a very interesting survey of the future of wireless technology, which assesses progress towards ubiquitous computing and “the internet of things” – the idea that in the near future pretty well every artefact will carry its own computing power, able to sense its environment and communicate wirelessly with other artefacts and computer systems. The introductory article and the (rather useful) list of sources and links (including the book by Adam Greenfield – Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing – whose title I’ve appropriated for my post) are freely available; for the other seven articles you need a subscription (or you could just buy a copy from the newstand).

Evolutionary nanotechnology is likely to contribute to these developments in at least two ways; by making possible a wide range of sensors able to detect, for example, very small concentrations of specific chemicals in the environment, and, through technologies like plastic electronics, by making possible the mass-production of rudimentary computing devices at tiny cost. Even with current technology, these developments are sure to raise privacy and security issues, but equally may make possible unimagined benefits in areas such as health and energy efficiency. The Economist’s survey finishes on an uncharacteristically humble note: “There is no saying how it will be used, other than it will surprise us.”

Nanotechnology: Some questions for social scientists

In 2003 I was one of the coauthors of a report – ‘The Social and Economic Challenges of Nanotechnology’ (PDF) – commissioned by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council – this is the body which distributes government research funding to social scientists. Last year the ESRC commissioned me and my coauthors, Stephen Wood and Alison Geldart, to write a follow-up report summarising the way the debate about nanotechnology had evolved over the intervening years. The follow up report is now available from the ESRC web-site – Nanotechnology: from the science to the social (2 MB PDF) – and for those with a shorter attention span a short briefing (765 kB PDF) is also available.

One of our aims was to identify some questions that we thought were worthy of further study by social scientists. Here are some of the issues we thought were worth some more study:

The development of nanotechnology

Nanotechnology has some unique features as a case study for the social science of science, as it appears to have arisen not just as a natural development from existing disciplines, but at least partly as a result of external factors. This poses a number of interesting questions:
1) Is nanotechnology developing into a distinct field – that is, are there social and institutional pressures causing scientists in well-established disciplines such as chemistry and physics to assume a new disciplinary identity?
2) Is the nucleation of the field of nanotechnology, if this indeed is taking place, an integral part of the transformation of science from Mode 1-type to Mode 2-type and is nanotechnology being developed as a field precisely by those scientists who embrace Mode 2 values?
3) Are the grand visions associated with radical views of nanotechnology influential in shaping the development of science and technology, despite the rejection by many scientists of the assumptions on which they are based?

Nanotechnology, industry and the economy

Nanotechnology poses important questions in relation to technological innovation and its relationship to wealth creation. Governments and agencies worldwide are providing substantial financial support for nanotechnology on the basis of tacit or explicit assumptions that this support will yield substantial economic dividend. These assumptions need critical examination; some questions that arise include the following:
1) Is there, or will there ever be, a nanotechnology industry?
2) Will there be “nanotech” clusters comparable to “biotech” and information technology clusters?
3) Will these be geographical clusters, or could there be virtual clusters?
4) Will there be clusters associated with discrete sub-areas of nanotechnology, such as (for example) bionanotechnology for diagnostics?
5) As governments look to nanotechnology as a driver of innovation and economic growth, tacit or explicit models of the innovation process are being invoked to help frame policy. Are these models of innovation applicable to nanotechnology (or indeed any other new technology)?

Nanotechnology and internationalisation

Government support for Nanotechnology has included non-western countries and the EU, making it a unique and important case study in the further internationalisation of science and innovation. Questions that arise from this include:
1) What is the scope for government policy to influence innovations in the nanotechnology area, both between and within organisations, in an increasingly global economy?
2) Is there an emerging international division of labour in the development of nanotechnology?
3) Can nanotechnology make significant contributions to the development of less-developed countries? Contrasts between China and India, which are receiving most attention, with countries where nanotechnology has been given a significant role in plans but are receiving less attention, like Brazil, may be instructive.
4) Is there any truth in the caricature of the ‘Wild East’, i.e. a place without ethical or intellectual property-bound constraints unfairly competing with western countries?
5) As nanotechnology may be the first science in modern times in which substantial and original developments take place in non-western cultures, can it offer any insights about cultural relativism in science?

Technology development and society

The portrayal of nanotechnology in popular culture is strongly influenced by social movements outside the scientific mainstream. The significance of this unusual feature should be examined:
1) Some futurists argue that nanotechnology itself is accelerating the rate of technological change and hence social change – does this stand up to scrutiny?
2) How does nanotechnology fit into broader social movements about technology development, and do such movements depend on grand visions (positive or negative)?
3) Is there any significance to those movements, such as transhumanism, which are associated with the promotion of more futuristic visions of nanotechnology? What role do these movements have in shaping broader societal debates, such as the nascent debate about human enhancement?

Public engagement

The widespread consensus about the desirability of public engagement in connection with nanotechnology should receive some critical scrutiny:
1) The public engagement activities and the methods used could be evaluated, including a cross-country comparison of the various experiments in it and the role of the dissemination of scientific knowledge within this process.
2) While accepting the force of the critique of the deficit model of public understanding, one needs to understand the origins of the public’s understanding of nanotechnology, and particularly the relative influence of the various interest groups, whose visions of nanotechnology may be very different, as well as popular media, serious journalism, science fiction, and computer games.

An uncertain business

Last November, the Royal Society hosted an event at which companies were asked the question “How can business respond to the technical, social and commercial uncertainties of nanotechnology?” I was one of only a couple of academics at the event, which attracted representatives of 17 companies, many of them very large household names not previously associated with nanotechnology. The event took place somewhat under the radar, and was conducted under Chatham House rules, allowing the participants to speak freely without what they said being attributed to them. However, some information about the day has now been released in the form of this short workshop report (PDF).

The joint sponsors of the day were Royal Society, the Nanotechnology Industries Association, and Insight Investment. The Royal Society’s interest is obvious, in view of its long-standing involvement in considering the broader implications of nanotechnology, and it’s no surprise that the NIA, a newly established trade association, would want to be involved. The participation of Insight Investment is perhaps more surprising and interesting; this is a fund manager with around £100 billion in investments. This means that they hold, on behalf of clients including large institutions and pension funds, substantial equity stakes in many of the companies that took part. Thus they have a direct financial interest in whether the companies in question are in a position to exploit business opportunities that arise from the uses of nanotechnology, and can deal sensibly with any uncertainties that might arise.

The position paper that was written to inform the discussion – An uncertain business (PDF) – is now also available. This divides the uncertainties that might be associated with nanotechnology into three categories. Technical uncertainties include the well-known issues about possible toxicity of nanoscale materials, while social uncertainties involve the different ways in which people might react to new products involving nanotechnology. But many of the participants were exercised by possible commercial uncertainties, that is to say issues such as the potential risks to brand value that bad publicity might lead to, together with risks to cost of capital and insurance that might arise from adverse opinion in the financial and insurance markets.

Where should I go to study nanotechnology?

The following is a message from my sponsor… or at least, the institution that pays my salary…

What advice should one give to young people who wish to make a career in nanotechnology? It’s a very technical subject, so you won’t generally get very far without a good degree level grounding in the basic, underlying science and technology. There are some places where one can study for a first degree in nanotechnology, but in my opinion it’s better to obtain a good first degree in one of the basic disciplines – whether a pure science, like physics or chemistry, or an engineering specialism, like electronic engineering or materials science. Then one can broaden one’s education at the postgraduate level, to get the essential interdisciplinary skills that are vital to make progress in nanotechnology. Finally, of course, one usually needs the hands-on experience of research that most people obtain through the apprenticeship of a PhD.

In the UK, the first comprehensive, Masters-level course in Nanoscale Science and Technology was developed jointly by the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield (I was one of the founders of the course). As the subject has developed and the course has flourished, it has been expanded to offer a range of different options – the Nanotechnology Education Portfolio – nanofolio. Currently, we offer MSc courses in Nanoscale Science and Technology (the original, covering the whole gamut of nanotechnology from the soft to the hard), Nanoelectronics and nanomechanics, Nanomaterials for nanoengineering and Bionanotechnology.

The course website also has a general section of resources that we hope will be useful to anybody interested in nanotechnology, beginning with the all-important question “What is nanotechnology?” Many more resources, including images and videos, will be added to the site over the coming months.

At the Edinburgh International Science Festival

Anyone who was at a loose end in Edinburgh tomorrow evening could come and hear me give a talk called Nanotechnology – Soft Machines, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

I would also have liked to have said that anyone turning up would have had the opportunity to buy a signed copy of my book, Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life, but I got a somewhat sheepish email from my publisher confessing that they had run out of stock. Still, it’s not all bad news, in that the paperback version of the book will be out in October.