Nanotechnology and visions of the future (part 2)

This is the second part of an article I was asked to write to explain nanotechnology and the debates surrounding it to a non-scientific audience with interests in social and policy issues. This article was published in the Summer 2007 issue of the journal Soundings. The first installment can be read here.


There are many debates about nanotechnology; what it is, what it will make possible, and what its dangers might be. On one level these may seem to be very technical in nature. So a question about whether a Drexler style assembler is technically feasible can rapidly descend into details of surface chemistry, while issues about the possible toxicity of carbon nanotubes turn on the procedures for reliable toxicological screening. But it’s at least arguable that the focus on the technical obscures the real causes of the argument, which are actually based on clashes of ideology. What are the ideological divisions that underly debates about nanotechnology?

Underlying the most radical visons of nanotechnology is an equally radical ideology – transhumanism. The basis of this movement is a teleological view of human progress which views technology as the vehicle, not just for the improvement of the lot of humanity, but for the transcendence of those limitations that non-transhumanists would consider to be an inevitable part of the human condition. The most pressing of these limitations, is of course death, so transhumanists look forward to nanotechnology providing a permanent solution to this problem. In the first instance, this will be effected by nanomedicine, which they anticipate as making cell-by-cell repairs to any damage possible. Beyond this, some transhumanists believe that computers of such power will become available that they will constitute true artificial intelligence. At this point, they imagine a merging of human and machine intelligence, in a way that would effectively constitute the evolution of a new and improved version of humankind.

The notion that the pace of technological change is continually accelerating is an article of faith amongst transhumanists. This leads to the idea that this accelerating rate of change will lead to a point beyond which the future is literally inconceivable. This point they refer to as “the singularity”, and discussions of this hypothetical event take on a highly eschatological tone. This is captured in science fiction writer Cory Doctorow’s dismissive but apt phrase for the singularity: “the rapture of the nerds”.

This worldview carries with it the implication that an accelerating pace of innovation is not just a historical fact, but also a moral imperative. This is because it is through technology that humanity will achieve its destiny, which is nothing less that to transcend its own current physical and mental limitations. The achievement of radical nanotechnology is central to this project, and for this reason transhumanists tend to share a strong conviction not only that radical nanotechnology along Drexlerian lines is possible, but also that its development is morally necessary.

Transhumanism can be considered to be the extreme limit of views that combine strong technological determinism with a highly progressive view of the development of humanity. It is a worldwide movement, but it’s probably fair to say that its natural home is California, its main constituency is amongst those involved in information technology, and it is associated predominantly, if not exclusively, with a strongly libertarian streak of politics, though paradoxically not dissimilar views seem to be attractive to a certain class of former Marxists.

Given that transhumanism as an ideology does not seem to have a great deal of mass appeal, it’s tempting to underplay its importance. This may be a mistake; amongst its adherents are a number of figures with very high media profiles, particularly in the United States, and transhumanist ideas have entered mass culture through science fiction, films and video games. Certainly some conservative and religious figures have felt threatened enough to express some alarm, notably Francis Fukuyama, who has described transhumanism as “the world’s most dangerous idea”.

Global capitalism and the changing innovation landscape
If it is the radical futurism of the transhumanists that has put nanotechnology into popular culture, it is the prospect of money that has excited business and government. Nanotechnology is seen by many worldwide as the major driver of economic growth over the next twenty years, filling the role that information technology has filled over the last twenty years. Breathless projections of huge new markets are commonplace, with the prediction by the US National Nanotechnology Initiative of a trillion dollar market for nanotechnology products by 2015 being the most notorious of these. It is this kind of market projection that underlies a worldwide spending boom on nanotechnology research, which encompasses both the established science and technology powerhouses like the USA, Germany and Japan, but also fast developing countries like China and India.

The emergence of nanotechnology has corresponded with some other interesting changes in the commercial landscape in technologically intensive sectors of the economy. The types of incremental nanotechnology that have been successfully commercialised so far have involved nanoparticles, such as the ones used in sunscreens, or coatings, of the kind used in stain-resistant fabrics. This sort of innovation is the province of the speciality chemicals sector, and one cynical view of the prominence of the nanotechnology label amongst new and old companies is that it has allowed companies in this rather unfashionable sector of the market to rebrand themselves as being part of the newest new thing, with correspondingly higher stock market valuations and easier access to capital. On the other hand, this does perhaps signal a more general change in the way science-driven innovations reach the market.

Many of the large industrial conglomerates that were such a prominent parts of the industrial landscape in Western countries up to the 1980s have been broken up or drastically shrunken. Arguably, the monopoly rents that sustained these combines were what made possible the very large and productive corporate laboratories that were the source of much innovation at that time. This has been replaced by a much more fluid scene in which many functions of companies, including research and innovation, have been outsourced. In this landscape, one finds nanotechnology companies like Oxonica, which are essentially holding companies for intellectual property, with functions that in the past would have been regarded as of core importance, such as manufacturing and marketing, outsourced to contractors, often located in different countries.

Even the remaining large companies have embraced the concept of “open innovation”, in which research and development is regarded as a commodity to be purchased on the open market (and, indeed, outsourced to low cost countries) rather than a core function of the corporation. It is in this light that one should understand the new prominence of intellectual property as something fungible and readily monetised. Universities and other public research institutes, strongly encouraged to seek new sources of funding other than direct government support, have made increasing efforts to spin-out new companies based on intellectual property developed by academic researchers.

In the light of all this, it’s easy to see nanotechnology as one aspect of a more general shift to what the social scientist Michael Gibbons has called Mode II knowledge production[4]. In this view, traditional academic values are being eclipsed by a move to more explicitly goal-oriented and highly interdisciplinary research, in which research priorities are set not by the values of the traditional disciplines, but by perceived market needs and opportunities. It is clear that this transition has been underway for some time in the life sciences, and in this view the emergence of nanotechnology can be seen as a spread of these values to the physical sciences.

Environmentalist opposition
In the UK at least, the opposition to nanotechnology has been spearheaded by two unlikely bedfellows. The issue was first propelled into the news by the intervention of Prince Charles, who raised the subject in newspaper articles in 2003 and 2004. These articles directly echoed concerns raised by the small campaigning group ETC[5]. ETC cast nanotechnology as a direct successor to genetic modification; to summarise this framing, whereas in GM scientists had directly intervened in the code of life, in nanotechnology they meddle with the very atomic structure of matter itself. ETC’s background included a strong record of campaigning on behalf of third world farmers against agricultural biotechnology, so in their view nanotechnology, with its spectre of the possible patenting of new arrangements of atoms and the potential replacement of commodities such as copper and cotton by nanoengineered substitutes controlled by multinationals, was to be opposed as an intrinsic part of the agenda of globalisation. Complementing this rather abstract critique was a much more concrete concern that nanoscale materials might be more toxic than their conventional counterparts, and that current regulatory regimes for the control of environmental exposure to chemicals might not adequately recognise these new dangers.

The latter concern has gained a considerable degree of traction, largely because there has been a very widespread degree of consensus that the issue has some substance. At the time of the Prince’s intervention in the debate (and quite possibly because of it) the UK government commissioned a high-level independent report on the issue from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. This report recommended a program of research and regulatory action on the subject of possible nanoparticle toxicity[6]. Public debate about the risks of nanotechnology has largely focused on this issue, fuelled by a government response to the Royal Society that has been widely considered to be quite inadequate. However, it is possible to regret that the debate has become so focused on this rather technical issue of risk, to the exclusion of wider issues about the potential impacts of nanotechnology on society.

To return to the more fundamental worldviews underlying this critique of nanotechnology, whether they be the rather romantic, ruralist conservatism of the Prince of Wales, or the anti-globalism of ETC, the common feature is a general scepticism about the benefits of scientific and technological “progress”. An extremely eloquent exposition of one version of this point of view is to be found in a book by US journalist Bill McKibben[7]. The title of McKibben’s book – “Enough” – is a succinct summary of its argument; surely we now have enough technology for our needs, and new technology is likely only to lead to further spiritual malaise, through excessive consumerism, or in the case of new and very powerful technologies like genetic modification and nanotechnology, to new and terrifying existential dangers.

Bright greens
Despite the worries about the toxicology of nanoscale particles, and the involvement of groups like ETC, it is notable that all-out opposition to nanotechnology has not yet fully crystallised. In particular, groups such as Greenpeace have not yet articulated a position of unequivocal opposition. This reflects the fact that nanotechnology really does seem to have the potential to provide answers to some pressing environmental problems. For example, there are real hopes that it will lead to new types of solar cells that can be produced cheaply in very large areas. Applications of nanotechnology to problems of water purification and desalination have obvious potential impacts in the developing world. Of course, these kinds of problems have major political and social dimensions, and technical fixes by themselves will not be sufficient. However, the prospects that nanotechnology may be able to make a significant contribution to sustainable development have proved convincing enough to keep mainstream environmental movements at least neutral on the issue.

While some mainstream environmentalists may still remain equivocal in their view of nanotechnology, another group seems to be embracing new technologies with some enthusiasm as providing new ways of maintaining high standards of living in a fully sustainable way. Such “bright greens” dismiss the rejection of industrialised economies and the yearning to return to a rural lifestyle implicit in the “deep green” worldview, and look to the use of new technology, together with imaginative design and planning, to create sustainable urban societies[8]. In this point of view, nanotechnology may help, not just by enabling large scale solar power, but by facilitating an intrinsically less wasteful industrial ecology.


If there is (or indeed, ever was) a time in which there was an “independent republic of science”, disinterestedly pursuing knowledge for its own sake, nanotechnology is not part of it. Nanotechnology, in all its flavours and varieties, is unashamedly “goal-oriented research”. This immediately begs the question “whose goals?” It is this question that underlies recent calls for a greater degree of democratic involvement in setting scientific priorities[9]. It is important that these debates don’t simply concentrate on technical issues. Nanotechnology provides a fascinating and evolving example of the complexity of the interaction between science, technology and wider currents in society. Nanotechnology, with other new and emerging technologies, will have a huge impact on the way society develops over the next twenty to fifty years. Recognising the importance of this impact does not by any means imply that one must take a technologically deterministic view of the future, though. Technology co-evolves with society, and the direction it takes is not necessarily pre-determined. Underlying the directions in which it is steered are a set of competing visions about the directions society should take. These ideologies, which often are left implicit and unexamined, need to be made explicit if a meaningful discussion of the implications of the technology is to take place.

[4] Gibbons, M, et al. (1994) The New Production of Knowledge. London: Sage.
[5] David Berube (in his book Nano-hype, Prometheus, NY 2006) explicitly links the two interventions, and identifies Zac Goldsmith, millionaire organic farmer and editor of “The Ecologist” magazine, as the man who introduced Prince Charles to nanotechnology and the ETC critique. This could be significant, in view of Goldsmith’s current prominence in Conservative Party politics.
[6] Nanoscience and nanotechnologies: opportunities and uncertainties, Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, available from
[7] Enough; staying human in an engineered age, Bill McKibben, Henry Hall, NY (2003)
[8] For a recent manifesto, see Worldchanging: a user’s guide for the 21st century, Alex Steffen (ed.), Harry N. Abrams, NY (2006)
[9] See for example See-through Science: why public engagement needs to move upstream, Rebecca Willis and James Wilsdon, Demos (2004)

Nanotechnology and visions of the future (part 1)

Earlier this year I was asked to write an article explaining nanotechnology and the debates surrounding it for a non-scientific audience with interests in social and policy issues. This article was published in the Summer 2007 issue of the journal Soundings. Here is the unedited version, in installments. Regular readers of the blog will be familiar with most of the arguments already, but I hope they will find it interesting to see it all in one place.


Few new technologies have been accompanied by such expansive promises of their potential to change the world as nanotechnology. For some, it will lead to a utopia, in which material want has been abolished and disease is a thing of the past, while others see apocalypse and even the extinction of the human race. Governments and multinationals round the world see nanotechnology as an engine of economic growth, while campaigning groups foresee environmental degradation and a widening of the gap between the rich and poor. But at the heart of these arguments lies a striking lack of consensus about what the technology is or will be, what it will make possible and what its dangers might be. Technologies don’t exist or develop in a vacuum, and nanotechnology is no exception; arguments about the likely, or indeed desirable, trajectory of the technology are as much about their protagonists’ broader aspirations for society as about nanotechnology itself.


Nanotechnology is not a single technology in the way that nuclear technology, agricultural biotechnology, or semiconductor technology are. There is, as yet, no distinctive class of artefacts that can be unambiguously labelled as the product of nanotechnology. It is still, by and large, an activity carried out in laboratories rather than factories, yet the distinctive output of nanotechnology is the production and characterisation of some kind of device, rather than the kind of furthering of fundamental understanding that we would expect from a classical discipline such as physics or chemistry.

What unites the rather disparate group of applied sciences that are referred to as nanotechnologies is simply the length-scale on which they operate. Nanotechnology concerns the creation and manipulation of objects whose size lies somewhere between a nanometer and a few hundred nanometers. To put these numbers in context, it’s worth remembering that as unaided humans, we operate over a range of length-scales that spans a factor of a thousand or so, which we could call the macroscale. Thus the largest objects we can manipulate unaided are about a meter or so in size, while the smallest objects we can manipulate comfortably are about one milimeter. With the aid of light microscopes and tools for micromanipulation, we can also operate on another set of smaller lengthscales, which also spans a factor of a thousand. The upper end of the microscale is thus defined by a millimetre, while the lower end is defined by objects about a micron in size. This is roughly the size of a red blood cell or a typical bacteria, and is about the smallest object that can be easily discerned in a light microscope.

The nanoscale is smaller yet. A micron is one thousand nanometers, and one nanometer is about the size of a medium size molecule. So we can think of the lower limit of the nanoscale as being defined by the size of individual atoms and molecules, while the upper limit is defined by the resolution limits of light microscopes (this limit is somewhat more vague, and one sometimes sees apparently more exact definitions, such as 100 nm, but these in my view are entirely arbitrary).

A number of special features make operating in the nanoscale distinctive. Firstly, there is the question of the tools one needs to see nanoscale structures and to characterise them. Conventional light microscopes cannot resolve structures this small. Electron microscopes can achieve atomic resolution, but they are expensive, difficult to use and prone to artefacts. A new class of techniques – scanning probe microscopies such as scanning tunnelling microscopy and atomic force microscopy – have recently become available which can probe the nanoscale, and the uptake of these relatively cheap and accessible methods has been a big factor in creating the field of nanotechnology.

More fundamentally, the properties of matter themselves often change in interesting and unexpected ways when their dimensions are shrunk to the nanoscale. As a particle becomes smaller, it becomes proportionally more influenced by its surface, which often leads to increases in chemical reactivity. These changes may be highly desirable, yielding, for example, better catalysts for more efficiently effecting chemical transformations, or undesirable, in that they can lead to increased toxicity. Quantum mechanical effects can become important, particularly in the way electrons and light interact, and this can lead to striking and useful effects such as size dependent colour changes. (It’s worth stressing here that while quantum mechanics is counter-intuitive and somewhat mysterious to the uninitiated, it is very well understood and produces definite and quantitative predictions. One sometimes reads that “the laws of physics don’t apply at the nanoscale”. This of course is quite wrong; the laws apply just as they do on any other scale, but sometimes they have different consequences). The continuous restless activity of Brownian motion, that is the manifestation of heat energy at the nanoscale, is dominating. These differences in the way physics works at the nanoscale offer opportunities to achieve new effects, but also means that our intuitions may not always be reliable.

One further feature of the nanoscale is that it is the length scale on which the basic machinery of biology operates. Modern molecular biology and biophysics has revealed a great deal about the sub-cellular apparatus of life, revealing the structure and mode of operation of the astonishingly sophisticated molecular-scale machines that are the basis of all organisms. This is significant in a number of ways. Cell biology provides an existence proof that it is possible to make sophisticated machines on the nanoscale and it provides a model for making such machines. It even provides a toolkit of components that can be isolated from living cells and reassembled in synthetic contexts – this is the enterprise of bionanotechnology. The correspondence of length scales also brings hope that nanotechnology will make it possible to make very specific and targeted interventions into biological systems, leading, it is hoped, to new and powerful methods for medical diagnostics and therapeutics.

Nanotechnology, then, is an eclectic mix of disciplines, including elements of chemistry, physics, materials science, electrical engineering, biology and biotechnology. The way this new discipline has emerged from many existing disciplines is itself very interesting, as it illustrates an evolution of the way science is organised and practised that has occurred largely in response to external events.

The founding myth of nanotechnology places its origin in a lecture given by the American physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, published in 1960 under the title “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”. This didn’t explicitly use the word nanotechnology, but it expressed in visionary and exciting terms the many technical possibilities that would open up if one was able to manipulate matter and make engineering devices on the nanoscale. This lecture is widely invoked by enthusiasts for nanotechnology of all types as laying down the fundamental challenges of the subject, its importance endorsed by the iconic status of Feynman as perhaps the greatest native-born American physicist. However, it seems that the identification of this lecture as a foundational document is retrospective, as there is not much evidence that it made a great deal of impact at the time. Feynman himself did not devote very much further work to these ideas, and the paper was rarely cited until the 1990s.

The word nanotechnology itself was coined by the Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi in 1974 in the context of ultra-high precision machining. However, the writer who unquestionably propelled the word and the idea into the mainstream was K. Eric Drexler. Drexler wrote a popular and bestselling book “Engines of Creation”, published in 1986, which launched a futuristic and radical vision of a nanotechnology that transformed all aspects of society. In Drexler’s vision, which explicitly invoked Feynman’s lecture, tiny assemblers would be able to take apart and put together any type of matter atom by atom. It would be possible to make any kind of product or artefact from its component atoms at virtually no cost, leading to the end of scarcity, and possibly the end of the money economy. Medicine would be revolutionised; tiny robots would be able to repair the damage caused by illness or injury at the level of individual molecules and individual cells. This could lead to the effective abolition of ageing and death, while a seamless integration of physical and cognitive prostheses would lead to new kinds of enhanced humans. On the downside, free-living, self-replicating assemblers could escape into the wild, outcompete natural life-forms by virtue of their superior materials and design, and transform the earth’s ecosphere into “grey goo”. Thus, in the vision of Drexler, nanotechnology was introduced as a technology of such potential power that it could lead either to the transfiguration of humanity or to its extinction.

There are some interesting and significant themes underlying this radical, “Drexlerite” conception of nanotechnology. One of them is the idea of matter as software. Implicit in Drexler’s worldview is the idea that the nature of all matter can be reduced to a set of coordinates of its constituent atoms. Just as music can be coded in digital form on a CD or MP3 file, and moving images can be reduced to a string of bits, it’s possible to imagine any object, whether an everyday tool, a priceless artwork, or even a natural product, being coded as a string of atomic coordinates. Nanotechnology, in this view, provides an interface between the software world and the physical world; an “assembler” or “nanofactory” generates an object just as a digital printer reproduces an image from its digital, software representation. It is this analogy that seems to make the Drexlerian notion of nanotechnology so attractive to the information technology community.

Predictions of what these “nanofactories” might look like have a very mechanistic feel to them. “Engines of Creation” had little in the way of technical detail supporting it, and included some imagery that felt quite organic and biological. However, following the popular success of “Engines”, Drexler developed his ideas at a more detailed level, publishing another, much more technical book in 1992, called “Nanosystems”. This develops a conception of nanotechnology as mechanical engineering shrunk to atomic dimensions, and it is in this form that the idea of nanotechnology has entered the popular consciousness through science fiction, films and video games. Perhaps the best of all these cultural representations is the science fiction novel “The Diamond Age” by Neal Stephenson, whose conscious evocation of a future shaped by a return to Victorian values rather appropriately mirrors the highly mechanical feel of Drexler’s conception of nanotechnology.

The next major development in nanotechnology was arguably political rather than visionary or scientific. In 2000, President Clinton announced a National Nanotechnology Initiative, with funding of $497 million a year. This initiative survived, and even thrived on, the change of administration in the USA, receiving further support, and funding increases from President Bush. Following this very public initiative from the USA, other governments around the world, and the EU, have similarly announced major funding programs. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this international enthusiasm for nanotechnology at government level is the degree to which it is shared by countries outside those parts of North America, Europe and the Pacific Rim that are traditionally associated with a high intensity of research and development. India, China, Brazil, Iran and South Africa have all designated nanotechnology as a priority area, and in the case of China at least there is some evidence that their performance and output in nanotechnology is beginning to approach or surpass that of some Western countries, including the UK.

Some of the rhetoric associated with the US National Nanotechnology Initiative in its early days was reminiscent of the vision of Drexler – notably, an early document was entitled “Nanotechnology: shaping the world atom by atom”. Perhaps it was useful that such a radical vision for the world changing potential of nanotechnology was present in the background; even if it was not often explicitly invoked, neither did scientists go out of their way to refute it.

This changed in September 2001, when a special issue of the American popular science magazine “Scientific American” contained a number of contributions that were stingingly critical of the Drexler vision of nanotechnology. The most significant of these were by the Harvard nano-chemist George Whitesides, and the Rice University chemist Richard Smalley. Both argued that the Drexler vision of nanoscale machines was simply impossible on technical grounds. Smalley’s contribution was perhaps the most resonant; Smalley had won a Nobel prize for this discovery of a new form of nanoscale carbon, Buckminster fullerene[1], and so his contribution carried significant weight.

The dispute between Smalley and Drexler ran for a while longer, with a published exchange of letters, but its tone became increasingly vituperative. Nonetheless, the result has been that Drexler’s ideas have been largely discredited in both scientific and business circles. The attitude of many scientists is summed up by IBM’s Don Eigler, the first person to demonstrate the controlled manipulation of individual atoms: “To a person, everyone I know who is a practicing scientist thinks of Drexler’s contributions as wrong at best, dangerous at worse. There may be scientists who feel otherwise, I just haven’t run into them.”[2]

Drexler has thus become a very polarising figure. My own view is that this is unfortunate. I believe that Drexler and his followers have greatly underestimated the technical obstacles in the way of his vision of shrunken mechanical engineering. Drexler does deserve credit, though, for pointing out that the remarkable nanoscale machinery of cell biology does provide an existence proof that a sophisticated nanotechnology is possible. However, I think he went on to draw the wrong conclusion from this. Drexler’s position is essentially that we will be able greatly to surpass the capabilities of biological nanotechnology by using rational engineering principles, rather than the vagaries of evolution, to design these machines, and by using stiff and strong materials rather than diamond rather than the soft and floppy proteins and membranes of biology. I believe that this fails to recognise the fact that physics does look very different at the nanoscale, and that the design principles used in biology are optimised by evolution for this different environment[3]. From this, it follows that a radical nanotechnology might well be possible, but that it will look much more like biology than engineering.

Whether or in what form radical nanotechnology does turn out to be possible, much of what is currently on the market described as nanotechnology is very much more incremental in character. Products such as nano-enabled sunscreens, anti-stain fabric coatings, or “anti-ageing” creams certainly do not have anything to do with sophisticated nanoscale machines; instead they feature materials, coatings and structures which have some dimensions controlled on the nanoscale. These are useful and even potentially lucrative products, but they certainly do not represent any discontinuity with previous technology.

Between the mundane current applications of incremental nanotechnology, and the implausible speculations of the futurists, there are areas in which it is realistic to hope for substantial impacts from nanotechnology. Perhaps the biggest impacts will be seen in the three areas of energy, healthcare and information technology. It’s clear that there will be a huge emphasis in the coming years on finding new, more sustainable ways to obtain and transmit energy. Nanotechnology could make many contributions in areas like better batteries and fuel cells, but arguably its biggest impact could be in making solar energy economically viable on a large scale. The problem with conventional solar cells is not efficiency, but cost and manufacturing scalability. Plenty of solar energy lands on the earth, but the total area of conventional solar cells produced a year is orders of magnitude too small to make a significant dent in the world’s total energy budget. New types of solar cell using nanotechnology, and drawing inspiration from the natural process of photosynthesis, are in principle compatible with large area, low cast processing techniques like printing, and it’s not unrealistic to imagine this kind of solar cell being produced in huge plastic sheets at very low cost. In medicine, if the vision of cell-by-cell surgery using nanosubmarines isn’t going to happen, the prospect of the effectiveness of drugs being increased and their side-effects greatly reduced through the use of nanoscale delivery devices is much more realistic. Much more accurate and fast diagnosis of diseases is also in prospect.

One area in which nanotechnology can already be said to be present in our lives is information technology. The continuous miniaturisation of computing devices has already reached the nanoscale, and this is reflected in the growing impact of information technology on all aspects of the life of most people in the West. It’s interesting that the economic driving force for the continued development of information technologies is no longer computing in its traditional sense, but largely entertainment, through digital music players and digital imaging and video. The continual shrinking of current technologies will probably continue through the dynamic of Moore’s law for ten or fifteen years, allowing at least another hundred-fold increase in computing power. But at this point a number of limits, both physical and economic, are likely to provide serious impediments to further miniaturisation. New nanotechnologies may alter this picture in two ways. It is possible, but by no means certain, that entirely new computing concepts such as quantum computing or molecular electronics may lead to new types of computer of unprecedented power, permitting the further continuation or even acceleration of Moore’s law. On the other hand, developments in plastic electronics may make it possible to make computers that are not especially powerful, but which are very cheap or even disposable. It is this kind of development that is likely to facilitate the idea of “ubiquitous computing” or “the internet of things”, in which it is envisaged that every artefact and product incorporates a computer able to sense its surroundings and to communicate wirelessly with its neighbours. One can see that as a natural, even inevitable, development of technologies like the radio frequency identification devices (RFID) already used as “smart barcodes” by shops like Walmart, but it is clear also that some of the scenarios envisaged could lead to serious concerns about loss of privacy and, potentially, civil liberties.

[1] Nobel Prize for chemistry, 1996, shared with his Rice colleague Robert Curl and the British chemist Sir Harold Kroto, from Sussex University.
[2] Quoted by Chris Toumey in “Reading Feynman Into Nanotech: Does Nanotechnology Descend From Richard Feynman’s 1959 Talk?” (to be published).
[3] This is essentially the argument of my own book “Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and life”, R.A.L. Jones, OUP (2004).

To be continued…

The new new thing

It’s fairly clear that nanotechnology is no longer the new new thing. A recent story in Business Week – Nanotech Disappoints in Europe – is not atypical. It takes its lead from the recent difficulties of the UK nanotech company Oxonica, which it describes as emblematic of the nanotechnology sector as a whole: “a story of early promise, huge hype, and dashed hopes.” Meanwhile, in the slightly neophilic world of the think-tanks, one detects the onset of a certain boredom with the subject. For example, Jack Stilgoe writes on the Demos blog “We have had huge fun running around in the nanoworld for the last three years. But there is a sense that, as the term ‘nanotechnology’ becomes less and less useful for describing the diversity of science that is being done, interesting challenges lie elsewhere… But where?”

Where indeed? A strong candidate for the next new new thing is surely synthetic biology. (This will not, of course, be new to regular Soft Machines readers, who will have read about it here two years ago). An article in the New York Times at the weekend gives a good summary of some of the claims. The trigger for the recent prominence of synthetic biology in the news is probably the recent announcement from the Craig Venter Institute of the first bacterial genome transplant. This refers to an advance paper in Science (abstract, subscription required for full article) by John Glass and coworkers. There are some interesting observations on this in a commentary (subscription required) in Science. It’s clear that much remains to be clarified about this experiment: “But the advance remains somewhat mysterious. Glass says he doesn’t fully understand why the genome transplant succeeded, and it’s not clear how applicable their technique will be to other microbes. “ The commentary from other scientists is interesting: “Microbial geneticist Antoine Danchin of the Pasteur Institute in Paris calls the experiment “an exceptional technical feat.” Yet, he laments, “many controls are missing.” And that has prevented Glass’s team, as well as independent scientists, from truly understanding how the introduced DNA takes over the host cell.”

The technical challenges of this new field haven’t prevented activists from drawing attention to its potential downsides. Those veterans of anti-nanotechnology campaigning, the ETC group, have issued a report on synthetic biology, Extreme Genetic Engineering, noting that “Today, scientists aren’t just mapping genomes and manipulating genes, they’re building life from scratch – and they’re doing it in the absence of societal debate and regulatory oversight”. Meanwhile, the Royal Society has issued a call for views on the subject.

Looking again at the NY Times article, one can perhaps detect some interesting parallels with the way the earlier nanotechnology debate unfolded. We see, for example, some fairly unrealistic expectations being raised: ““Grow a house” is on the to-do list of the M.I.T. Synthetic Biology Working Group, presumably meaning that an acorn might be reprogrammed to generate walls, oak floors and a roof instead of the usual trunk and branches. “Take over Mars. And then Venus. And then Earth” —the last items on this modest agenda.” And just as the radical predictions of nanotechnology were underpinned by what were in my view inappropriate analogies with mechanical engineering, much of the talk in synthetic biology is underpinned by explicit, but as yet unproven, parallels between cell biology and computer science: “Most people in synthetic biology are engineers who have invaded genetics. They have brought with them a vocabulary derived from circuit design and software development that they seek to impose on the softer substance of biology. They talk of modules — meaning networks of genes assembled to perform some standard function — and of “booting up” a cell with new DNA-based instructions, much the way someone gets a computer going.”

It will be interesting how the field of synthetic biology develops, to see whether it does a better of job of steering between overpromised benefits and overdramatised fears than nanotechnology arguably did. Meanwhile, nanotechnology won’t be going away. Even the sceptical Business Week article concluded that better times lay ahead as the focus in commercialising nanotechnology moved from simple applications of nanoparticles to more sophisticated applications of nanoscale devices: “Potentially even more important is the upcoming shift from nanotech materials to applications—especially in health care and pharmaceuticals. These are fields where Europe is historically strong and already has sophisticated business networks. “

Nanotechnology in the UK news next week

Some high profile events in London next week mean that nanotechnology may move a little way up the UK news agenda. On Monday, there’s an event at the Houses of Parliament: Nano Task Force Conference: Nanotechnology – is Britain leading the way? The Nano Task Force in question is a ginger group set up by Ravi Silva, at the University of Surrey, with political support from Ian Gibson MP. Gibson is a Labour Member of Parliament, one of the rare breed of legislators with a science PhD, and a reputation for being somewhat independent minded.

On Tuesday, public engagement is the theme, with an all-day event “All Talk? Nanotechnologies and public engagement” at the Institute of Physics. This is a joint launch; the thinktank Demos and the Nanotechnology Engagement Group are both launching reports. The Demos report is on a series of public engagement exercises, The Nanodialogues, while Nanotechnology Engagement Group final report is an overview of the lessons learnt from all the engagement activities around nanotechnology conducted so far in the UK. The keynote speaker is Sir David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor.

I’m involved in both, giving a talk on the potential of nanotechnology for sustainable energy on Monday, and Tuesday chairing one session and being a panel member on another. Other participants include Sheila Jasanoff from Harvard, David Edgerton, the author of the recently published book “The Shock of the Old”, Ben Goldacre, the writer of the Guardian’s entertaining ‘Bad science’ column, Andy Stirling, from Sussex, James Wilsdon and Jack Stilgoe from Demos, Doug Parr from Greenpeace, and David Guston, the Director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University. It promises to be a fascinating day.

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.

Nanotechnology discussion on the American Chemical Society website

I am currently participating in a (ahem…) “blogversation” about nanotechnology on the website run by the publications division of the American Chemical Society. There’s an introduction to the event here, and you can read the first entry here; the conversation has got started around those hoary issues of nanoparticle toxicity and nanohype. Contributors, besides me, include David Berube, Janet Stemwedel, Ted Sargent, and Rudy Baum, Editor in Chief of Chemical and Engineering News.

Driving on sunshine

Can the fossil fuels we use in internal combustion engines be practicably replaced by fuels derived from plant materials – biofuels? This question has, in these times of high oil prices and climate change worries, risen quickly up the agenda. Plants use the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide into chemically stored energy in the form of sugar, starch, vegetable oil or cellulose, so if one can economically convert these molecules into convenient fuels like ethanol, one has a route for the sustainable production of fuels for transportation. The sense of excitement and timeliness has even reached academia; my friends in Cambridge University and Imperial College are, as I write, frantically finalising their rival pitches to the oil giant BP, which is planning to spend $500 million on biofuels research over the next 10 years. Today’s issue of Nature has some helpful features (here, this claims to be free access but it doesn’t work for me without a subscription) overviewing the pros and cons.

The advantages of biofuels are obvious. They exploit the energy of the sun, the only renewable and carbon-neutral energy source available, in principle, in sufficient quantities to power our energy-intensive way of life on a worldwide basis. Unlike alternative methods of harnessing the sun’s energy, such as using photovoltaics to generate electricity or to make hydrogen, biofuels are completely compatible with our current transportation infrastructure. Cars and trucks will run on them with little modification, and existing networks of tankers, storage facilities and petrol stations can be used unaltered. It’s easy to see their attractions to those oil companies which, like BP and Shell, have seen that they are going to have to change their ways if they are going to stay in business.

Up to now, I’ve been somewhat sceptical. Plants are, by the standards of photovoltaic cells, very inefficient at converting sunlight into energy; they require inputs of water and fertilizer, and need to be converted into usable biofuels by energy intensive processes. The world has plenty of land, but the fraction of it available for agriculture is not large, and while this is probably sufficient to provide enough food for the world’s population the margin is not very comfortable, and is likely to get less so as climate change intensifies. One of the highest profile examples of large scale biofuel production is provided by the US program to make ethanol from corn, which is only kept afloat by huge subsidies and high protective tariff barriers. In energetic terms, it isn’t even completely clear that the corn-alcohol process produces more energy than it consumes (even advocates of the program claim only that it produces a two-fold return on energy input).

The Nature article does make clear, though, that there is a much more positive example of a biofuel program, in ethanol produced from Brazilian sugar-cane. Estimates are that it produces an eightfold return on the energy input, and it’s clear that this product, at around 27 cents a litre, is economic at current oil prices. The environmental costs of farming the stuff seem, if not negligible, less extreme than, for example, the destruction of rain-forest for palm oil plantations to produce biodiesel. The problem, as always, is scaling-up, finding enough suitable land to make a dent on the world’s huge thirst for transport fuels. Brazil is a big country, but even optimists only predict a doubling of output in the near future, which would still leave it accounting for less than one percent of the world’s demand for petrol.

Can there be a technical fix for these problems? This, of course, is the hope behind BP’s investment in research. One key advance would be to find more economical ways of breaking down the tough molecules that make up the woody matter of many plants, cellulose and lignin, into their component sugars, and then into alcohol. This brings the prospect of being able to use, not only agricultural waste like corn husks and wheat straw, but new crops like switch-grass and willow. There seems to be a choice of two methods here – using the same technology that Germany developed in the 1930’s and 40’s to convert coal into oil, using high temperature and special catalysts, or developing new enzymes based on the ones that fungi that live on tree stumps use. The former is expensive and as yet unproven on large scales.

What has all this got to do with nanotechnology? It is very easy to get excited by the prospect of a nano-enabled hydrogen economy powered by cheap, large area unconventional photovotaics. But we mustn’t forget that our techno-systems have a huge amount of inertia built into them. According to Vaclav Smil, there are more internal combustion engines than people in the USA, so potential solutions to our energy problems which promise less disruption to existing ways of doing things will be more attractive to many people than more technologically sophisticated but disruptive rival approaches.

Silicon and steel

Two of the most important materials underpinning our industrial society are silicon and steel. Without silicon, the material from which microprocessors and memory chips are made, there would be no cheap computers, and telecommunications would be hugely less powerful and more expensive. Steel is at the heart of most building and civil engineering, making possible both cars and trucks and the roads they run on. So I was struck, while reading Vaclav Smil’s latest book, Transforming the Twentieth Century (about which I may write more later) by some contrasting statistics for the two materials.

In the year 2000, around 846 million tonnes of steel was produced in the world, dwarfing the 20,000 tonne production of pure silicon. In terms of value, the comparison is a little closer – at around $600 a tonne, the annual production of steel was worth $500 billion, compared to the $1 billion value of silicon. Smil quotes a couple of other statistical nuggets, which may have some valuable lessons for us when we’re considering the possible economic impacts of nanotechnology.

Steel, of course, has been around a long time as a material, but it’s easy to overlook how significant technological progress in steel-making has been. In 1920, it took the equivalent of 3 hours of labour to make 1 tonne of steel, but by 1999, this figure had fallen to about 11 seconds – a one thousand-fold increase in labour productivity. When people suggest that advanced nanotechnologies may cause social dislocation, by throwing workers in manufacturing and primary industries out of work, they’re fighting yesterday’s battle – this change has already happened.

As for silicon, what’s remarkable about it is how costly it is given the fact that it’s made from sand. One can trace the addition of value through the production chain. Pure quartz costs around 1.7 cents a kilogram; after reduction to metalurgical grade silicon the value has risen to $1.10 a kilo. This is transformed into trichlorosilane, at $3 a kilo, and then after many purification processes one has pure polycrystalline silicon at around $50 a kilo. Single crystal silicon is then grown from this, leading to monocrystalline silicon rod worth more than $500 a kilo, which is then cut up into wafers. One of the predictions one sometimes hears about advanced nanotechnology is that it will be particularly economically disruptive, because it will allow anything to be made from abundant and cheap elements like carbon. But this example shows the extent to which the value of products doesn’t necessarily reflect the cost of the raw ingredients at all. In fact, in cases like this, involving complicated transformations carried out with high-tech equipment, it’s the capital cost of the plant that is most important in determining the cost of the product.