Foresight Update 15

page 3

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 15 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5 | Page6


Policy Watch

compiled by Jamie Dinkelacker

Policy Watch tracks recent events and issues that affect technological advancement and its economic, political and social context.

The recent inauguration of Bill Clinton as US President brings to the White House new ideas and agendas for technology and science. In an interview last October with Science, Clinton called for increases in both AIDS-specific and general biomedical research. He pledged to reinvest every dollar cut from defense R&D into civilian research and generic technology development. In terms of "big science," Clinton expressed support for the space station, the supercollider, and research into shortcuts to map the human genome. Clinton also noted that it only made sense for nations to share the costs of the very large and costly science projects which ultimately benefit all people and all nations. He said he'd keep the appropriations of the NIH and NSF at least in pace with inflation, and increase them as budgetary conditions permit. Clinton said the US should have signed the Bio-Diversity, Earth Charter, Agenda 21, the Forest Principles, and Climate Change Conventions at the Rio Earth Summit. Furthermore, Clinton said the Vice President Gore would have responsibility and authority to coordinate overall technology, and by extension science, policy across all government agencies. (Science, 256:385,493)

Among the expectations toward the Clinton White House regarding technology are having Gore as the "technology czar"; more investment in "technology infrastructure" including high-performance computing and networks; more government centers for collaborative research with industry and to commercialize government-funded technology; a greater focus on manufacturing processes to do for high-technology industries what agricultural extension centers have done for farming; and, a broader interest in global science, both to collect information and to harmonize policies. (Nature, 360:288)

South Korea's Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) announced last summer the first projects in a $6 billion effort to catch up with the technology of Japan and leading Western nations by the beginning of the next century. The Highly Advanced National Project, also called the G-7 Project, is intended to bring South Korea's technology up to a level competitive with the G-7 nations (US, Japan, Canada, Germany, UK, France and Italy). The projects will focus on new pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, new advanced materials and new functional biomaterials. Other projects covering high-definition television, semiconductors, integrated service and data networks, and computerized manufacturing systems are anticipated as well. Along with these efforts, the New Medicine Development Consortium and the Genetic Engineering Research Consortium have also been established. Companies such as Hyundai, Samsun, and Daewoo are backing projects to develop advanced materials, such as ceramics, for use in heavy industry, automobile manufacturing and the electronics industry. (Nature, 358:613)

Civic leaders at the Japanese science city Tsukuba have led similar leaders in the Osaka area to plan a science city of their own. This development, Kansai Science City, will be of broader scope and include organizations involved in researching culture, economics, and the arts. Modeled on Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, Kansai's institute plans to have research programs in the natural and social sciences and humanities. It is known as the new International Institute for Advanced Studies (IIAS) and is intended to be the 'brain' of the city. It will have a changing population of 40 senior academics drawn from all over the world, plus supporting administrative staff. Although research in the life sciences will be a central focus, it will also support work in philosophy and mathematics. Topics will be chosen by its faculty as well as by outside contributors from both industry and the government. It is supported by an endowment of about $40 million from both public and private sources. Total investment is expected to reach more than $30 billion over time. The research and residential complex is scheduled for completion in early 1993. (R&D Magazine, May 1992, p. 5; Nature, 356:647)

Japan's Ministry of International Trade & Industry (MITI) is leading that nation's charge into the emerging field of micromachines with a 10-year, $190 million that aims to develop two prototypes. Twenty-seven companies and institutions, including three foreign groups, have received funding to begin research. MITI envisions building two micromachines, one for medical use and the other for industrial maintenance. Motohide Konaka, a MITI official involved in the project, says "this project is focused on the actuator-type devices, the moving parts. While most work up to now has focused on discrete devices, to get the devices working together will require a total system approach. MITI suggests that the interest among companies from outside the semiconductor-related field is an indication of long-term thinking regarding micromachines. (R&D Magazine, June 1992, p. 24)

Calling for a $5 billion "civilian technology corporation," the National Academy of Sciences recently recommended that the US government match technical and manufacturing advances in other countries by funding "pre-commercial" research and development. Although the Academy report acknowledges that the US high-technology industry remains relatively health on such measures as productivity per capita and trade balance, it points our such warning signs as a decline in R&D spending and the sluggish transfer of technology from government research labs to industry. The report also calls for an "Industrial Extension Service" at the US Department of Commerce, modeled after the venerable extension programs of the US Department of Agriculture. The panel recommended that a few of the 700 federal labs be converted into facilities that would demonstrate federal technology to industry. (Nature, 356:372)

A small California software company is proving that it is possible to create innovative and profitable industrial research consortia without massive government subsidies or cumbersome bureaucracies. Biosym Technologies, a company based in San Diego that specializes in molecular and chemical modeling software, has started four consortia involving more than 100 industrial members and put products on the market. Biosym has succeeded by sticking to the basics and steering clear of its members' proprietary secrets. By focusing on basic molecular modeling tools with broad application the company has managed to find a 'generic' niche that is still state-of-the-art. Another part of the formula for success is to let its own employees--not researchers on loan from its member companies--do the work.

Biosym's style of narrowly-focused, do-it-yourself consortia appeals to companies grown wary of costly, government-subsidized research collaborations with fuzzy research aims and power struggles between members. Biosym's four consortia--polymers, catalysts, potential energy functions and a materials project--each have about 15 full-time programmers. The polymer consortium charges each of its 51 industrial members about $80,000 a year. In exchange, it gives them new software every nine months and asks them to vote on the next project. The members get one year of exclusive access to the software, after which Biosym can sell it to anyone. Universities may join by paying 15% of the commercial rate, but they have no vote in setting the direction of research. Any company that joins late must pay all back fees. (Nature, 356:371) [Editor's note: Biosym has also sponsored the last two Foresight nanotechnology conferences.]

Daniel Cohen, director of the Paris-based Centre d'Etude du Polymorphisme Humain (CEPH) and the driving force behind the Genethon, says he expects to be able to extend the map of the human genome to cover 90% of the genome by the end of the year. What has really caused a stir is the way that Cohen has collected the data: instead of using scientists, he had technicians running an array of automated gene machines that exist only as prototypes. The Genethon demonstrates an almost blue-collar approach to biology. More assembly line than ivory tower, the laboratory exists mostly to produce genetic information that other scientists will use. The news that an industrial-scale gene mapping facility was not only up and running but also pumping out data faster than virtually any other group has caused US researchers to question their approach. The Genethon itself is every bit as startling as its results. The $10 million central facility is a large room ringed with 20 robots, surrounding a central climate-controlled computer installation. The robots, which automate the DNA fingerprinting process, were developed by the French company Bertin as part of the European industrial collaboration Eureka Labimap 2000. Each robot can perform Southern blots--a technique to distinguish DNA fragments by the characteristic bands they leave after gel electrophoresis. Together, the machines have the potential to process more than 6,000 DNA samples a day. Yet the entire operation requires only five technicians. Cohen describes this as "no-risk" research that can be easily scaled upwards. Plus, he says that the French genetics community did not try to stop him. His success, he believes, lies in avoiding the kind of politics that would probably sink such an effort in the US or Britain. (Nature, 357:525-527)

"There has been a steep decline in chemistry majors [in the last decade]," says Sheila Tobias, a social scientist whose books and articles on science education have urged many college science teachers to take a critical look at their courses and teaching methods. Reform-minded chemists and educators around the country are trying out innovative curricula and courses in an effort to ensure a supply of future chemists, or at least to increase chemical literacy by attracting and educating more students. And the American Chemical Society has set up a Task Force on the General Chemistry Curriculum that aims to bring some coherence to this reform movement by offering professors guidelines and materials to help throttle up the pace of change in introductory chemistry courses. The goal is to encourage professors to teach fewer, more fundamental concepts while making their presentation more lively, relevant, and exciting by hitching each course module to a hot topic like the ozone hole or drug design. New conceptual ingredients teach a handful of far-reaching concepts such as atomic and molecular structure, electronic orbitals, stereoisomerism, and acidity and basicity. The teacher then helps students connect these fundamentals to problems in drug design, materials science, and environmental research. (Science, 257:872)

The Human Frontier Science Program (Frontier), a Japanese initiative supporting international research on the brain and molecular mechanisms of biological functions, has reached a critical juncture. Funded largely by Japan, the program is now attracting financial support from many countries. The purpose of the program is to clarify the functions of living organisms by a "molecular level" approach and by understanding brain functions. Some participants and organizers of Frontier, unaware of (or disagreeing with) this fundamental philosophy, have tried to narrow its priority fields to conventional fields by claiming that 'molecular' fields are too broad and that there are too many research proposals to review. However, the basic approach of the Frontier is to provide opportunities to examine the complex functions of live via an all-out effort of science and technology. Physics or engineering technologies (computers, robotics, electronics, materials science and so on) should provide powerful tools. Their contributions are not limited to hardware: the mode of thinking in fields such as mathematics and physics, information-science technology and engineering should stimulate the creation of new concepts in biological research. This approach sees biology as having entered a new phase in which it can develop with highly sophisticated methodologies, and its progress can be quickly accelerated by a balanced perspective which views science and technology as one entity. (Nature, 357:356)

Dr. Jamie Dinkelacker serves on the Foresight Board of Advisors.

Foresight Update 15 - Table of Contents


Nanotechnology and "Nanotechnology"

by Eric Drexler

In 1989, Science News stated "Sooner or later, the Age of Nanotechnology--in which scientists will use molecule-sized machinery to control the structure of matter even at atomic levels--will arrive," reporting on the first Foresight technical conference under the headline "Nonexistent Technology Gets a Hearing." This article surveyed the enormous anticipated challenges and opportunities of the anticipated nanotechnology revolution. By 1992, a Science News headline could announce "Nanotechnology yields transparent magnet." Does nanotechnology now exist? Has the revolution arrived?

If so, then the nanotechnology revolution seems to be a dud. Where are the molecular machines? Where are the desktop manufacturing systems? Where are the nanocomputers, the cell repair machines, the era of abundance? Few in the newly-mustered army of nanotechnology researchers even aim at such goals. It would seem that there has been a profound miscalculation--unless, that is, there has been a more prosaic modification in the use of words.

We seem to have difficulty focusing on the future: the clamor and claims of today press heavily on our senses and our minds, and the fragile human ability to reason about the possibilities of tomorrow is easily crushed. As a part of this process, words that describe grand goals commonly are redefined and used to market something that already exists. Artificial intelligence (meaning machines able to learn and to solve a wide range of difficult problems) promises a revolution, but we already have "artificial intelligence" (meaning expert systems able use canned knowledge to solve a narrow range of problems), and it has had only a modest impact. And so it is with nanotechnology and "nanotechnology": the term has become attached to what is already here, making it difficult to discuss what is coming.

The "nanotechnology" that yielded the magnetic particles described in Science News works by oxidizing iron that has been loaded into an ion exchange resin used commercially in water softeners. This is, literally, nanotechnology because the resulting iron oxide particles are only 2 to 10 nanometers across, containing mere thousands of atoms. Of course, producing cigarette smoke would also be nanotechnology, by this criterion of submicron size, if it produced a more interesting product. In the last several years, chemistry has been termed nanochemistry, fine-grained materials have been termed nanostructured materials, submicron lithography has been termed nanolithography. These topics have been covered by a conference hosted by Nature and by a special issue of Science, all under the banner of "nanotechnology"--a buzzword whose time has come. Two new companies making fine-grained materials are "Nanophase Technologies" and "Nanodyne." Longevity magazine carries ads for "NANO shampoo and NANO conditioner," containing a derivative of the anti-baldness agent minoxidil.

What is missing in this ferment? Engines of Creation introduced the term nanotechnology in 1986 to describe a technology based on mechanical assembly of molecules to build complex structures, that is, the use of molecular machinery to perform mechanosynthesis for molecular manufacturing. Nanotechnology in the broader sense of nanoscale technology covers a diverse collection of activities, with varying relevance to this goal. To refer to the future developments that made nanotechnology a buzzword in the first place, one must now speak of "molecular manufacturing," or of "molecular nanotechnology, based on molecular manufacturing." With luck, these terms will prove bulky and awkward enough to retain a distinct meaning.

The popularity of the word nanotechnology in the new, vaguer sense may be confusing, yet it is a sign of progress. Researchers (in chemistry, molecular biology, materials science, and so forth) have worked at the nanoscale for many years; the advent of a new, unifying term may aid in the emergence of a new, unified perspective, and with it an understanding of longer-term goals for the field.

Scientists have already achieved the highest possible resolution in building material structures: chemists routinely make molecules with every atom in its place. The natural goal for research in nanotechnology, then, is to extend this precise control to a wider range of structures and to larger sizes. Molecular manufacturing is a key goal for nanotechnology because it can extend atomically-precise structural control to the fabrication of diverse materials, devices, and systems, and because it can work on scales ranging from nanometers to meters. In the decade or more since this goal was articulated, no comparable alternative has been proposed. Many of the research efforts organized around nanoscale fabrication and measurement can contribute to the goal of molecular manufacturing. As the broader field of nanotechnology takes shape, ever-larger parts of the field will be organized first around the goal of achieving molecular manufacturing, and then around the use of molecular manufacturing to build advanced nanosystems. Unless, of course, someone discovers a better approach.

Foresight Update 15 - Table of Contents


Nanotechnology definition

The term nanotechnology is here used to refer to an anticipated technology giving thorough control of the structure of matter at the molecular level. This involves molecular manufacturing, in which materials and products are fabricated by the precise positioning of molecules in accord with explicit engineering design.

Foresight Update 15 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5 | Page6

From Foresight Update 15, originally published 15 February 1993.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 15 to html for this web page.