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Financial Times of London carried a major article on June 4 discussing the growing mainstream scientific recognition of nanotechnology. It leads with the description Eric Drexler has drawn of a future with fully realized molecular nanotechnology: "factories far smaller than the head of a pin will manufacture everything."
Despite some differences of opinion among scientists about the degree to which Drexler's vision can be realized, all those involved in nanotechnology research "do agree on one thing: some day it will be possible to create miniature factories at the molecular level," wrote columnist Victoria Griffith. She quotes Rice University's Richard Smalley that, "nanotechnology as a science is gaining respect." As evidence, she points to Drexler's talks at companies like 3M, Foresight funding from major companies like Apple Computer, and Rice's new nanotechnology center.
The story quotes skeptics who surfaced earlier in Scientific
American, such as MIT chemistry professor Julius Rebek, but
concludes positively with a quote from David Braunstein, a
bioapplications scientist with Park
Scientific Instruments: "What nanotechnologists are
after is nothing more and nothing less than to understand and
extend what nature already does."
On the side of confusion, the article was illustrated by a photo of a 24-step micromechanical stepping motor made by depositing successive layers of silicon on the base--a manufacturing technique wholly unrelated to molecular nanotechnology.
The Chicago Tribune and Detroit News both carried a story in June on the future of the automobile industry. It extensively quotes Foresight Institute Director Chris Peterson, who says that "We're learning how to manipulate atoms to make cars with a process called molecular manufacturing. It doesn't exist yet, but it will." She is quoted describing the potential for underground vacuum tunnels that could propel cars "halfway around the world in two hours, based on the laws of simple physics."
The investment newsletter Taipan in its
August 1996 issue reports that it has found "real, emerging
(investment) potential for nanotech." Noting that computer
chip manufacturers are running up against the limits of physics,
the newsletter says that chipmakers will sooner or later have to
abandon "the microscopic equivalent of ditch digging
and...start crafting chips like fine masonry: from the bottom
up." The newsletter advises its readers to avoid the
"torrent of nanohype" and instead go to "the
scientists who are actually involved" in implementing
technology. They offer three sources--the Web pages of Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing,
and Ralph Merkle's web page at http://nano.xerox.com/nano/.
[A longer report on this article]
The July 1996 issue of APICS (American Production and Inventory Control Society) carries an article by past APICS President Keith Launchbury on future trends. He devotes a very positive paragraph to nanotechnology and mentions that "the potential of this new technology is awesome, and I predict that we will see its first commercial applications within the next five years."
Several radio news programs have covered nanotechnology
recently, with variable quality. CBS Radio carried an item
in June on a program called "The Way We Will,"
discussing recent work with STMs at IBM Geneva, manipulating
molecules at room temperature, and IBM Almaden, plucking an atom
off a metal substrate using an STM hooked into a Virtual Reality
Dataglove apparatus. Foresight member John Papiewski, who heard
the broadcast on CBS Radio Station WBBM in Chicago, described the
broadcast as "exciting, factual and straightforward
National Public Radio did less well on July 17. In the space of an eight-minute segment, part of a four-part series on "miniaturization," NPR's Morning Edition muddied the waters with confused definitions of nanotechnology, discussed some of the potential outcomes of molecular nanotechnology, and then quoted "experts" to the effect that this is all unrealizable science fiction.
[A longer report on this program]
The Dutch public television network NEDERLAND 2 carried a program called Nanotopia, based on Drexler's Engines of Creation from 10 to 11 p.m. on June 29.
Magazine, (Three Degrees Kelvin Publishing,
Inc., Honolulu), carries an interesting survey of
nanotechnology-related research in its June 1996 issue by Richard
H. Smith II, a research administrator at Georgetown University
and graduate student in the Virginia Tech Science and Technology
Studies Ph.D. program. The entire paper is available on the Web
version of the magazine at http://planet-hawaii.com/nanozine/nanofund.htm.
Smith describes his Internet-based search for funding sources for
molecular nanotechnology research. Referring extensively to a
bibliometric study by Alan L. Porter and Scott Cunningham (published in Update
21), Smith found that considerable
nanotechnology-related research is underway in the U.S., but that
it is disjointed and often difficult to find. "As
sophisticated as the search engines in libraries and on the Web
are becoming, one needs familiarity with specific terminology in
order to find anything," he writes.
Referring to Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1986), Smith notes that many involved in relevant research would be considered "practitioners of 'normal science' who help to lay the groundwork for a scientific revolution but don't necessarily buy into it at the time."
Using varied search terms, he identified considerable government research funding for nanotechnology, mostly grants in the range of $50,000 to $100,000. The grants are provided by the National Science Foundation and (harder to locate in computer searches because of terms used) the National Institutes of Health, he writes.
Smith laments the fragmented nature of relevant research, and proposes a clearinghouse of nanotechnology research and funding sources. He suggests Foresight Institute as a provider of the service.
The issue also provides an interesting description of the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice University (featuring a nanoscale ribbon cutting of one nanotube by another), projected on a video screen for observers by Dr. Richard Smalley. The $32 million facility is expected to be open in the fall of 1997.
New Technology Week carried a substantial story on Foresight Institute's Feynman Grand Prize, quoting computational nanotechnologist Ralph Merkle of Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center that nanotechnology breakthroughs are needed to develop "post-lithographic manufacturing technologies" to make smaller and faster computer components.
Science fiction and fact magazine Analog
Editor Stanley Schmidt, who deals both in fiction and science,
had no trouble telling one from the other in an extended
editorial responding to Scientific American's April 1996 attack on
nanotechnology. "It pains me to have to say so, because
I have long thought of Scientific American as a good
layman's source of fairly in-depth information about what's going
on in many fields of research, but this article seems to me to
contain far too much opinions presented as factual reporting -
and ultimately to give an impression that may be dangerously
wrong." SciAm staff writer Gary Stix's "bias is quite
clear in both his selection of quotes and his personal
comments," Schmidt wrote.
Schmidt offers comparisons between the existing state of nanotechnology and the emergence of earlier technologies: "The people who made the first vacuum tubes, early in this century, had plenty of trouble just getting them to work in quite simple circuits, and felt justifiable pride whenever they found a way to make them work a little better. At each stage, an experimenter with an idea might see one improvement he could reasonably aspire to making with the time and resources he had available. If you had described to him the tiny, powerful, ubiquitous computers of the late twentieth century, or the huge, sophisticated communications network of the same period, he probably would have found it hard to believe you were serious. If you were his boss and told him he had to build one of those computers, he would have had little choice but to give up in despair."
He concludes, "let's hope that the Foresight Institute keeps trying to look ahead at what this stuff can do for and to us--and what we can do about it. We may need that knowledge a lot sooner than some of us think."
Synthetic Pleasures, written by Iara Lee and
produced by George Gund, is a feature-length sci-fi documentary
that, in a mixture of interviews, previously-produced footage and
original computer graphics, delves into genetic engineering,
smart drugs, cryonics, robotics, artificial life, life extension
and, of course, nanotechnology. The film emphasizes
nanotechnology's capability to offset human disease. It features
Ed Regis, author of Nano, a non-technical discussion of
"Technology becomes a life-style," says Lee. "Synthetic Pleasures tries to get beyond high-tech theory and engage technology where it is lived. Computers facilitate tasks, but somehow make us work even harder. Technology frees and enslaves at the same time. It is a wonderful contradiction."
Lee's extensive use of mind-bending footage, good pacing, and lively editing succeeds in drawing the viewer deeper in this futurist time warp and in bringing home the point that most of the elements the film discusses are happening to some extent today. The film offers broader perspectives on our relationship with technology, where this relationship is taking us and what its implications will be for the future. It was scheduled for release in public theaters August 30.
Reviewed by George Kassel
|Foresight Update 26 - Table of Contents|
Sept. 8-12, Beijing. Includes supramolecules, molecular recognition, SPM fabrication of devices, self-assembly, self-assembled molecular nanostructures. Contact Prof. Shijin Pang, fax 86-10-255-6598, email Pang@image.blem.ac.cn.
Sept. 23-25, Glasgow, Scotland. Contact Dr. Carol Clugston, fax 0141-330-4907, email email@example.com, http://www.elec.gla.ac.uk/~spb/mne96/mne96.html
Sept. 30-Oct. 2, University of Leipzig. Includes molecular modeling, molecular recognition, self-organization, DNA computing. Contact GCB '96, tel 49-341-9716100, fax 49-341-9716109, email GCB96@imise.unileipzig.de.
Oct. 7-18. Includes computational nanotechnology and self-assembly topics. See http://bellatrix.pcl.ox.ac.uk/mgms/
Division meeting, American Vacuum Society, Oct. 14-18, Philadelphia. Includes self-assembly, molecular nanostructures, protein-based computers, AFM-based assembly. Tel 212-248-0200, fax 212-248-0245, email firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.vacuum.org.
Oct. 18-20, 1996, Palo Alto. Foresight and IMM Senior
Associates meeting includes hands-on molecular modeling. Tel
415-917-1122, fax 415-917-1123, email email@example.com.
More Information on the 1996 Gathering
evening of Oct. 19, 1996, Palo Alto. Contact Foresight, tel 415-917-1122, fax 415-917-1123, email firstname.lastname@example.org. See Update 25.
Dec. 9-11, 1996, San Diego, International Business Communications. Topics similar to Foresight conferences: scanning probes, self-assembly, modeling, DNA structures, protein structures. Tel 508-481-6400, fax 508-481-7911, email email@example.com, http://www.io.org/~ibc/nano
Feb. 1-5, 1997, Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Nature Biotechnology. Self-assembly, protein design. Tel 305-243-3597, fax 305-324-5665, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Optical Society of America, Feb. 9-11, 1997, Santa Fe. Includes some self-assembly; STM nanofabrication. Tel 202-416-1980, fax 202-416-6100, email@example.com; Web ftp://ftp.osa.org/confer/chem.txt
Nov. 5-9, 1997, Palo Alto, CA. Enabling science and
technology, computational models. Contact Foresight, tel
415-917-1122, fax 415-917-1123, email firstname.lastname@example.org, Web
http://nano.xerox.com/nanotech/nano5.html. The conference web
page has just been moved to:
From Foresight Update 26, originally published 15 September 1996.