Nanopants, redux

Dexter Johnson writes, “What Should We Call the (Nano)technology in Your Stain-resistant Pants?”

…  the competition for ownership of the term “nanotechnology” that seems to persist between the adherents to MNT, as exemplified by the Foresight Institute, and those who use the term to acknowledge developments in manipulating and exploiting structures that have at least one dimension smaller than 100nm, as represented by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
I am reminded from time to time of this debate from my own seemingly unrelated blog entries. Such as here when I asked what our best approach might be for getting to a point with nanotechnology where photovoltaics might actually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
I will not argue here (or likely anywhere else) about the feasibility of nanofactories in the visions of the MNT community. However, I will contend here that I do think they might be doing themselves a disservice by insisting that the nanotech of the NNI variety that is practiced and commercially applied today is not really nanotechnology.

It would be silly to claim that what the NNI and the nanoparticulate businesses are doing “isn’t nanotechnology”, since there are quite a lot of people who use the word that way.  People use words in different senses: a physicist and a priest will use the word “mass” to mean wildly different things.  The word “robot” is used for “Battlebots” which are radio-controlled scooters with no intelligence or autonomy at all.

Foresight’s position is that people using the word in the latter-day, grade-inflated meaning must not contend that that is the only meaning, and must, in all honesty, acknowledge that the denotation of eutactic, mechanosynthetic, atomically-precise machinery was the original.

The reason this matters is that the two meanings of nanotechnology, while not perhaps as far apart as the priest’s and physicist’s masses, are at least as different as a Battlebot and Willow Garage’s PR2.  One is evolutionary; the other revolutionary. One fills the environment with novel, uncontained, substances; the other is completely controlled, allowing not a single atom to escape out of place.  One could improve the performance of photovoltaics a few percent; the other could replace the industrial infrastructure of the world with clean, quiet, powerful, cheap machinery. Once a week.

It’s worth knowing the difference.


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