The audacity of nano-hope

The audacity of nano-hope

Over at IEEE Tech Talk, Dexter Johnson points out a flurry of interest in “nanobots” over the past week, casting quite a wide net that ranges from Nadrian Seeman’s experimental lab work to Ray Kurzweil’s hopeful dreams for the far future. He also tosses a bit of credit in my direction — thanks! — and then proceeds to detail why he thinks all this interest has suddenly appeared:

But if I may apply some dime-store psychology to this sudden surge of interest, it might be due to things just being so terrible at the moment were in. It is far better to imagine some day in the future when we can use nanobots to bring our lost loved ones back to life, or to press the button on our home-installed nanofactory that says “Ferrari”.

We can dream about that or face the grim realities of the now.

I can see that it’s time for a little economics lesson.

We are not, as far as I know, faced here on planet Earth with a Vogon Constructor Fleet poised to blast us to nanoparticles. There is no raging plague decimating the population, as happened in the Black Death. There is no worldwide total war, as there was just 65 years ago. Even disco appears to have abated somewhat.

Just what, then, are these things that are so terrible?

What’s happened is that lots of people made bad investment decisions, and the investments didn’t pay off. Of course this happens all the time, but in a crash like the one we’re having now, it’s the result of a lot of people making the same bad decisions based on the same bad, but generally believed, information. Then the bubble pops when it is finally understood that whatever it was that people believed, such as the monotonicity of the value of tulips or housing, was wrong. But the bubble itself doesn’t have anything to do with tulips or whatever per se — it’s a knowledge bubble, the widespread belief in an untruth.

How can a knowledge bubble can be stable enough to build to catastrophic proportions? There are various feedback mechanisms, but one that is particularly pernicious is the all-too-human tendency of a community of experts to marginalize and deride anyone who disagrees with them. This insulates them from lots of annoying cranks but also from the occasional legitimate criticism. Over time, this insulation can form a self-sustaining knowledge bubble.

One of the minor knowledge bubbles that contributed to the foam of the past decade can be seen in the following articles about the same company by the same writer, in 2003:

In a relatively short time, carbon nanotubes–thin tubes of carbon atoms that have unusual characteristics because of their unique structure–have emerged as a miracle material that could revolutionize a number of industries.

and in 2007:

Perfecting these applications and mass manufacturing nanotubes, however, will take years, scientists and nanotechnology experts have said. As a result, carbon nanotubes are still more like science projects than commonly employed industrial materials.

Yes, I have these in the right order.

Now I’m sure that someone reading this is going to object as follows: “But the experts who were putting forward these claims for nanotubes weren’t marginalizing people who said that nanotubes weren’t going to revolutionize industry; they were marginalizing people who made even more outrageous claims.” I’m sure the nano-critics believe exactly this when they inveigh against proponents of molecular manufacturing.

But this conceals a very basic and very crucial error (one that Foresight has been warning about for a long, long time). It conflates science, engineering, and futurism — and they are very different things.

  • Science is the search for knowledge about the universe. It involves making theories and predictions and doing experiments to test them. Science is necessarily mostly bottom-up — it doesn’t do much good to have a theory of how the parts of a complex system interact if you can’t predict how the parts work individually.
  • Engineering is the practice of using existing knowledge to build specific machines. Engineering is often top-down — you decide what you need to build, break it into subsystems, design the subsystems, and so on to known mechanisms at the bottom.
  • Futurism is the art — neither science nor engineering — of using a broad range of types of knowledge, including both science and engineering but also history, economics, and even psychology, in the attempt to spy the broad profiles of possible futures that might lie ahead.

I claim that the nano-bubble, which thankfully lies mostly behind us, had mostly to do with scientists attempting to be engineers while feeling that they had to compete with futurists. By and large, scientists do not make good futurists; the requisite habits of thought differ too drastically. The key difference in the case of nanotechnology, was that the futurists were saying “you have to build productive machines with atomic precision, and then much becomes possible.” This was completely in the futurists area of concern. In the next decade or two, it will move into the engineer’s area. But the only scientists who should have been talking about whether self-replicating molecular machines were possible would have been the molecular biologists.

But if futurists are not scientists or engineers, what good are we? Should a hurting world “face the grim realities of the now” by throwing us out of work, too?

A century ago, there was no air travel. The Wright brothers were in the process of demonstrating their Flyer to a still largely unbelieving world. Like nanotechnology, aviation had its biological proof-of-principle — birds — but the scientific establishment firmly rejected its possibility.

25 years later, aviation had become a military reality but, economically, had stubbornly remained a fringe or money-losing proposition. The counsels of despair would have said to forget this dream — times are bad. Face the grim reality.

Instead, Douglass Aircraft, in the depths of the Great Depression, invested in the development of the DC3, the plane that turned air travel into an economically viable proposition. This, of course, was engineering — but aeronautical engineering was at that time steeped in the culture of the dream of air travel as promulgated by the futurists.

When times are bad, people need futurists more than at other times. Bad economic times come because people have been walking in the dark, in lockstep, and hit a wall. There is a surfeit of people whose efforts the current state of knowledge cannot organize productively. The job of a futurist is to turn on the lights, to show what paths could actually lead to prosperity.

By | 2017-06-01T14:06:28+00:00 February 24th, 2009|Economics, Nanodot, Nanotechnology|17 Comments

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  1. […] NANOTECHNOLOGY UPDATE: J. STORRS HALL on the audacity of nano-hope. […]

  2. Anonymous February 25, 2009 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    In regards to the DC3, as I understand it, it was judged one of the most vital pieces of equipment in the execution of WW2. Though this demonstrates its far reaching design and capability, it also extreme need and big bucks.

    As is often the case, the integration of new &/or groundbreaking technologies into the everyday often requires the initial “big customer” (i.e. the government) making big purchases to get the advancements beyond fringe areas and into the mainstream.

  3. Anonymous February 25, 2009 at 4:58 pm - Reply


  4. Anonymous February 25, 2009 at 4:59 pm - Reply

    Check out these pre-singularity milestones to watch for. It will help you verify if we are on our way.

  5. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 5:51 am - Reply

    This is your economics lesson? Our current financial crisis is just some people who made some bad investments? Oh dear! I think all I can say to that is that you may be minimizing the impact of the current situation.

    Things are bad and comparisons to science fiction doomsday scenarios does not lessen the real impact on people’s lives, or the resulting need to maintain a state of denial by looking towards a more hopeful future.

    Dexter Johnson

  6. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 8:20 am - Reply

    Dexter, I think you’re missing the point. The economic problems we are facing are man-made, and, even though they are very serious, they do are not nearly as bad as a World War or black plague as in the middle ages.

    We’ve bounced-back from worse economic calamities, and we WILL bounce back from this one. Their is still more wealth & knowledge than at any time in human history. Their are more & better tools and greater productivity than at any time in human history. Human know-how and technology are at it’s peak and accelerating with no end in sight.

    There is great reason for optimism.

  7. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 1:34 pm - Reply

    Pessimists like Dexter get a pyschological kick out of declaring that “things are bad man, get real”, much like the fundamentalist christians who claim that we are living in “the last days, the most awful phase in human history”, when in fact (for Europe at least) the 14th century is probably the best example if you want war, death and misery in abundance. Did armageddon happen? No it did not.

    Dexter Johnson’s bad attitude is borne of ignorance. It is all the more preposterous for him to accuse others of denial. The current economic situation is NOT dire. Even in the Great Depression most people kept their jobs, and many people even prospered, and those that struggled did not, generally, suffer the horrible diseases and starvation of past centuries or, indeed, in the modern third world. Dexter Johnson is an ignoramus whose ignorance leads him to view optimists with contempt. If he was capable of standing back and taking a broad view of human history, he would occupy the same viewpoint as those he haughtily accuses of denial.

    [NB: this comment is inflammatory: consider it an example of the kind of comments that will be frowned upon here in future. –Josh]

  8. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 2:10 pm - Reply

    When things are good, they are never as good as they seem.

    When things are bad, they are never as bad as they seem.

    When the greatest percentage of people forget this and think the current state (whether boom or bust) can never change, then you know a turning point is near.

    Go and tell people something like ‘the economy will recover late this year, making this 24-month recession the longest since the GD’. A LOT of people will say you are delusionally optimistic. Thus, you know the turning point is near.

  9. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    [comment removed as inflammatory]

  10. Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    This is far from being just another recession or bursting bubble.What is occurring and will continue all the way to the other side can’t happen quick enough. So we can get on with a meaning future. The law of accelerating returns is information-centric and applies to the freedom movements around the world.

    The promissory note a home buyer signs over to the bank in exchange for the loan/mortgage, the bank/loan company sells the same day. In other words, the bank is lending the borrower the borrowers own credit. The borrower lends the bank a promissory note worth 100k and the bank turns around and loans the borrower 100k.

    The problem is it’s all credit and the bank wants it’s loan repaid in federal reserve notes. Which it also gets FRNs when it sells the borrowers promissory note. The bank never pays back the borrower for his promissory note he loaned to the bank. It’s probably the biggest institutionalized fraud in the history of the world.

    None of the mortgage loans, none of the debts the homeowners supposedly owes can be validated. Why? Because the banks no longer have it on file because the sold it. If when the bank opens it’s books it shows that the bank has already been paid via the promissory note thus there’s no outstanding debt.

    Plus, the banksters have the audacity to foreclose on a home and take title to a home that the homeowner already paid for with the promissory note and perhaps ten or fifteen years of monthly payments.

    The problem.fraud gets even bigger… International bankers who own the central banks loan money to both sides of waring governments — it’s their most lucrative endeavor. The private corporation known as the Federal Reserve creates billions of dollars out of thin air as credit for THE UNITED STATES corporation to barrow. And the tax-payers are on the hook to repay the loan principle plus interest. Billions For the Bankers, Debts For the People.

    The bright side is that government Tax Retirement Funds (Google “CAFR1” — comprehensive annual financial report) have over twice the assets as all government liabilities combined. That’s well over one-hundred Trillion dollars that you won’t hear even so much as a peep about from the mainstream media. Of course the main stream media didn’t tell you about the massive bankster loan fraud either. That’s because the banksters own and or control the mainstream media… and they control politicians and bureaucrats.

    Yes, this is a conspiracy. And it’s not a theory. It’s fact.

  11. […] There has been a flurry of interest in nanobots over the past week, casting quite a wide net that ranges from Nadrian Seeman’s experimental lab work to Ray Kurzweil’s hopeful dreams for the far future, says Foresight Institute president J. Storrs Hall. (Source: […]

  12. J. Storrs Hall February 27, 2009 at 6:45 am - Reply

    @Dexter: Saying “just some people who made some bad investments” is a very incorrect characterization of what I said. The bad investments are the effect: the cause is the widespread coordinated incorrect beliefs. There were lots of them, ranging from fund managers who thought they could use Li’s Gaussian copula without understanding its assumptions and applicability, to investors who thought they could trust the managers.

    Nano-hype — the overpromising of near-term nanoscale bulk technologies — was clearly a very minor part of the problem, but it was real. I’ve been amazed how many people asked me for investment advice once they heard I’d written a book on nanotech. (My stock answer: “Buy land.”)

  13. Anonymous March 1, 2009 at 2:48 am - Reply

    Can we all take a deep breath for a moment? I think what has everyone upset here is the idea that I have suggested we throw out human aspirations because times are tough. This was not my intention, and I think it takes some rather odd interpretations of what I originally said to come to that conclusion.

    I was suggesting that when times are tough people may try to make themselves feel better by imagining a better day in the future. This is not a radical idea and happens all the time, for instance, when we are stuck in a traffic jam and imagine a day at the beach. It certainly doesn’t suggest we abandon our imaginations.

    As for the economics lesson, J., it may be an incorrect characterization of what you wanted to say, but what you did say, namely “What’s happened is that lots of people made bad investment decisions, and the investments didn’t pay off,” led me to the conclusion that this is what you meant.

    While you, and it would seem others who come to this blog, exercise what I would consider a healthy skepticism towards “nano-scale bulk technologies” and even the finance industry, I trust that you feel comfortable applying that same rigorous system of doubt to the promises of molecular nanotechnology.

    As for the name calling, it’s a pity that anonymous commenters feel that it’s acceptable to indulge themselves in this kind of ad hominem attacks, but I suppose that is just the way of things. I will try to imagine a day when this doesn’t happen.

  14. Anonymous March 1, 2009 at 2:50 am - Reply

    Apologies again, the comment above was from me, Dexter Johnson.

  15. J. Storrs Hall March 2, 2009 at 8:15 am - Reply

    Dexter, anons: Name-calling is uncalled-for (apologies to Dexter) and if it continues we will be forced to create and enforce a formal policy. Hope that won’t be necessary.

    I want to create a climate of INTELLECTUAL debate here where our ideas as well as others’ can be subjected to insightful criticism. This will not happen if anyone with a contrasting opinion is flamed off the stage.


  16. […] There’s a post at The Futurist entitled Nanotechnology : Bubble, Bust, ….Boom? which echoes an earlier posting here: I believe that nanotechnology underwent a similar bubble, peaking in early 2005, and has been in a bust for the next four years. […]

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