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.

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.

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