A well informed member of the public
March 17, 2002
We've heard plenty about the potential of nanotechnology from scientists, engineers, capitalists and entrepreneuers, but what does the unbiased public want and expect from nanotechnology? Rocky Rawstern is the Webmaster and Editor of www.nanotech-now.com (Nanotechnology Now), the best site on the net for accessible nanotech information and ideas. Inbetween answering Rocky's Future Sciences Interview questions, I had the opportunity to hear Rocky's perspective on public expectations, media spin and 'the singularity':
Steve: What kinds of nanotechnology are in existance today, and where do you see the most potential for growth?
Rocky: To start, you must realize that I am not a scientist, and have no formal training. A charitable description might be "a well informed member of the public". With that said, what we are seeing the most of today are things like nanoclays, more and smaller MEMS devices, sensors, nanoparticle probes [nanoprobes], DNA detection systems, optical switches, water repellant surface coatings, rudimentary molecular circuits (moletronics) - all of which seem to be the natural consequence of existing technologies just extending their capabilities a bit. What we are not seeing is true Drexlerian mechanosynthesis, which still seems to be years off, and may be temporarily supplanted by self assembling chemical-based synthesis.
As to growth potential, it seems as though nanotubes will play a large roll soon [when production scales up enough to bring prices down via economies of scale], possibly even in nanoscale computers. And given their strength to weight ratio, I think we will see nanotubes being used in every application where that matters, such as cars, spacecraft, homes, and launch vehicles. There is talk about silicon nanoparticles enabling microscopic lasers, an important step toward laser-on-a-chip, which could some day replace wires with optical interconnects; using metal 'nanoclusters' to build ultra-high-density magnetic recording media; nanocrystal particles, which could be used for fuel cells, batteries, thermal coatings and chemical catalysts; another type of miniature fuel cell technology, which would incorporate a thin film fuel cell and microfluidic fuel processing components; and further down the road I see a huge potential for medical nanobots, and dendrimer technology that could revolutionize medical treatment and diagnostics.
Steve: Very interesting! It seems that well-specialized scientists are often asked these kinds of questions, while its the well-informed public that determines the demand and thus which technologies are commercialized from the science first. Have you noticed any contrast between what the scientists predict and what the general public expects?
Rocky: Absolutely! JQP is hit every which way by HEADLINES and hype: "nanotechnology will let us live forever, never doing any labor, and looking and feeling 20, while increasing our IQ's to 2000, letting us live in a completely virtual reality, and making our every dream/wish come true, instantly and without cost, by next year....". On the other hand, the academic, scientific, and business communities cannot afford to be taken in by the hype, which is why the best of them either hire experts, or grow them in house.
Traditionally, the public determines which technologies are successful by yanking out their wallets. Can you say "market economy". This factor should continue to hold true at least until we hit the singularity. Makes you take a hard look at the changes possible when manufacturing costs are reduced to practically zero, and manufacturing in itself requires little or no human labor or oversight.
Steve: Whats with "The Singularity"? It sort of reminds me of the "return of Christ" often hyped by evangelistic Christians. How is it defined exactly, when is it supposed to happen and how does public opinion differ regarding how (or if) it will go down?
Rocky: While the answer will differ depending on who is giving it, in a nutshell the singularity is the time at which technology seriously changes the very structure of our daily lives, beyond which we cannot predict the changes. As to public opinion, I very much doubt that 999 out of any 1000 random people would have a clue. When? Again, depending on who you ask, sometime this century, probably not before 2005, and probably not after 2030. I like to think of it this way: it is the time beyond which even our best and brightest cannot even guess how technology will change the way we live.
Here are some good reads:
Steve: I'm looking into the links, for now - here is a stalling question: Do you believe in God?
Rocky: After a lifetime of studying and pondering, what I believe is that the "fire and brimstone" Christian god is not one I would care to be connected to. Instead, I choose to put my faith in a being that may have started the ball rolling, and who has possibly dabbled a bit here and there, but who in general leaves his/her/its creations to fend for themselves. I would not be surprised to learn that we are a) a lab experiment, or b) a simulation, or c) something completely beyond our current comprehension. What I would be surprised [make that exceptionally surprised and dissapointed] to learn is that there exists a being (or beings) who have the power to create the Universe, and yet have the need for worship, and are capricious [as would seem to be the case of the traditional Christian god]. Let us say that I am an agnostic, with hopes of finding an compassionate overmind. And I always keep an open mind.
Steve: Hey, that staller didn't stall you for long! I got a chance to start reading the interview with the singularity dude - and I've been in the process of formulating a similar thoughts relating to nanotechnology - I'd like to put an article together "ab initio aliens' resulting from my conclusion that self-replicating nanotech would be a synthetic life form. I'll be arguing that it will never happen the way Drexler predicted. What do you think - could design and build a new life form, ex nihilo, or will biotech reverse engineer and interface the biomolecular nanotech first?
Rocky: Wow, I'd say either way, depending on the luck of the research. So many factors.... And so many outstanding minds. And of course, Zyvex could get the assembler up and running, before the others. I have learned never again to doubt the power of concerted efforts and the inevitable enabling technologies that arise..... and the springboard effect of one technology on another.