[extropy-chat] NNI Workshop & Conference writeup

Adrian Tymes wingcat at pacbell.net
Thu Apr 8 03:18:32 UTC 2004

Last week, I attended the National Nanotechnology
Initiative's Workshop and Conference in Washington,
DC.  I figured a writeup of (or rant about, or stream
of conciousness babbling related to) the attitudes and
goings-on might be of interest to some on this list,
as they appear to be the US government's main
coordinating arm for nanotech efforts throughout all
its branches.

First, their public timetable for when things are
likely to come up.  They define four generations:
* Generation 1 (start ~2001): passive nanostructures.
  Basically just bulk materials, engineered with a
  knowledge of their properties at the nanoscale.
* Generation 2 (start ~2005): active nanostructures.
  Nano-MEMS and similar powered systems.
* Generation 3 (start ~2010): 3-D nanosystems,
  including heterogeneous (multiple materials)
* Generation 4 (start ~2015): heterogeneous molecular
  nanosystems.  They take great pains to avoid using
  the "D-word" (Drexler), but the detailed
  description certainly seems to cover structures with
  similar capabilities.  (And isn't it a coincidence
  that this is about 10 years away, the length of time
  some people have been predicting a
  focused-on-molecular-nanosystems-only approach would
  take to reach this level?)  Of course, this is far
  from the only thing that would be researched.

Which leads to a new meme I stumbled across: the
debate over whether or not molecular self-replicating
systems could work may be irrelevant.  This offers
something for both sides: yes, they could be
manufactured, but if there are better ways to do the
things they offer then it's not worthwhile spending
resources concentrating on them.  For example: a
highly automated lithography machine, with robot arms
for assembly and materials handling, may be able to
recreate its own circuit boards, motors, housing, and
so forth from raw materials (silicon wafers, sheet
metal, et cetera) and put them together into a
duplicate of itself, all without dipping that far (if
at all) into the nano-realm (to say nothing of doing
things atom by atom).  If it could do so at, say, 1
copy a day vs. a molecular assembler's 1 copy a month
(or worse: the molecular assembler treats each atom as
a distinct operation, so many that even after
accounting for its smaller size, it might still have
to be really really fast to self-replicate at the same
rate), then of what use is that molecular assembler?
More importantly, lithography and robotics can be
done, and thus in theory a completely self-replicating
tool created, today.  (The question is, could it be
build on a budget that could be assembled today?  The
future exponential payoff is completely irrelevant
except as a motivator here, and yet this is probably
the main hurdle to overcome.)

There were three main groups among the audience:
academia, industry, and potential users (mainly
government, for obvious reasons).  Much thanks to
Mr. Bradbury for providing the inspiration for a story
that put me squarely in the second group, especially
since that's the one the other two are most interested
in assisting.  (For example: user facilities available
for corporate R&D, available for free, dropping the
materials and machining costs of R&D to zero and
cutting out much of the labor costs.  I'd call that
active assistance.)  Large industry is by and large
looking to small businesses to do said R&D; the small
businesses in this industry are, in turn, largely
operating in what another attendee called "survival
mode" funding, leaving out such niceties as being able
to train people on the job.  (Which, as the owner of
the now-official nanotech consulting business Winged
Cat Solutions and having had to fund myself through
retraining, I can definitely empathize with.)

Which leads to an amusing bit at the end of the last
panel of the last day.  The conference chair and two
others were decrying how difficult it was to get
people into nanotech.  They talked about boosting
university funding, and even proposed educating sixth
graders in the specifics.  (Appropriateness and
effectiveness of vocational training at such an age -
for everyone, at least, as opposed to the small
percent who might actually get some use out of it -
aside, there's the small matter of technology changing
in the six more years it'd take for them to get out of
high school and into the workforce even if they don't
go to college.  Imagine learning about slide rules in
sixth grade, then ten years later - six grades plus
four years in college - finding prospective employers
relying extensively on computers and calculators
instead.)  In the Q&A session afterwards, myself,
someone from the State Department, and a third person
(I think from the Forest Service) took turns bashing
them back and forth about virtually ignoring adult
education: there are a bunch of unemployed,
technically literate adults today (former IT workers),
who could be retrained and set to work in months,
which is about the timescale industry wants new
workers in.

Another split was between "wet" nanotechnology and
"dry" nanotechnology.  (Reading a sci-fi work that
has terms to deal with issues you're about to
encounter: good thing.  Having the director of the
White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy
then use "your" new words in his keynote address: oh,
yeah! ^_^  Granted, they were somewhat obvious terms,
but they seemed new to the people I bounced them off
of before said address.)  In the opinion of many of
the other industry types I talked to, "wet" nanotech
(like protein growth) has most of the hype while "dry"
nanotech (like lithography) has most of the working
products.  I had trouble paying attention to some of
the first day's panels because I was battling a severe
case of jet lag; those I mentioned it to thought it
was because said panels were dealing with wet
nanotech, and claimed the same problem.

For the Smalley-bashers out there: from what I'm told,
he can't be bothered to update his speeches.  His talk
was a good one, about limited energy resources and how
alternate energy sources (like solar) are going to
have to be massively deployed if we are to avoid
spiking energy prices in a few decades, but it's the
same one he gave last year.  (As some of you know, I'm
working on a potential new energy source; some of my
funding comes from people interested in that which I
have to develop in order to make it work.  But I'm not
betting much on the source itself until and unless I
can make a working prototype; I may have simply
misunderstood the theory it's based on.)

For the NASA-bashers out there: the second to last
overhead in NASA's presentation was a graph, with the
horizontal axis labelled thusly:

1 A   1 nm  10 nm  micron   mm   yards

I'm not sure how many people caught this, but the
folks from NIST sure did - even if they held their
chuckles on it for private.

There was, of course, some talk about "responsible"
development of nanotech - but when you get down to it,
it's currently mainly a call for further study and no
prevention of research in the mean time.  The only
solid evidence was decried: toxicology of buckyballs
that even the report's own author said was probably no
threat to people.  (I'm paraphrasing here, of course.)
Basically, she found that when buckyballs get injected
into fish throats enough to start blocking said
passage, the fish suffer, but it got reported as,
sarcastic comment here; a good portion of the audience
was probably thinking of one or more at this point.)

One thing that struck me was just how low the "expert"
level of knowledge is.  Yes, there are people who have
been doing this for years, but not many.  I've been
following this field for years, but only seriously
studying it for a few months, and already I knew about
as much as most of those present.  Some of the things
I would think obvious - like the process flow I
described on this list last week - had not yet
occurred even to the most seasoned folk I talked with.
(Potential business opportunity?  Maybe.)

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