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Foresight Update 46

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Inside Foresight

by Tanya Jones

Tanya JonesPublic awareness of molecular machines and the caution with which we must build them is expanding. The number of people involved, the money being spent, and the progress being made in developing nanotechnology is increasing. It's a time of transitions, as always it is. Since on both organizational and individual levels, observation and adaptation are often critical to survival, it's good that we can see nanotechnology coming. With time and attention, we can improve what we know and refine what we wish. In imagining devices that build, repair or remove structures down to the level of individual atoms, we can easily imagine a universe where everything seems possible.

Machines and systems to remake our world will come to exist, but who will control those machines? Is it possible that nanotechnological systems will be available to all, right from the comfort of our homes? Might I someday have tools to build a good meal, a new car, or a home, assuming that I also have the means to assemble the needed mass. Will nanotechnology be something I might control, perhaps with my neighbor, or will it be all government and corporations? The encroaching frontiers of atom power are enough to keep me awake at night.

Scientific steps toward molecular nanotechnology are fairly clear and are being taken. But what nanotechnology is and what it will do are two separate questions. Nanotechnology is not yet a done deal, and some vigorous objections have been voiced. Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley believes it can't be done (see "On Physics, Fundamentals, and Nanorobots"). Bill Joy thinks it shouldn't be done and suggests we relinquish broad sectors of computer science research and nanotechnological development. But these voices have become the minority; and if history may be our guide, if something can be done, it will be done somewhere. A new arms race is already in progress, and little is being done to stop it.

Molecular nanotechnology promises us tools to remake our environment and our selves into virtually anything that is not disallowed by the laws of physics. Our sugar cube supercomputer might carry a record of all personal sensory data plus the Library of Congress module (fully indexed and quickly searchable), all the email we've ever received and any other information that we can stuff in the crevasses. And that's just the early model. Our air could be scrubbed of all hazardous molecules, providing exactly the composition of gases that is best for good health. Solar power could become the fuel of the future, a renewable resource as long as the sun is shining and the air is clear. But you probably already knew that. It is unlikely that such a potentially powerful technology will be relinquished, as the implications resemble those of prohibition. When alcohol consumption was banned, production and consumption went underground or overseas. Are there any reasons why nanotechnology should be any different? If we do not continue research and development in this country, then we can be sure that production will gravitate toward more favorable jurisdictions.

The desire is strong (and still growing) to see nanotechnology work. As the articles in this issue show, money is pouring into nano-scale science and, barring the discovery of something truly unexpected, molecular machine systems are not far away. Academics abound, the government has programs and grants, and the private sector is becoming intrigued. With larger investments still to come, we must accept that the perils of nanotechnology could be just as large as the promise. If we are to protect ourselves from the commensurate risks, it may be safest for all of us if nanotechnology research and development occurs in an open fashion.

Nanotechnology will be whatever we wish it to be. Scientists imagine one future, businessmen another; environmentalists have something in mind as do physicians. Better, faster, stronger, cheaper are areas of agreement for most people (though smarter is still in question), but better for what, and for whom? This is where we still need work.

Our primary mission at Foresight is to help prepare the world for molecular nanotechnology. In the beginning, that meant we needed to propagate the concept and establish the feasibility using established means, i.e. good science. Now that our original mission has been accomplished and nanotechnology is becoming self-sustaining, we can turn our attention to the more difficult questions of who or what should benefit from its deployment and on what capabilities should we focus.

We are not ready to say with conviction that nanotechnology can and will be developed in a secure and accident-free fashion. Now that governments are involved, it seems likely that public policy will be drafted, but as with biotechnology, it will be a struggle to create a regulatory environment that protects both developers and consumers without stifling innovation. We are challenged to create technology that is sufficiently transparent that we can be mostly sure that no harm will come from development and deployment. Unfortunately, we can't really begin to draft serious policies or regulations until we know more about the dangers we are trying to prevent and the promises we are trying to fulfill.

Foresight created the Guidelines for the Safe Development of Molecular Nanotechnology to begin addressing some of the concerns that are already visible, and they are a good start. But they are only a start, and we need more data to move forward. Nanotechnology will be built and deployed by humans primarily to fulfill the needs of other humans. But no two humans are alike. We should remember early and often that innovation does rarely lead to devastation and that deliberate abuse is a concern.

Fortunately, the scientific community is founded on principles of openness. This openness has resulted in a wealth of knowledge being available to anyone willing to search. Until nanotechnology is much closer to commercialization, openness should prevail.

Perhaps the best deterrent to unanticipated consequences is education. Given that most of us are not yet designing nano devices, our best defense may be to continue to watch and to learn; and given that the impact of nanotechnology will be quite broad, we should continue to involve as many people as possible in this adventure so chemists, physicists, physicians and computer scientists can work together with experts from other fields, such as architecture, economics or law, to deploy nanotechnological systems. For now, we must be satisfied with our attempts to expand the science behind nanotechnology and try to encourage ethical systems that will allow us to use molecular machine systems only to create better environments for us all.

Tanya Jones is Foresight's Director of Communications. You can eMail her at tanya@foresight.org


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Other U.S. NT Centers

Purdue will build nanotechnology center

Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, announced on 7 September 2001 it has raised $51 million for the Birck Nanotechnology Center. The center will be named for Michael and Katherine Birck, who contributed $30 million for the new nanotech center.

The center will be the first building in the University's $100 million Discovery Park, a new home for interdisciplinary research, also will include a bioscience/engineering center, an e-enterprises center and a center for entrepreneurship.

"This new nanotechnology facility will position Indiana to become a player in the 'Silicon Valley' of the future," Purdue President Martin C. Jischke said, noting the state's investment was crucial for the project. "We were able to leverage state funding of $5 million to attract another $46 million in private and federal dollars."

Additional information about the new center can be found in this related article. The center will be named for Michael and Katherine Birck, who contributed $30 million for Purdue nanotech center. Additional information about faculty research in nanoscience at Purdue is also available.

UNM, national labs form nanotech alliance

The University of New Mexico and the Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories announced on 7 August 2001 the creation of the New Mexico Nanoscience Alliance (NMNA). The alliance will be open to all New Mexico institutions with interests in nanoscience. Its purpose will be the advancement of nanoscience within New Mexico and it will provide a forum for establishing collaborations among all of the research efforts in the state.

According to New Mexico officials, the budget for the program ultimately would cost up to $80 million for facilities with an operating budget of about $19 million a year.

Additional details on the NMNA and on other nanotech-related activities in New Mexico can be found in a lengthy article ("New Mexico Nanoscience Alliance joins research labs with university", by J. Karoub, 8 August 2001) on the SmallTimes website. According to the article, "State leaders created the consortium as a way to work around a political issue as the U.S. Congress mulls an appropriation bill that would provide money for the creation of a Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies. That center will be run by Sandia and Los Alamos and is scheduled to open in about three years . . . The center is expected to be one of three proposed nanotechnology centers in the nation, which will be open to proposals from government, businesses and industry for nanotechnology research and development."

The bill referred to is one introduced by U.S. Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), a strong advocate of nanoscience research, that would significantly boost funding for nanoscience-related research. Hearings regarding the bill were held by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on 18 July 2001.

According to testimony by Francis Blake, Deputy Secretary of Energy the DoE has not yet taken any formal position on the legislation, which would require the Secretary of Energy to support an R&D program in nanoscience and nanoengineering, and to establish similarly focused research centers, at authorizations totaling $1.36 billion over 5 years.

Study lists nanotech as potential growth sector for "Chicagoland"

A report issued by the office of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley examines options to help the Chicago region ("Chicagoland") retain its position as a leading economic center in the United States. The Mayor's Council of Technology Advisors engaged a consulting firm to help develop an economic growth strategy for Chicagoland; the report identifies nanotechnology as a potential growth option, and notes local strengths that would allow the region to develop a leading role in the nanotechnology sector. The report ("A New Economy Growth Strategy for Chicagoland") is available online as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file (about 2.2 MB).


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World Watch

Canada will establish nanotech research center in Alberta

The national government of Canada and government of the province of Alberta announced on 17 August 2001 the creation of the National Institute for Nanotechnology which will be located at the University of Alberta in the provincial capital of Edmonton.

The C$120 million state-of-the-art institute will be jointly funded by the Government of Canada, through the National Research Council (NRC), and Alberta with each contributing $60 million over five years. The Federal Government is committed to this project as a key part of its National Research Council system on an ongoing basis.

"Promoting innovation, research and development is a cornerstone of our government's agenda," said Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. "With the creation of this institute, Canada will be poised to play a leading role in this exciting new technology - widely considered to rival the impact of the 19th century industrial revolution. This joint investment is another great example of what can be accomplished through our Team Canada approach to making Canada a leader in the new knowledge-based economy."

"I look forward to this institute becoming famous for breakthroughs that will help the patient at the bedside, the country's energy sector, and its computer technology research," added Alberta Premier Ralph Klein. "It will also provide unique opportunities for students and researchers at the University of Alberta and from across Canada."

"The University of Alberta's existing strengths in nanotechnology, engineering, medicine and computing science will support the National Institute for Nanotechnology's aim of being internationally competitive with the nanotechnology clusters being created in the United States, Europe and Asia," said University of Alberta President Dr. Rod Fraser. "Our target is to be among the top five nanotechnology initiatives in the world."

The National Institute for Nanotechnology will employ about 200 people, and house state-of-the-art equipment and research programs. The National Research Council, in collaboration with the University of Alberta, will operate the facility.

National and political motivations played a large role in the decision to establish the center in Alberta, which does not currently have a NRC facility. However, the University of Alberta is a good choice: UA already has made nanotechnology research a priority, and has 60 faculty members with expertise in the area -- more than any other Canadian university.

Press coverage of the announcement of the NRC facility at the University of Alberta appeared in:

Additional background on nanotech research at the U of Alberta can be found in these items from the UA alumni magazine (Summer 2001 issue), and the university press office in April 2001 and May 2001.

Taiwan announces five year nanoscience program

According to a report in the Taipei Times of Taiwan on 18 July 2001, the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) is preparing for the establishment of a nanotechnology center that is intended to help foster Taiwan's next-generation of high technology development.

According to the report, ITRI chairman Weng Cheng-yi said ITRI is planning to establish the Center for Applied Nanotechnology Institutes (CANTI) in January 2002, with an investment of NT$10 billion (US$286 million) in the first five years.

Because the research and development of nanotechnology involves the integration of related technologies, the ITRI effort will include R&D in five major areas — establishing five satellite nano sub-projects to deal with nano materials, nano electronics, nano opti-electronics, nano chemicals and nano biotechnology, respectively, the report said.

A follow-up report in September 2001 says the the Ministry of Economic Affairs has announced it will earmark NT$8 billion (US$231 million) to NT$10 billion (US$286 million) over the next five years to subsidize nanotechnology research and development. At a news conference jointly held by the ministry's Industrial Technology Department (ITD) and the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), ITD Director-General Hwang Jung-chiou said nanotechnology would be the next wave in the global industrial technology revolution.

Based on statements in the reports, it appears the Taiwanese efforts will initially be directed at nanoscale materials and device technologies for enhancing the country's existing expertise in silicon-based microelectronics.

France funds nanotech incubator

According to a report in Tornado-Insider (23 July 2001), funding has been secured for Minatec, the new research and incubation center for microtechnology and nanotechnology startups in Grenoble, France. Minatec operates under the French Commissariat de l'Energie Atomique (CEA) Laboratoire d'électronique, technologie et instrumentation (LETI), based in Grenoble. The financing plan would provide 122 million euros (about U.S. $106 million). About half of the funds will come from nearby regions, towns, councils and departments, with the remainder provided by private institutions and the CEA. According to the report, Minatec aims to build a 60,000-square-meter center for 3,500 entrepreneurs, students, professors and researchers in the field of microelectronics and nanotechnology to work on developing products and launching start-up companies. It is expected to be completed by 2004.

If you read French, you can find more information at the Minatec website.

Tel Aviv University plans nanotech center

Tel Aviv University in Israel announced on 21 August 2001 that it had received a $2 million investment from Clal Industries and Investments and its subsidiary, Clal Biotechnology Industries, for a planned Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Center at the university.

Clal, a Tel Aviv-based investment conglomerate, said it will invest in a group of companies put together by the university to finance the center, which has been estimated to cost $20 million. The university announced plans to build the center earlier this year and has raised half the necessary funds, according to reports.


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From Foresight Update 46, originally published 30 September 2001.



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