Monday, June 25, 2007

On-Line Interview with CNS Researcher

Check out this interesting on-line chat with Cyrus Mody, a historian at Rice University who is part of CNS's Working Group 1 ("Historical Context of Nanotechnologies"). Mody has written extensively about the history of nanotech, especially the development of nano-tools like the scanning tunneling microscope.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Spintech Meeting Notes

I've just returned from the Spintech IV meeting in lovely Maui. I gave a short overview of the history of spintronics there. The focus of my talk asked "what are historically interesting questions about spintronics?" To this, I answered myself by citing four: What are the historical roots of spintronics? What sources of patronage have helped spintronics grow? How was spintronics used to help create political support for the NNI? And, last, how does the history of spintronics fit into the overall history of the microelectronics industry and Silicon Valley?

A few things caught my attention. One was the seeming hostility of the scientists there - mostly physicists - toward nanotechnology. I asked the group of about 200 people (students as well as senior faculty) how many considered the work they are doing to be "nanotechnology." Only a few raised their hands and these folks were mostly students. One senior researcher from UCLA even made a point of coming up to me after my talk and telling me that nano was a "hoax" which had been "hijacked" by other disciplines, especially chemistry. Another person felt obliged to comment - which simply echoed a point that I had made throughout my talk (weren't you listening??) - on the idea that much about nano wasn't new and that it was largely a re-branding phenomenon. spintronics nanotechnology?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Where's My Flying Car Part 22

I read through the "D: All Things Digital" conversation between Bill Gates and Steve Jobs excerpted in the Wall Street Journal, and watched much of the videocast available on iTunes's front page at the moment. This was no "battle of the bands" - they agreed on everything.

The reminiscences mostly revealed the power of the first movers: Jobs pointed out about the truest thing you can say about Microsoft: "Bill built the first software company in the industry before anybody really knew what a software company was."

I was bugged by the vision moment, where Walt Mossberg, the WSJ's tech columnist, asked Gates what he things his "principal device" will be in five years.
I don't think you'll have one device. I think you'll have a full-screen device that you can carry around, and you'll do dramatically more reading off of that.... I believe in the tablet form factor. I think you'll have voice. I think you'll have ink. You'll have some way of having a hardware keyboard and some settings for that. .... You'll have your living room, which is your 10-foot experience, and that's connected up to the Internet, and there you'll have gaming and entertainment, and there's a lot of experimentation in terms of what content looks like in that world. And then in your den, you'll have something a lot like you have at your desk at work. You know, the view is that every horizontal and vertical surface will have a projector so you can put information [on it]. Your desk can be a surface [where] you can sit and manipulate things.
A tablet with a voice? Actual ink? And a 10 foot screen in my living room? I could barely stay awake to the end of the paragraph. We've gone from flying cars and moon shots to a life of PDAs and Orwell-sized living-room screens.

These kinds of comments raise not only the issue of Gates's personal lack of imagination, but the cultural question of the extent to which information technology has been shaped by white kids from the 50s suburbs who liked carrying electronic junk in their pants. And who spent a lot of time in their rooms, and worked all the time. Maybe IT exists to preserve the father- knows-best tethering of home to office. (For a good memoir about the suburban culture of high-tech, see David Beers' book on growing up in early Silicon Valley.) Maybe IT has helped us stay stuck in a vanishing world rather than build ones.

What will help nano is offering some horizons beyond those of the boomer moguls of IT.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Good News from Philly

I'm happy to announce that Mary Ingram-Waters, one of CNS's Graduate fellows, won a prize today at a conference organized by the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Wharton School. Her award-winning poster showcased research underway at CNS on the intersection of groups advocating technologies such as nano, space exploration, and even cryonics during the 1970s and 1980s.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Patent Reform Reaches the Senate

Today's Wall Street Journal published one of the better overviews of the current battle over proposed patent reforms. One of the major changes would be a shift from the "first-to-invent" basis for a successful patent application to "first-to-file." One of my jobs is to chair the University of California Senate's Committee on Planning and Budget, and we reviewed the proposed reform quite negatively. The concern was that first-to-file - though the rule everywhere outside the US - would favor big companies with big money, junk patenting, and opportunists over serious researchers. IP scholars that I respect, like Mark Lemley, don't agree, but it has seemed to UC's Office of the General Counsel and most faculty like the inventors will get screwed by the filers.

The context for this legislation is recent Supreme Court decision that some have called the most important patent case since the 1952 Patent Act - KSR. v. Teleflex decision decided by the Supreme Court April 30th. Among other things, the decision, written by Justice Kennedy, would make it harder to patent incremental improvements, and would try to reserve patents for greater forms of originality. For an overview see Linda Greenhouse's good piece. She pulls out Kennedy's interesting coinage, "ordinary innovation," which is something that does not deserve a patent. Some worry that all sorts of patents could be challenged on this basis. Greg Aharanonian, editor of PatNews, rails,
The KSR decision is semantic nonsense, introducing yet more undefined terms (e.g., “real innovation”, “extraordinary”, etc.) to a statute that is constitutionally meaningless given the lack of definition for its key term, “obvious”. What’s a “real innovation” - one that occurs in a flash to a genius? That’s right, the Supreme Court has mastered general relativity and built a legal time machine to send all of us back to the pre-1952s!!!!"
The IP world is confusing and stressful right now - that's one thing thing we know for sure.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Nano Patents

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that Harvard University was preparing to license more than 50 of its nanotech patents to a company called Nano-Terra. It could, the article said, transform the small company into the "one of nanotechnology's most closely watched start-ups." The patents largely cover the work by Harvard chemist and nano-advocate George Whitesides and his students. Nano-Terra is apparently not offering any actual products, just manufacturing and design information.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Sending Biotech to China: Nano to Follow?

In some meetings in April, Tom Kalil, the chair of our Center's National Advisory Board, raised a policy issue that is on my mind all the time. He said that an issue that causes policymakers to lose sleep at night is where the next wave of middle-class jobs is going to come from.

In our context, will the commercialization of nanotechnologies support lots of well-paid knowledge workers? Will future nano-related revenues pay for good skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs of the kind that not only make companies function well but that helped create the American middle-class?

An article in today's Los Angeles Times is one of a growing series of reports that brainwork is following manufacturing jobs to countries with lower wage costs - in this case, China. The example is a San Diego biotech firm called Ascenta, which is following the now widely-discussed strategy of "creating a new breed of biotech start-up that marries U.S. and Chinese scientific talent with China's cheap labor and resources." The key detail here is that China appears in both terms of the low-cost equation - not only as cheap labor but as high-tech labor as well.

Business and educational leaders try to interpret these moves through the "work of nations" paradigm, which was the title of a 1991 book by the man soon to become Clinton's Secretary of Labor, Harvard professor Robert B. Reich. Reich updated Ricardo's classical idea of "comparative advantage" in international trade, in which countries should make only what they have a special advantage in making and get everything else through trade. If Brazil has lower labor costs than Germany, then Germany should design Volkswagens in Wolfsburg, Germany, with Germany's unique engineering expertise, and manufacture the cars in Brazil, with that country's cheaper labor. Germany and the world get brilliantly designed and yet cheaper Volkswagens, and Brazil gets new manufacturing income, which it can use to build new schools to train its own engineers. Ricardo's idea was that through free trade of goods made with careful calculation of each country's comparative advantage, everybody is better off.

Reich's wrinkle was to assert that brainworkers, or "symbolic analysts" - people who manipulated information for a living like medical researchers and architects - would thrive by creating high value that would support their high wages. Even if blue-collar workers were screwed - as they clearly were by the early 1990s - they could recover by becoming white-collar workers, or by making sure their kids became white-collar workers. The high-end brain workers, in Reich's model, would be just fine. And the whole country would be just fine by steadily increasing the brainworker share of its population.

That is the theory. But the theory has three major problems.

One is that the demand for brainworkers is limited - the U.S. won't soon need 17,800,500 patent attorneys, thanks be to Baal.

Second, training brainworkers is expensive, and the U.S. has not shown itself interested in the public outlays that are required to make brainworkers in large numbers. We spend a lot of money training a fairly small elite - on a per capita basis it's not as small as France's or Germany's but is in the ballpark - but over the past three decades have steadily cut the share of national income that goes into mass higher education.

Third, poor countries produce brainworkers that are pound for pound as good as ours. We have been renting them for years - from Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Turkey, etc etc. - but now more are staying put or going back. Now U.S. companies are sending work to them offshore, where labor and resource costs are indeed lower.

Reich and the Clinton Dems have wanted to reconcile Ricardian "free trade" with increasing wages. But fifteen years later, it's still not clear how this can work, since brainwork can be outsourced and cheapened too. It's also not clear how nanotechnologies would change that equation.

Intellectual property and professional protections do work to some extent - American doctors make vastly more money than their Indian counterparts because the latter can't dispense direct advice in the U.S. without passing American medical boards. But these sanctioned monopolies don't fit easily with the free-trade "work of nations" paradigm.

Nanotechnologies thus are going to require a rethinking of a range of scientific and social policies.

The picture is of IBM's China Research Laboratory, in operation since 1995.