Friday, September 28, 2007

New Voices

This quarter, I'm teaching a course for graduate students at UCSB called "Studying Emerging (Nano)Technologies. I've encouraged students from the class to post occasional postings on the CNS our first class, we dealt with issues like "what is technology?" and "what characteristics do emerging technologies have?" So maybe these sorts of questions will expand the range of discussion here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More Nano-chips...

Yesterday, Intel gave the first public demonstration of new chip technology. Based on 45 nm architecture, the new chips presage the next generation of chips with 32 nm features, due out in 2009. As one Intel rep said, "Smaller is better, smaller is cheaper."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Private Enterprise Leads the Way to Clean Water

Here's one current nano-enabled invention that could do the world a lot of good: a water-purifier with a filtration system capable of screening out particles as small as 15 nm - small enough to filter out viruses.

I find it fairly interesting that the Lifesaver's website features a soldier. I have nothing against soldiers getting their clean water. But I hope that these water filter systems also find their way to others who desperately need clean drinking water.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Architecture of Nano-Memory

The Business Section of today's New York Times has a lengthy feature article by John Markoff on research being done to increase data storage technology. It focuses on the work of Stuart Parkin, an IBM researcher I tried (unsuccessfully) to interview for my research on the history of spintronics. So it's an interesting article anyway.

Two points stand out - first, this article was in the Business section, not the Science Times. Of course, the Science Times is increasingly the "Medical Times."

Second, nanotechnology or nanoscale engineering itself appears only in very stealthy form, in discussion about nanoscale wires and nanosecond access time. This on a day when I received two posts from a DC-based non-profit about nano in cosmetics and sunscreens. So, what does it mean when nano in consumer products that actually matter (i.e. they are a significant part of the economy and are used, whether we like it or not, in daily lives...when I last checked, no one was forcing me to slather nano-sunscreen on my nano-pants) isn't referenced as nanotechnology anymore?

Need for Nanoethics??

The Summer 2007 issue of The New Atlantis has a lengthy letter written by Cyrus Mody, Jody Roberts, and myself. It responds to Adam Keiper's piece on the (lack of a) need for nano-ethics. The letter itself isn't available on TNA web site so I am appending it here. My apologies for the excessive length of this posting...and kudos to Cyrus and Jody for really doing the heavy lifting in writing this erudite reply.

Letter to the editor of The New Atlantis in response to Adam Keiper’s Nanoethics as a Discipline?

As historians of nanotechnology (incongruous as that sounds), we read with great interest Adam Keiper’s recent article “Nanoethics as a Discipline?” Keiper’s article raises some excellent correctives to sloppy or hasty thinking that has characterized some work thus far on the social, cultural, economic, and ethical dimensions of nanotechnology. We suggest, however, that Keiper comes perilously close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We by no means speak for all people in this field, but we have been associated, for the past three+ years, with organizations that have been heavily involved in bringing social science and humanities perspectives to the nanotech policy debate. Through our involvement in that debate we have seen that there is both demand for and, increasingly, a supply of, high-quality research on nanotechnology’s complex relationship to our wider culture.

Let’s start by asking what discipline (or “discipline?” as Keiper might put it) is in question here. Keiper begins and ends his article by discussing “nanoethics,” but the bulk of the piece is more concerned with an interdisciplinary farrago of sociologists, historians, anthropologists, political scientists, rhetoricians, philosophers, comp. lit. scholars, economists, management researchers, science and technology studies scholars, etc. This potpourri, as Keiper notes, goes by a number of different names, but we would call it “social studies of nanotechnology” or “nano studies” – that is, a field similar in make-up and intention to mature research areas like “Russian studies” or “American studies.”

We definitely would not limit this field to questions of ethics, on the model (which Keiper upholds) of bioethics. This is not because, as Keiper suggests, practitioners of this field are uninterested in the “deeper questions” of “great social goods.” Rather, we advocate this broad-based, interdisciplinary approach precisely to get at the deeper questions Keiper refers to. His article states that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to have any discussion, let alone serious ethical reflection, if there is not some basic agreement about the facts at issue.” While Keiper suggests that the only facts that matter here are “purely” technical ones revolving around which nanotechnologies are or are not achievable, we suggest that the posing of more penetrating inquiries is impossible if it is uninformed by empirical data contributed by a broad array of social scientists and humanities scholars.

Keiper lists four areas that concern nanoethicists: safety; social justice; dramatic social change; and transhumanism. We have no quibble with research in these four areas, and we wholeheartedly agree with Keiper that such research needs to be more mindful of what mainstream scientists and engineers agree is technically achievable. However, we also believe there are several other necessary areas of scholarly inquiry that Keiper neglects.

Consider this example: A great deal of the National Nanotechnology Initiative’s (NNI) efforts are currently directed to reshaping the nature of the American science education system from kindergarten to Ph.D. One explicit goal of the NNI has been to establish institutions (such as university-based Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers) that will undo the quilt of disciplines present in most American universities and replace it with an almost completely unified, interdisciplinary mass. This means not just breaking down the barriers holding apart physicists, chemists, electrical engineers, and biologists, but even integrating those fields as fully as possible with sociology, economics, legal studies, etc.[1] At the same time, the NNI clearly aims to integrate universities in novel ways with more and more of the institutions of American society. These include business (through a plethora of Small Business Innovation Research grants and other incentives for professorial start-ups) and the K-12 education system (through public “Nano Days” for schoolchildren, through grade school classes taught by graduate students in various nano disciplines, and by encouraging high school science teachers to work in university nano labs over the summer).

Why should these activities be a concern for nanoethicists? Many of the most rancorous, divisive questions in American life are concerned with the training of future generations. School districts or university administrators across the country must continually deal with ideological tug-of-war that break out over new movements in pedagogy: in language training (phonics, ebonics, and language-of-instruction issues for immigrants’ children); in mathematics (student-centered learning); in history and social studies (how much revisionism is a good thing?); in literature; and in science (creationism and intelligent design).

Nanotechnology – whatever it turns out to be – will clearly both push and be dragged along with these national debates about pedagogy. Here, we think, is a prime example of a “deeper question” that many people value where nanotechnology offers both a distinct and broad case for exploring the ethics involved. We think there may, in fact, be ethical questions at stake if future generations learn that there is no use to distinguishing chemistry from physics from mechanical engineering and that these all are just nanotechnology. We think there are even more urgent and important ethical matters at stake if today’s students are trained to think of schools and universities as completely porous to industry or operating like any other for-profit business.

As individuals we may or may not agree with these changes. As historians[2], though, we strongly believe we and other nano studies practitioners can contribute empirical findings that should color ethical discussion of these shifts. Do enrollments in science go up as a result of nano-outreach? How does nano’s influence on the academy affect retention of women and minorities in science and engineering? How do graduate students and postdocs participate in the value chain extending from their professors’ labs to various companies? These are questions that need to be asked, and they are questions that historians, sociologists, economists, and other scholars can offer insights on.

Given, then, our commitment to a field of nano studies that is engaged with the “deeper questions,” we take some exception to Keiper’s characterizations of the field. First, we find very odd Keiper’s dismissive comparison (in his second paragraph) of nanoethics and bioethics. Bioethics, he claims, followed in the wake of biomedicine; nanoethics, prematurely, comes into being at the same time as nanotechnology. There are, we think, excellent reasons to be suspicions of comparisons between nano studies and bioethics, but this isn’t one of them. The constituent disciplines and industries of nanotechnology have been around for a very long time, as have many of the ethical issues today associated with nano.

Take, for instance, the microelectronics industry (one of our areas of research). The features of most commercial transistors are or very soon will be small enough that this entire industry will have to be categorized as part of nanotechnology. This is an industry that has been around for well over half a century, has spun off a very large proportion of the sub-fields and tools of academic nanotechnology, and contributes more than any other industry to US gross domestic product. It’s also an industry that pioneered out-sourcing and off-shoring, that was among the first to embrace the new business models of venture capital and the IPO, and is responsible for 29 (!) Superfund sites in Santa Clara county alone. Clearly, then, an industry where societal values and “deeper questions” point in lots of different directions, and where the ethical issues are particularly vexed. And yet, in those fifty years, no cohort of professional ethicists has stepped in to address and examine the material and cultural consequences, wonderful and not-so-great, of this giant industry. It is our urgent hope, then, that we can fold these broader existing issues into the purview of nano studies.

Keiper has a further litany of complaints about nano studies. It is, he says, the kind of field where every NGO and “liberal environmental group” has to pile in to have its say, whether they know anything or not. True, there are a lot of competing voices, some of them quite over-the-top – which can, we agree, be frustrating. On the other hand, we’d far rather that nano studies be the kind of field that keeps asking who the relevant constituencies are, rather than waiting fifty years to discover that our analysis is meaningless because we forgot to include some crucial perspectives.

Similarly, he complains that there is an endless succession of conferences and journals on societal issues in nano. We agree; in fact, one of us (Mody) recently organized just such a conference at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Here, several of the panelists expressed deep frustrations at the proliferation of such events. Yet we note that another panelist (Barbara Karn of the EPA) then asked the audience how many of them had never been to such an event before and felt their questions about nano had yet to be addressed – close to two-thirds (i.e. about 80 people) raised their hands. Too many conferences may just be something everyone involved in nanotechnology may have to endure for a while.

Keiper also protests that social scientists involved in nano use too much jargon, that they will probably just use government funding to test their own theories, and only talk to each other. True, these are real dangers – in any field. We can’t see any difference here between the natural sciences and the social sciences. The number of physicists and chemists using “nano” money just to test their own theories will always be orders of magnitude greater than the number of insular nano social scientists.

And, of course, every field uses jargon – though we are continually amazed by what, exactly, counts as jargon. At the same CHF conference one prominent chemist, in the course of a somewhat technical (one might even say jargon-y) talk, stated that she enjoyed working with social scientists but that they use off-putting terms like “social justice”. Social justice! If that constitutes jargon then it is surely (to borrow Morgan Phillips’ description of the British Labour Party) a term that “owes more to Methodism than to Marx” (and more to Martin Luther King than to Max Weber). We all use technical terms as shorthand. One challenge of nanotechnology will be to develop institutions that encourage us to point out each other’s opaque terminology and keep us from simply retreating to test our pet theories.

Keiper quite rightly, however, notices the self-absorbed, navel-gazing quality of much of today’s nano studies. Indeed. Our special pet peeve is the laboratory ethnography that ends up describing nothing other than the decision to allow the ethnographer to enter the laboratory. And yet, nano studies is trying to do something new and experimental. In any experiment, it pays to focus attention on your methods, to try and get the right process in place. Though Keiper upholds bioethics as a model for nano studies, we feel that bioethics probably could have used a great deal more methods-questioning early in its formation. As the call for papers of a recent conference on the “ethics of bioethics” puts it:

Professional standards guide the conduct of all healthcare professions – except bioethics. All healthcare professions have standards for addressing real or potential conflicts of interest – except bioethics. Critics from within and without the field have recently challenged the ethics and integrity of bioethicists, charging that these self-appointed watchdogs are little more than selfserving lapdogs.

We hope that by thinking carefully thinking about what nano studies is and how it should be done – and accepting that there are probably many different, useful answers to both questions – that we can mitigate such characterizations of our field in the future.

[1] Our thanks to Joe Bordogna, former COO of the National Science Foundation, for discussions on this topic.

[2] Actually, we are two materials scientists and a chemist who have all done both ethnographic and historical research.

Self Assembly is critical for biological systems. Our understanding of how nature works its magic is leading to amazing new discoveries in development of materials and control at the nano-level. This looks like a great lecture which I hope gets repeated at UCSB.

Prof Matthew Tirrell University of California, Santa Barbara College of Engineering

Chemical Processing by Self-Assembly: Let's Take It Seriously
Plenary Lectures at ECCE-6
Danckwerts Lecture 2007: Matthew Tirrell
Presentation time: Wednesday 19, 09:40 to 10:30

Self-assembly is a route to processing of chemical products that relies on information content built into the process precursors. A challenge for engineers is to develop the practical routes to technologically important self-assembly processes. Self-assembly occurs frequently in biology but translating that bio-inspiration to controllable chemical processing presents many interesting problems. The complexity built into self-assembled products is at the level of supermolecular structure. Complexity, in the sense of development of emergent properties of an assembly that cannot readily be envisioned from the constituents, can arise spontaneously during self-assembly and often does, especially in biological systems. We are only beginning to develop sufficiently sophisticated synthetic assemblers to mimic biology in this way. Other routes to self-organization may also be of interest for nanotechnology. Prospects for success and current efforts in biomaterials, porous materials, molecular electronics and other areas will be discussed.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Paying Intellectual Debts

The latest edition of Scientific American Reports is entitled "The Rise of Nanotech." For those unfamiliar with the science and technology behind nano, this offers a good place to start reading. What follows are some comments from me about what is (and isn't) in the this special issue.

First, it bears noting that, since 1991, Scientific American has occasionally had an issue devoted to nanotech. For historical purposes, this present something of a "state of the nation" report on nano. Therefore, they are interesting and useful bellwethers as to what science popularizers think nano is about and how they wish to present the current status of nano-research.

The focus of this current issue is on, to a large degree, electronics. There is practically nothing at all on "faux nano" such as sunscreens, nanopants, and those other forms of quasi-nano which involve nothing more complex than nanosized particles. This is curious as the good deal of the handwringing inside the Beltway is about just this topic and how/who should regulate it.

This report from Sci Amer has articles on: nanofabrication; building nanostructures from proteins; nanofab using DNA; DNA-based computers; electronics using carbon nanotubes; plasmonics (more computers); and nanoelectronics. The final article is about the ubiquity of nano in science-fiction. This is the only place I have been able to find in the 88 page issue where Eric Drexler' s vision of nano is mentioned...and this was in connection to sci-fi. My, how the popularizers have been co-opted...

What I found most disappointing, though, was Michael Roukes' opening essay, in which the shibboleth of Richard Feynman is once again whispered, nay, shouted out. This serves the rhetorical purpose of tying current nano research to the "breadth of Feynman's vision" which Roukes calls "staggering," a product of the late Caltech physicist's "singular intellect." In other words - Ave Never mind that only a very few of today's active nanoscientists and engineers have any recollection at all of being inspired by Feynman. Forget the fact that the last nano-Nobelist, the late Richard Smalley, claimed (at least until 2003) that Engines of Creation was a major influence on him.

So...after more than a decade of real nanoscale research and some $8-10 billion of federal money, scientists and engineers still feel the need to tie their activities to an after-dinner speech Feynman made almost 50 years ago. Let it go, folks. And, for the sake of honesty, admit that a good deal of the initial popular and political interest in nano was stimulated by "visioneers, " people who promoted and popularized what nanotech might be able to do. Even if some of these dreams and thought experiments have not been realized or appear outlandish, own up to the fact that public policy and public imagination are closely linked.

Patent Legislation Passes House

This overview tells most of the story. But the core of this legislation is to shift the US from a "first-to-invent" to a "first-to-file" system (like Europe's). Researchers and universities have generally opposed the change, fearing it would reward fast filers over good inventors (i.e. rich corporations over university lab investigators), and discourage publication and the circulation of information prior to patenting. The battle is far from over.

US moves to reform patent laws

By Patti Waldmeir in Washington

Published: September 7 2007 23:37

Big US technology companies won an important patent reform victory on Friday when the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that would bring sweeping changes to the way America rewards innovation.

The bill, which could significantly shift the balance of power between US patent holders and their rivals, must still pass in the Senate, and its prospects of becoming law remain uncertain. But opponents and proponents alike say on Friday’s vote was a milestone, bringing years of congressional debate over patent reform to a climax.

Supporters of the bill, including companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Google, and many financial services firms, say it will improve patent quality and limit unnecessary litigation and excessive damages.

Jonathan Yarowsky of The Coalition for Patent Fairness, a lobby group of big technology companies, said after the vote: “The current patent system has become bogged down by delays, prolonged disputes and confusing jurisprudence. This comprehensive legislation...will help drive innovation.”

But opposition to the bill is widespread, ranging from pharmaceutical companies to big manufacturers like General Electric, 3M and Johnson & Johnson, small inventors, many venture capitalists, some small technology companies, labour unions and the White House.

The Bush administration said this week it opposed changes to the way patent damages were calculated, which would limit the discretion of judges in awarding damages to compensate patentholders whose patent rights are violated.

The bill would make it harder for inventors to win big damage awards against high technology companies whose products rely on hundreds of different innovations. It would make it more difficult for patentholders to win an award based on the total market value of the product – rather than on the value of one individual patented component.

The White House said: “Making this change to a reasonably well-functioning patent legal system is un warranted and risks reducing the rewards from innovation.” The Coalition for 21st Century Patent Reform, which includes companies like GE and 3M, criticised the bill, saying it “favours infringers over inventors”.

Stephen Maebius, a patent law expert at the law firm Foley & Lardner, said courts had already taken the initiative on patent reform, enacting several major changes, while legislation had been mired in debate. “Judicial developments have rendered portions of this legislation obsolete, because things have been happening so fast in the world of patent infringement case law,” he said.

He predicted a stiff battle to win passage in the Senate, but Emery Simon of the Business Software Alliance, one of the bill’s biggest backers, said on Friday’s vote “puts momentum into (congressional) patent reform”.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Nanoelect News

As reported by CNN and other venues, IBM recently announced two developments pertinent to the nanoelectronics realm. Big Blue's press release detailed work done at both its San Jose and Zurich site. For those of you just tuning in, this work catches my eye because instead of the usual "nano-for-pants-and sunscreen" news, this suggests research that has more far-reaching consumer implications and, IMHO, is far more representative of nanotech rather than what often seems to be vanilla materials science albeit done with tiny tiny passive nanoparticles.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Because images from science fiction really do help...

Italian physics & engineering professor Nicola Pugno generates a lot of discussion (at least in blogosphere) for his scientific work and predictions on carbon nanotubes. Last year, he predicted that carbon nanotubes, even in all of their theorized glory, wouldn't be strong enough for a space elevator cable.

This year, he's more optimistic. No, the space elevator is still a no-go. But he does have high hopes for scaling walls Spiderman-style.

Why does Dr. Pugno catch my eye? His use of science fiction images is not likely to be an accident. When he writes about taking elevators into space or climbing up walls with special adhesive clothing, he invokes strong, myth-like, associations for a range of people- including many who probably don't spend lots of time trolling around peer-reviewed scientific journals.