Friday, February 29, 2008

Performative Nano-Fiction

From the performance artists who brought you "POP! The First Human Male Pregnancy," there's "The Nano Medicine Revolution: NanoDocs ." NanoDocs is a website, set within a larger website of performative biotech art "RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center." At NanoDocs, viewers may play around with the futuristic concept of nanoscale robots that perform medical functions.

NanoDocs was created as both a website and an art installation (2003) by Virgil Wong. Wong's own website is subtitled, "Experiments with Art, Medicine, and Technology."

Both NanoDocs and Wong's websites are interesting to poke around.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Nanobots are Back

The Business section of today's New York Times has an interesting article about IBM researchers who are "trying to put new zip into Moore's Law." Why interesting? Because:

1. Like most nano coverage in the NYT, it's not in the Science section but presented as business...which comports with my view that the NNI is not so much about science policy as it is industrial policy.

2. It points out, yet again, the key place that nanoelectronics has in the overall schema of nanotech.

3. For a historian (me) it's full of lots of references to the bugaboo of technological determinism - "Chips are almost ubiquitous and, where they're not, they probably will be soon."

4. Finally, at the articles end, it quotes a "professor of nanoelectronics" from SUNY-Albany who says that self-assembling nanotechnology (the focus of the article) will create better electronics as well as self-assembled "nanobots that can float in our bloodstreams, searching for cancerous cells that the bots will then eliminate."

Ah, the nanobots. No matter how hard government policy makers, scientists, and engineers try to distance themselves from the futuristic 1980s version of nanotech, it keeps coming back (like parachute pants). The shadow of Eric Drexler continues to loom large over all things nano. In order to understand public reactions, fears, and hopes for nano, this must be acknowledged, understood and, if not believed, then respected.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Energy and Innovation

Pascal Zachary is the New York Times's man in Silicon Valley, and he's done a quick tour of SV companies working on solar. This is not Zachary above, however, but T.J. Rogers, CEO of Cypress Semiconductor and also the head of its new solar company, SunPower Corporation.

Call me shallow, but I would feel less like this were less of a publicity stunt if Rogers weren't dressed like the missing member of a barber-shop quartet.

The article mentions a couple of promising tech areas - thin-film and the more original solar thermal. The technology is incredibly interesting.


The business statements are incredibly boring. I mean "boring" in the clinical sense of the experience that comes from disavowing a painful truth. Boring-but-true statements #1 and #2 are:
  • "Affordable solar development is also still dependent on government subsidies."
  • "so much of our effort is going into short-term victories that I worry our pipeline will go dry in 10 years."
There is nothing explicit at least in SV culture or the "California ideology" of high-tech entrepreneurship that supports the government subsidies - call them public investments - that allow for long-term victories. I juxtapose this to the organizational capacities of Asia and Europe, and I worry about us.

Most U.S. readers don't think this contrast between markets and government reflects reality. At least two generations of sociologists, B-school theorists and journalists have discovered the network, and consider it the crucial third term. High-tech business pulls people and resources from everywhere - government labs, universities, large corporations, start-ups, NGOs, and takes whatever it needs. In the U.S., networks are thought to make government direction obsolete, whether it's called investment, industrial policy, or something else.

A case in point is a good piece by Jason Owen-Smth and Woody Powell in the book Cluster Genesis, whose title starts making the book's core point that both research and development take place in clusters that combine disparate institutional forms and continuously and dynamically evolve. The authors look at "strategic alliance networks" in biotech in Boston and the Bay Area, identify five types of organizations and four kinds of connections among them (R&D, financial, licensing, and commercialization). The core point is that clusters and their geography form the infrastructure of biotech development. Although big firms tried to "cherry-pick" the best people and ideas, and everyone predicted biotech shake-outs and consolidation, this trend "faced significant obstacles imposed by deeply collaborative R&D efforts and a mobile scientific work force." As the sector evolved, "the pattern of dense inter-connection deepened, suggesting that the original motivation of exchanging complementary resources had shifted to a broader focus on mining innovation networks to explore new forms of collaboration and product development."

The network is thus more fundamental than financial markets or government planning, in this view, and in some sense the latter categories don't really make sense since they never operate as such. Owen-Smith and Powell find that Bay Area biotech has relied more on venture capital than Boston-area firms, which had more partnerships with academic and public-sector organizations. And yet although the Bay Area relied more on private capital, and Boston on public science, both regions did quite well, generating successful firms and valuable products.

But there are important differences in the innovation systems too. The "private" Bay Area system produced almost twice as many patents per firm as Boston's public. But another measure (variance in forward citations) is higher in Boston, suggesting that that region may engage in more "'exploratory' innovative research." In other words, the VC-fueled Bay Area folks may patent everything in sight, including incremental improvements as a defensive play.

Another important network indicator is "prior art" citations in patents, or backward citations. The "open" public-science structure of Boston-area biotech made 71 percent of its citations of prior art to non-biotech firms while that number was only 45 percent in the Bay Area. Owen-Smith and Powell interpret this to mean that the more commercially-driven, VC-based Bay Area cluster consisted of firms that were interested in their own research and that of their competitors, and less in research from outside their industry sector. When the authors compared a firm from each area that had developed competing therapies for the same condition (relapsing multiple sclerosis), they found this pattern replicated in the patent citation patterns of the respective firms.

The same pattern appears in a third indicator - product type. The Bay Area cluster produced more therapeutics more quickly - about twice as many. But the Boston cluster focused on treatments for rare diseases covered by "orphan designations" that offered "tax breaks and regulatory assistance to organizations that develop such medicines." There was a difference in strategy in the two cases, and although the authors don't use the term, Boston is closer to the outcomes one would expect of "public science" - addressing a clear need even when markets will offer modest or minimal rewards.

Thus "network" isn't so much a third term as a compound of the other two. Good empirical work redivides it into two familiar tendencies. The first cluster - the Bay Area's - is composed "largely of competitors and investors [who] are primarily concerned with speed and with commercial development, hence they pursue a more focused innovation process that relies heavily on internal R&D and attention to the efforts of direct competitors." On the other hand, there are "firms that are embedded in networks anchored by public research organizations and that lack strong investor involvement" and thus don't only "pursue immediate commercial returns." The latter, Boston model relies on external sources of knowledge and favors "more exploratory efforts at discovery." Governing ties in Bay Area firms tend to be more exclusively financial. Finally, the Bay Area model seems to be suffering some kind of lock-in, as the need for access to early capital sends firms back to the same small group of VC folks - with their same strategies, connections, and goals - again and again and again.

Even scholars dedicated to network theory with excellent data point out the constant danger of market failure and the rarity of a strong foundation of Boston-style public science.


There's also something about the sheer exteriority of this understanding of innovation - big and small companies, capital flows, people from famous corporations who start new ones. What about the invention process?

I happened to read this passage in a London Review of Books piece about a new book on gravitational waves.
Near the end of the 17th century, Edmond Halley examined records of medieval and ancient solar eclipses back to the time of Ptolemy. He discovered that when he used the position and trajectory of the Moon to determine retrospectively when solar eclipses should have occurred, the times calculated differed from the actual ones by up to an hour. Halley deduced that in the past the Moon must have moved across the sky from east to west more slowly than in his own time. This was a far-reaching, even heretical assertion. For the Moon to have changed its motion in such a way would imply that its course through the heavens did not repeat in periodic orbits. Such ‘secular’ changes in its orbit could eventually cause the system itself to disappear, and the Moon to fall into the Earth or escape into space. For many philosophers, to theorise that the cosmos could decay in this way was a slur on the Almighty, as it implied that God was such an unskilled craftsman as to have constructed a system of stars and planets that could fall into ruin and disorder. Nonetheless, Halley was right, as even the fundamentalists were eventually forced to concede. The question now became: what causes the secular acceleration of the Moon?
This passage amazed me. I can't imagine running these complicated hand calculations for days and weeks and maybe months, coming up with a one-hour difference over decades and centuries, and not thinking oh well, I screwed up a line of my math. How do we still find and nurture these people - the ones with the sheer courage, the mind-boggling stubbornness, to decide they are right, everyone else is wrong, there's a one-hour gap, then come up with a new theory, one that would not be bourne out for hundreds of years?

How do we remake a business system with enough space and time to allow this kind of research? How likely is it to happen in California?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why I love Nano

Though I purport to study nanotechnology with a critical scholarly eye, I must admit to (more often than not) being swept up in the nano-hope-hype. It's hard not to be drawn in when researchers like Zhong Lin Wang (materials science, GA Tech) propose nano-enabled clothes that can harness the energy from our normal day-to-day movements (see article brief here).

On this blog and in many other CNS-UCSB venues, we've had many discussions about the science fiction rhetorics associated with nanotechnology. I wonder how many us (the critical scholarly types, of course) find themselves seduced by the science fiction-like potential of nanoscience? And is this a bad thing, really?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Human 2.0

Much of the nano & Society scholarship lacks a decent historical perspective coupled with analysis. Although it's not specifically geared toward nano, Michael Bess' article in the January issue of Technology and Culture provides an interesting historical perspective on the emerging technologies for human enhancement. Noting that how much human enhancement technologies sound like sci-fi, Bess argues that we have not connected the dots to see the total effects of these new technologies. Nonetheless, it is "ourselves who are being refashioned" with what he argues will be the defining technologies of the 21st century.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Tight Grip Can Choke Creativity

Check out New York Times business writer Joe Nocera's overview of copyright issues in relation to Harry Potter. Potter author JK Rowling gets to play the role previously reserved for Mickey Mouse grandmaster Disney, the evil Archemandite of copyright control from the heyday of Lawrence Lessig's crusade against endless copyright extension in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The piece has a strange, dated feeling - has there really been no change in the copyright battle lines for 10 years?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Basic Research at . . . Microsoft!

The New York Times has a piece announcing that Microsoft will open its sixth "basic research" lab in July, this one headed by the mathematician Jennifer Tour Chayes (at left) and placed next door to MIT. Dr. Chayes will apparently "be one of the first women to direct a research lab run by an American corporation."

In the last couple of decades, industy has tended to close or spin-off its basic research labs, to rely on partnerships with academia, and to conduct what Intel calls "directed research" with two important features: 1) it is oriented toward short-term product development and 2) it maximizes its use of other people's research rather than developing everything in-house. Henry Chesbrough has dubbed this system "open innovation," and contrasts it with the in-house lab model. Is Microsoft partially reversing this trend?

The quick answer is no. Microsoft Research has 800 employees with doctorates. Google has 100. In its heyday, Bell Labs had well over a dozen major facilities, the largest of which, at Naperville-Lisle outside Chicago, had 11,000 employees.

Size isn't the only thing that matters. But we do know enough about the innovation process to know that randomness is a central variable - people get amazing data or have great insights at unexpected and unpredictable moments. Size does matter. Not in a linear way, where big = best, but in an unpredictable and yet semi-regular way. Throw in the fact that MSFT and GOOG are two of the wealthiest companies in history, and you are likely looking at an exception to the industry trend of oursourcing research rather than a trend that counters it.

And yet Microsoft Research is a tribute to the economic as well as the strategic value of basic research. As public university budgets are continuously squeezed, universities can afford less basic research. Given the country and the world's desperate research needs, this would be a good time for large companies - even those riding the revenue roller-coaster like Intel - to fund more basic than they are funding now.

P.S. I've avoided blogging on the Microsoft bid for Yahoo! because it makes me, well, sad. I started graduate school the same year that the IBM PC came out - 1981. As an academic I grew up with DOS, and snubbed Apple's graphical interface as kid stuff for almost 15 years. Now Microsoft and Windows are dated and stagnant, and Microsoft's amazing cash reserves (perhaps still as high as $30 billion before this offer) are a triumph of monopoly power over innovation. Joe Nocera at the New York Times sums all this up quite nicely.