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Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Using History to Better Understand the Future of Nanotechnology

In yesterday’s Financial Times there was an excellent article by Richard Water called “Why nanotechnology is the next big thing.” I say this not simply because the title of the article closely matches the title of my own book but because I sincerely believe it.

The article discusses Steve Jurvetson’s vision of nanotechnology and in it Jurvetson hits on an important theme. Today’s business leaders, he states, must take seriously “the embarrassing and futuristic.” He is absolutely right. Unfortunately, embracing the future is easier said than done.

In my numerous talks around the country, I have found that one of the most effective ways to get people to embrace “embarrassing and futuristic” scenarios is to simply get them to consider history.

Let me give you just two examples which I believe illustrate this point. The first involves the world’s first computer, ENIAC. When it was built in 1946, at a cost of $400,000, it was a technological marvel. It consisted of over 19,000 vacuum tubes, occupied 1500 square feet and was capable of performing 300 calculations a second. Now imagine going back in time to the year 1946 and telling the scientists and technicians who designed and built ENIAC that in the future we would be able to produce a computer millions of time more powerful than ENIAC and that it would fit on your thumbnail and cost less than a penny. My guess it that they would have laughed you out of the room. But, as all of us know, this is precisely what happened.

Therefore, when experts in the field of nanotechnology tell us that in the not-so-distant future we may be able to grow computers (that is get nanoscopic components to self assemble themselves into a functioning device) which are a million times more powerful than today’s state-of-the-art technology, it doesn’t sound as preposterous--with the benefit of some historical perspective.

Another useful example is that of Lee DeForest. In 1913, DeForest was prosecuted by government officials in the United States because they alleged he was defrauding individual investors. His crime? He was telling people he needed their money to develop a device capable of transmitting the human voice over the Atlantic Ocean. To the vast majority of people of that era, his claim sounded crazy. Of course, just three years later DeForest started RCA and had developed the technology to do exactly that.

The emerging field of nanotechnology portends a radically different future. Companies and individuals are working on solar cells that might be painted on walls, self-healing materials, and clothes that can change colors and properties according to the needs of the individual user. Still others speak of the possibility of building an elevator to space and extending life expectancy 30 or more years.

All these things may sound outrageous but are they any more outlandish than a computer orders of magnitude smaller, faster and cheaper than ENIAC, a device that can transmit the human voice over an ocean or extending life expectancy another 30 years--as we did in the 20th century?

The bottom-line is this: True leaders, as Jurvetson urges, must not simply take seriously such futuristic visions; they must courageously facilitate and embrace these visions. For if they do not, someone else will—and it will be those people who actually create our future.

Related Links:
Nanotech has Arrived
Nanotech and the Future of Energy