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Saturday, April 02, 2005

Insta Dust Bunny

Contrary to the tone of the preceding post, the Foresight Institute has not come up with any real technological breakthrough with regards to nanotechnology. Actually, I find the marketing thrust of the Institute rather comical. Open the door of the techno-clown car, and you find clowns like Glenn (Instapundit) Reynolds come tumbling out of their website. They might actually have a few scientists that show some dedication, but their current defensive posture concerning criticisms by Richard Smalley demonstrate a thin skin.
Nobel Winner Smalley Responds to Drexler's Challenge,
Fails to Defend National Nanotech Policy

Rice University Professor Richard Smalley responds to a longstanding challenge by Foresight Chairman Eric Drexler to defend the controversial direction of U.S. policy in nanotechnology. Their four-part exchange was a cover story for Chemical & Engineering News. This could mark a turning point in the development of the field.
In brief, the resolution of the exchange between Smalley and Drexler has the Foresight Institute parading around Smalley's rather minimal retraction like homies whose team won some cross-town rivalry. Pretty silly really, considering that Smalley still left them with this challenge:
Please tell us about this new chemistry.

With best wishes,

Rick Smalley
Having spent a few years investigating how atoms and molecules rearrange themselves on surfaces of materials, I find much of the Foresight enthusiasm delusional at best. I have learned that tiny particles follow laws of quantum and statistical mechanics that become more constrained and rigid as scales reduce. And as scales reduce, building anything back up to macroscopic utilities becomes even more challenging. The illustration of that proposed molecular manufacturing device could have come from the mind of The New Yorker's ace cartoonist Bruce McCall. McCall has perfected the art of projecting a vision into the future of someone trapped in the last century. Stuff like that simply lures the gullible. In reality, devices that peer into the nanoworld have a rather stunning simplicity. For example, I have heard stories from mid-1980's colleagues who had duplicated the Nobel prize winning Scanning Tunneling Microscope in their basement over the weekend. Much like this. And in contrast to what people have stated on the Foresight archives.

In general, the way to look at nanotechnology, from a rather jaded perspective, is to realize that simple devices may lead to incredible gee-whiz demonstrations, but beyond that you can follow either of two paths: One path leads to continuous marketing and the other path leads to the conventional microelectronics industry (Silicon Valley, et al). The latter group of people understands all too well how to achieve economies of scale and demonstrating how to do anything beyond the one-off prototype. Unlike the Foresighter's, they know chemistry and process. Clean-room engineers in bunny-suits understood nanotech before some marketeer coined the phrase.

So can we put pseudoTechs like Reynolds in their place?

Smalley has a record of raising the ire of technologists. In the context of energy issues, Cypress exec T.J.Rodgers criticized what he considered Smalley's limited ability to articulate a clear-cut energy vision for industry or government to follow. Well, how about this for a vision: Continue to tell it like it is. Take no prisoners. Call them on it. Suffer no fools. As PZ Myers states at Pharyngula:
Slap 'em down. Anyone who tries to tell you that the world is 6000 years old or that evolutionary biology is a failure is an idiot. They don't deserve your patience.
Smalley should take a hint and try on some of the arrogance of Dr. Ron Cranford of Hennepin County Medical Center and say this more often: "How can you be so stupid?"

Which begs the question: What's the deal with this Foresight Institute in the first place? They must have an agenda. They certainly don't exist as a parody web site. But, to me at least, the proposed nanotech molecular manufacturing device borders on the same level of insanity as the riding-saddle dinosaur at Ken Ham's creation museum featured on PBS last week.
JEFFREY BROWN: When the museum opens in 2007, visitors will walk through a world in which dinosaurs and men lived side by side, one dinosaur even has a saddle.

Although the Foresight Institute certainly doesn't stretch incredulity this far, they do inhabit a fuzzy world a bit more challenging to categorize. The fuzziness extends from pure peer-reviewed science on the one end to agenda-driven think-tank pseudo science on the other. The best analogy I can come up with is that the Foresight Institute is to (blank) as the Discovery Institute is to creationism. What this (blank) refers to I have yet to pin down. But if the Discovery Institute aims to use the pseudo-scientific claims of Intelligent Design to couch their true beliefs in creationism, might the Foresight Institute act as the technological wing of Intelligent Design? Think about it. If Drexler and company could create microcosms like the nanotech manufacturing device, might not that provide the proof-of-principle prototype for an intelligently designed universe?

Nano-god indeed, heh.

Is April Fool's day over?

1We tried out a rapid prototyping/graphical programming tool called Foresite. After using it for awhile and then discarding it, a co-worker punned "In hindsight, we never should have purchased Foresite."


Professor Anonymous Anonymous said...

Near as I can tell, you hate the Foresight Institute. Can't see why, though. Here is a quote

"To be anti-technology in this day and age is to be anti-environmental.
No positive future exists without vastly improved technology."
--Alex Steffen, executive editor of Worldchanging.com.

3:56 PM  
Professor Blogger WHT said...

I am not anti-technology , I am anti-travesty.

6:38 PM  
Professor Blogger Dream Builder said...

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Come and check it out if you get time :-)

3:46 PM  

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