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Home > Jeff Ubois > Responsibility in Innovation: A Survey of Coming Attractions in Nanotechnology

Responsibility in Innovation: A Survey of Coming Attractions in Nanotechnology

by Redazione FGB [1], 22 March 2007

A Conversation with Lawrence Gasman

Lawrence Gasman is the cofounder of NanoMarkets, LLC and author of the recent book, Nanotechnology Applications and Markets [2], which examines the market for nanotechnology in the healthcare, energy, and information technology sectors, and provides a generalized approach to forecasting the impact of nanotechnology on particular companies and industries.

In this interview, Gasman emphasizes several likely near term discontinuities based on nanotechnology. And he offers some insight into possible social effects, and the limits of regulation. And yet without an ability to forecast developments, what kind of responsibility is possible?


Jeff Ubois:
Many discussions about nanotechnology have focused on the social implications. But in this discussion I'd like look at potential consequences as outlined in your book, that is, in different industries.

Lawrence Gasman:
In fact, it's the social consequences more than the business consequences that are really hard to work out. Yet the innovators are not particularly interested in the social consequences-and they wouldn't be the people I would choose to have think about some of these things either. People who devise molecular transistors aren't necessarily the guys I want worrying about the future of society. You know, the old Bill Buckley line-"I'd rather be governed by the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than the Harvard faculty"-applies here too.

We're sort of on the cusp here. Research going on in companies now may not have huge societal implications, but we're five or ten years away from innovation that really does.

One of them is spare parts, as it were, regenerative medicine. People have had wooden legs for a long time. But say you can build something that's actually better, like a leg that has greater durability and more muscle strength using some other material than human. Nobody would argue against using that for someone who'd lost their leg in an accident. But what happens is there's a sudden demand from people who want to go through that surgery in order to be faster and stronger. There is a lot of work to be done thinking through what the consequences of all that are.

Jeff Ubois:
Is there any merit to any of Bill McKibben's or Bill Joy's arguments about limits to research or its applications?

Lawrence Gasman:
No, I don't think there's much merit when you actually come to look at it. First, because some of their criticisms are directed at things that seem to be so far in the future that we shouldn't be worrying about them. Other things are those that we can't control.

Bill McKibben talks a lot about cloning, and I'm not thrilled, personally, about the idea of cloning people. With 15 Jeff Uboises or Lawrence Gasmans wandering around, it seems to me to have all sorts of societal implications that are going to be very hard for us to live with and adapt to-although we probably will in time. The problem is, what are you going to do about it?

It is happening with pets now, and somebody somewhere is going to start doing it with people. Banning it in the U.K. and the U.S. and France or something is certainly going to set it back. But it's not going to stop it. There are people out there who are going to want it done. So if someone sets it up somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, what are we going to do, bomb the place?

Jeff Ubois:
That sounds awfully fatalistic.

Lawrence Gasman:
Sort of, but I'd make the point that we've lived with human enhancements for a long time. I mean, we both wear glasses.

I'm more afraid of trying to control some of these things than I am of other unintended consequences. There's only a small percentage of people who really want clones of themselves or clones of their kids. Creating the total superman that way is a very long way off and doesn't need to be worried about.

Jeff Ubois:
Yet with regenerative medicine based on nano, enhancement and life extension are the two areas that seem probable.

Lawrence Gasman:
There are lot of examples in regenerative medicine that are just about five to ten years away and that would pose problems. Another one I know a bit about is polymer memories, organic memories. There have been recent experiments about using organic memories to improve people's memory who have Alzheimer's.

What happens when people decide "I'd really like to have this super memory where I can remember every word of every book I've ever read"? Again, we're quite a long way away from that, but I'd say that in the end, we'd probably live with that.

Jeff Ubois:
Do you have a timeframe on memory enhancement?

Lawrence Gasman:
Medical technology is always difficult because you run into a lot of testing -- you have to go through various trials and things and it has to have a significant impact on timing and availability. So I'd guess maybe 15 years before it's widely available.

Jeff Ubois:
So this is kind of like a cochlear implant, but for memory?

Lawrence Gasman:
Yeah, and I know there's been some R&D on it, prices go down enormously after a while.

Jeff Ubois:
And you would really stick with a 15-year prediction on the memory enhancement?

Lawrence Gasman:
There are a number of specific R&D points, issues that have to be solved. There's the actual memory, and that's pretty advanced: organic memory is being researched in quite a few places and it's been produced in small quantities. We're on our way to solving it.

People are having their brain wired into stuff such that they can control things from a distance with their brain now. You must have read about those experiments, and this isn't really that different. It's medium-term. Now I'm quite sure that some people would say much longer, and probably a few people would say much shorter, but it seems to me we're moving in that direction.

The big issue is, how much does it improve? In the context of Alzheimer's-which is what I was talking about with the time horizon of 15 years-giving that poor person another five years of a decent life where they're not a vegetable might comprise allowing them to remember who their wife is for a few more years. That may not be enough for people to suddenly say, "I want this stuff because it will allow me to digest the Encyclopedia Brittanica." So that could be further off. But once you get to that basic technology....

Jeff Ubois:
Then you get Moore's Law-like progress....

Lawrence Gasman:
Yes. And with organics, some people think that Moore's Law may be slow. Still, if you're an Alzheimer's patient and you've got another two years before you become a vegetable, you might be willing to risk some major brain damage having this operation. But if you're 25 and you want a super memory, you might think twice before you do it.

I hate to sound like Ray Kurzweil, but I can tell you from working on my book that a lot of this stuff doesn't seem far away when you look at it. What's different today is that we sort of know why cells stop reproducing after a period of time, we sort of know the mechanics of it. There's not a lot we can do about it, but there are some things. And once you know the mechanism, it might take several decades, but it wouldn't surprise me if people, as a result of bio- and nanotechnology, really could live for extraordinary periods of time. And the big difference is not that we can do this tomorrow, but that we know the sorts of things we have to do to make it happen. That's a huge leap forward.

If we really could make someone live 1,000 years-and I don't think you could, it's improbable, but still possible-then the social implications of that are enormous....In fact, that's a very good example of what I was saying before, when you said I was fatalistic. So it's now possible to imagine what that would be like, if it were 40 years away or something. If it happens, I can't imagine a government or regulatory body anywhere that would actually be able to prevent that happening for people who want it to happen.

There will always be people out there who are willing to pay for that sort of thing. I honestly don't believe that people would be all that happy with it, but I'm willing to bet that thousands and thousands would do it if they could afford it, and they probably will be.

Things just seem like we're kind of on the cusp of this, and in that way I think Kurzweil's right. I don't have his book, The Singularity is Near [3], in front of me, but with the medical stuff, the societal implications primarily come from the regenerative surgery stuff, I think. And there's some safety, health and safety issues around these nanoparticles as well.

Jeff Ubois:
As new forms of industrial pollution are going to be an outcome of nanotech?

Lawrence Gasman:
There's a legitimate concern about particles that are so small they could pass into your body. Certain kinds of particles at the nano level are undoubtedly dangerous and need to be controlled
. We probably need new laws about that. If some firm is pumping out huge quantities of nanoparticles that are dangerous, they deserve to suffer some consequences for that. Obviously certain people out there would like to see those consequences being that all the management is executed on the spot-but it's a real concern, because stuff that can pass right into you is just different, and I don't see how you can get away from that consequence.

Jeff Ubois:
Maybe we should move into the energy discussion, but one of the things that strikes me is how much of the discussion around nano is either apocalyptic, as in "Oh my God, it's going to kill everybody on the planet," or utopian, as in "It's going to allow everybody to live for 1,000 years." There's more nuance than that in specialized discussions, but what seems to land in the more popular dialogue is very much either heaven or hell.

Lawrence Gasman:
I made the point earlier that some of the innovators in this field are the last people in the world I'd give any credence to in their social predictions or their desires. On the other hand, I think a lot of the people who talk about nano from a social point of view are often completely ignorant about technology.

In some ways, the transhumanists are similar-they really think immortality is around the corner, but they can't quite say why. The people who think we're all going to die because of nano, when you ask, "Why is that?" they'll come up with something that's so futuristic we don't have to worry about it. Maybe you need to bring those two types together. Actually I think Foresight [4]'s done a reasonably good job on that.

Jeff Ubois:
One of the most common approaches offered to assess the effects of innovation seems to be the cross-disciplinary approach. It sounds like Foresight is bringing social and scientific thinkers together.

Lawrence Gasman:
Yes, it brings them together. And I think they've done a reasonably good job of that, so that they are talking about reality, I guess.

But you mentioned energy, and we did that study. You read things about how oil's going to go away and everything's going to run off of photovoltaics, I don't think anybody's has a problem with that, not even the oil companies. But right now, photovoltaics is a small part of the alternative energy, which is a small percentage of all energy sources, and it isn't even a very good one for most applications because it's so inefficient.

Jeff Ubois:
Isn't part of the promise of nano an end to scarcity?

Lawrence Gasman:
There's no doubt that it will add huge amounts of wealth to the world and there's no doubt it will transform us, but I don't know if it will mean an end to scarcity because there's always another market segment: cars aren't scarce, but Rolls Royces are. You're always going to get a premium version of something. People also talk about all the poor in the world, and how we can help them, but often what they're suffering from is the aftermath of continuing war. Unfortunately, I don't think nano's going to bring an end to war, and, as I'm sure you're aware, some people think it will make it a lot worse.

Something else about energy. Photovoltaics is definitely happening, and nano's helping it and so is film technology, which is related, and printing technology and a number of other things. Actually one of the most attractive things about nano is nanocatalysts for energy that potentially just makes the oil go a lot further, extracts it better.

Jeff Ubois:
Let's talk about intellectual property. Who is going to own and control the innovations we are talking about?

Lawrence Gasman:
There's an almost philosophical concept that if you're designing things at the molecular level, then you can almost reverse engineer anything in a way that doesn't infringe on existing IP. So in principle, nanotechnology makes it much easier to get around patents. We did the study of nano memory, and there are at least 12 different research programs looking at how to build new computer memory that were all fundamentally different, in terms of materials they used and the design of the chips. But they went after a very narrow range of applications areas and performance, and they were all somewhat substitutable for another.

Jeff Ubois:
Just with another, slightly different method?

Lawrence Gasman:
Right. So this may turn out to be incorrect in the specific case, but I'm willing to bet that generally it turns out to be true.

Imagine if company X comes out and says, "We've got this wonderful new technology and it's completely IP-protected and it uses silicon nanocrystals to produce memory, and it's going to take over the world and we're producing it, and we're ready for sampling it and everything." And somebody else comes along and says, "Here's our ovonic memory and it has exactly the same performance features and footprints and everything, and it too is IP-protected." The chance of each of those companies being able to sue each other is exactly zero.

Before materials science took this potentially great leap forward, that scenario could still happen, but it was much less likely to. And I think that was my point: having protected IP is probably always a good idea, probably always will be-but it might turn out to be much like having a copyright on a book that has very short-term appeal.

The people who are making the most money out of nanotechnology at the moment are probably IP lawyers. There's half a dozen firms setting up nano practices that you see at all these trade shows. And they're spending a lot of money on developing those practices, because VC-funded firms have to go through that process.

Jeff Ubois:
One of the things you talk about in the book is an approach to evaluating the impact of nano on your business. That seems like it's directly relevant to some of the Bassetti Foundation concerns. I'm guessing that part of it was based on your own forecasting business, and part of it was based on comments and work by others, but, that ability to try to forecast with that seems really interesting and useful. Could we talk about that a little bit?

Lawrence Gasman:
This deserves a book on its own. But there are two parts to it. One is just the strategic opportunity stuff, like can we make money out of nano, and then we have to look at timeframes, because some of this is so far off that we're probably not going to make money from it right now. But the other bit was just as you said-the social implications, how is the world going to change in a way that'll affect our business?

Jeff Ubois:
I was thinking about these forecasting methods, if it's possible to apply some of those methods to not just likely economic impacts, but to likely social impacts, and the ethical questions or the legal questions that are going to matter in five or 10 years. That idea of having some sort of disciplined method that you can apply to across a bunch of different technologies is really, really interesting.

Lawrence Gasman:
I think it is, too. There does seem to be some commonality across all these areas, but it's so easy to get it just get wildly wrong when you're looking at technology issues....

Jeff Ubois:
Remember Forecasting the Telephone by Ithiel de Sola Pool? That was interesting, because it was that retrospective analysis of predictions. And their conclusion was you really needed to understand the business as well as the technology-and that the people who understood just one or the other were really terrible at forecasting.

Lawrence Gasman:
Well, some technologies just don't happen. I'd say that when I was a young teenager, 95 percent of the population believed that by now, we would have colonies on the Moon and Mars. That's a forecast that spectacularly failed. The other popular idea at the time was that by now, because of nuclear power, energy would be too cheap to meter.

Jeff Ubois:
Do you think there are ways of pushing social analysis-or ethical concerns, or other ways of thinking through implications-back into the research community? Or do you know of anyone who's doing that or looking at social and ethical implications of nanotech we should talk to?

Lawrence Gasman:
No, I didn't really emphasize that too much in the book. I did talk about Bill Joy and Bill McKibben a bit and made some comments, and you can look at that and quote me from there, but I also think the ethical and social implications are two separate things in what I've been talking about.

I think we're all under the same ethical obligations. And different people in different circumstances, the ethical problems they face have never changed. Part of it is "do no harm." The problem is, of course, sometimes you're doing things and you don't know what harm you're doing.

You know, Einstein said if he knew what the implications of social relativity were, he would have become a locksmith. I find this disingenuous because he actually campaigned for the bomb, initially. But if you forget about that for a moment, it may have crossed his mind in 1905 that 40 years later, there would be a weapon of mass destruction of the kind there was, but I doubt that he spent a great deal of time thinking about it.

Jeff Ubois:
Every single person who's in the sciences that I've spoken with as part of this project, has emphasized that identifying the social implications in advance is close to impossible.

Lawrence Gasman:
I think it is. Like I said, if you're looking at technology forecasting, that's relatively easy to do. At least-it's very complex, but it's mechanical. Then if you look at the business implications, as I say in the book, if you're looking at replacing an existing technology, you can do the accounting.

But identifying the real social implications is very hard. Videoconferencing is a good example, because the technology is completely mature and we can have it today for not very much money. But it turns out people don't like it very much. Part of the reason is obvious, you don't want to be seen if you've just woken up and your hair's all mussed up. But part of it is something else, and what that something else is, is sometimes a little difficult to fish out.

As with many technologies, you start off with these very small steps and then you go up an exponential curve. And the thing at the top of the exponential curve looks nothing like what you started with.

Jeff Ubois:
The discontinuous steps are impossible to predict.

Lawrence Gasman:
Stain-proof pants are about as boring as you can get. They have some immediate implications for dry cleaners-I mean, I'm sorry if the dry cleaners are replaced by something else in the economy. But maybe down the road- and that work is starting now-it becomes artificial skin of some kind.

Jeff Ubois:
Do we need to wait for some dramatic event before people will pay attention to social implications? Dolly the sheep was what made the bioethics issue take off.

Lawrence Gasman:
That's absolutely right, actually. Some of the things now coming out of nanotechnology that are ethical issues, or potentially political issues, aren't that different from issues in the past. Pollution using nanoparticles is a real issue, but it isn't that different from pollution in general.

If pollution laws don't cover it, they should-but that's not a reason for a mainstream think tank to go out and open a new department. It's a white paper that one of the existing people should write.

We're probably a decade away from some of these things exploding into the really weird stuff. But I want to reiterate, we now know how that weird stuff could really happen.

Jeff Ubois:
And yet great technological utopias never quite seem to materialize....

Lawrence Gasman:
One of the reasons the Mars colonies didn't happen is they involved unbelievable quantities of money that-certainly in the 1970s-nobody had. This doesn't
. It involves well-funded labs, but the funding is around.

The other thing-nuclear power. First of all, they obviously made predictions that were probably unrealistic in the first place. But also, they ended up being so controlled that nobody could make any money with nuclear power in this country. Nanotechnology is not unitary. It's going off in lots of different directions.

Jeff Ubois:
The last area I want to get to is the public dialogue: nanotech in the media, nano in Capitol Hill testimony. It doesn't seem like the popular press is very good at dealing with complex scientific issues or with their nuances.

Lawrence Gasman:
No, no.

Jeff Ubois:
Are there improvements that could be made? Or are some points failing to be made that would improve public understanding of nanotech or understanding within government?

Lawrence Gasman:
The popular press-you know this as well as I do-if you've got a general journalist who's doing court reporting one moment and doing something on nano the next, there's only so much you ask of him.

Jeff Ubois:
Yes, and they get 600 words and have to start with an assumption of no prior knowledge.

Lawrence Gasman:
Right. And some of the people who focused on nano issues two years ago in the quality press seem to have moved on to different things. The Wall Street Journal had one guy who was focusing very much on those areas, but he's just kind of moved on.

Jeff Ubois:
So, perhaps we should be pushing for a beat reporter in nanotech at the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Economist....Perhaps if Nanosys had gone public, this might be different.

Lawrence Gasman:
Well, Nanosys was going to be Netscape, as it were-except it wasn't. My guess is we're probably two years away from that [kind of stock market success]. Companies are now beginning to build plants that are definitely nanotechnology plants, and it takes about six months to two years to make those plants actually operational. And including other things that involve materials science, like printable electronics and that sort of thing. that's beginning to happen now.

The other thing is, I think we have to wait for the investment cycle to turn around, and for all technology stocks and investments to become sexy again. That always happens eventually.

You pointed to Feynman and then Drexler. We're past that phase of just theory. It is real now and people are making some money with it.

Jeff Ubois:
Thank you very much.

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  1. 1] /schedabiografica/Redazione FGB
  2. 2] http://www.amazon.com/Nanotechnology-Applications-Markets-Lawrence-Gasman/dp/customer-reviews/1596930063
  3. 3] http://www.amazon.com/Singularity-Near-Humans-Transcend-Biology/dp/0670033847
  4. 4] http://www.foresight.org/
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