Patent Problems

SabetyThe next-to-last speaker at the conference is Ted Sabety, a patent attorney speaking on "Nanotechnology Innovation and the Patent Thicket: Which IP Policies Promote Growth?" (company homepage here, abstract here). He makes some interesting historical comparisons, to the development of radio and recombinant DNA. Rather than try to reproduce the argument of his talk, I'll direct you to the eponymous article he wrote for the September 2004 issue of the journal Nanotechnology Law & Business (you can read a summary here, and can pay for a PDF of the full article here).

During the Q&A, Sabety takes exception with the argument put forward yesterday by David Friedman (see below) that the dominant intellectual property regime in the age of nanotechnology will eventually be copyright, not patents. (Admittedly, Sabety only heard Friedman's argument secondhand.)

October 24, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

The "Top Ten Impacts" of Nano

I didn't blog about an earlier presentation, from Bryan Bruns of the Foresight Institute, because I wanted to go encode some of the videos I'll be putting up in the next few hours. His talk was called Applying Nanotechnology to the Challenges of Global Poverty, and you can read the abstract here.

Now speaking is Chris Phoenix, who spoke earlier today, this time talking on the top ten impacts of molecular manufacturing (abstract here).

Here are the top ten impacts Phoenix describes, retyped as I read his PowerPoint slides. (Anything in quotes comes from his mouth.) [UPDATE: To clarify, Phoenix did not say that this list was in any special order. They aren't necessarily in order of increasing -- or decreasing -- importance. In fact, Phoenix didn't even number them; the numbers below are just an artifact of my note-blogging. So don't read anything into the order in which they appear.] Keep in mind, these are all very theoretical:

1) INFRASTRUCTURES: Within months, molecular manufacturing (MM) could become the dominant manufacturing system. We'd have cheap solar power, including storage. We'd have inconceivably cheap computers. We'd have high-performance avionics, making it easier to put people (or weapons) in space.

2) ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES: Very efficient manufacturing and products, less pollution. With good management, we could have 100 billion people living on Earth sustainably. (But with bad management, that many people could "despoil the planet rather quickly." You don't say.)

3) BUSINESS AND TRADE: Extraction, transportation, manufacturing, and warehousing decrease. Intellectual property becomes increasingly important. Tensions between consumers and corporations -- "Napster squared." Tension between new and old businesses.

4) MICRO-ECONOMICS: We could all be self-sufficient, make our own things. "Black market? Ooooh yeah." Cost of living may go way own. Productivity may go way up. Wealth will concentrate: How much? We will be in a post-manufacturing society. Will it be a post-job society, too?

5) HUMAN RIGHTS, CIVIL LIBERTIES, HUMANITARIAN ISSUES: Cheap sensors and supercomputers. Communications (accountability). Surveillance (oppression). Rapid modernization, poverty alleviation. Powerful tech will inspire restrictions (crime, terror, war: freedom vs. security).

6) MEDICAL ETHICS AND RESEARCH: Massively parallel sensors. Cell-sized probes and surgical robots. "Actually cutting someone [for surgery] and making them bleed will soon look as primitive as, well, as bleeding them." Cheap supercomputers for very rapid medical R&D. (No more clinical trials?) Neural connections: "This is speculative, because we don't know how neurons work in detail." Genome manipulation. Physical "augmentation, for some of us, a source of much hope."

7) NEW-TECHNOLOGY ISSUES: Space -- for resources, and as a place to expand into; may raise military and security concerns. Artificial intelligence (AI). Intelligence augmentation, which some people think of "a preferable alternative to AI." And "transhumanism." "There's no technical reason why we could not become far more capable than we are today. Whether there are social reasons against it, and whether those reasons are powerful enough to win out, remains to be seen." Rapid medical research. Runaway or uncontrollable systems?

8) POLICING AND CRIMINOLOGY: Any unrestricted nanofactory "can become a weapons of mass destruction factory. This could be a problem. We don't know how to deal with it." Commercial (software, entertainment) security is not nearly good enough. Small and high-performance products could aid crime (spying and attack). Standoff weapons: lack of accountability. Cross-border effects/attacks. Humans are fragile. [Heckler in audience interrupts after Phoenix offhandedly -- and with casual thoughtlessness, if you ask me -- refers to Iraq. Heckler continues. Heckler stops. Heckler, btw, is same guy who confronted Kurzweil last night on humans being "sub-optimal."]

9) POLICY AND GOVERNANCE: Many vicious cycles to avoid. Bad policies won't cancel out. Must balance three kinds of issue: security, commerce, abundance. "It's likely that we're not, at the moment, finding the right mix" between control and free dissemination of intellectual property. The Internet is a sneak preview: spam, worms, spyware.

10) GEOPOLITICS AND PEACE: Less need for foreign resources: better self-sufficiency, less economic pressure, less interdependence and trade. Rapid development and deployment of weapons: unstable arms race? (In such an unstable arms race, it would be "very hard to tell who has what.") These technologies can proliferate rapidly. Is there a need for global administration? "It seems likely." It will take time to invent such a global agency, and implement it -- and "we may not have that much time."

CONCLUSION: "CALL TO ACTION" -- "Recognizing the impact of molecular manufacturing on each of these interconnected areas will be necessary for well-informed scenario planning or policymaking on any of them. The alternative is to accept drastic change that we can neither predict nor control."

During the Q&A, Phoenix is asked what we should do if someone makes a major nanotech breakthrough right away -- like, say, tomorrow. Phoenix: "If someone developed this tomorrow, the best recommendation I could make would be, 'Try to get off-planet.'"

October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)


Onstage now is Robert Freitas (who also spoke yesterday). Today he's talking about nanomedicine (abstract here).

Freitas spent a long time talking about the respirocyte. If you'll forgive me for quoting myself, here's a quick description:

Take, for example, the “respirocyte,” an artificial red blood cell about which Freitas has theorized. Respirocytes, capable of delivering oxygen hundreds of times more efficiently than real red blood cells, would be invaluable in the treatment of various respiratory and cardiovascular disorders, or as a substitute for real blood during transfusions. But they would also have “a variety of sports, veterinary, battlefield and other applications”; they could be used to boost a mountain climber’s endurance, to help a diver hold his breath for hours, or to enable a soldier to fight harder.

And the respirocyte is among the simplest medical nanomachines imaginable. Others might be able to repair cells and fix damaged DNA; to remove toxins, clean out cholesterol, and eliminate scar tissue; to destroy cancer cells and fight countless diseases.

Freitas has some interesting animations of respirocytes, which makes them look like mini-Death Stars. I'll try to get some video up soon.

He's also talking about several other kinds of nanorobots used for medicine: the nanosubmarine (for chopping away at deposits that clog arteries), the vasculocyte (a multi-purpose nanobot), the clottocyte (assists in clotting to stopping bleeding), and the microbovore (an artificial white blood cell). He's got some great video showing how these things might look and work. Details on these things can be found in his Nanomedicine books.

Incidentally, Freitas isn't a trained physicist or trained chemist. In fact, he's got a law degree. I mention this because the fellow sitting behind me is going to law school at Georgetown Law, here in Washington. I'm not sure what to make of this.

UPDATE: I was clearly not the first person to note the respirocytes' resemblance to the Death Star. Somebody from Foresight sneaked this slide onto the end of his PowerPoint presentation (the respirocyte is the round blue thing on the left, click to enlarge):


October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nano and NatSec

Lunch is over, and the current speaker is Calvin Shipbaugh, whom the program describes as being formerly with RAND. He's speaking on the national security aspect of nano, describing Pentagon investment in nano, among other things (abstract here.) It's an enormously interesting subject, but it's unfortunate that he's the only speaker discussing it, since it's so very broad and he only has half an hour. I won't try to summarize his talk here, because I wouldn't be able to keep up, but I'll try to get up a few of his slides. This subject alone could dominate a three-day conference. He's gone from funding to putting microchips on bees to increasing surveillance to protecting soldiers to "overcoming the limits of triage" to the Beslan school siege to the the ethics and "dark aspects that must be proactively managed."

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the slides turned out terribly blurry; the exposure time was set too long, sorry. But here are two that are, um, less illegible. If you click on them, you can enlarge them to a size at which you should be able to make out the words. The first shows current Pentagon areas of interest in nanotechnology (broken up among the different military branches) and the second is a list of some of the security areas where nanotech might have an effect in coming years. (Nothing mentioned about nanorobots -- or even ordinary robots.)



There wasn't much time for questions, but one guy did ask Shipbaugh about how nanotech may affect existing arms control treaties. Shipbaugh had nothing to say, for the very good reason that there is nothing to say about it.

October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nano Would Make Space Cheaper

The last speaker before lunch is Thomas McKendree from Raytheon, who is "Assessing the Potential of Molecular Nanotechnology for Space Operations" (abstract here). He's discussing how nanotech could make space much more affordable, and started with this slide, which compares the present cost to put a kilogram of some payload into orbit (that's the set of green bars in the back) to the potential costs if nanotechnology is adopted (those are the rows of bars closer to the front). The cost, as you can see, drops further and further, the more thoroughly molecular nanotechnology is adopted.


He goes on to talk about solar sails, skyhooks and towers (kinds of space elevators), tethers, and settlements. A very interesting talk, actually, but he unfortunately had to rush through it.

UPDATE: When Mr. McKendree got a signal that he should finish his remarks, he didn't say, "I see I've got to hurry up." No, he said, "I have to accelerate." Only a space guy. I tell ya.

UPDATE: On the last day of the conference, Mr. McKendree agreed to say a few words on camera about nanotechnology and cheaper access to space -- sort of the "elevator speech" version of his talk. Click the picture below to watch his response in streaming Windows media:


October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

Nanotech and Energy Efficiency

Ralph Merkle (see below) just spoke again, standing in for Steve Gillett, who co-wrote their presentation (abstract here). He went through several ways nanotechnology could meet our energy needs -- by making our energy extraction and transmission and use much more efficient. The core of his argument was this point: We aren't facing an energy crisis, but rather a "heat crisis." Too much of our fuel is wasted, and lost as heat. From this observation is derived the following principle: "The more spectacular a technology, the cruder it probably is. A truly mature technology will be as exciting as watching the grass grow." Thus, any technology that flames or spews smoke or shoots sparks or makes a lot of light is inefficient. (And of course the same goes for noisy technology; unintended sound is inefficient, too.)

October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

No Atom Left Behind

Chrisphoenix_1The present speaker (it's about 11:15 a.m. on Saturday, day 2) is Chris Phoenix. He's an up-and-coming star in the nano-world, and a protégé of Eric Drexler (although it's likely that both of them would object to that characterization). He's the director of research for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, a nonprofit organization he co-founded last year. His talk this morning is about Clean Molecular Manufacturing (abstract here) and the subtitle is "No Atom Left Behind," a play on the "No Child Left Behind" educational legislation.

He began by arguing that nanomanufacturing is possible, and and he has now moved on to discussing applications. We could have ten-pound cars or yachts, he says, that could be folded up and carried around. We could replace fossil fuels with ultra-efficient solar energy, we could replace today's "dirty manufacturing" with ultra-clean manufacturing, we could protect the environment by using ultra-productive greenhouses. We could collect greenhouse gases. We could use nanotech to We could have cheap access to space. And we could use nanotechnology for pervasive and widespread monitoring of the environment -- so we would really know whether species are going extinct.

A very rosy scenario.

A few Q&As. One guy in the audience asked about the rise of nano-mercantilism -- that is, a decrease in trade, since we won't need to trade for things if we can make 'em ourselves. Phoenix's answer: It's possible that trade in physical goods will decrease, but "trade in intellectual property will likely increase."

Another question from the audience: what would nanotechnology affect employment? Phoenix's answer (which was not wholly coherent): "We would still have work, but it may not be in the form of jobs. Jobs are a fairly recent invention.... I'm not an economist, but I'm pretty skeptical that we will have enough jobs -- you know, nine-to-five, with a salary -- that we will have enough jobs for everyone. Hopefully that means there will be enough ways for people have to other ways to live.... Hopefully, the possibilty of abundance will outweigh the possibility of employment."

UPDATE: Incidentally, Chris Phoenix has his own blog -- actually, it belongs to the nonprofit he founded -- and he blogged a summary of Day One.

October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

NanoBusiness and You

The second speaker of the morning was Sean Murdock, the head of the NanoBusiness Alliance. (Like Scott Mize, the previous speaker, Mr. Murdock only recently came to lead his organization -- there was recently a spate of change in the nano-world.)

Sean is, he says, an "economist by training," so his talk is full of business jargon. He talks about "opening up the solution space" and "creating new opportunities to optimize" and "the consumer value proposition."

I had a chance to chat with Sean yesterday, and he seems a very serious and solid and steady guy (unlike, say, his predecessor, who was somewhat excitable).

The biggest application for nanotech in coming years, Sean says, is in energy. Still, he's a staunch defender of nanopants and nanotech-tennis rackets against those who would belittle them as nuthin' compared to what nanotech is likely to bring. After all, Sean says, these things are here, they are "revolutionary" and people want them. Consumer products matter, he says. It's not enough to just speculate about the distant future, we need "innovation as opposed to invention." (I'm not entirely sure what he means by that distinction, and can come up with several possible meanings, but maybe I'll ask him later, on camera.)

During the Q&A, one fellow in the audience asked Sean about the slowness of the patent office on nano patents. Sean responded with this news: apparently, the patent office is "trying to collect all nano-related patents into a sort of repository" that will expedite the processing of patent applications.

Sean also worried about "a looming shortage of postdocs and graduate students. Roughly half of our postdocs we import today. That's not sustainable."

Finally, this: Those who are opposed to nanotech research, Sean says, are trying to link it in the public mind with asbestos. But, Sean says, nanoparticles are fundamentally different from asbestos -- not least in the volumes produced and used. (Nanoparticles are produced by the ton. Asbestos was produced by the megaton.) And unlike asbestos, "we're trying to anticipate those things as we're developing the materials, before they're in widespread use." (Click to enlarge.)

UPDATE: Here's one of Sean's slides, showing government funding over time, comparing U.S. funding to Asia, Europe, Japan. As Sean put it, when it came to the computer industry, the U.S. was the biggest mover and shaker for years -- but in these early days of nanotech, we're in "a state of parity."

October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

So What? What Can Nano Do for Us?

It's Day Two of the Foresight conference, and the focus is on "applications." Yesterday concentrated on nano research, today concentrates on what nano can do for us.

ScottmizeThe first speaker this morning was Scott Mize, who has just finished speaking as I write this. (His abstract is here.) Scott is the new president of Foresight, having just taken over the job a couple of months ago. His remarks this morning concentrated on how nanotechnology could help solve the problems raised by the United Nations Millennium Challenges. It's part of his effort to make Foresight seem more relevant. These challenges include things like global warming, dirty water, declining resources, infectious diseases, and terrorism.

One interesting observation Scott makes is this: while the total number of dollars going into nano has been rising, the number new deals in nano business is going down. There's so much uncertainty in the early stages of nano business endeavors that, it seems, new investors are decreasingly willing to take new risks. Or so it seems.

October 23, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (0)

Keynote speaker: Ray Kurzweil

Dinner is over, and I'll have more to say about it later -- including pictures and info on the winners of this year's Foresight Institute prizes.

KurzweilBut in the meantime, the evening's keynote address has begun. The speaker is Ray Kurzweil, who is laying out a broad agenda for his talk for the evening. It sounds like he's going to talk about artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, nanotechnology, genetics and biotech, and all sorts of other cutting-edge technology. The title of his lecture is, "An Exponentially Expanding Future from Exponentially Shrinking Technology."

A quote: "The golden age of nanotechnology is, in my view, fifteen years away.... I have a bet with Mitch Kapur that we'll have... machines that can pass the Turing Test by 2029."

He mentions the (in)famous Wired magazine essay by Bill Joy, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," and says that, according to the NYT, Joy's article was the most-commented-upon article ever written, with (supposedly) ten thousand articles written about it.

UPDATE: It's ten minutes later, and Mr. Kurzweil is still in the "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em phase," just introducing things and not actually getting into the meat of his talk. Kurzweil is very much into the study of technology trends -- he makes charts and graphs that show rates of technology adoption and proliferation and viability, and uses those charts predictively -- and he's hinting that his lecture is going to be about those trends. But he's still just in the info stage... and going...

UPDATE: He's still just introducing. Now he's talking about how we're "accelerating the paradigm shift rate." Meanwhile, you can check out his website here: Kurzweil is a brilliant inventor -- probably one of the best-known inventors alive, like Dean Kamen -- but has increasingly become known for his futurist musings. Okay, he's started with his PowerPoint slides...

UPDATE: He's got a slide up on the screen called "Countdown to Singularity" which goes from the Cambrian explosion to today's technology, with a straight line plotted through these historical developments, showing the acceleration pace of technological change. The practical point of all these straight lines, or curves (whether it's Moore's law, or other advances), isn't yet clear. One of his graphics:


UPDATE: Kurzweil mentions the biotech revolution, which he says is moving just as fast. He has a new book coming out next week on the subject of health and "radical life extension," which can, he says, be made possible by (1) applying today's knowledge to live longer, (2) advances in biotech will improve medicinem and (3) nanotechnology, which will let us "go beyond the limitations of biology." Those who are interested in the subject should get his book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. He also mentions, as he has said publicly very recently, that he is taking something like 250 supplements and vitamins (250!!) to "reprogram" his body. Sound weird? Well, it is. But he claims that he's healthier today than he was twenty years ago; that he developed his own regimen that cured him of diabetes; and that some mysterious battery of "age tests" have shown that his body seems to be much younger than his actual age.

Now he's talking about "reverse engineering the human brain," an endeavor in which nanotechnology is supposed to play a central part. Thanks to new brain-imaging technology (which we wrote about in the first issue of The New Atlantis), we can now watch the living brain as it works; Kurzweil thinks we will, with time, develop better models and simulations of how the brain works. Here's a functional map that shows one scientist's attempt to model how the brain works:


Now he's jumped to talking about junk DNA; it's not quite clear where he's going with this... now he's moving on to virtual reality being used to train soldiers... where next?

UPDATE: Much of this talk tonight, incidentally, is part of Kurzweil's regular speech. You can see many of the slides for free on the Internet (in PDF format) if you check out his congressional testimony from April 2003. This talk is stunningly disorganized, a real whirlwind of facts and theories presented so quickly that the audience hasn't really the time to digest them, let alone question them. The net effect is, I think, supposed to leave the audience in awe; but without a clearly presented overarching theory or argument, it seems to me to be just a hodgepodge, an awful mess.

Now he's off talking about artificial intelligence and chess-playing robots. Now nanobots that will provide the bridge between our "biological way of thinking and our non-biological way of thinking." Now solar panels. Now life expectancy. Now bioterrorism. Now how we will ultimately need "a nanotechnology immune system." (He's been talking for an hour, and he's still going, and flipping through dozens of PowerPoint slides that he's not even bothering to talk about. "How long is his full talk?" somebody in the back of the room just whispered. A few people are dozing off; it's been a long day, especially for people who had to travel to get here.)

UPDATE: "Relinquishment" of advanced technologies is uncalled for and unrealized, Kurzweil says, pace Bill Joy. Now he's complaining about what he calls "humanist fundamentalism." A clever term, that. He uses it to describe Greenpeace and other groups who oppose genetically modified foods. Not by relinquishing, but only by aggressively pursuing, advances in genetics, nanotech, and robotics/artificial intelligence, will we be able to defeat the potential threats, he says. More: "There is an acceleration of change, and it's leading to an anti-technology movement which is really not well grounded.... I think we'll see a continued increase in this anti-technology reaction. I think it's unfortunate that at least some sections of the environmental movement have moved in that direction.... Technology has always been a double-edged sword. We need to put our efforts into developing ethical guidelines... People always get used to the benefits quickly and then forget about what life was like [before technological advances]."

The lecture is over. In answering a question: By the end of the century, we will have "maxed out on saturating the matter and energy around us with our intelligence," Kurzweil says.

One audience member -- a fellow I met at yesterday's luncheon -- is combating with Kurzweil in the Q&A session, specifically challenging his use of words like "optimal" and "better" in comparing machines to people.

Alright, the Q&A is over, and people are leaving. I'll go up front and snag one more picture of Kurzweil (as he gets swarmed by audience members with inquiries), then will head home and make just one or two more posts before the night's out.

Ray Kurzweil, surrounded by questioners

October 22, 2004 in Applications | Permalink | Comments (1)