Nanotechnology: the Next Industrial Revolution Ramps Up


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The Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems charts a path beginning with current nanotechnology capabilities to advanced molecularly-precise systems. Christine Peterson, co-founder of the Foresight Nanotech Institute, spoke on the organization’s attempts to lay out a step-by-step course of development for molecular nanotechnology at a Stanford graduate class in technology forecasting in January. After outlining near and mid-term projections for nanoscale technologies, she introduced the future objective of establishing open source physical security, a means to broadly protect both privacy and safety in a society empowered with sophisticated surveillance technologies.

The following transcript of Christine Peterson’s January 28, 2008 presentation at Stanford University entitled “Nanotechnology: the Next Industrial Revolution Ramps Up” has been corrected and approved by the speaker.  Video is forthcoming.

Nanotechnology: the Next Industrial Revolution Ramps Up

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I’m sure that you have some familiarity with the term “nanotechnology.” The term is extraordinarily broad in its usage. Anything that has anything to do with the nanoscale, or maybe a little bigger or maybe a little smaller, we will call it all “nanotechnology.” For quite a while now it has been used as a sort of funding mechanism, either to get government money or to get venture capital, that word has been useful. It still is useful at the government level, not perhaps so much in venture capital.

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This course is all about timeframes. You can see where nanotechnology is going, but what is critical is ‘when? You have to look at what is happening today, what is happening soon. That is what you guys will be doing presumably when you get out of school, but then within your professional career you are going to be dealing with some of the much more ambitious stuff that I am going to be point out.

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The way I look at nanotechnology is we are very, very early. Just like information technology before the integrated circuits in the early ’60s, or biotech before recombinant DNA, these are very early days for nano. We just are not that good at what we are doing at the nanoscale.

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There are lots of definitions, and you can use whichever one you want. ‘Structuring and controlling matter on a scale of about one to one hundred nanometers.’ Obviously, it pulls in a lot of issues at the quantum level. Things act very differently down at that scale, partly because you have so much more surface area if you are talking about particles at that level. When you get down to five nanometers, most of the atoms are on the surface. It acts very differently–things that are soft get hard, things that don’t usually conduct start conducting, and vice versa. It all gets very bizarre.

This can be useful to an engineer. It also can be very distressing to an engineer, as you go down and it is not at all what you expected. It’s particularly an issue when you talk about safety, because all of our safety standards are on macroscale materials. Now we are going to have to redo them all at these small scales, and we don’t even know where the cutoffs are on the sizes. Is it at 100 nanometers? Is it 50, 30? These things all act differently. Are we going to have to redo our safety standards for carbon in 100 nanometer increments? This is a disaster to not know this stuff. It may take thirty years to get there–this is a big problem figuring out the safety effects of these things.

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These are probably terms you have seen. Nanotubes come in different flavors; they’re kind of like rolled up pieces of graphite. Carbon nanotubes have an amazing set of properties that you as engineers are probably going to run into. Strength, yes… but also really interesting conductive properties. They are using them to make computing elements and an extraordinary variety of things. Fullerenes, include buckyballs. The excitement about these was earlier than the nanotubes, but it has taken longer to figure out how you make use of them. I’m not going to try to explain all these to you. When the day comes and you are using these things in your work, you’re going to have to look into them. And this is just stuff that is going on today.

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Nanotechnology, because it is a materials technology, you as engineers know it shows up everywhere: in life sciences, the designer drugs, biomaterials, sense-&-response “smart” materials. The variety is extraordinary. That is why the term “nanotechnology” is not as useful–it’s just too broad.

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This is the longer term vision, which involves actually building complex machines down at that level. You can model these now. If you want to look at the most advanced modeling, and it’s a lot of fun to watch these things actually move, you can go to nanorex.com. This is a wonderful site. If you poke around their gallery you can see things like this but actually much bigger, more complex, working and changing. This is using the best modeling software that we have today. Basically what that is saying is that if or when we could build this, it ought to work as a real machine. The challenge, and anyone who has a chemistry background looking at this will go, “I haven’t a clue how to build this.” This is just outrageously difficult, but, as you will see in the Roadmap, there are pathways for looking at how you build these things.

We will definitely see a lot of steps in this direction in the thirty-year timeframe of this course. I think we can probably get to stuff like this within that timeframe. A lot of it depends on funding and commitment. For example, does the government decide this is a military thing? Then you have a big budget and a lot of focus.

Audience: Who is currently funding this kind of work?

As you will see when you look at this Roadmap, what we have done is we have looked at different pathways to get there. You can do a bio pathway, a chemistry pathway, you can do a scanning probe microscope pathway where you are nudging things around directly. If what you do is look at those pathways and say, “Is what we are doing today making progress?” the answer in all cases I think is “yes.” It depends on how knowledgeable you are and what you think the pathways are to figure out who is funding it–they may not be explicitly funding it.

They know they want better precision. Think about technology over the centuries: it’s been all about smaller, faster, cheaper. Smaller and more precise has been a part of technology from day one. We understand that, so there is lots of money going into that. Are they sitting around saying, Do we want to make sure that our work is relevant for these machines? Not necessarily, but they don’t have to do that. Mother Nature makes sure that if you are traveling down the pathway for atomic precision, you’re traveling down the pathway to that, whether you know it or like it.

It really depends on how you draw that line. The most interesting deliberate project is in the U.K., actually. They have something called the Software Control of Matter project. What you want to do, for those of you with a computing background, you want to bring digital control to the physical world. In software, we can control the ones and the zeros. That is the kind of control that you want in the physical world as well. Then, you say, does that not bring you the kind of problems you have in the physical world that you find in the software world? The software world, although it is exactly the way you design, does not always do what you want it to do. Then, instead of just your software crashing, your automobile crashes, literally, because something was wrong with the way the atoms were arranged. The wall suddenly disappears because it was programmed incorrectly. You have software problems in the physical world.

This, actually, should terrify you if you really understand how weird and bizarre, insecure and buggy software can be. You don’t want to bring those problems into the physical world, but they are coming. Any of you who want to look into that more, there is an annual conference called the Singularity Summit, where in ’06 I looked at software security and in ’07 I looked at security issues in the physical world that come about when we have software-level control of matter. It sounds great until you think, ‘Wait a minute, we have terrible software.’

At least we won’t have atoms out of place. We will have other kinds of problems.

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These types of nanotechnologies that I was talking about on the slides, nanomaterials mostly, that is here today. Those materials issues will affect almost everything over time, and it is coming pretty fast. You see these issues in energy, you see them in water, already. The hot thing now is ‘clean tech.’ A lot of that is nanotech. Tons of money is going into this.

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If you look at some charts, basically the U.S., Europe and Asia are in a competition to see who can spend the most on this. Right now I think Europe is winning. There is an incredible amount of patent activity going on. All different entities are involved in this. Sometimes they call it nanotechnology, sometimes they call it something else, but everybody is in this. This is pretty much the future of physical technology, at least from one perspective.

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These are some of the current applications. Things like coatings for your car so that dirt comes off it. Not something maybe you can get excited about, unless you happen to be into the environment. Then, that’s pretty cool. Very strong materials for aerospace, lots of exciting things on drug delivery.

When the media call me and say, “What’s the most exciting thing that is coming very soon in nanotechnology?” the thing that really speaks to people is cancer treatments that actually work. Probably you guys have had people in your family who have gone through chemo. It is hell, right? And often it does not work. That is going to stop, I think. I have seen phrases in some of these articles like “complete tumor elimination in one treatment.” Yes! That’s what you want to hear.

Because you are engineers you know that if you change the materials you get dramatic changes in the properties of your products. How about solar power that actually is affordable and really works? There are a lot of different people working on that, but a lot of what they are using is nanotechnology. To a lot of people fuel cells are boring, but hopefully as engineers you know batteries and fuel cells are critical. Battery technology is toxic and it doesn’t work well enough. This is something that we really want to see improve.

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At this point, if you are a big company making physical products and you are not doing this, you are just not paying attention. If you want to work on nanotechnology, go to a good high-tech company. One thing to watch out for, you get these clueless companies. There is one company, I think it is in Korea, that is putting silver ions in the water of the washing machines, because silver ions will kill the bacteria on the clothes. Sounds nice. Then what happens to the water? The water goes out into the sewer system, into the sewage treatment, and eventually gets out into the world. Now, hello, we don’t want to kill all the bacteria out in the world. There are lots of good bacteria.

When they are interviewed about this in the media, they say, “We checked that. The ions complex out, it’s not an issue.” But if you go to their website, there’s nothing there. I think that if you are going to do stuff like this, you are going to have to, as a matter of responsibility to the public, present some reason for me to believe you did this. These washers have already been banned in some countries. I think the silver ions is the one thing the EPA has started to look at and question, but this is out of a huge range of stuff that is going on. These are good folks, the problem is that they have no budget. This is the one thing that has been so egregious that they had to take some action on it. There are some other applications of silver ions, like in hospitals, but is this important to put in the washing machines?

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Smart uniforms is interesting. It is very hard for people to make predictions and give you projections based on the mid-timeframe. One of the main places that is willing to do this is the MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. That is because the fellow who runs it is pretty gutsy and he will make some fairly dramatic predictions.

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It’s getting to be hard to come up with an area that is not affected, really, by materials.

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These are products that are out there that will say that they are using some form of nanotechnology. There are zillions of them out there at this point. You may have heard of these stain-resistant pants. What people do at these nanotechnology conferences is you will have a guy up there in khaki pants–it had to be a guy because they did not have them for women yet–and he would take red wine and pour it on his pants, and it would roll right off. The first thing you think is, well, so what? These are plastic pants. Why is that a big deal? Well, the reason it’s a big deal is that they feel like cotton, and they breathe like cotton, and they had might as well be cotton, but they do this thing. The change is down at the fiber level. Yes, it’s easy to do with plastic; it’s not easy to do with cotton.

Then there are things like deep penetrating skin cream. Is “deep-penetrating” a good thing? As I try to explain to people who are worried about this stuff, there are different kinds of nanoparticles. To help them understand, I say there are chunks, there are shapes, and there are blobs. Some of them are good to go deep-penetrating into your skin and some of them are not. The blobs are just smaller capsules of a type of material that you want to dissolve. Smaller things that you want to dissolve should dissolve faster–that’s a good thing.

Then there are chunks, which are smaller quantities of something we used to have in bigger sizes. I’m not sure you guys are old enough to remember when the lifeguards at the pool had a white nose. You probably have never seen that because you’re too young for that. There was a reason for that, which was that the particles of zinc oxide were big enough that the light was reflecting off of them. Now, you buy that stuff all the time and put it on, but the particles are smaller and so they aren’t reflecting the light.

Have these things been tested? Are there concerns about these smaller particles? We are assured that in the case of the sunscreens they have been tested, but in many of these types of products, they have not been tested. They have shown that some of these very small particles can do strange things, like go through the blood-brain barrier, travel up to the olfactory bulb and things like that.

I talked about blobs and I talked about chunks. The other one is shapes. Things like nanotubes and buckyballs, those are new shapes down at the nanoscale. Some clever company in England has made a skin cream with buckyballs in it. The reason they put the buckyballs in is, they said it’s a “good antioxidant.” Well, sure, lots of things are good antioxidants, that doesn’t mean you want to put it on your face. People put this stuff on their face and then their babies lick it off.

These are the kinds of size of particles where they have started to do safety studies, and they go where we aren’t used to having particles go in the body. Is a face cream really that important? It’s critical that when you see these types of things you think about whether this is a good product. Let’s say that it was a buckyball anti-cancer agent… okay, fine. We are willing to take some risks because this person is dying of cancer anyway, but this person who is using the face cream could just as well use some other kind of face cream and be perfectly happy with that. Most people don’t know, but the FDA does not really regulate cosmetics in the U.S. I just saw a statistic saying 61% of lipsticks have lead in them. Cosmetics are a big issue here.

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Any company that is doing high-performance stuff–if you buy the world’s most expensive pair of skis, or even bicycles, at this point–odds are there is going to be something nanotechnological in them. Sports equipment turns out to be a very early adopter of new materials. If you want to experiment with the new materials, you can do that.

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Forbes named the ipod nano a “nanotechnology product.” Is it? As you know, semiconductor chips are all doing things that are way under 100 nanometers. In that sense the whole semiconductor industry is nanotechnology.

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I’m not going to go through these one by one, but flexible solar cells are very cool. I’m sure there is a lot of research here at Stanford about that. This is a weird one, “Mini mass spectrometer for home air monitoring.” Who would think you would need a mass spectrometer in your home? “Carbon nanotube artificial muscles for artificial limbs,” you may have seen recently in the media, some poor person who had an artificial limb was disqualified from athletic competition because the limb was stronger than a natural limb and so he was disqualified. Talk about augmentation, enhancement–we’re there already.

“Water filtration,” you hear a lot about this. A lot of the world has disastrous problems with their water. The entire continent of Australia is rapidly running out of water. I don’t know what they are going to do. We just have to get serious about this. If you want to track in a casual way what is going on, we do a weekly news digest in nanotechnology. You can sign up for that at our website.

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Next is the Roadmap. It was kicked off by a fellow named Ted Waitt, the founder of Gateway, one of the PC companies. We spent two years on it.

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These are some of the products we are looking at. Here you are getting into the more visionary stuff. On that side there is the nearer-term stuff–semiconductor devices, super strong fibers. Then over here–programmable cell repair systems–very visionary medical applications. The general goals on the right don’t change. Everyone wants better health care and better transportation.

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You may have heard the terms for nanotechnology “top-down” and “bottom-up.” “Top-down” just means you have a bunch of stuff, you carve away at it. This is traditional semiconductor engineering. You do not have control over the structure at the atomic level. You try to make things smaller, but ultimately, the smaller you get, you still are not going to have atomic precision because the stuff you started with was not properly arranged. “Bottom-up is the other way.” You start from scratch and build it up molecule by molecule, and try to maintain that precision. Those are both totally valid ways of doing things. I think any sensible engineer would say you need both. Eventually, they are going to meet.

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I would encourage you, when you get the chance to be involved in these roadmap projects to go ahead and jump in. It really helps you get a sense of where these things are going to go. That helps you figure out where you might want to work, where you are on the path to something interesting. These are some of the different organizations that were involved, and some links. As you see here, other organizations have their own nanotechnology roadmaps from their own perspectives.

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Now we get off into some of the policy stuff. Some of the positive areas that are going to be applied, here are six areas for nanotechnology that we thought are very exciting. We have gotten a little flak on the third one, longevity. Not everyone is into longevity.

Audience: How long are you looking at for that being a positive thing? Are we talking five to ten years more?

The funny thing about technology is that it is really hard to stop things. You aim for five to ten years, but you don’t know what you are going to get. It is likely any time you go into the lab. You want to make a stronger material, but how much stronger? We have had surprises. People will always want medical research, as long as anybody is dying they will want medical research. That is just how we are. So, it is really hard to decide that such and such a number is enough.

One of the wishes, I think in Japan, is to live 10,000 years. Now, presumably they are not serious about that number, but there it is. I’m not going to go to Japan and say, “I know you want 10,000 years, but we in the United States have a different view.” Oh, do you indeed? You know, why should we care what you want in the U.S.?

Here is a scenario that may help you think about longevity. People think, I am going to be very old and decrepit. That is what they are picturing. People have a heck of a time breaking out of that. If you tell them a big number, even one hundred, all they can picture is someone who is very old and very unhappy. It is very hard for us to break out of that. You have to go through little exercises to consider what it would be like to be that old and be healthy. What would you look like? What would your family look like at that stage?

People sometimes will say, “I wouldn’t want to live that long. What would I do?” Maybe you should read some science fiction? Think about your great-great grandchild wants you to go to his soccer game today. Do you decide, “Gee, should I check out today, or should I go to the soccer game?” Is this going to be a hard decision?

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You cannot think about nanotechnology without thinking about timeframes. In the near-term it is all about materials. Even the most boring part of nanotechnology is exciting, and this is the most boring part. As engineers, you hopefully are not bored by materials.

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In the mid-term, it is very hard to get people to even speculate about what is going to be happening. I mentioned the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. My favorite one they talk about are the boots that let you jump twenty feet in the air. You wonder what happens when you come down twenty feet out of the air, but they’re presumably working on that one.

A lot of it is about smart uniforms, not new weapons. It’s all unclassified. How do you build medical abilities into the uniform so that you have total monitoring, you can treat the wounds? For example, you have a uniform made of a flexible fabric, and then if you are injured you hit a button or it senses you were injured and it becomes stiff, protects you, and starts to heal the wound. These are the kinds of smart uniforms they are looking at. If you look at them, they look like Darth Vader. They really look intimidating, these uniforms. They need PR help.

Lots of folks are working on DNA readers. That is going to be cheap well within your working careers. Anyone who thinks that they are going to have DNA privacy, it is very hard to see how that is going to be. You know you leave your DNA everywhere. All the time you are shedding cells, like as I walked in here my DNA is spread everywhere. It’s going to be pretty hard to keep that a secret.

What is going to come first, the DNA reader or a certain type of targeted drug delivery? In terms of targeted drug delivery, are we going to see it first for Parkinson’s or breast cancer? Who knows? Even with soldier nanotechnologies, are we going to get the boots that let you jump twenty feet in the air or the exoskeleton that lets you lift hundreds of pounds? It depends on so many things–on funding, how excited people get about them. It actually matters how excited engineers get about things. Is this a cool thing? Is this a sexy thing? Is this the kind of thing that your friends get excited about when you tell them what you are doing, or do they go, “I can’t imagine why you would waste your time on that, it is so boring.”

There are so many things that drive technology forward. Some things are just technologically easier. Doing things on the internet is easier than doing things in the chemistry lab, in general. Software people decide, “Oh, I want to go and do nanotechnology.” And then they find out how hard it is compared to software. Atoms just are very poorly behaved compared to bits.

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Then we get out into the longer, and I am not even prepared to put a date on this. “Zero waste manufacturing” is a phrase that was used in a U.K. government report. It is not particularly clear why when you are building something that you need atoms and molecules left over to throw in the air and the water. It is not, in theory, necessary to do that. If you have control of the molecules going through the process, you could keep control of the things left over at the end and recycle them back into the process. It is not really necessary to throw them away.

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This is the long-term vision. This is a very early design. The ones at Nanorex are so much sexier than this, like by orders of magnitude. The cool thing is, you can get their software and you can do your own designs right now. They say they are going to open source it, but they have not done that yet. I have seen fairly elaborate designs. People have blogs where they say, “Here’s my new design,” and it is stuff that is more complicated than that.

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This is a cut-away version of a planetary gear. If you are a mechanical engineer you probably know, they have them in your cars. This is half of one so that you can see it working. You will notice it is wiggly, and that is just the way things are down there. We cannot make things as stiff as you want. They are more flexible, and that is a big design constraint. In fact, dealing with this flexibility, dealing with the fact that you cannot make things as stiff as you want, is a primary engineering design constraint at that level. It’s very annoying, but that’s the way it is, so we have to deal with it.

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This is the zero-waste manufacturing, or atomically precise manufacturing. Obviously, parts of this are in schematic form. The reason for this is, if I were to go to one of my technical folks and say, “I want to see where every atom is” you would not be able to parse this. We have to leave some out so that you can see the important parts. You can see here, I believe they are putting down hydrogen atoms.

When you look at things like this, you could say, “Is this an artist’s conception, is this an illustration of something that actually has been built, or is this a design?” Most people when they look at this, they think it is either complete fantasy, or they think it is a picture of something that has been built. The answer is it is neither one of those. As engineers at Stanford, you know that just because something is a design does not mean that it has not been checked out technically. You can do very detailed modeling of this that will convince you that this ought in theory to work. You will run into people who believe it’s either an artist’s conception or something that is already built, and don’t understand something that is called “a design.”

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ELSI: ethical, legal, societal implications. These are the kinds of things that will not be your job as engineers to address, but these will be coming up as side issues in your work. You do not want to be responsible for things like silver ions in the washing machines. (Watch–they’ll show that it is okay, and I’ll get in trouble for that. They have to show me, that’s all I’m saying.)

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One of the things that may come up as you work with nanotechnology in the products that you are designing are privacy and surveillance issues. Nanotechnology-based sensors are going to be so inexpensive, so able to detect things down at the molecular level that in fact it does raise privacy issues. Basically, it is chemical surveillance of people.

One example I use on college campuses is I say, let’s say we had this very advanced nanotechnology sensors right now and somehow the current administration is still in office. They have all these issues about drugs, and we are on a college campus. Presumably, there may be drugs on this college campus. If there is a single molecule of the drug on this college campus, we are going to be able to detect it. You can just imagine the disruption. If every time one of these detectors goes off, I guess we are going to have to interrupt the class and bring around the nanosensor, see who it is that has been doing whatever.

We are getting used to cameras. This would be chemical surveillance, and are we comfortable with that? Who should have the data, and who should own these devices? Do you want to say that private individuals cannot own these devices? There are all kinds of policy issues. What I, as a technical person, say is that we do not want to leave these decisions up to the politicians. The people who designed the internet, this is sort of before my time, but I have read that they built policy decisions in at the lowest levels.

In fact, if you look at how the standard setting operations work now, they make political decisions with technology all the time. Who is going to control this technology? In the internet world, these decisions are made routinely, and they are mostly still made by technical people in these standards organizations, people who are willing to go in there and do horrible work. Somebody technical enough to understand how to implement freedom issues and make sure technologies are not abused. As technical people, we have the opportunity to steer those things if we are willing to step up to it. Not a pleasant task, but somebody has to do it.

Someday you may have the opportunity to build in at the “operating system level,” I use that as a metaphor, how a technology works or who gets the data. The people who did the internet in the early days were pretty good about that. We can sort of say, let’s step up to that ourselves.

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Military applications of nanotechnology are absolutely terrifying. I went to a DoD workshop about it. Just appalling. That stuff will probably hit in your working lifetime. Nasty stuff.

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Human enhancement, a more cheerful topic for most of us. We already talked about the guy who is now too strong to play athletics. The human body can be enhanced in all sorts of ways. You can think of new senses to add. A friend of mine, just for fun and to make a point, inserted a magnet in his finger to be able to sense physically magnetic fields. Is this something that is interesting and important to do? Maybe not. I think he probably took it out at this point, but the point is that what you can do with an instrument in the long term you might be able to implant into the human body. Then you have that ability in your body.

We talked about longevity, lifespan issues. There is already a big ethical debate about this, even though we are not anywhere near doing it in nanotechnology, really. Again, there are people in this country who are going to want to tell other countries what they can do with enhancement. We can guarantee this. I just don’t know how you can do that without getting people really angry. I would not want to tell other countries what to do in this space. On the other hand, you could imagine serious abuses–enhancement without permission, enhancement to make a supersoldier without the person’s permission. You could imagine countries doing that. That is the kind of thing where most people would say that is a real ethical issue. We may actually want to cross national borders to discuss this issue and bring our views to bear.

There is no way to disconnect technology from ethics. Either you care about this, or you don’t. I think these are very interesting to think about, sometimes very scary, but important and worthwhile. The kind of people I meet by addressing these issues are very interesting people.

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We talked a little bit already about human enhancement. Control of emotions, we are already seeing early stages of that now. We are seeing things like control of personality, which are already very controversial. A lot of these things are being driven by the pharmaceutical industry. They are finding things that deal with enhancement as they work on Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. That’s just part of the deal of doing experiments and seeing how different chemicals affect the brain. Some of them are going to do these things. It’s fun to argue about this, but I’m not sure any of this stuff is going to be resolved until it actually comes. Then we are going to find out who is on what side of this.

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We have some Guidelines for Responsible Development. They mainly deal with safety issues, rather than some of these more complicated technical issues. These are online at foresight.org/guidelines, and this is going to be an ongoing thing.

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Just a reminder, I talk about all these negative things, but most of the applications are wonderful. This stuff sounds like science fiction, but one of my favorite ways of looking at it is that if you are looking ahead, and it seems like science fiction, then it might be wrong. But if it doesn’t seem like science fiction, then it definitely is wrong. It better look like science fiction, or you know it is wrong.

Try to envision a world without the internet. I can do it, because I remember. It is very hard to realize how dramatically things can change. The internet has been a huge change in my own lifetime. I don’t have all that much trouble with this, because I have already seen one big change.

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You may have noticed that Washington, D.C. does not do a very good job on security. I have pointed at various changes that are going to make security even more challenging. What this means is that unless someone else figures out something else, they are going to screw up even worse.

[Graph: the transparent society offers security without privacy, centralized government guarantees neither.  The EFF protects privacy and not security. Open source physical security attempts to ensure both privacy and security.]

If on these two axes, this is security and privacy, what you get if you leave it up to the folks who are currently in charge–and I am not saying that these are bad folks or they are not smart. I think a lot of them are wonderful folks and they are smart, but they have a horribly difficult challenge and they are embedded in a very difficult system. If we leave it up to the folks who are struggling with it now, what you get is neither security nor privacy. That’s where we are now.

Who is addressing these other issues? Some of you may be members of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They defend our privacy rights. Great folks, I’m a member. They are focused on privacy. They don’t really focus on security issues. They have their hands full with privacy issues and I don’t think they are going to take this on.

Who else is looking at this? There is a book out called The Transparent Society. It’s a great book; definitely worth reading. Looking at the future of sensors and surveillance, saying this is going to continue, getting stronger and stronger and in more and more hands, until we are in a transparent society. Whoever has these surveillance devices can tell everything that is going on.

David Brin looked at that and said, I don’t see any way around the fact that these sensors are going to be cheap and ubiquitous. Since that is the case, the question becomes who gets the data. His principle is that it could be only the government that gets the data, or it could be everybody. Basically, it is classified and only open to law enforcement, the military and politicians, or it is open sourced and everybody knows everything that is going on. Being who he is, he said that if it has to be one or the other, he wants the latter. That is the ‘transparent society’ vision, which is, you get security through this very broadly shared information. Everybody knows what is going on. Naturally, we have all sorts of commercial issues and national security issues, but basically, that is the transparent society vision. You get security; you don’t have privacy.

For a long time I struggled with this. If you don’t have security, you might end up being dead eventually. Though the EFF is doing great with privacy, you might end up having a very private dead life, so this alone is not going to work. The transparent society vision has issues as well. How is this going to work in terms of privacy? What I am trying to do is come up with a new vision of security and privacy. Just to have something to call this quadrant, I’m using the term “open source physical security” or “decentralized physical security.”

At this point, it is all wild speculation to say, “What would such a thing look like?” From the term “open source,” you can see that I am trying to get some of the benefits of the sharing of information of the transparent society vision. From the decentralization angle, we don’t have some kind of monolithic entity at the top that has all the data. This is a societal and information engineering challenge.

We have some very serious security challenges coming. It’s unclear that everybody has to know everything. Not everybody wants to know everything. Nobody can know everything, anyway. What we do have to have is some way to reassure each other at different scales, whether it is our next-door neighbor, the country next door, or the country on the other side of the planet, depending on what the threat is. You have to find ways for those two entities to reassure each other, so that they know that they do not need to invade each other to check out what is going on in there.

What would this look like? You can have open source things that are not software, that are physical. Let’s say instead of One Laptop Per Child, you have an open source physical security project. The project is to design a set of sensors that will detect certain kinds of threats and send the data some places and not others. Obviously this has to be part of a bigger system. It all has to be open, so that everyone can be sure that the data can be handled properly. This is a combination of a technical challenge with a societal challenge. Those are some very speculative remarks about what would be in this quadrant.

Someday I think there will be a project like this. It is a technical issue, just like the design of the internet was a fundamentally technical issue, where somebody at some point made decisions on how hard should we make it to censor this system. It is not easy to censor the internet. You can, if you come in at a certain level, but it isn’t easy to do. These are the kinds of technical, policy, societal decisions that somebody is going to be making.

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Someday there will be a project, I predict, to do something like this. This is sort of what I talked about at the 2006 Singularity Summit. At the 2007 Singularity Summit, I looked at how you deal with physical risk.

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This is how we try to do things now in terms of security in our country. It is not because the people who are doing it are stupid, and it is not because they like this, necessarily. This is how it has come to be. Lots of things are secretive. You cannot find out who is on the no-fly-list, much less get off it. There is undisclosed biological detection in the airports. I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but if you come in to San Francisco Airport, in the international area they have a sign “No recording by the passengers.” What’s this about? Who says I can’t record?

Now, I’m sure they are just trying to defend their security procedures and make sure that I am not going to have a record of how it is done, so I can’t spoof it. But you have seen in the media that people increasingly now are defending themselves against things like police brutality on occasion, because they happen to take a picture with their cell phone. The police will try to tell you not to do that. There are court decisions being made right now looking at whether you have the right to do that. The last one said, Yes, you have the right to do that. But, you do not have the right to do it in the international baggage claim area. Should we have a right to record? Just to defend yourself from what could happen to you. We are all recording now, we just can’t prove it. What if the recording device was in my head? Would that be legal? That’s part of me now.

There are information security issues, and then there are security issues that involve threats to your physical body, or maybe your home, or your business. Somebody is going to blow it up, or there is going to be anthrax. It’s a non-cyber threat. If you are going to talk about security, you have to start to make distinctions, and that is a fundamental one. Is it a software issue or is it a physical issue? In the long-term, and this is far-future, the threats are going to evolve and arrive quickly. One thing that open source software has been good at is responding to threats quickly. It’s not that the code is necessarily intrinsically better, it’s that it has many eyes looking at it and many people who can try to help. So the defenses happen quicker and bugs are fixed faster.

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3 thoughts on “Nanotechnology: the Next Industrial Revolution Ramps Up

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