Combining The Social And The Nanotechnology A Model For Converging Technologies

Michael E. Gorman, University of Virginia

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is considering societal implications as the new field of nanotechnology emerges, rather than wait for major problems to occur before attempting a fix. This concern for ethics at the earliest stages of discovery and invention needs to be extended to converging technologies as well, a theme to which I will return. But at the outset, I will limit my remarks to nanotechnology, following up on the 2001 NSF meeting on this topic (Roco and Bainbridge 2001).

H. Glimell (2001) has discussed how new fields like nanotechnology create the need for work at the boundaries between fields:

Consider for example molecular electronics compared with bio-nano (or the interface of biological and organic nano materials). The actors, nodes and connections to appear in the extension of these NSE subareas obviously constitute two very different networks of innovation. Nanoelectronics is being negotiated and molded in between two camps — the conservative mainstream of the microelectronics industry with its skepticism towards anything popping up as a challenger to the three decade old CMOS technology trajectory, and the camp committed to a scenario where that trajectory might come to its end within some five years from now. (Glimell 2001, 199)

Peter Galison (1997) uses the metaphor of a trading zone between different cultures to describe cooperative work at boundaries. One of his examples is the collaboration between physicists and engineers in the Radiation Laboratory at MIT during World War II: "Each of the different subcultures was forced to set aside its longer term and more general symbolic and practical modes of work in order to construct the hybrid of practices that all recognized as "radar philosophy." Under the gun, the various subcultures coordinated their actions and representations in ways that had seemed impossible in peacetime; thrown together they began to get on with the job of building radar" (Galison 1997, 827). Despite differences in training and expertise, engineers and physicists of varying backgrounds were able to trade important information.

The current debates about nanotechnology are signs of an expanded trading zone. As Etkowitz has pointed out (2001), the physical sciences need to find a way to emulate the success of the life sciences while avoiding the ethical and social problems that have emerged as genetically modified organisms hit the market. Hence, several extravagant promises have been made about nanotechnology, promises that lead to concerns about what would happen if these promises were fulfilled — if, for example, self-replicating nanobots were ever created. The hardest thing to predict about a new technology is the interaction effect it will have with other evolving social and technical systems.

Thomas Park Hughes, a historian of technology who has spent a lifetime studying the invention of large technological systems, discusses how reverse salients attract inventors: "A salient is a protrusion in a geometric figure, a line of battle, or an expanding weather front. As technological systems expand, reverse salients develop. Reverse salients are components in the system that have fallen behind or are out of phase with the others" (Hughes 1987, 73). In the 1870s, progress in telegraphy was hindered by the fact that only two messages could be sent down a single wire at the same time: the classic problem of bandwidth.

What are the reverse salients that attract researchers and funding to nanotechnology? One is Moore's Law, which reaches asymptote very quickly unless a way can be found to shrink integrated circuits to the nanoscale. This current reverse salient is an instance of a historical one. Earlier, it was vacuum tubes that held up progress in computing. Transistors solved that problem, but then formed their own reverse salient as computing needs expanded to the point where "Production of the first 'second generation' (i.e., completely transistorized) computer — the control data CD 1604, containing 25,000 transistors, 100,000 diodes, and hundreds of thousands of resistors and capacitors — lagged hopelessly behind schedule because of the sheer difficulty of connecting the parts" (Reid 1984, 18). The apparent solution was miniaturization, but there were physical limits. The solution was to transform the problem: instead of building tiny transistors, create an integrated circuit. Nanotechnology offers a similar way of transcending the limits of microchip technology.

Another reverse salient is mentioned by several of contributors to the 2001 Report on the Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology of the Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) of the National Science and Technology Council (Roco and Bainbridge 2001). This is the ability to study and emulate fine-grained cellular structures. "Follow the analogy of nature" is a common invention heuristic that depends on an intimate knowledge of nature. Bell used this heuristic to transform the telegraph reverse salient in the 1870s. Instead of an improved device to send multiple messages down a single wire, he created a device to transmit and receive speech, using the human ear as a mental model. Bell's telephone patent formed the basis for one of the great communications start-ups of all time, the Bell Telephone Corporation, which surpassed Western Union, the Microsoft of its day (Carlson 1994). Similarly, detailed understanding of cellular processes at the nanoscale will lead to new devices and technologies that may transform existing reverse salients.

A potential set of reverse salients that came up repeatedly in the 2001 NSET report are environmental problems like ensuring clean water and providing adequate energy.

The terrorist attacks on September 11th will create a new series of reverse salients, as we think about ways of using technology to stop terrorism — and also of protecting against misuses of technology that could contribute to terrorism. Research should be directed towards determining which aspects of these broad reverse salients can be converted into problems whose solutions lie at the nanoscale. One important goal of such research should be separating hype from hope.

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