Nanotechnology and Scientific Progress
Unwittingly, I first encountered nanotechnology when I was a very small child. When I was four years old, I had the opportunity to visit the laboratory of multimillionaire and nuclear scientist Alfred Lee Loomis in his mansion at Tuxedo Park, New York. He showed me secrets that were too highly classified for an adult who might understand their importance. Loomis was a financier with some connection to my maternal grandfather's Wall Street law firm, but he was also a practicing physicist who played major roles in two high-tech programs that helped the Allies win World War II: the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and the Radiation Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which developed radar.4 In his lab, Loomis first showed me a cup and then poured water into it; I was astonished to see that the water poured out again magically through the solid ceramic material. Only decades later did I realize that I had seen the fundamental secret of gas diffusion uranium isotope separation. It was my first introduction to nanotechnology.
There are several ways to obtain the fissionable material necessary to make an atom bomb. One of the first means developed relied on the separation of U235, the isotope of uranium suited for a bomb, from the unsuitable but much more common U238, using gas diffusion. Because they are isotopes of the same chemical element, the two cannot be separated by means of any chemical reaction. Instead, their slightly different physical properties need to be exploited to carry out the separation.
In this technique, uranium composed of both isotopes is chemically combined with fluorine to make uranium hexafluoride, which when heated becomes a gas. This gas is extremely corrosive and must be handled very carefully because of both its chemical properties and its radioactivity. For example, when uranium hexafluoride meets water, it generates hydrofluoric acid, which is so corrosive it can eat through glass.
The uranium hexafluoride is then passed through a porous barrier—a sheet of something with holes to allow the gas through—that slows the U238 down slightly, because it is slightly heavier. Although the exact details remain classified, the ideal average size of the pores is about 10 nanometers.5 This is not just a matter of having holes that are exactly the right size to let U235 through yet block U238. A uranium atom is slightly less than one nanometer in diameter, and clustering six fluorine atoms around it does not produce a big molecule. The efficiency of the separation process is low, so it is necessary to cascade a large number of separation steps to enrich the uranium sufficiently for use in a bomb, and other methods are used today.
When Loomis showed me his sample of the gas diffusion barrier, in the form of a cup that could not hold its water, the first atomic bomb had not been detonated yet, and the word "nanotechnology" had not been coined. Nevertheless, even a child could see that his laboratory held secrets of the utmost importance. A sense of how far nano has come since those bygone days can be gained from the speeches given by six scientists when they accepted the Nobel Prize for great advances that enabled rapid development in nanoscience. The NNI website notes, "Nanoscale science was enabled by advances in microscopy, most notably the electron, scanning tunneling, and atomic force microscopes, among others. The 1986 Nobel Prize for Physics honored three of the inventors of the electron and scanning tunnel microscopes: Ernst Ruska, Gerd Binnig, and Heinrich Rohrer."6
The first electron microscope, which was built in 1931 by Ruska and Max Knoll, was hardly more powerful than a student's optical microscope, magnifying objects 400 times their diameter. Optical microscopes, however, remain limited by the rather long wavelengths of visible light (400–700 nanometers). In contrast, over a period of years, the resolving power of electron microscopes gradually sharpened until it reached deep into the nanoscale. The research by Ruska and Knoll was initially intended to refine oscilloscopes—devices used to measure fluctuating electric currents and signals, which were based on the same kind of cathode ray tube used as the picture tube in television sets before the introduction of flat screens. A cathode ray tube draws a picture on a fluorescent screen by scanning an electron beam over it. In 1929, Ruska became the first person to carry out experiments in which a well-focused electron beam actually cast images of a physical object in the beam's path. Two years later he developed an arrangement of focusing coils that permitted enlargement of the image—that is, the first electron microscope.7
Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer did not set out to develop a new kind of microscope, but rather sought to perform spectroscopic analysis of areas as small as 10 nanometers square. Interested in the quantum effect called tunneling, they were aware that other scientists were studying this phenomenon in connection with spectroscopy, and they began to think about how they might apply it in their own work. Binnig and Rohrer considered studying a material by passing a small probe with a very tiny tip over the surface so that electrons would tunnel across the gap. As they noted in their lecture accepting the Nobel Prize: "We became very excited about this experimental challenge and the opening up of new possibilities. Astonishingly, it took us a couple of weeks to realize that not only would we have a local spectroscopic probe, but that scanning would deliver spectroscopic and even topographic images, i.e., a new type of microscope."8
New measurement instruments and research methodologies are fundamental to the development of new fields of science and engineering. Once methods of research exist, then discoveries naturally follow. In 1985, Robert F. Curl, Jr., Sir Harold W. Kroto, and Richard E. Smalley discovered that carbon atoms can assemble into ball-shaped structures rather like the geodesic domes designed by architect Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s.9 In recognition of the similarity, these assemblies of carbon atoms came to be called "buckyballs" or, more formally, buckminsterfullerenes (usually shortened to fullerenes). The best known, C60, is a practically spherical structure of 60 carbon atoms; because it is hollow, it is therefore capable of holding other atoms inside. Figure 1-2 shows what one might look like—if atoms were like solid balls and you could shrink yourself down to nanoscale and still be able to see.
Figure 1-2 Superscale model of a fullerene, built by Troy McLuhan, on display in a virtual world. This nanoscale structure appears twice the height of a human being in the Science Center in the online environment called Second Life (http://www.secondlife.com/), illustrating the many convergences between nanotechnology and information technology.
Fullerenes earned their discoverers the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and inspired many researchers to hunt for other remarkable structures at the nanoscale. As the Nanotech Facts webpage of the NNI notes, the development of practical applications is not automatic but can follow more or less quickly:
- The transition of nanotechnology research into manufactured products is limited today, but some products moved relatively quickly to the marketplace and already are having significant impact. For example, a new form of carbon—the nanotube—was discovered by Sumio Iijima in 1991. In 1995, it was recognized that carbon nanotubes were excellent sources of field-emitted electrons. By 2000, the "jumbotron lamp," a nanotube-based light source that uses these field-emitted electrons to bombard a phosphor, was available as a commercial product. (Jumbotron lamps light many athletic stadiums today.) By contrast, the period of time between the modeling of the semiconducting property of germanium in 1931 and the first commercial product (the transistor radio) was 23 years.10
After experiencing 60 years of progress since the Manhattan Project, is nanotechnology now ready to transform the world? Encouraged by science fiction writers and visionaries who wanted to turn sci-fi dreams into reality, a romantic mythology has arisen around nanotechnology. It prophesies that nanotechnology will make practically anything possible, from cost-free manufacturing of anything humans can imagine, to cure of all diseases including old age, to extinction of the human species by self-reproducing nanoscale robotic monsters. This vision imagines that "nanotech" or "nano" will be the ultimate magic, fulfilling all human wishes and fears. As such, it has helped science fiction sustain its traditional sense of wondrous possibilities, despite widespread disappointment about the original sci-fi plot device, which was space travel to other inhabited planets.
It is good to have hope, and creative individuals need unreasonable enthusiasm to overcome the resistance of the uncreative majority and to sustain their own energies when years of effort have not led to attainment of their goals. Much nano rhetoric is hyperbole, but a certain amount of nanohype may be necessary to achieve real progress. Probably the false impressions promulgated by science fiction writers and nontechnical visionaries have helped the real scientists and engineers receive greater funding from government and industry. Perhaps they also attract young people to the related professional fields, in an era when intellectually demanding careers in science and technology are not particularly popular among the wealthy citizens of postindustrial nations like the United States. However, investors, policy makers, and interested citizens deserve an accurate accounting of the real applications that nanotechnology is likely to have.
For the United States and other advanced postindustrial societies, a crucial part of the context for nanotechnology is the heavy reliance the economy places not only on existing technology, but also on technological innovation. If the United States stops innovating, other nations with lower labor costs will take away the business that supports American prosperity. A key ingredient for innovation is entrepreneurship, but enthusiasm and salesmanship can accomplish little if science fails to provide the technical basis for innovation.
In the early 1990s, when Scientific American journalist John Horgan interviewed many senior scientists about whether research in their field had passed the point of diminishing returns, several of them believed that all the big discoveries had been made.11 It should be noted that many of the scientists Horgan interviewed were very elderly, and they had an alarming tendency to die soon after he had interviewed them. Many were at the ends of their careers, if not their lives, and such people often like to think that their generation made the great discoveries and to begrudge future generations their own achievements. Even so, these scientists may have been correctly reporting that their fields, as traditionally defined, had already accomplished most of what could be expected of them.
Thus nanoconvergence may be absolutely essential for continued technological progress. The danger of hyping nanotechnology on the basis of false impressions is that its actual revolutionary potential might unfairly be discounted. A correct understanding of nanoconvergence requires serious, collaborative analysis by experts in many fields.
In a sense, nanotechnology is based on a scientific and technological convergence of great importance that began early in the twentieth century as physicists elucidated the nature of atoms. This knowledge, in conjunction with chemists' growing understanding of how atoms combined into molecules, gave birth to modern materials science. One way to understand how these fields connect is to examine how they are organized at the National Science Foundation. NSF is divided into a number of directorates, each representing a major territory of discovery. The Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Science (MPS) consists of five divisions: Mathematical Sciences, Physics, Chemistry, Materials Research, and Astronomical Sciences. We will refer to the domain of astronomical sciences in Chapter 8 (covering "the final frontier"), while the first four divisions provide the basis for most of nanoscience. The Directorate for Engineering has played a special role in organizing the National Nanotechnology Initiative in cooperation with people in MPS, other directorates, and other government agencies. Nanotechnology is not simply the current phase in the evolution of MPS fields, but rather reflects a new departure, based on their convergence, with the broadest possible implications.
The first serious effort to envision the societal implications of nanotechnology was a conference organized at the request of the Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology (NSET) of the U.S. government's National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), and held at NSF on September 28–29, 2000. The result was a major scientific and engineering report, Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, edited by Mike Roco and myself. The very first sentences of the introduction to this report recognized that nanotechnology's chief impact would be through partnerships with other fields:
- A revolution is occurring in science and technology, based on the recently developed ability to measure, manipulate, and organize matter on the nanoscale—1 to 100 billionths of a meter. At the nanoscale, physics, chemistry, biology, materials science, and engineering converge toward the same principles and tools. As a result, progress in nanoscience will have very far-reaching impact.12
This pioneering report had great impact, both immediate and indirect. Notably, NSF began supporting projects, both large and small, to explore the social, ethical, and economic implications of nanotechnology.13 Centers were established across the country, including the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara (grant 0531184 for $2,095,000); the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University (grant 0531194 for $2,605,000); and "From Laboratory to Society: Developing an Informed Approach to Nanoscale Science and Technology" associated with the nanotechnology center at the University of South Carolina (grant 0304448 for $1,350,000). A graduate research and training program was set up at MIT, "Assessing the Implications of Emerging Technologies" (grant 0333010 for $1,737,806), to involve faculty members and graduate students in prospective analysis of the likely implications of nanotechnology, based on retrospective analogies with earlier emerging technologies. The University of California, Los Angeles, began developing a database called NanoBank, providing information for social-science studies of nanoscience and commercialization (grant 0304727 for $1,490,000), specifically incorporating a component charting the convergence of nanotechnology with other fields. Finally, Michigan State University established a major convergent program called "Social and Ethical Research and Education in Agrifood Nanotechnology" (grant 0403847 for $1,720,000), with three objectives:14
- Deriving lessons from the social conflict over agrifood biotechnology that may be useful to the entire range of researchers engaged in the new nanotechnology initiative
- Building a new multidisciplinary competence among a team of senior researchers with extensive experience in social and ethical issues associated with agrifood technology, who have collaborated to develop communication strategies in engineering applications, and relatively junior researchers starting research programs in social and economic dimensions of agrifood science
- Identifying the most likely applications of nanotechnology within the agrifood sector (including food distribution and consumption), and developing a proactive strategy for understanding and addressing social and ethical issues associated with them
In the influential nanotechnology review called Small Wonders, Endless Frontiers, the National Research Council reported, "Scientists and engineers anticipate that nanoscale work will enable the development of materials and systems with dramatic new properties relevant to virtually every sector of the economy, such as medicine, telecommunications, and computers, and to areas of national interest such as homeland security."15 Note that this sentence implies convergence, speaking of "nanoscale work" that will "enable," rather than treating nanotechnology as a completely separate branch of engineering. The NRC based its three findings about societal implications largely on our pioneering report:16
- The development of radically new nanotechnologies will challenge how we educate our scientists and engineers, prepare our workforce, and plan and manage R&D.
- The social and economic consequences of nanoscale science and technology promise to be diverse, difficult to anticipate, and sometimes disruptive.
- Nanoscale science and technology provides a unique opportunity for developing a fuller understanding of how technical and social systems affect each other.
As soon as we had finished editing Societal Implications of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, we organized a second major gathering for December 3–4, 2001. Sponsored by NSF and the Department of Commerce, this conference examined the progress that could be achieved by combining four NBIC fields: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (Figure 1-3). Nearly 100 contributors concluded that this technological convergence could vastly increase the scope and effectiveness of human activity, thereby improving human performance and well-being. As co-editor Mike Roco and I explained in the first paragraph of the introduction to the report emerging from this conference:
- We stand at the threshold of a new renaissance in science and technology, based on a comprehensive understanding of the structure and behavior of matter from the nanoscale up to the most complex system yet discovered, the human brain. Unification of science based on unity in nature and its holistic investigation will lead to technological convergence and a more efficient societal structure for reaching human goals. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, concentrated effort can bring together nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and new technologies based in cognitive science. With proper attention to ethical issues and societal needs, the result can be a tremendous improvement in human abilities, new industries and products, societal outcomes, and quality of life.17
Figure 1-3 The NBIC tetrahedron combining nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and new technologies based on cognitive science. Scientific and technological innovation can be stimulated through the convergence of two, three, or all four fields.
Word-play is not a serious form of analysis, but fortuitous coincidences can express valid symbolisms. For example, NSF says it is the place where discoveries begin, based on its support for all forms of fundamental science. Thus it is not surprising that NSF supported the first NBIC conference. NBIC will transform the world, and the letters "NSF" are at the heart of the word "traNSForm"! Converging technologies seek to combine the powers of all sciences, and the letters "NBIC" are found in "ComBINe." They are also found in "BioNIC," the combination of biotechnology and information technology to enhance human performance.
Many perceptive observers have noticed the progressing convergence. In his massive study of the Information Society, Manuel Castells writes, "Technological convergence increasingly extends to growing interdependence between the biological and micro-electronics revolutions, both materially and methodologically. . . . Nanotechnology may allow sending tiny microprocessors into the systems of living organisms, including humans."18 Leading scientists have actively promoted convergence throughout their careers—most notably sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, who called convergence "consilience" in his 1998 book of that title.19
The challenge of integrating fields, disciplines, and subdisciplines will stimulate both theoretical creativity and empirical discovery. Measurement techniques developed in one area will accelerate progress elsewhere, as will innovative tools of all kinds, from nanoscale sensors to cyberinfrastructure. Investment by government and industry cannot be entirely justified by the anticipated intellectual benefits, however. The great promise of technological convergence must attract the interest of policy makers and ordinary citizens through the practical applications it can achieve. Converging technologies will make people healthier, stronger, smarter, more creative, and more secure. In their group deliberations and individual essays, the prominent scientists and engineers at the NBIC conference identified a variety of practical possibilities associated with this trend:20
- Comfortable, wearable sensors and computers will enhance every person's awareness of his or her health condition, environment, chemical pollutants, potential hazards, and information of interest about local businesses, natural resources, and the like.
- Machines and structures of all kinds, from homes to aircraft, will be constructed of materials that have exactly the desired properties, including the ability to adapt to changing situations, high energy efficiency, and environmental friendliness.
- A combination of technologies and treatments will compensate for many physical and mental disabilities and will eradicate altogether some handicaps that have plagued the lives of millions of people.
- Robots and software agents will be far more useful for people, because they will operate on principles compatible with human goals, awareness, and personality.
- People from all backgrounds and of all ranges of ability will learn valuable new knowledge and skills more reliably and quickly, whether in school, on the job, or at home.
- Individuals and teams will be able to communicate and cooperate profitably across traditional barriers of culture, language, distance, and professional specialization, thereby greatly increasing the effectiveness of groups, organizations, and multinational partnerships.
- The human body will be more durable, healthier, more energetic, easier to repair, and more resistant to many kinds of stress, biological threats, and aging processes.
- National security will be greatly strengthened by lightweight, information-rich war-fighting systems, capable uninhabited combat vehicles, adaptable smart materials, invulnerable data networks, superior intelligence-gathering systems, and effective measures against biological, chemical, radiological, and nuclear attacks.
- Anywhere in the world, an individual will have instantaneous access to needed information, whether practical or scientific in nature, in a form tailored for most effective use by that particular individual.
- Engineers, artists, architects, and designers will experience tremendously expanded creative abilities, both with a variety of new tools and through improved understanding of the wellsprings of human creativity.
- The ability to control the genetics of humans, animals, and agricultural plants will greatly benefit human welfare; widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process.
- The vast promise of outer space will finally be realized by means of efficient launch vehicles, robotic construction of extraterrestrial bases, and profitable exploitation of the resources of the Moon, Mars, or near-Earth-approaching asteroids.
- New organizational structures and management principles based on fast, reliable communication of needed information will vastly increase the effectiveness of administrators in business, education, and government.
- Both average persons and policy makers will have a vastly improved awareness of the cognitive, social, and biological forces operating their lives, enabling far better adjustment, creativity, and daily decision making.
- The factories of tomorrow will be organized around converging technologies and increased human–machine capabilities as "intelligent environments" that achieve the maximum benefits of both mass production and custom design.
- Agriculture and the food industry will greatly increase yields and reduce spoilage through networks of cheap, smart sensors that constantly monitor the condition and needs of plants, animals, and farm products.
- Transportation will be safe, cheap, and fast owing to ubiquitous real-time information systems, extremely high-efficiency vehicle designs, and the use of synthetic materials and machines fabricated from the nanoscale for optimal performance.
- The work of scientists will be revolutionized by importing approaches pioneered in other sciences—for example, genetic research employing principles from natural language processing and cultural research employing principles from genetics.
- Formal education will be transformed by a unified but diverse curriculum based on a comprehensive, hierarchical intellectual paradigm for understanding the architecture of the physical world from the nanoscale through the cosmic scale.
- Fast, broadband interfaces directly between the human brain and machines could transform work in factories, control automobiles, ensure military superiority, and enable new sports, art forms, and modes of interaction between people.
Since the original Converging Technologies conference, there have been three others—in Los Angeles, New York, and Kona, Hawaii—plus a second NSF-organized conference on the societal implications of nanotechnology that confirmed the centrality of nanoscience for convergence, and of convergence for the impacts of nanotechnology. I had the privilege of co-editing five of the book-length reports that grew out of these conferences and contributing two chapters to the sixth report; I also had the pleasure of attending all of these historic gatherings. In addition, the European Commission (EC) published a report in reaction to the U.S. work in this field; the EC report, called Converging Technologies: Shaping the Future of European Societies, urged concerted efforts in this area.21
At the first Converging Technologies conference, five workshop groups of experts in appropriate fields considered the research challenges associated with highly valuable applications that could enhance human performance along five different dimensions. Their conclusions follow.22
Expanding Human Cognition and Communication. The human mind can be significantly enhanced through technologically augmented cognition, perception, and communication. Central to this vital work will be a multidisciplinary effort to understand the structure and function of the mind, which means research not only on the brain, but also on the ambient sociocultural milieu, which both shapes and is shaped by individual thought and behavior. Specific application areas include personal sensory device interfaces and enhanced tools for creativity. A fundamental principle is putting people fully in command of their technology, which will require sociotechnical design to humanize computers, robots, and information systems.
Improving Human Health and Physical Capabilities. In the absence of new approaches, medical progress is widely expected to slow markedly during the coming century. To increase longevity and well-being throughout the life span, we will need to innovate in fresh areas. Nanoscale biosensors and bioprocessors can contribute greatly to research and to development of treatments, including those resulting from bioinformatics, genomics, and proteomics. Implants based on nanotechnology and regenerative biosystems may replace human organs, and nanoscale machines might unobtrusively accomplish needed medical interventions. Advances in cognitive science will provide insights to help people avoid unhealthy lifestyles, and information technology can create virtual environment tools both for training medical professionals and for enlisting patients as effective partners in their own cure.
Enhancing Group and Societal Outcomes. Peace and economic progress require vastly improved cooperation in schools, corporations, government agencies, communities, and nations, as well as across the globe. Unfortunately, communication is too often blocked by substantial barriers caused by physical disabilities, language differences, geographic distances, and variations in knowledge. These barriers can be overcome through the convergence of cognitive and information science to build a ubiquitous, universal web of knowledge, which is automatically translated into the language and presentation media desired by diverse users. Nano-enabled microscale data devices will identify every product and place, and individuals will merge their personal databases as they choose which groups and interaction networks to join. Group productivity tools will radically enhance the ability of people to imagine and create revolutionary new products and services based on the integration of the four technologies from the nanoscale.
National Security. The rapidly changing nature of international conflict demands radical innovations in defense technology, strategic thinking, and the capabilities of professional war fighters. Both mental and physical enhancement of human abilities can achieve significant gains in the performance of individual military personnel, and new battlefield communication systems employing data linkage and threat anticipation algorithms will strengthen armies and fleets. The combination of nanotechnology and information technology will produce sensor nets that are capable of instantly detecting chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive threats and can direct immediate and effective countermeasures. Uninhabited combat vehicles and human–machine interfaces will enhance both attack capabilities and survivability. As was true historically in the development of computer technology, developments initially achieved at high cost for defense purposes will be transferred over time to low-cost civilian applications, for the general benefit of society.
Unifying Science and Education. To meet the coming challenges, scientific education needs radical transformation at all stages, from elementary school through postgraduate training. Convergence of previously separate scientific disciplines and fields of engineering cannot take place without the emergence of new kinds of people who understand multiple fields in depth and can intelligently work to integrate them. New curricula, new concepts to provide intellectual coherence, and new forms of educational institutions will be necessary.
Revolutionary advances at the interfaces between previously separate fields of science and technology are ready to create key transforming tools for NBIC technologies. These tools include scientific instruments, analytical methodologies, radically new materials, and data-sharing systems. The innovative momentum achieved in these interdisciplinary areas must not be lost, but rather should be harnessed to accelerate unification of the various disciplines. Progress can become self-catalyzing if we press forward aggressively; if we hesitate, however, the barriers to progress may crystallize and become harder to surmount.
Developments in systems approaches, mathematics, and computation in conjunction with NBIC allow us for the first time to understand the natural world, human society, and scientific research as closely coupled, complex, hierarchical systems. At this moment in the evolution of technical achievement, improvement of human performance through integration of technologies becomes possible. When applied both to particular research problems and to the overall organization of the research enterprise, this complex systems approach provides holistic awareness of opportunities for integration, thereby allowing us to obtain the maximum synergy along the main directions of progress.
One reason sciences have not merged in the past is that their subject matter is so intellectually complex. It will often be possible to rearrange and connect scientific findings, based on principles from cognitive science and information theory, so that scientists from a wider range of fields can comprehend and apply those findings within their own work. Researchers and theorists must look for promising areas in which concepts developed in one science can be translated effectively for use in another science. For example, computational principles developed in natural language processing can be applied to work in genomics and proteomics, and principles from evolutionary biology can be applied to the study of human culture.
The aim of NBIC convergence is to offer individuals and groups an increased range of attractive choices while preserving such fundamental values as privacy, safety, and moral responsibility. It can give us the means to deal successfully with the often unexpected challenges of the modern world by substantially enhancing our mental, physical, and social abilities. Most people want to be healthier and to live longer. Most people want prosperity, security, and creativity. By improving the performance of all humans, technological convergence can help all of us achieve these goals together.
As the challenge posed by national security illustrates, human performance is often competitive in nature. In this arena, what may matter is the relative military power of two contending armies or the relative economic power of two competing corporations, not their absolute power. At the present time, technologically advanced nations such as the United States, Japan, and the countries of Western Europe maintain their positions in the world order in significant part through their rate of technical progress. Conversely, "developing countries" provide raw materials and relatively low-tech manufactured commodities in exchange for the cutting-edge products and services that the advanced nations can offer. If a rich nation were to cease moving forward technologically, a much poorer nation could quickly match the quality of its exports at lower cost. Although this reversal of fortune would be fine for businesses in the poorer nation, the rich nation could see its standard of living drop rapidly toward the world average. The result in such a case might be not merely disappointment and frustration, but deep social unrest.
For example, a significant fraction of the prosperity of the United States depends on the continuing superiority of its information technology, including the components manufactured by its semiconductor industry. In 1965, Gordon Moore, the co-founder of the Intel Corporation, observed that the density of transistors on the most advanced microchip doubles about every 18 months. Dubbed Moore's law, this observation has proven to be true ever since. Now, however, the transistors on conventional chips are nearing physical size limits that could repeal this "law" within a decade. If that happens, the U.S. semiconductor industry may evaporate, as other nations catch up to the current U.S. technical lead and produce comparable chips at lower cost. Not surprisingly, both U.S. government and industry have recently developed intense interest in nanotechnology approaches that could potentially extend the life of Moore's law by another decade or two—most notably, molecular logic gates and carbon nanotube transistors.
The realization of these radically new approaches will require the development of an entire complex of fresh technologies and supporting industries, so the cost of shifting over to them may be huge. Only the emergence of a host of new applications could justify the massive investments, by both government and industry, that will be required to make this transition. Already, there is talk in the computer industry of "performance overhang"—that is, the possibility that technical capabilities have already outstripped the needs of desirable applications. For example, the latest models of home computers are finally able to handle the speed and memory demands of high-quality video, but no more-demanding application is currently on the horizon that would require a new generation of hardware.
During the twentieth century, several major technologies essentially reached maturity or ran into social, political, or economic barriers to progress. Aircraft and automobiles, for example, have changed little in recent years. The introduction of high-definition television has been painfully slow, and one would predict that consumers will be content to stick with the next generation of television sets for many years. The evolution of spaceflight technology has apparently stalled at about the technical level of the 1970s, and the advance of nuclear technology has either halted or been blocked by political opposition. In medicine, the rate of introduction of new drugs has slowed, and the great potential of genetic engineering is threatened by increasing popular hostility. In short, technological civilization faces the very real danger of stasis or decline unless something can rejuvenate progress.
The Converging Technologies report suggests that the unification of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science could launch a New Renaissance. Five centuries ago, the Renaissance energized all fields of creative endeavor by infusing them with the same holistic spirit and shared intellectual principles. It is time to rekindle the spirit of the Renaissance, returning to the holistic perspective on a higher level, with a new set of principles. In the first Renaissance, a very few individuals could span multiple fields of productivity and become "Renaissance men." Today, technological convergence holds out the very real hope that all people on the planet could become "Renaissance people" by taking advantage of enhanced abilities, tools, materials, knowledge, and humane institutions.