Visionaries see the promise
and the nightmare of nanotech

NEW YORK — Nanotechnology and MEMS will follow the same exponential growth pattern that has accelerated the power of computing chips, digital storage and the cost of DNA sequencing, said Ray Kurzweil, inventor and author of “The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.”

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Kurzweil, breakfast keynote speaker at the NanoBusiness Spring 2002 conference, outlined his view of how the world is speeding toward an intimate melding of man and micromachine through small tech enabled neural implants and nanobots.

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His mathematical models predict that by 2029, “nonbiological intelligence” costing about $1,000 in current dollars will have the computing power of a thousand human brains. Moreover, these 3-D, molecular computers will operate far faster and share data much more rapidly than human organs ever could.

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Another Kurzweil scenario suggests that the accelerating advance of small tech will lead to human life expectancy increasing a year, every year.

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Kurzweil’s morning remarks, “Exponentially Growing Ventures From Exponentially Shrinking Technology,” traced the inexorable path that he says biological evolution, human culture and technologies are driving us toward.

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“Ten thousand years ago humans developed fire, stone tools and the wheel,” Kurzweil said. “A thousand years ago the printing press emerged.”

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That pace has increased steadily.

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Today, Kurzweil contends, the pace of change is accelerating so fast that the next 20 years will produce as much new technology as the entire 20th century. And that amount of change will double again in only 14 more years.

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Such a staggering rate of change is more than most people can comprehend, Kurzweil said.

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Newt Gingrich, the NanoBusiness Alliance’s honorary chairman and the meeting’s keynote speaker, put the future of small tech in historical perspective and offered a sense of how he expected the field to unfold.

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While many nanotech watchers have been wary of a dot-com-style hype, Gingrich views the Internet industry bubble as a “function of market emotion,” not a real rejection of the underlying technology.

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Gingrich noted that even while the stock prices of 19th century railroad companies went through several boom-and-bust cycles, the number of rail-miles, the power of locomotives and decline in transportation costs progressed without pause and in spite of such market gyrations.

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Such financial fads or market manias have been a consistent pattern over 400 years, said Gingrich, belying the objective advance of technology even in the face of market flux.

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The former U.S. House speaker and history professor said nanotechnology today is about where computing was in the 1950s. However, Gingrich noted, new development factors such as better access to venture capital, more rapid dissemination of ideas and information as well as wider entrepreneurial experience should speed nanotech’s commercialization.

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To that end, the NanoBusiness Alliance announced Monday it was forming NanoBusiness Angels, a funding network to help early-stage small tech startups get moving. The initiative, explained alliance Executive Director Mark Modzelewski, is an example of how the group is aiming to be an industry catalyst, not merely a trade organization.

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Gingrich also said that development of a new generation of instruments is critical to advancing nanotechnology. As nanoscale devices increasingly operate on the quantum level, Gingrich said, it is vital not just to measure what is going on, but to understand why and how atoms and molecules follow quantum principles.

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“Franklin ‘discovered’ electricity long before anyone understood how it worked,” Gingrich said.

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Gingrich described the risks of not investing enough in science and education, joking that “the U.S. produces too many lawyers and not enough scientists.” He noted that without the contributions of immigrant European and Asian scientists, America’s postwar economic growth would have been “anemic.”

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While decidedly bullish on small tech, Gingrich also cited strategic concerns. First among them was that a genetically engineered virus “could be the greatest threat to human civilization, greater even than a nuclear weapon, with the potential of a 100 percent fatality rate.”

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In a special CEO roundtable discussion after their presentations, Gingrich and Kurzweil elaborated on some of their thoughts. They were asked whether political or environmental factors such as the bioterror danger Gingrich had raised might undermine Kurzweil’s vision of technology’s exponential future.

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“Look at computer viruses,” Kurzweil said. While malicious code may have caused millions of dollars worth of damage, a catastrophic crippling of networks has been averted by antivirus software and security measures. “We’re evolving defenses at the same rate as offensive threats.”

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While Kurzweil believes that defensive biotechnology can keep ahead of offensive dangers, he conceded that “technology is a double-edged sword.”

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Gingrich agreed that cancer-curing biotech may also be capable of killing humans with unprecedented efficiency. And that, as Kurzweil noted in his remarks, “is an uneasy balance and a challenge to civilization.”

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