Nano-nano: Jurvetson and Drexler
I've held off blogging Steve Jurvetson's session from yesterday until I had Drexler as a sort of counterpoint. In case you don't follow the VC trade, Jurvetson is sort of the marquee nanotech proponent in the venture capital world. Unsurprisingly to the bloody-minded set, he's looking first for near term business implications in nano projects. It's best if they combine here-and-now pragmatism with an ultimately disruptive outcome when and if they succeed.
Steve lays out two paths ahead. The 'top down' path fits nanometer molecular features within an existing manufacturing framework, specifically that of planar silicon processing. In places where it is hitting its limits, some very specific techniques for self-assembling (for instance) molecular memory or interconnects could break down road blocks, without having to build up an entire novel infrastructure. Two observations:
- He talked about the issue of scale, meaning the problems of connecting into molecular scale structure inserted within a macroscopic world of flipchips and pinouts. I was also thinking about 'scale', that the top down path is a bet on leveraging the existing scale economies of silicon processing.
- Jurvetson showed - and Drexler cited - a Moore's Law graph looking back to mechnical pre-computers and extending to now, of course with the implication that nanotechnology is how the curve will be continued. Interestingly, Steve then dropped the topic - none of his examples, and none of his ventures, are directly about squeezing out more cycles. It's getting increasingly hard to get paid for riding that side of the silicon learning curve, it may also be a weak reed to support nanotech. Watch the man's feet and wallet, which seem to be betting on energy, sensors, displays and memory, not cycles.
Back to Jurvetson's second path. Unsurprisingly, it's 'bottom up', in this case up from biological goo. We're talking about hijacking existing nanotech libraries cooked into the genetic codes of organisms, from twiddling heat shock proteins in order to create a regular self-assembly grid for circuits, to forced mutations of bacteriophages toward externally imposed evolutionary goals. Scale in this case comes from exploiting a massively parallel genetic algorithm - the original!
While he didn't quite say it, I'll infer that Steve sees these two paths converging in the middle. Leverage the scale market from the top, leverage the evolutionary approach from the bottom. Borrow from both Gordon Moore and Mother Nature, and keep your capital light. Anyone who's played with GAs knows that specifying the problem correctly (just like neural nets and linear programming) is often the better part of the solution. Are we heading toward a future in which the specification of an interesting 'target' nanoscale engineeering program becomes tantamount to its solution? He seems to hint at it with the notion that some types of nanoventures may be analogous to drug discovery, both in intellectual property and business structure.
If Jurvetson is capital light, Drexler is still Big Science, or wants to be. I first heard a version of his pitch under the trees at Camp Swig, probably at Hackers 2.0, which would make it 17 years ago. It hasn't changed in essence, but it's grown darker. We're not only to worry about building the theory and infrastructure for self-replicating nanomachines, but buy a regulatory insurance policy against Grey Goo cooked in the outback by terrorists. Get your arms race here! I guess I recognize the business model - it's called 'start a war and sell arms to both sides.' Except, the guvmint itself seems to be stubbornly funding pretty much here-and-now applications. The guys on our side of the hypothetical arms race are building point applications that keep us ahead of the Bad Guys, and dissing the Big Nano approach.
You've got to watch out for Kevin Kelly, who asked the most subtle question of the Drexler session: "What have you learned in 20 years?" The answer is apparently that bureaucratic scientists persist in not seeing it Eric's way. The Coyote persists in using a different set of physics, and stubbornly just keeps walking on air. I'm sorry, this is not a useful learning curve. Devastating. (Note to self : refrain from calling on KK if I'm pitching...)