Sometimes the seeming conflict between the overflowing optimism for nanotechnology and then the biting skepticism aimed at it creates confusion in its wake.
The skepticism surrounding nanotechnology in no small part stems from the belief—as Tim Harper points out—that a new iPhone app constitutes an emerging technology. When people confuse the next generation of an iPod with developing a material that will keep Moore's Law progressing for the next 25 years, there's likely to be some disappointment in nanotechnology.
Plus, isn’t disappointment almost assured when it seems the overriding sentiment within capital markets is “Why bother with hard to understand, risky, expensive and long term stuff like nanotechnology when it only takes a couple of guys with a few laptops to create the next Facebook – and you’ll know whether it will work in 18 months rather than 5 years.”
Indeed. This is why we are seeing the rise of sovereign investment organizations as they come to realize that waiting five years but potentially employing 500 people might make better sense in terms of economic development than employing five people within just a year-and-a-half.
There have been some strong examples within the US of government committing itself to investing in the commercialization of nanotechnology, such as what we have seen in the State of New York.
But mainly we have seen that developing economies around the world are ready to step in and make that investment while major economies have waited on the sideline expecting capital markets to fill the gap.
From this state of affairs, one can’t help but wonder whether the inefficiency of markets may be depriving us of needed technological developments that many seem to think are as inevitable as the next iteration of the iPhone, but simply aren’t.
Harper recognizes this shortsightedness in his interview with the Spanish version of Technology Review.
And this is certainly a conversation I have had with him before in our nearly ten-year association, but now I recognize a slight new wrinkle in his line of thinking.
It would seem that when he mentions “the creation of shared public-private responsibility for their (emerging technologies) development” as a means for realizing the potential of developed technologies he is not just talking about investment capital, but something more along the lines of public engagement to drive technological development beyond merely the enrichment of the developers.
To Harper it would now seem that the input of the public on what we should be doing with nanotechnology to improve our lives and the planet needs to become integral into how we can best exploit the technology.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.