Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Nanotechnology and engineering: a divide of pragmatism and perspective.

Over the past ten years there has been considerable thought and investment by nations all over the world to develop education programs and economic products with a focus on nanotechnology. Much needs to be reviewed before we can tell if these investments have produced anything of a real return yet, and indeed much of the potential that is seen (and touted)in nanotechnology is still within the "possible" applications which have not yet been developed. But this is changing quickly.
I take it that anyone here reading this is familiar with the parameters which define nanotechnology and nano science, as well as the essence of ambiguity, truthfully i am tired of writing the definitions and think it's time for the next stage of the discussion (i dialog between a nano-informed public).

Both public and private sectors have experienced this precedent of investment and we must realize that the strategies employed by each group are different and lead to a different understanding of a nanotechnology based industry / economy. These proclivities that are developed now will form the competitive landscape for the future, and it is this landscape which will drive the nano tech industry. And this is very important for us to look at closer, for within that landscape exists not the open and free possibility of technology, but rather those forms of value that have found a way to be... Not all possible technologies, simply the "used" and "relevant" technologies. Consider that there is the potential in these coming decades that incredibly useful (or powerful) technologies will be overlooked in favor for the interests of those who already have systems and capital in place and seek only to make profit while managing their perceived risk, not necessarily working for our best interests. As an example, a silicon chip manufacturing company might invest now in studying nano-structures and nano-property enabling processes that improve their current technology. And this is to be expected. Private companies generally exist in a state of competition, and it is rare that "free research" can be done which is outside of what is familiar to the company, indeed it is unwise within the framework that companies use to manage risks. In the case of the silicon chip manufacture they would have already invested millions in processing / fabrication equipment that is the foundation of their current technology, and any investment that would require a restructuring of parts of the production line will be met with disapproval and carry too much risk. Thus, in terms of nanotechnology, the company will be led to find methods of improving their current products without having to adjust their processing or change the foundations of their technology methods too much. An example might be boosting the capabilities of lithography masking technology, or finding ways to characterize their current products faster and with more reliability(product control).. Indeed there is much to be said about the potentials for discoveries in one field to transfer over to others but basing the potential for benefit on that is it self risky...

There is also the capacity for the research that a company would do for their own products to innately be applicable to diverse fields, and this is good but I still believe that there is a very different perspective of nanotechnology fostered within groups which are seeking profit in the short term, and that these perspectives generally have the potential to over-look other possible discoveries and technologies.

Contrary to a private company we can think of a start-up based endeavors that come out of university research funded by federal grant money (and sometimes companies) that seek to bring to market novel technologies or methods that have the potential to “change the game”. As an example there is a company called Vista Therapeutics which is seeking to use it's background in material science and nanotechnology to develop a novel real time bio marker sensor that is implantable and provides live display of data wirelessly. Whats more is they seek to sense more then 100 bio markers in parallel in the same device. This technology takes a radically different approach that is totally dependent on novel nanoscale system of signal transduction, and all of the research and engineering they do is focused on bringing those nano-potentials to market. If you are looking for a company that demonstrates an attempt to incorporate nanotechnology into a novel device with very impressive performance then look into them.

In general though we are missing a very vital piece of the puzzle. There is very little discussion between engineers and researchers about producing materials / structures which have properties the engineers want yet are not available. And if there is some, it's not enough, and of a fallow type. For example, an aerospace engineering compy might say to the research community at large, “we are seeking these properties, if you find them and can produce materials with them let us know”... They will not make statements like this about “non-existent” materials or structures because it is too hypothetical and impractical for most engineering minds. Rather they will ask for materials or properties which are “more feasible” and provided only modest boost to performance.
A good example of where dialogs could be shifted is within robot technologies, and particular android / telepresence robot systems. Right now the entire endeavor of android robots is stuck trying to make autonomous systems, and these systems use way too much energy and cannot store enough without increasing weight to unacceptable standards. Within this camp is a flurry of people seeking to find ways to make robots sense and act using computer science, and there is less of a incentive to find new materials and systems that would increase performance or open up new avenues of sensing and acting. Indeed i would say that the trend of incorporated the body design into the intelligence plan for the robot is not a practice that has gained majority ground (seen CHRONOS). An example that shall soon come to fruit is electronic skins that has thousands of sensors over a small area. This “skin” will dramatically increase the amount of data that the robot can sense, and thus we might expect that any robot or device that employs this technology will have some measure of increased capacity / functionality. I may be wrong though, I'm not an engineer.
Be that as it may, what we see in the robot community is engineers looking to take already available technology and combine them into interesting forms.. I do believe that this is partly due to the focus on creating the robot “brain”. Who would invest in sophisticated robot bodies if there is no brain to control them? And to do both in parallel... too risky eh? An alternative to this would be to develop telepresence robotic systems with very little autonomy and focus on the mechanical / sensing and actuation design and capabilities of the robot. This will free up thought and “human work hours” from the computational side and move it into the more physical aspects. Thus, we might find robots one day that have huge sensory capabilities and very flexible and powerful actuation capabilities, and with humans controlling them we wont need to worry about the autonomy or the brain as much. And what a research platform this would be to record and save the data from human use (machine learning, anyone?) So if the time then comes to implement an autonomous version we will have already done much work in streamlining the physical architecture of android robotics, and the brain of the autonomous bot will be easier to integrate into the system. Indeed work in the physical side may very well inspire work on the brain side. But these are my personal opinions.

All in all, the potential in nanotechnology is something that no one can refute (and If you do please send me more info about it), yet we are at a loss due to the vast nature of the nano-realm as to the correct way for integration into useful products. What we need to do is get engineers minds working outside of the box, we need to get them lusting after the potentials that “might” be. For now, there are far too many pessimistic engineers only concerned with their currently available technology, and they say what is possible is “nice” but give no real thought into using it. We need to break that pattern, we need creativity and inspiration to flow and bring from out that nano-world those devices which will benefit our goal as a global species... and perhaps one day galactic.