[EAS] Economic Futures?

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Wed Feb 4 03:52:14 EST 2004

Subject:   Economic Futures?

Dear Colleagues -

Sorry for the long hiatus that makes this the first mailing of 2004.
A very, very belated Happy New Year to all EAS-INFO readers.

See my comments after the two news items.

All best,  --PJK

(from INNOVATION, 28 January 2004)

The convergence of nanotech, biotech and accelerated computing will
spur  the advent of the Molecular Economy, say business
trend-watchers  Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis in their new book,
"It's Alive." Meyer and  Davis suggest that just as 20th century
research in solid-state physics  spawned the transistors, computer
chips, lasers and other components that  moved the U.S. from an
industrial to an information-based economy, in the  21st century
biotech, nanotech and materials science will lead the way to a 
Molecular Economy that will rewrite the rules in manufacturing,
health  care, education and the way society functions. Manufacturers
will turn to  "matter compilers" -- devices not unlike the
"replicators" in Star Trek --  that can construct end products
molecule by molecule, directly from raw  materials, at lower cost
and using less energy than conventional methods.  In home health
care, the combination of nanotechnology and artificial  intelligence
will make possible a device that patients can use to  continuously
monitor their blood pressure, temperature and other vital  signs.
Doctors will shift their focus from treating the sick to monitoring 
and maintaining individuals' good health. Lifelong learning will be 
facilitated through software "agents" or "daemons" that not only
search and  retrieve on request, but are intelligent enough to
anticipate users' needs  and supply just-in-time expertise to fit
any situation. And the fallout  from all this technology? "The key
social downside of the industrial  economy continues to be the
condition of the environment, while that of the  information era
appears to be privacy. In the coming [molecular] economy,  the key
issues will be ethical," predict Meyers and Davis. (The Futurist 
Jan/Feb 2004)

Imagine an American doctor speaking into a personal digital
assistant,  "What are your symptoms?" A moment later, the device
translates his  question into perfect Mandarin Chinese. Such
"universal translation"  software is currently being developed by
IBM computer scientist Yuqing Gao.  Unlike systems that translate
word by word, Gao's software performs  semantic analysis - i.e., it
extracts the most likely meaning, stores it in  terms of concepts
like actions and needs, and then expresses the same idea  in another
language. For instance, the software translates "I'm not feeling 
well" by first deciding that the speaker is probably sick, rather
than  afflicted with faulty nerve endings. Then it produces a
sentence about the speaker's health in the target language. Gao's
research was recently singled out by Technology Review magazine as
one of the "Ten Emerging Technologies That Will Change Your World."
Elsewhere, Princeton computer engineer Ron Weiss is programming
cells as if they were computers. "Synthetic biology" assembles
genes into networks designed to direct cells to perform almost any
task their programmers conceive. For example, combined with simple
bacteria, these networks could advance biosensing, allowing
inspectors to pinpoint land mines or biological weapons. "We want 
to create a set of biological components, DNA cassettes, that are as
easy  to snap together, as a set of Legos." (Technology Review Feb

Dear Colleagues -

There used to be a time when the extrapolations of science and
technology into science fiction fed the imagination and exercised
our capacity for wonder. But the real science and technology stayed
down to earth, stayed mostly rational in how inquiry was framed and
research and development conducted. 

Now every science and technology projection is ringed with halos of
dollar signs, illusions often potent enough to affect the
rationality of scientific inquiry and technological development.

It is the bane of older age to actually remember previous
technological cycles. For instance:

In the late 1950's, the days just prior to integrated circuits, when
the "tyranny of numbers" of interconnections in complex circuits had
become compelling, the military funded research on new types of
electronics. In classic fashion, the three services went off in
three different directions. The Army funded research in
"micro-modules," LEGO-like structures that could be snapped
together. The Navy focussed on "thin-film" circuits where components
could be printed on a ceramic substrate. The Air Force pursued a
dramatically different strategy, that of "molecular electronics"
(yes, that's what they called it!) based on the belief that the
basic structure of molecules could serve the function of traditional
electronic components. As Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, later
commented "The idea of it was, well, you lay down a layer of this
and a layer of that and maybe it will serve some function. It was
absolutely the wrong way to solve anything. It wasn't built up from
understandable elements. It didn't start with fundamentals because
they were rejecting all the fundamentals. It was pretty clearly
destined for failure." [quoted in T.R. Reid's book "The Chip,"
p.148]. And indeed nothing came of the molecular electronics of that
day. Instead, the road led to Texas Instruments and their 1958
surprise announcement of an early form of integrated circuit by Jack
Kilby, and via the concurrent work at Fairchild to the ultimately
economically pivotal planar process of making silicon-based
integrated circuits, the success that swept away all else.

The maturity of the components for a "molecular electronics"-like
interdisciplinarity is surely much greater now, yet the need to
understand in fundamentally sound ways the nature of materials, the
nature of contacts, the stability of structures and interfaces, has
not changed. Just as recent history reminds us, the dot.com boom did
not rewrite the premises of economics, nor will nano-research be
able to detach itself from the premises of painstaking materials
science, any more than in the early days of integrated circuit

But that is such an unromantic and economically unexciting way of
looking at it. Better to maintain collective excitement with some
collective amnesia?

All the best,  --PJK

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