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Pinheads: Bursting the nanotech bubble
by Munge.

Bored To Death by Technology

Munge is a professional futurist working
for a well known company based in the San Jose area.


The nanotech in Diamond Age made for a ripping yarn, and it played a crucial role in the plot of Virtual Light. Now lately, nanotech's gone mainstream. USA Today and Newsweek write about it. Venture capital companies invest in it. Pundits mouth off about the wonderful future that's in store. It's the Next Big Thing.

Or not.

For those who came late to the show, let me summarize it for you. At some point some person with lots of degrees got it in his head that molecule size robots were going to clean out the cholesterol from your USDA Choice-ridden innards, lower your taxes by reducing the cost of space exploration, and restore the polluted environment so we could pollute it with impunity. A bunch of people got interested, they held conferences, the military funded some stuff, and the thing went basically nowhere.

Then, the Internet bubble burst in April 2000. Investors got depressed and hid under the covers for a year. When they emerged, they didn't like what they saw. Blue chip telecom companies teetering. No Hollywood movies over broadband. No trillion dollars in e-commerce.

There was no Next Big Thing so they manufactured one. They did it by co-opting the word the futurist visionaries had coined, not having day jobs some of them--nanotechnology. As of now, the Official Future consists of nanotechnology-enabled sensors, batteries, solar cells, and anything else they have to say to get you to buy into the idea.

The same mentality that fueled the Internet bubble is fueling the nanotechnology bubble. The same "greater fool theory", as in "I may be a fool to invest in XXX but there's a greater fool somewhere who'll buy it from me for more than I paid." History shows that, yes there is always a greater fool, until the day there isn't anymore.

Another mentality we're seeing again from back then--it is so 90s--is the "moving the goalposts" theory. Namely, when something flops you don't say it flops, you say that the segment as a whole is a tremendous success--so when mobile Web browsing is choked to death by everyone concerned, and you're stuck there with a bunch of loser investments, you brag about haw many jillions of teenagers are sending text messages to each other. (Regrettably, however, teenage allowances aren't enough to rescue the telephone industry.)

LIkewise when the nanorobots aren't showing up in your arteries, you stand there with a straight face and say that nanotechnology is going gangbusters. Stuff that didn't used to be nanotech suddently becomes nanotech--like cosmetics. Overnight, Revlon became the world's leader in nanotechnology (their milling processes yields particles sized in the right range to be called "nanotechnology"--a few tens of billionths of an inch).

Remember Buckyballs, those molecules of carbon shaped like a geodesic dome? You might have read about them in the 1980s. Yep, they're called nanotechnology now. No robot surgeons, no restoring the fact, some are worried that geodesic-inspired carbon molecules are themselves a health and environmental hazard. If you liked asbestos, you'll love carbon fiber nanotubes in your lungs.

And since carbon fiber nanotubes might prove useful in making fuel cells--which are supposed to eventually replace the batteries in your cell phone and notebook PC, etc, promising dozens of hours of use before recharging--suddenly nanotech will enable cell phones to rely on portable fuel cells (which themselves look like another bubble ready to burst, or at least explode...if you like carrying around live hand grenades, you'll love keeping a fuel cell in your pocket).

And since some companies are improving their lithium-ion batteries and calling +those+ fuel cells...and obviously, since batteries are made of molecules, and molecules are nano-sized, voila! Next year, expect batteries that are 10% better than this years', and expect them to be hailed as a nanotechnology breakthrough. Any molecules in car paint? Dental fillings? Don't thank me, thank nanotech.

Borges tells a story (originally by Kierkegaard?) of certain Danish clergymen who preach that a trek to the arctic will revive their parishoners' spiritual well-being. Later, realizing that not everyone is capable of travelling in the arctic, they announce that some other cold weather expedition will suffice. And eventually, they decree that any journey--a Sunday ride in a horse-and-buggy, perhaps--qualifies as the spiritual equivalent to travelling in the arctic.

If you don't get the point of that little homily...I have a hot tip on a nanotech investment for you.

Republished Courtesy of John Shirley from edge trends

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