The J Curve

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Nanotech is the Nexus of the Sciences

Disruptive innovation, the driver of growth and renewal, occurs at the edge. In startups, innovation occurs out of the mainstream, away from the warmth of the herd. In biological evolution, innovative mutations take hold at the physical edge of the population, at the edge of survival. In complexity theory, structure and complexity emerge at the edge of chaos – the dividing line between predictable regularity and chaotic indeterminacy. And in science, meaningful disruptive innovation occurs in the inter-disciplinary interstices between formal academic disciplines.

Herein lies much of the excitement about nanotechnology. Quite simply, it is in the richness of human communication about science. Nanotech exposes the core areas of overlap in the fundamental sciences, the place where quantum physics and quantum chemistry can cross-pollinate with ideas from the life sciences.

Over time, each of the academic disciplines develops its own proprietary systems vernacular that isolates it from neighboring disciplines. Nanoscale science requires scientists to cut across scientific languages to unite the isolated islands of innovation.

In academic centers and government labs, nanotech is fostering new conversations. At Stanford, Duke and many other schools, the new nanotech buildings are physically located at the symbolic hub of the schools of engineering, computer science and medicine.

(Keep in mind though, that outside of the science and research itself, the "nanotech" moniker conveys no business synergy whatsoever. The marketing, distribution and sales of a nanotech solar cell, memory chip or drug delivery capsule will be completely different from each other, and will present few opportunities for common learning or synergy.)

Nanotech is the nexus of the sciences. The history of humanity is that we use our tools and our knowledge to build better tools and expand the bounds of our learning. Empowered by the digitization of the information systems of biology, the nanotech nexus is catalyzing an innovation Renaissance, a period of exponential growth in learning, where the power of biotech, infotech and nanotech compounds the advances in each formerly discrete domain. This should be a very exciting epoch, one that historians may look back on with no less portent than the Industrial Revolution.


  • Hi Steve. It is a good post. It would've been great if you could've written more about how you think the "business side" of nanotech would differ from that of other innovations. From my personal experience (I worked on Artificial Muscles and mono-molecular thin films for a couple of years), the biggest hurdle was branching out from the academic herd towards commercializing the innovation. Granted, I was a grad student then, who insisted on blazing a new trail with the idea towards building a company while my advisor was only interested in getting the next grant.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:18 PM  

  • Steve,

    Outstanding description what nanotechnology is and why it matters. I read it to my 9 year old son and he said, "Sweet!".

    As a balance to massive thoughts such as this, Adam Bosworth of MS IE, BEA Weblogic App Server, Borland Quattro fame gave a great talk recently at International Conference on Service Oriented Computing on his permutation of Occam's Razor or Keeping it Simple and Sloppy.

    It is fantastic how two paradoxical descriptions of what is important can both be right.

    By Blogger Peter Hoskins, at 9:53 PM  

  • Nanotech, The ultimate Eclecticism.

    Welcome. =)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 8:51 AM  

  • The importance of consciousnessA significant vision, well framed and articulated, but an important question remains... Will we understand what we're doing as we innovate? That is, will we be fully conscious (or at least conscious enough) as we elaborate this technology? Will we channel our vision into instruments of destruction as well as evolution?

    The ultimate edge would seem to be the edge of consciousness, the membrane between consciousness and unconsciousness, the original source of all emergent innovation. One hopes the Unconscious is as generous in wisdom as it is in revealing the machinery of existence. Acceleration is a beautiful feeling, but it can end tragically. Consciousness is what tells us when to switch from gas to brake. The key is, we have to actually be conscious enough... Are we? And if so, what about those with whom we share the technology? Are they? Does a formal brake mechanism actually exist? How is it controlled?

    My intention here is not to cast a shadow on your insight. I find your writing inspirational. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

    BTW, we were hoping for something on AC2004. What's the current state of Singularity research from your POV?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:20 AM  

  • I photoblogged ACC2004 a little bit. This year’s focus was on “Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface” and I spoke on innovation management, but had the most fun moderating a debate on ubiquitous surveillance between Brad Templeton, chair of the EFF, and David Brin, author of The Transparent Society.

    Anon raises some interesting points on human nature and human knowledge. There is a gap between our rapidly advancing technological capabilities (e.g., in reengineering biology) and our relatively limited understanding of complex systems, and in particular, the "path dependence" of early work in complex systems development.

    For example, of the myriad developmental pathways to molecular nanotech futures, some engage the self-replication of biology - in advance of our full understanding of biological systems. The basic substrate for the nanotech industry may be heavily influenced by the early building blocks - whether they be a "seed" architecture (a bottom-up biological approach), a "feed" architecture (a mechanistic top-down assembly-line approach like the MEMS to NEMS transition), or a hybrid broadcast architecture with a number of systemic safety nets.

    Part of the problem is that the developmental paths and timing are driven by information-age economics rather than the systemic checks and balances of co-evolution (such as the biological virus-host balance).

    We have little experience with the long-term effects of the artificial evolution of complex systems. Early subsystem work can be deterministic of emergent and higher-level capabilities (witness the Cambrian explosion of structural complexity and intelligence in biological systems once the neuron enabled something other than nearest-neighbor inter-cellular communication. Prior to the neuron, most multi-cellular organisms were small blobs). Recent breakthroughs in robotics were inspired by the "subsumption architecture" of biological evolution - using a layered approach to assembling reactive rules into complete control systems from the bottom up. The low-level reflexes are developed early on, and remain unchanged as complexity builds. Early subsystem work in any subsumptive system can have profound effects on its higher order constructs.

    Also, consider the impact of the evolutionary *process* itself on the development of complex systems, for example, in the area of machine intelligence. See the discussion on Can Friendly AI Evolve?The problem is that we are embarking on this great adventure and picking paths at a time when we possess minimal understanding of the biological systems that surround us, and much less about the developmental pathways and processes for building new complex systems.

    Within risk lies opportunity. We are entering a period of a profound learning and expansion of our capabilities in both molecular engineering and information processing. By expanding these capabilities, we further expand our ability to learn. And that, of course, exposes how much more we have to learn….

    As for your comment about “instruments of destruction”, I can only offer a humorous response… and, if you really want to dwell on the dark side, a discussion of the risks of genetically modified pathogens. Humanity will cut its teeth on these new challenges in the domain of biotech long before we face them in robotics or nanotech.

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 2:43 PM  

  • The importance of consciousness (cont'd)I suppose I deserved the goo;). Thank you for the considered reply. You never fail to illuminate me.

    I was originally prompted to comment by your discussion of the edge as the source of emergent innovation. I went astray when I veered into the cautionary. I was actually concerned with the liklihood of the Unconscious, out there on the edge, revealing the ultimate meaning of a technology along with its design.

    The title of your post intrigued me, Nanotech is the Nexus of the Sciences. I wondered, where is neuroscience in this? How the brain generates consciousness is one of greatest mysteries remaining to science. How does consciousness factor into this nexus?

    I suppose my intuition is that an increase in consciousness will somehow accompany the nano-bio-info-explosion, and that it may involve AI, perhaps some sort of subsumptive harness for the collective mind. The aggregation of heretofore autonomous scientific streams of knowledge is bound to produce a torrent of innovation. Those who originate will hopefully be able to explain the bioshperic impact of their visions as well as the architecture.

    Imagine if Einstein had blogged...

    Thanks again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:06 PM  

  • Einstein’s Blog: Don't be a Bohr.

    “Sometimes I ask myself how it came about that I happened to be the one to discover the theory of relativity. The reason is, I think, that the normal adult never stops to think about space and time. Whatever thinking he may do about these things he will already have done as a small child. I, on the other hand, was so slow to develop that I only began thinking about space and time when I was already grown up.”
    --Al EinsteinThe first comment to Einstein’s posting comes from the American novelist, E.L. Doctorow (speaking at the Aspen Institute):

    “Hidden in this remark is an acceptance of himself as an eternal child. This prodigy of thought was eternally a child prodigy. And if that would seem to diminish the man, remember that it was a child who cried out that the Emperor had no clothes. All his life, Einstein would point to this or that ruling thought and reveal its nakedness, until finally it was the prevailing universe that had no clothes.”
    (more on the topic of Childish Scientists)

    Einstein was also a photoblogger. It helped him capture the referential frames when riding a light beam. ;-)

    Back to your question; I do agree that brain science is one of the wonderful frontiers of the unknown. As for individual consciousness, well that should probably be a separate blog post…. Someone else’s. =)

    I am reading Jeff Hawkins’ new book, and I look forward to his memory-prediction framework to the problem. Susan Blackmore externalizes consciousness in a Dawkinesque extreme in her book, Meme Machine: “our minds and selves are created by the interplay of the memes. Not only are memes replicators like genes but human consciousness itself is a product of memes.” You might like Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, in which “the mind is a bubbling congeries of unsupervised parallel processing.”

    It’s not a good topic to explore with an anthrocentric perspective…. ;-)

    For collective consciousness, that is already sprouting. (see the THONG protest of NanoCommerce 2004 =)

    On a more serious note, you might like the earlier discussion on supra-human emergence. I like your sculpted prose: “a subsumptive harness for the collective mind.”

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 12:48 PM  

  • The importance of consciousness (cont'd 2)Your vision of the nano-nexus is most compelling. I smell a viral meme. I can't stop thinking about it. I believe the merger of the various scientific disciplines will, as you suggest, cause a massive explosion of scientific truth, perhaps beyond anything ever seen.

    Mergence seems to drive emergence. A black hole merges all into a singularity that explodes elsewhere (one imagines;) in a gusher of creativity. Given science's position as the fount and foundation of human knowledge, your nano-nexus of the sciences promises a tsunami of unimaginable scale. Much of what remains unconscious today, despite the best efforts of the current scientific order (i.e., autonomous disciplines), may now become conscious at the fountain head of this nexus.

    But what of consciousness? Full consciousness of a thing is the total view of that thing in the context of the world in which it exists. It makes sense that the seers of innovation see the totality of their inventions. Why? Because if such consciousness didn’t accompany powerful new capabilities with extinction potential, evolution wouldn’t work. God-like capabilities wielded out of context, without comprehension of use-consequences and probable environmental impacts, must ultimately end in disaster, a child playing with matches. No, evolution would seem to require that consciousness of any new, potentially deadly tool is accompanied by an understanding of its proper and improper uses.

    For example, did Einstein realize the consequences of this theories? His pacifism was extreme until he realized Hitler might be developing the bomb. Could an Einstein blogging campaign against the dangerous technology his Special Theory revealed have prevented any nation from developing it? Einstein wrote letters to FDR. Today’s inventors operating from the nexus of the sciences have access to technology enabling their complete vision to be disseminated globally. This kind of global consciousness will hopefully mitigate the dangers of misuse. How powerful is the collective mind? Perhaps we shall soon see.

    Your nano-nexus is a light hole, as it were, a vortex driven by a singularity which promises to reveal a new, interwoven, whole view of reality. Those in the singularity of your vortex, operating at very edge of consciousness, pulling in new truths from the darkness, are arguably the most conscious people on Earth. One hopes their whole view will emerge from the nano-nexus, the fully conscious view. This blog goes a long way toward fulfilling that hope. As always, thanks for sharing.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:42 PM  

  • The importance of consciousness (cont'd 3)I posted my previous before I read your last, unfortunately. The THONG protest must have been hilarious live. I know I cracked up;). One hopes that such imagination proves not to be the limits of the collective mind, but then again, 'out of the mouths of babes...' I also loved the Einstein stuff. Thanks!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:06 PM  

  • Wow....interesting set of comments by Steve and Anon! I am thoroughly enjoying..keep 'em coming!


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:44 PM  

  • First I agree with Maverick, a very nice discussion is being held here. =) ...I was trying to find the English version of an Einstein essay on cinema I read at college some years ago. My intention was to remark -add remarks to the already remarked- the child-like mind, open to be fascinated and surprised by all means, he had.

    "The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science." A.E.

    Unfortunately I cannot find the reading. If someone know what am I talking about I´d appreciate your help. Anyway, I have bookmark of these 3 pearls among the internet ocean I´d like to share -with him I never get enough-:

    Albert Einstein Essays on Science & ReligionAlbert Einstein ArchiveAlbert Einstein Archives Online

    "Smoking a well-worn stubby pipe, Professor Einstein asked about my family and generously complimented me on my ability to speak German.
    "Do you like music?", he asked.
    "Yes," I replied, not really sure that I did.
    "Can you play some instrument?"
    "No sir." He told me he could play a violin.

    There was a chessboard set up between our chairs.
    "You play chess?"
    "No." I fear he’d think I couldn’t do anything.
    "Would you like to learn?"
    "Oh, yes."
    "Come. I’ll teach you."

    Until we were called to the table, the professor demonstrated the moves of each piece. "You practice," he said. "Next time we’ll play a game."
    From Saturday´s Afternoons with A.E.A master mind... A master soul. So much to learn... Sorry, for the disgression. Thank you. =)

    By Blogger Gisela Giardino, at 5:25 PM  

  • For all you Einstein fans, the Skirball museum in LA is now offering "... the most comprehensive presentation ever mounted on the life and theories of the greatest scientist of the twentieth century."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:00 AM  

  • You stupid white man. nexus of the science is called quantum biology.

    Chief White rabbit

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:15 PM  

  • can you provide a web pointer to that perspective?

    By Blogger Steve Jurvetson, at 8:36 PM  

  • A true nanomaniac looks into the core of the issues. Steve is right that the "industrial revolution" will pale in comparison to "Tritech" (Biotech, Nanotech, Infotech) all of which are likely to blur under the umbrella term "Nano". When biology started to get profound, it became "molecular biology" (of course it is "nanobiology", for the size of the molecules). Nuclear physics is obviously "nanophysics" compared to the isze of machines of the industrial revolution.

    The crown jewel of nanosciences (maiden name: molecular sciences) is the most miraculous molecule of all: the DNA, containing all information to generate a living entity.

    By that definition, the core question is how information is packed in, and retrieved from, the DNA - particularly that 98.7% of the DNA (in human) which is not "Genes", but "Regulatory DNA" (maiden name: JunkDNA, see my

    No, introns and other "JunkDNA" is not "to keep Genes at a safe distance from one another".

    The "Genius of Junk" (Malcolm J. Simons, who authored US-issued patents first on JunkDNA) knows all too well that it causes countless diseases.

    More importantly, with age, lots of information in the DNA gets "silenced" (made not to be transcribed by methylation). Why is it then that most of such methylation occurs in the "JunkDNA" (introns, by definition, are sliced out before transcription)?

    The quickest and most lucrative impact of nanotechnology will be protein-based "new materials" (no FDA, no medical/ethical/social/philosophical regulations, concerns, shere business by mathematics/computer/engineering friendly nanomaniacs for lighter, stronger, cheaper materials).

    New protein-based materials, however, can not be produced without a mathematical understanding of "regulatory DNA".

    (Just like nuclear industry would have been impossible without quantummechanics to understand how atoms split/fuse)

    Give it a go...

    see/comment more at

    By Blogger Dr. Andras J. Pellionisz, at 11:17 AM  

  • Steve, this is a terrific way to talk about nanotechnology. I am very impressed.

    Armand Rousso

    By Blogger Armand Rousso, at 5:55 AM  

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    By Blogger TS, at 5:59 AM  

  • Nanotechnology is poised to share prominence with DNA methylation.

    It may appear a bit too far ahead in the curve (J-curve???) but protein-based Nanotechnology is unlikely to make it big without decoding the actual function of "junkDNA". In turn, "junkDNA" is (almost) void of scientific (experimentally testable and thus refutable) theories.

    It was announced ( ) that FractoGene, after its first prediction experimentally supported (in Press in peer-reviewed Journal) a key further prediction of FractoGene appeared on "methylation". This is also eminently testable, most importantly by (to be revolutionized) microarray technology. The ensuing "PostGene Discovery" methodology might provide the needed breakthrough in Biotech, Nanotech and Infotech.

    By Blogger Dr. Andras J. Pellionisz, at 11:01 AM  

  • I'm not sure how I got here but am glad I came across your blog. Thx.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:12 AM  

  • That's quite amazing, that 10^-9 of technology is the nexus of anything!

    Seriously, though, the term "nano-technology" conjures up a somewhat comic image of a scientist trying very hard to use marketing-speak to get more funding.

    I'll leave "nexus" alone, though.

    By Blogger J Tyson, at 8:26 AM  

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