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Nano Transformation: A Future of Our Making

Photo of Joseph Bordogna

Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

Remarks, IEEE 2003 International Electron Devices Meeting
Washington, DC
December 8, 2003

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

Good morning. I am delighted and honored to join you today. Gatherings like this one—that bring us together from around the globe to share knowledge, to learn, and to grapple with important issues of the day—have made IEEE an energizing and significant force in our lives.

Engineering has never been a solitary pursuit. Encouraging communication and community is one of the great strengths of IEEE and its societies. Each of us gains, and collectively we are better able to advance the quality of engineering research and practice, and better serve progress and prosperity in our global society.

Strengthening these connections among engineers—and reaching out to every sector of society—is a mission of great importance today, as change rocks our world and our work at an ever-faster pace and with ever-greater ferocity.

[Slide 1: title; background: theoretical simulation of electron flow in nanostructure by Eric Heller]
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I have titled my remarks today "Nano Transformations: A Future of Our Making" to emphasize how engineers can contribute to the great adventure of confronting, shaping, and creating our common future. This must be accomplished in the context of the monumental changes that nanotechnology is soon to bring about. The alliance of knowledge, action and purpose so characteristic of our engineering endeavor is just what we need to meet this challenge.

From an engineer's point of view, we are the ones responsible for getting things done and out the door in our society. We make stuff, and we make it right. At our best, we also make the right thing. That has always been the role and responsibility of engineers in the continuing progress of society.

[Slide 2: The Engineer]
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"Getting things done" is a simple way to express a very, very complex enterprise. Today's engineers are holistic designers, astute makers, trusted innovators, harm avoiders, change agents, master integrators, enterprise enablers, knowledge handlers, and technology stewards. Take a minute to think about it, and I'm certain you can add to the list.

Enter nanotechnology—the leading candidate for the next transformational technology. We are all heirs of previous revolutionary change—electricity and its close companions, information and communications technologies. But we have had some time to adjust to the transformations brought about by power, communications and computation—the driving agents of change for nearly two hundred years. With nano, change is about to go ballistic.

[Slide 3: First flashing light; IBM spelled out in atoms]
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These dual images depict this past and this future. On the left is the world's first flashing light as it appeared in 1884 at the Electrical Exhibition of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. This event was the catalyst for the formation of IEEE. You can't see it here, but this gigantic apparatus spelled out Edison's name. The image on the right speaks for itself!

[Slide 4: Nanoscale slide]
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"Nano" denotes the very small in scale, but there is nothing diminutive about the expectations generated by nanotech—the application of fundamental research at the nanoscale.

Some call it "the next industrial revolution," anticipating an economic bonanza that dollar for dollar, and job for job, will outstrip the introduction of electricity, the automobile, or information and communications technologies. Others forecast a nearly utopian future in which new materials, manufacturing processes, and applications in energy, health, agriculture and environment banish the age-old scourges of hunger, poverty and disease, and substantially expand human intellectual and physical capabilities—all at diminished cost to resources and the environment.

No matter how strong the rhetoric, these changes may well be unlike any that have come before. Nanoscience and engineering already provide new knowledge that gives us the capability to design and build materials one atom or molecule at a time. I'm going to take us on a quick roller-coaster ride through some novel nano research in progress.

[Slide 5: 3-dimensional nanostructure]
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Here you see the first 3-D assembly of magnetic and semiconducting nanoparticles, the result of research published this past June by a team from Columbia University, IBM Research, and the University of New Orleans. The iron oxide particles are only 11 nanometers in diameter, and the lead selenide particles only 6.

At the nano scale, ordinary matter often displays surprising properties that could be exploited to boost computer speed and memory capacity, and make materials that are stronger, lighter, and smarter by orders of magnitude. The research team will be exploring these 3-D nanoparticles for novel magneto-optical properties as well as properties key to the realization of quantum computing. For example, it might be possible to modulate the material's optical properties by applying an external magnetic field.

[Slide 6: molecular simulation of change from distorted to more periodic structure]
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Here is another illustration. A team of researchers at U.C.-Berkeley has shown that 3-nanometer zinc sulfide particles change crystal structure when they get wet, becoming more ordered at room temperature. The team expects to see this surface effect in particles of similar size in other materials. The discovery may even shed light on nanoparticles involved in weathering in natural environments.

[Slide 7: Nealey, self–organizing block copolymer]
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Another group of investigators at the University of Wisconsin Materials Research Science and Engineering Center has devised a technique combining nano processes with silicon chips to demonstrate the directed self-assembly, free of defects, of a polymer.

Nano is also the dimension where living and non-living worlds meet—where molecules that form the basis of life interact with the physical environment to spin the complex threads linking life at all levels with the planet. The possibilities at this interface are staggering—new ways to deliver drugs or repair DNA, and the development of artificial tissue, to name only a few. Understanding life and its interaction with the physical and cyber world at the nano level is likely to open vistas that we cannot even imagine today.

[Slide 8: DNA computer]
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In this realm, we encounter a DNA computer constructed by scientists from the Wiezmann Institute in Israel....

[Slide 9: morbid cells]
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Metal nanoshells that can deliver deadly doses of heat to cancer cells when activated by lasers. Researchers at the Rice University Center have developed these for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology....

[Slide 10: fluorescent micelles in cytoplasm]
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And spherical nanocontainers—known as micelles—that can distribute a payload to the interior of cells, constructed by a team at McGill University in Canada.

I could offer dozens of other examples—as can you! I've chosen these because they are a sampling of results published in the past year alone.

Despite the excellence of the research, we may be tempted to think of these results as miniscule advances—separated by many years or even decades from practical application.

But think again. Perhaps we should not be so complacent. We may already be poised at that critical spot just in front of the inflection point where the innovation curve goes ballistic. To use the author Peter Schwartz's phrase, we may shortly experience a host of "inevitable surprises" that propel us, ready or not, into a new period of creative transformation.... especially if we heed the admonition of Andy Grove to seize the moment a bit ahead of that inflection point.

Whatever our particular vision of the future, those of us who track progress in nanoscale science and engineering probably agree on one thing: Nanotech has the potential to engender colossal transformation—with pervasive consequences for our economies, our societies, and our everyday lives.

The expectations raised by nano have inspired governments worldwide to increase support for nano research and education and sparked international competition to bring nano from the bench to the boardroom. They have also stimulated dialogue on the human, social, and environmental implications of the new technology.

[Slide 11: info, bio, cogno, and nano images]
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Of course, in many ways nano is an old story. Scientists and engineers have been working at the nanoscale for decades. What is entirely fresh and original is the convergence among information technology, biotechnology, cognition, and nanotechnology—what we call "info, bio, cogno, and nano" for short.

With the remarkable advances in science and engineering at the interfaces of these broad fields, we have crossed a threshold in our capabilities. This synergy is what creates a breach with the past and catapults us beyond familiar horizons.

Many questions arise as we contemplate a nano-enabled future. I will mention just three: How can we advance nano efficiently and rapidly? How can we do this benignly? And finally, how can we do it equitably?

The first question addresses the productivity and quality of our research, education, innovation, and industrial systems: How do we design the research, education and development environment so that new knowledge emerges rapidly and is transformed effectively into technological innovations that deliver social and economic benefits? This is the customary nexus that we constantly try to improve, through better practice and policies.

Fortunately, the recent explosion of new knowledge and technologies—particularly in information and communications and the life sciences—has already given us some useful experience. The character of research and innovation is changing rapidly, and several answers that will help us move the frontier of nano forward are beginning to surface. I'll briefly discuss each of these five points:

[Slide 12: five points]
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      1. International cooperation in fundamental research
      2. Public funding of nano research and education
      3. Multidisciplinary collaboration and partnerships across sectors
      4. Innovations in Education
      5. Integration of Social, Behavioral, Cognitive Sciences in nano research and development.

[Slide 13: International Cooperation in Fundamental Research]
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As we have learned from other emerging fields of science and engineering, international collaboration in frontier research can increase the momentum needed to speed us on the way toward rationally framing and solving common problems.

In the case of nano, international collaboration in frontier nanoscience and engineering research and education is essential. Many challenges—in manufacturing, medicine, agriculture, climate and environmental science, and in engineering, for example—are global in nature, and require global research and education platforms. Many nations have already made substantial investments in nano, and progress in research and education is occurring worldwide. Increasingly, the trip from revolutionary innovation to commodity is shorter. The power of contemporary research tools drives us to more frequent inflection points.

[Slide 14: Government funding for Nano in MILLIONS]
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Sustained government funding and support for nano research and education is equally important. Nano's potential to deliver large-scale benefits to society without harm, the basic rationale for public support, would be sufficient to justify such investment. But another feature of nano reinforces its claim.

Nano has been called a "general purpose technology" to capture the expectation that—like electricity—nanotechnology will enable and reconfigure a wide range of technologies, touching most sectors of the economy. The creation of new jobs and wealth, leading to improvements in standards of living, is part of nano's exceptional promise.

It comes as no surprise that competition in this emerging field is intense. In the U.S., these considerations led to the establishment of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federally funded program to advance nano research and development that encompasses 15 federal agencies. Funding for this initiative reached approximately $770 million in fiscal year 2003. The National Science Foundation, the federal agency I serve, has the interagency lead in this coordinated effort. Only a week ago President Bush signed The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, authorizing funding of $3.7 billion over 4 years for nano science and engineering research, education and development.

Similarly, support for nanoscale science and engineering research and education is increasing in the EU, in its member nations, in Japan and throughout Asia, and in a host of other nations.

It is important for us to recognize that these national programs are compatible with international cooperation in nanoscience and engineering. Collaboration and competition are not mutually exclusive, and rapid progress in discovery may well depend upon achieving a healthy balance between them.

[Slide 15: Multidisciplinary Collaborations and Partnerships Across Sectors]
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Over the past two decades, the interface between disciplines has often provided the most fertile ground for advances at the frontier of knowledge. We have learned that multidisciplinary collaboration can lead to path-breaking advances that would simply be beyond the scope of a single field or investigator.

I don't have to remind you that this was not always the case. Fifteen years ago interdisciplinary research was anathema. Now it is "mantra!"1 What have really made the difference in changing attitudes are the research results : boundary-crossing, path-breaking advances have been nothing short of revolutionary. The power of contemporary science and engineering lies in this convergence and in the improved kit of enabling tools it has made possible.

Among other advances, these tools have powered long-distance collaborations and increased shared access to tools, instruments, and databases. The U.S. National Nanotechnology Users Network, and the Network for Computational Nanotechnology are two examples. Two NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers on Nanomanufactoring were funded just this past September: one to address Integrated and Scalable Nanomanufacturing, and another to address Nanoscale Chemical-Electrical Mechanical Manufacturing Systems.

All NSF nanotechnology centers—each of which assembles a critical mass of expertise to address an important research objective—also promote collaboration within academe and across sectors.

These partnerships are equally important in facilitating the transfer of research results to industry. Building these connections early in the research and education process speeds discovery and innovation, and has the added bonus of providing learning environments for researchers, producers and students alike.

That brings me to my next subject—one involving boundary crossing in a related context—education.

[Slide 16: Innovation in Education]
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If nanotech drives the pervasive transformations foreseen by many, a workforce with new knowledge and skills will be required. The integration of education and research—educating students and practicing workers in consonance with every step of the discovery process—can help produce the savvy workforce needed to make the leap from new knowledge to technological innovation. We will need to design new learning paths that meet this challenge. Many of these will lead to boundary-crossing experiences for students—from interpersonal to interdisciplinary to international.

Education and workforce preparation and sustenance are clear priorities for the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative and for NSF in particular. In October, NSF announced a round of funding that will significantly expand prior efforts in nano education.

It should be clear that the policies I have just discussed work best when they work together. A good model for this integrated approach in action and for nanotechnology-driven regional development is the Pennsylvania Nanotechnology Initiative—a statewide effort that brings together universities, colleges, community colleges, secondary schools, industry and government at all levels. This is a "soup to nuts" effort that reaches from K-12 classrooms, to nanotech start-ups and to the global marketplace.

[Slide 17: Integration of the Social Sciences into Nano Research and Education]
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If nano offers us vastly more technological options, then we need a foundation for understanding the consequences of choosing among them. Discovery in the social, behavioral, cognitive and economic sciences can be integrated into nano research and education from the get-go. Exploring how nano may affect human and social development, and teasing out how it may change individuals, societies, cultures and institutions can give us a way of anticipating and shaping the future.

When it comes to integration, the social sciences are still the poor stepchild of the physical and natural sciences and engineering. We must build these human and social considerations into our designs and our systems up front, much as we now do for safety and environmental factors.

NSF is supporting, as part of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, research on the Social and Ethical implications of nanotechnology. The new U.S. 21st Century Nanotechnology Act I mentioned previously includes explicit provisions for studies of the social, economic, and environmental implications of nanotechnology. NSF has also held joint workshops with the EU and APEC to explore these issues. The U.K. is among a growing number of nations who are taking similar steps.

A better understanding of the interplay among human and social dynamics and the transformations that nanotechnology may set in motion can help inform our answers to the second and third questions posed earlier: How can we develop and deploy nanotech benignly and equitably?

These questions are no longer ancillary to the science, engineering, and technology enterprise. We need to anticipate and guide change in order to design a nano future of our choice, not just one of our making. Future generations may well judge our success—and our wisdom—by how well we realize the potential of nano while avoiding the pitfalls.

[Slide 18: Woodrow Wilson quote]
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Unfortunately, debate on these issues often ranges between the extremes of optimism and pessimism—between utopianism and apocalyptic despair about our future. But as President Woodrow Wilson once said, "One cool judgment is worth a thousand hasty counsels. The thing to be supplied is light not heat."2 Supplying the light is part and parcel of our role as engineers—and also our responsibility.

Concerns about the unintended consequences of human actions and the deployment of new technologies have been with us for centuries. But technological change is now occurring so rapidly, is so complex—and for many is so daunting—that we have a responsibility to explore these concerns up-front and with vigor.

[Slide 19: Peter Drucker quote]
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Management guru Peter Drucker provides a 21st century account of this dismay. "In a few hundred years," he says, "when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time - literally - substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it."3

We should not let this warning from a respected guru dismay us. We should consider our nano glass as half full rather than half empty. Certainly, change is neither easy nor straightforward. Finding ways to incorporate changes that are as rapid, as broad, and as deep as those we live with today is a considerable challenge. Taking decisive actions to anticipate change and steer it in a positive direction – taking the reins and guiding the beast – is even more formidable. All the more reason to do it! It's a challenge and an opportunity.

[Slide 20: William McDonough quote]
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"Design," says the architect and ecologist William McDonough, "is the manifestation of human intent."4 As engineers, we are accustomed to thinking in terms of systems designed to meet specific ends. Applying this directly to the larger context of economic and social prosperity is a radical step that takes us beyond our normal zones of comfort. But innovative thinking can drive design of all kinds – not just technology, but also social institutions and policy. Innovative thinking can even influence our perspectives on a life worth living.

[Slide 21: John F. Kennedy quote]
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Some years ago, President John Kennedy spoke of the realities of working toward difficult, visionary goals for humankind, based not, he said, "on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions—on a series of concrete actions and effective agreements which are in the interest of all concerned."5 This is "a more practical, more attainable" way to envision progress.

Here's an example. In 1998, I arrived at an IEEE conference luncheon, and found a seat at a table that had been organized to discuss the establishment of a new IEEE society for nanotechnology. Why not, we wondered, step across boundaries, and reach out to all those technical societies that nano was likely to transform?

The group eventually adopted this path, establishing the IEEE Nanotechnology Council—a multi-disciplinary group of twenty IEEE member societies. Eighteen IEEE societies—including the IEDM—sponsor Transactions in Nanotechnology, the journal whose idea was born that afternoon.

This is taking action in the Kennedy spirit. It was an action without flourish, but of significance. It involved walking a different path—creating synergies and finding common ground among differences.

Continuing in this spirit, we need to ask what can be done—practically, immediately, and effectively—to make progress in nanotechnology while also creating a future of our making?

One step is to agree on common nano language, definitions, and measurements—international agreement would promote communication and the diffusion of new knowledge in this rapidly emerging field. We could agree today to organize such an international effort.

A second step is to embrace— really embrace—the five points I have discussed today. If each of us assumes individual and collective responsibility for taking concrete actions to further these aims in the context of our own work, we can begin to make it happen.

Becoming more ambitious still, we can begin to engage in serious dialogue about tradeoffs between the risks and the benefits of nanotechnology, and our preferences among them. That discussion takes us beyond new knowledge to questions of values. What is the future we want to create for our children and ourselves? Our attention immediately shifts to questions of human and environmental health, and of justice and fairness.

[Slide 22: vision]
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But let's be really bold. Let's undertake a common dialogue on global needs and agree on a few truly visionary goals. Then let's set about demonstrating that we can realize the benefits of our new capabilities while at the same time minimizing the risks. Let's call these "grand social challenges" and set them on a par with the "grand intellectual challenges" we already strive to achieve.

As we do this, we will no doubt feel uncomfortable—a clear indication that we are in frontier territory. But we are not entirely unequipped for the journey. As engineers, we already have a community of knowledge, practice, values and ideals to guide us along the way.

If our science, engineering, and technical knowledge is not yet powerful enough to solve our most difficult global challenges, it very soon will be—provided we consider social consequences at the front end. That is the promise of a nano-enabled future. It is up to us to seize the opportunity nano gives us to create a future that is worth creating.

1 This phrase comes from Norman Metzger and Richard Zare writing in Science, 29 Jan 1999.
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2 Woodrow Wilson, Address on Preparedness, Pittsburgh, PA, 1916.
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3 Peter Drucker, "Managing Knowledge Means Managing Oneself;" Leader to Leader, Vol. No. 16, Spring 2000.
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4 William McDonough, "A Centennial Sermon: Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things," delivered at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, February 7, 1993.
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5 President John F. Kennedy, June 24, 1963, The Paulskirche, Frankfurt, Germany.
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Return to a list of Dr. Bordogna's speeches.


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