Freeman Dyson Talks About Biotech vs Nanotech
The lecture didn’t always seem well grounded in fact, but the lecturer was full of fresh ideas and thoughtful viewpoints.
Last night, my wife and I had the pleasure of listening to the famous physicist Freeman Dyson talk about the future of mankind. This was part of an ongoing lecture series sponsored by Mentor Graphics among others for the Institute of Science, Engineering and Public Policy (ISEPP).
Dr Dyson talked about many things, but for this blog I’m only covering those that directly or indirectly related to the world of semiconductor technology. The talk started with his personal observations about the need for unilateral destruction of nuclear weapons, while the remainder of his discussion centered on the importance of bio-technology.
His comments about the origins and growth of bio-technology seemed a mix of fact and personal opinions. For example, Freeman compared the domestication of biotechnology to the analogous evolution of computers. At first, computers were big, massive and very complicated machines. He shared the infamous 1950s quote attributed to IBM’s past president – Thomas J. Watson – that there was a potential market for only 18 electronic computers in the US.
Since that time, though, computers have gotten smaller and more powerful, leading Freeman to conclude that computers have now become domesticated. From my perspective, this seemed like a oddly agrarian choice of words, since “domesticated” usually refers to the taming of plants or animals for the service of humanity. Even a layman in technology would have said that computers have become a commodity, meaning that computers are readily affordable and available to most users. Using the phrase of “computer domestication” suggests a lack of appreciation for the countless manhours spent in R&D, architecting, testing and manufacturing required to give birth to the electronic age that so many people take for granted.
Some may argue that this is just a problem of semantics, but it highlights the growing gap of technical literacy among even the most educated and respected of our community.
Later on, Dr. Dyson observed that biotech, not nanotech, was the faster growing area of technology. He mentioned that nanotech had been around for almost 50 years. I assume he was referring to Feynman’s casual mention in the late 1950’s of building atomic level molecular machine.
In contrast, biotechnology is still in its infancy, yet has become far more common place that nanotechnology in a shorter period of time. At least for this comment, I believe that Dyson was equating biotechnology with “gene splicing,” which was first demonstrated in the early 1980s. But this is hardly a fair comparison, as he indirectly confirms in later comments about the relative ease of gene splicing and current availability to the public via home gene-slicing kits and inexpensive DNA analyzers. He postulated that gene splicing would soon become so common that small farmers across the planet would use it to improve the yield of their crops.
Coming from the semiconductor work, I would argue that building atomic level nano machines is somewhat more involved that gene splicing appears to be. Few semiconductor visionaries predict armchair engineers will easily build nano-bots in their garages anytime soon.
There was one question that the geek in me wanted to ask Dr. Dyson, but just couldn’t. That question concerned the mention of the Dyson Sphere in an episode of Star Trek. In the late 1950s, Feeman theorized the possibility of creating a enormous spherical structure around a star. Lifeforms would grow around the interior of the sphere by absorbing the energy of the star in the center of the sphere.
Instead of asking this question, I suggested to him that he must have been more of a mathematician than a physicist, judging from his early work in electrodynamics and quantum mechanics. He heartily agreed, restating his early comment during the lecture that he was part of a (relatively) younger group of scientists that were more interested in tiding-up the details left over from more revolutionary thinkers like Richard Feynman, Sin-itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. The modesty of the man in his 80’s was endearing.
Freeman’s humbleness, combined with his obvious eagerness for new ideas and theories, was inspiring. I only hope that I do as well when (if) reaching his age.