"Exponential" Thinking for the Future

"Exponential" Thinking for the Future
                  By Jack Uldrich Published 01/21/2004

            In 1913, Lee De Forest was prosecuted by U.S. government
officials for claiming to potential investors that his company, RCA,
would soon be able to transmit the human voice over the Atlantic
Ocean. The prosecuting officials argued that his claim was so utterly
ridiculous that he was surely ripping off investors. He was ultimately
released but not before being admonished by the judge to stop making
any more fraudulent claims. The rest, as the old saying goes, "is
history."

            I start my article on nanotechnology with this story
because it serves as a poignant reminder that the relentless forces of
technology can lead to predictions that sound nonsensical or
unbelievable to people who do not understand where science and
technology is headed. The story holds particular relevance to the
broader business community because virtually every industry --
including the computer, semiconductor, energy, health care, insurance
and manufacturing sectors -- will soon be confronted with seemingly
nonsensical and unbelievable predictions that are about to be created
by the new and emerging science of nanotechnology.

            Many business people are familiar with Moore's Law, which
states that the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer
chip doubles every 18 months. This seemly simply law has increased the
number of circuits on a chip from a mere 2,400 in 1973 to over 200
million today. Late last year, Intel announced the creation of a
90-nanometer circuit which will create transistors measuring on
50-nanometers in length and put more than 400 million transistors on a
chip. The development will technically move the semiconductor sectors
into the realm of nanotechnology.

            The development is however only the tip of the proverbial
iceberg. The latest draft of the International Technology Roadmap for
Semiconductors states that within ten years most semiconductors will
likely be produced with nanotechnology techniques. If you understand
exponential growth and nanotechnology it is reasonable to understand
how many in the scientific community are predicting that computers
will soon become 100 and then 10,000 and eventually one million times
more powerful than those we have today.

            A cursory review of nanotechnology developments in other
fields may shed some useful light on the amount of change coming to
other industries. Nantero, a Massachusetts-based company, is
developing carbon nanotubes to produce "non-volatile" random access
memory capable of storing a trillion bits of data per square
centimeter -- nearly 1000 times more than today's best RAM. If
successful -- and they are reportedly partnering with some major
semiconductor companies -- the entire $100 billion data storage
industry will experience seismic change. Longer-term, Hewlett-Packard
and others are working on atomic storage resolution, a development
which would enable a device the size of a sugar cube to storage the
entire contents of the Library of Congress (250 million books).

            Two promising nanotechnology start-ups, Nanosys and
Konarka, are racing to develop polymer-based solar panels embedded
with nanocrystals that are so efficient and flexible that they can be
used in everything from clothing to roofing shingles. Their goal is to
produce supper-efficient solar cells that can be printed as easily and
cheaply as rolls of wallpaper. If successful, the energy and utility
industries will undergo a paradigm shift of historic proportions.
Nanotechnology advances in the efficiency and effectiveness of solar
cell and fuel cell technology portend the day when cheap, clean,
sustainable energy can, quite literally, be generated at a person's
home.

            The prestigious British Medical journal, Lancet, citing
the vast potential benefits of nanotechnology in drug delivery and
disease diagnosis, recently called for papers in nanomedicine to be
published in the spring of 2004. The call is not premature because
some nanotech-based drugs are now in FDA Phase I clinical trials and
the U.S. government's top expert in nanotechnology, Mike Roco, has
publicly stated that nanotech will be the basis for 50 percent of all
pharmaceutical products by the end of the decade. In fact, the
National Institutes of Health publicly stated last year that by 2015
it believes that nanomedicine will play an integral role in curing a
number of cancers. Other nanotechnology developments point toward the
day when disease is no longer treated after it has occurred, but
rather is prevented before it can occur. Alzheimer's, diabetes, and
obesity are just a few of the diseases being targeted by
nanotechnology.

            These medical advances are obviously good for society but
one side-effect is that health care and medical technology companies
may see entire product lines -- and their corresponding revenue
generating streams -- evaporate literally overnight. Big change is
coming to the health care sector and they need to begin preparing for
it today.

            The earlier diagnosis and treatment of disease will also
put immense pressure on the insurance industry. For instance, as
diagnostic technology gets more effective and less expensive, people's
perception of risk -- and thus their need for insurance -- will be
greatly altered. A second issue is that medical advances may radically
alter life expectancy projections. What will happen to insurance
industry profits if people suddenly begin living well in their 100's
as a result of nanotechnology developments? The bottom-line is that
the insurance industry is going to face severe pressure in the coming
years and some of insurance companies may not survive.

            Even mundane industries like the textile industry are
being revolutionized by nanotechnology. Nano-Tex now has agreements
with Eddie Bauer, Lee Jeans, GAP, and Old Navy to carry a number of
products that contain their NANO-CARE technology -- nanofibers that
effectively repel coffee, wine and other ingredients from staining the
material. The net effect of this simple technology may well be that
the demand for the services of dry cleaners (as well as the demand for
laundry detergent) may decrease dramatically. Other nanotechnology
developments being investigated at the Institute of Soldiering
Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology include
creating uniforms that can camouflage themselves instantaneously
depending on their unique environment -- be it a desert in Iraq or an
urban environment in Somali. If a uniform can change instantly, the
question the textile and fashion industries must ask themselves is why
not a shirt or a sweater? If such a development is possible, how do
they begin preparing for that change today?

            The food industry is also experimenting with
nanotechnology. For instance, Kraft Foods hopes to employ
nanotechnology to create foods that can be individually altered with
nanotechnology to accommodate the unique taste and health-care needs
of individual customers. The bottom line is that the food sector can
quite possibly, thanks to nanotechnology, become rivals to the
pharmaceutical and health-care industries in the prevention and
treatment of disease.

            All of these developments -- from computers a million
times more powerful, to data storage devices capable of holding
millions of books in a device the size of a sugar cube, to
super-efficient solar cells, to cancer-curing drugs, to cloths and
foods that change on demand -- may sound fantastic. But do they really
sound any more fantastic than Lee De Forest claim in 1913 to be able
to transmit the human voice over the Atlantic Ocean?

            The Faster Rate of Change

            Change happens and, due to exponential advances that
nanotechnology is enabling, change is only going to occur at an ever
faster rate. The best way for each industry to begin preparing for
this new reality is to understand the field of nanotechnology.

            If they fail to do so their fate may be similar to that of
the Swiss watch industry. In 1968, the Swiss controlled 80 percent of
the world market for high quality watches. By 1973, their market share
had plunged to less than 20 percent and the country witnessed the
displacement of 50,000 watch-makers. The reason? A relatively simple
technology -- quartz technology -- rendered state-of-the-art
mechanical watches obsolete. Nanotechnology has the potential to do
the same thing -- and not just to one industry but virtually every
industry.

            The 20th century philosopher, Bertrand Russell, once said
"Almost everything that distinguishes the modern world from earlier
centuries is attributable to science." He was right then and,
prophetically, he is even more correct today at the beginning of the
21st century. The future is going to look radically different than it
does today and the science of nanotechnology is going to be one of the
primary reasons.

            Businesses that understand the science of nanotechnology,
grasp the power of exponential growth, and keep an open mind to the
possibilities which nanotechnology will enable cannot only survive the
future they can prosper in it.

            Jack Uldrich is the author of The Next Big Thing is Really
Small: How Nanotechnology will Change the Future of Your Business
(Crown, 2003) and president of the NanoVeritas Group, a consultancy
which helps businesses prepare for and prosper from nanotechnology. He
can be reached at jack@....

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