Christine Peterson | Anticipating nanotechnologies
<b>GCN Interview:</b> The founder of the Foresight Nanotechnology Institute talks about the types of nanotechnology products we could see down the road ' and the serious concerns about potential violations of privacy
- By Patrick Marshall
- Oct 24, 2008
Christine Peterson: "Nature makes all these little machines down at the molecular level. Why can't we?"
Somewhere along the road to a career in hard science,
Christine Peterson took a detour. After completing her
bachelor's degree in chemistry, she became a semiconductor
engineer and product manager in the microwave industry. At the same
time, however, she was growing increasingly fascinated with the
emerging field of nanotechnology, the development of materials and
devices with structural features in the 1- to 100- nanometer range.
After moving to the Bay Area in 1986, she founded the Foresight
Nanotech Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to
nanotechnology education. The growing interest in nanotechnology
has led to growing support for the institute and requests for its
GCN: How would you describe the current state of
PETERSON: The word nanotechnology is defined so very broadly that
you can't make a simple statement in answer to that question.
I like to divide nanotechnology into three stages: materials,
devices and systems. Right now I would say that materials are
clearly moving into the marketplace and starting to have a good
impact. Devices are still in the research and development stage,
just beginning to come out. And more complex systems are still in
the long-term research stage.
GCN: What is Foresight's mission?
PETERSON:Foresight has a mission of maximizing benefits and
minimizing the downsides of powerful emerging technologies, in
particular nanotechnology. But we don't restrict ourselves to
only that. We look at other technologies as well, particularly
GCN: Where does Foresight's funding come from?
PETERSON: We are a nonprofit, and the vast majority of our
funding comes from individual donations. We do get a little funding
from foundations but mostly from individuals. There are a lot of
folks who are very interested in nanotechnology. They really want
information. They want conferences, they want newsletters and
GCN: What are the first nanotech materials we should expect to
PETERSON: Because of the energy situation, a lot of these things
are energyrelated, whether it is solar cell materials or ways to
save energy through special coatings that are perhaps more
protective or new materials that are lighter weight so they have
less mass to move around. Water filtration technologies are
starting to show up. All of these kinds of things are beginning to
hit the market. For any large company that produces a physical
object ' whether a car, solar cell, airplane or anything else
' they had better at this point be fully aware of what the
nanotechnology options are in their marketplace, because all the
big companies are either studying incorporating these materials or
they've already done it.
There is a long list of unusual properties these things have.
But one thing that stands out is their strength. You're
starting to see these materials show up in products that need a
high strength-to-weight ratio ' say, sports equipment.
GCN: And the military?
PETERSON: It's a little harder to find out about what the
military is up to. But those are the folks who pay for the
GCN: What about nanotech devices?
PETERSON: It's a little early. But we're starting to
see some sensors. They are very simple devices. But you see
discussion of things like carbon nanotube transistors, memory, etc.
But it's not near commercialization at this point. It's
still pretty researchy stuff.
GCN: What other kinds of devices might we see in the next five
to 10 years?
PETERSON: The Web site that I find the most useful for looking at
this interim time frame is the MIT Institute for Soldier
Nanotechnologies (web.mit.edu/isn/). It's all unclassified.
They're working on extremely technically sexy projects. My
favorite one they talk about is boots the soldier could wear to
help them jump 20 feet in the air. This is so cool. Of course, the
question when you're up 20 feet in the air is, now what?
GCN: And what about nanotech systems?
PETERSON: The original goal was to build complex macro-scale
objects with atomic precision, so that basically these things are
like little machines all the way down. This was the big insight
back at MIT in the late 1970s. Nature makes all these little
machines down at the molecular level. Why can't we?
It's going to take a long time. But we are going to get
there, certainly within our lifetime.
GCN: Where should we look for the big breakthroughs?
PETERSON: Military and medical. Military because they have a lot
of money to throw around, they tend to have a long-term focus, and
they're not afraid of new technologies. And medical because
the payoffs are so huge. The medical industry is pushing harder to
get tinier and tinier devices that go into the body and carry out
various tasks. They're striving technologically to try to
minimize the invasiveness of surgery and to track down cancer cells
at very early stages when there are very few of them.
GCN: Are we waiting for a single type of breakthrough in enabling
PETERSON: The Foresight Institute has a road map. You can view it
at www. foresight.org.
There are different scenarios, and people in the field have
strong feelings about it. If you asked them what breakthrough is
needed, the biology people will say, 'Oh, well, we need to be
able to design new proteins to do what we want.' The
chemistry people will say, 'No, we really need a chemistry
breakthrough.' The scanning probe people will say, 'No,
we need better tool chips in our scanning probe.' Everybody
has their own little hobbyhorse they ride.
We'll all get there eventually. The question is
who's going to get there first. I like to think about a
hybrid strategy where we use a little different technologies to
GCN: We've heard that you have concerns about privacy
issues. What specifically are those?
PETERSON: The wonderful thing about sensors with nanotechnology
is that they can have the ultimate level of sensitivity. They can
detect single molecules. That's very cool. But these things
are going to be so cheap, and they're going to be everywhere.
If these things are all over the place, you're not going to
have any privacy at all. It's going to be so easy to tell
everything about you. What you ate, what you smoked, what's
in your DNA. Nanotech sensors will be able to detect some cancers
by analyzing your breath. They can tell if you've been
drinking at lunch.
Looking forward, we need to think a little bit about how the
data is handled coming out of these things ' who gets the
data, how is it used, how long is it kept. It's a huge, huge
I don't want to go overboard and [signal] the end of the
world here, but I think it's pretty clear that if we
don't pay attention to this, bad things will happen. Computer
people in particular need to get involved, because it's the
computer people who can help set a precedent and set the
Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.