Konarka Technologies

Unlocking the smallest secrets

Sunday, February 1, 2004

It's no surprise that the Bay Area -- with its concentration of computer scientists, venture capitalists and biotechnology giants -- is a leading contender in the emerging field of nanotechnology.

One sign of the region's prominence is that two of the scant dozen guests in the Oval Office for President Bush's signing of the $3.7 billion nanotech funding package in December were local executives.

But could nanotechnology -- the design of materials about 50,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair -- bring changes in medicine, computing and energy, to name just a few arenas, that now seem like the realm of science fiction?

The Chronicle invited three of the most prominent leaders in the field -- all from the Bay Area -- to join in a freewheeling discussion and give readers an insider's view of nanotechnology's potential and possible pitfalls. The panelists:

-- Venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson, 36, one of the Oval Office invitees, is an investment manager on the vanguard of bets on nanotechnology startups.

-- Don Eigler, 50, of IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, performed a seminal feat of nanoscale precision in 1989, arranging 35 individual xenon atoms to spell out the IBM logo. He now explores ways to make transistors a few atoms wide.

-- UC Berkeley chemistry Professor Paul Alivisatos, 44, directs the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where researchers use powerful new tools to advance the molecular control of materials. Alivisatos is a pioneer in the construction of nanoscale semiconductor crystals that can be used to make next-generation solar cells, or minuscule fluorescent labels that may some day help surgeons distinguish tumors from healthy tissue.

Their discussion ranged across technical marvels that could revolutionize our lives, the Bay Area's place in this developing field, the fascinating collision of computer technology and biotech, as well as the fear that self- reproducing nano-devices could grow out of control and reduce the world to a mass of "gray goo.''.

Q: Let's say you're talking to somebody who doesn't know anything about nanotechnology and you're trying to explain it.

Jurvetson: I might start with, why should you care? I would say that nanotech's worth paying attention to no matter what your background because if you look far enough into the future, it'll impact just about any industry you can think of. It depends on whether you're talking 50 years or 100 years from now. And the question is: When will it affect your industry? So it's worth thinking about.

I would make maybe even a more bold statement that, as we look back from the future to the present day, we're likely to describe this as a major epoch of history, like the industrial revolution or other major transitions that technology has introduced into society. It has that sort of impact, much more so than if you look to the Internet or any other major technology subject of the recent past.

Q: How do you define it so that people understand what it is?

Jurvetson: We tend to define it as the control and manipulation of matter down to the nanoscale, meaning a billionth of a meter -- the domain of DNA and carbon nanotubes, generally speaking, something that's 700 times smaller than the wavelength of red light, somewhere around 50,000 to 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Q: What is special about being that small?

Jurvetson: It's precisely because the properties of matter that emerge at that scale are not observable or manipulable at a larger scale. Statistical physics or Newtonian physics gives way to quantum physics. Very unusual properties of matter emerge at that scale, and you can think about building products in a very different way. You can think about interfacing to biology in a very different way.

The innovations we care about as investors tend to come from the edge, away from the mainstream of thought, away from the mainstream of research. This allows you to do all kinds of new experiments people wouldn't have thought of before ... programming bacteria to assemble things, modifying the genetic code of viruses to do assembly of some non-biological construct.

Q: I'm wondering if someone can talk about that a little bit because we're not talking about a change in degree. When we're talking about nanotech, we're jumping down a whole different level. Could you explain what some of those properties are?

Jurvetson: One of the first companies we met in the nanotech field was (a maker of) simple powders, a fine powder of something.

If you take aluminum, like we have in all these aluminum cans, and bring it down to about a 20- or 30-nanometer grain size, the material properties dramatically change. It explodes spontaneously in air. It becomes a rocket fuel catalyst -- particles of plain old aluminum.

The reason is that the surface- area-to-volume ratio is changed so dramatically from its normal bulk form that it becomes a highly energetic material and is used routinely in a variety of rocket fuels.

Q: What were the potential gains from nanotech that led an established information technology company like IBM to invest in nanotech research?

Eigler: The history of our industry is one of shrinking things. We shrink the things that do computation. We can look at the kind of functionality that we can deliver to our customers today with our computers and how we could possibly deliver greater functionality at a cost point that really helps our customers get done what they need to get done. The answer is to keep making the stuff smaller.

You could say that we're already doing it in our structures in some sense. If you look at the size of some of those structures that go into a modern semiconductor chip, some of those dimensions are at the nanometer length scale.

But generally that's not what we're talking about here. I think most of us would agree we're talking about something that is substantially smaller than that and perhaps even made in a fundamentally different way.

But it is dead center in our headlights that if we want to keep the IT industry driving forward at the pace that it's been at, or even close to the pace that it's been at, we have to become masters of building small things.

The key is the onset of functionality -- useful functionality.

Q: And what does that mean?

Eigler: Atoms themselves can do a lot of tricks. They're pretty useful, but it's hard to have an atom alone be a functional component of a computer.

It's hard to see how we would use individual atoms as either the logical operators or the means for storing data or moving data around. There might be tricks where that could be done.

But we know that if we take bunches of atoms and put them together, we can get to the point where we can have something that does a logical operation on data. That's what I would call the onset of functionality when it comes to computation.

(Editor's note: Eigler's research is at the forefront of an emerging field dubbed molecular electronics -- the creation of computers or other electronic devices using transistors or switches no larger than nanoscale molecules. He can already claim a spot in the nanotechnology history books for a 1989 feat demonstrating that materials can be constructed atom by atom. Using high-tech microscopes invented by IBM, he spelled out the IBM logo with precisely placed xenon atoms.)

Alivisatos: If you think about the semiconductor industry coming down and down and down in size, the ability to make molecules of increasing complexity is becoming greater (with) more and more atoms that you can control.

When you think about what's right in the middle, in the living system, in the person, things like proteins, enzymes -- those are the elementary functional units of living systems. We are slowly learning more and more how to make those kinds of structures and how to integrate those structures into artificial technologies.

So one of the reasons it's very exciting for us to have an increased ability to pattern matter on very small scales is that it's actually the scale that matches the sizes of the basic functional units in living systems.

(Editor's note: Alivisatos is a pioneer in innovations that combine artificially engineered devices with biological elements. The nanoscale semiconductor crystals, called quantum dots, that were developed in his lab emit different colors of light depending on their size. The various size quantum dots can be linked to biological groups that bind only to certain bodily tissue types or cellular structures. This yields a multicolored image that distinguishes different biological structures from each other. The technology may some day guide surgeons as they remove tumors, leaving healthy tissues intact.)

Q: What kind of impact is nanotechnology going to have on Silicon Valley? Ten years from now, 20 years from now, is there going to be Nanotech Valley?

Jurvetson: Compared to some other technology trends, like the Internet or software or wireless data services, things of that sort, there's a bit less concentration in the valley from our perspective, than for these prior technology waves.

Why might that be? In the case of the Internet, there's a human capital element and just the sheer ability to ramp up quickly and scale up, if you will, the head count of an organization -- be that at an EBay or a Yahoo or a Hotmail. It's a lot easier to do that here, or at least it was and continues to be, than in other regions of the world or the United States.

In nanotech, it's not quite the same thing. The human capital element is very different. The people with deep domain expertise usually have performed a substantial amount of research in some university setting, from our perspective, before they would set out to form a new company.

So from the entrepreneurial side of the equation, the formation of new ventures tends to correlate with university spin-offs. Second to that are government labs, but in both cases they've usually (done) federally funded research for a number of years and (spent) a substantial amount of money before they ever enter the startup phase. That's very different from the Internet.

The thing, though, about nanotech is that because a lot of these are federally funded, they tend to be striped around the United States. There are many centers of excellence. It's not concentrated. There's a variety of reasons why distribution tends to occur in terms of research grants and projects.

As for the nanotech companies we've invested in so far, the ones most people would agree are nanotech companies, not one is in Silicon Valley, even though we're based here, and that would be the easiest and the most likely place to look.

They're all over the place, from Chicago to Austin to Denver to L.A. They're also dispersed internationally. There's a lot of great work going on around the world.

(Editor's note: Jurvetson's firm, Draper Fisher Jurvetson of Redwood City, is recognized as one of the foremost venture capital units investing in nanotech startups. A Stanford graduate in engineering and business, Jurvetson saw seven of his communications chip designs fabricated as an R&D engineer at Hewlett-Packard. The veteran of VC investment in high tech was recently named Small Times magazine's 2003 Advocate of the Year for nanotechnology and microtechnology.)

Eigler: I suspect that the Bay Area is as well or better positioned to be a leader in future nanotechnology and the various ways in which those technologies will be deployed, so that it will end up being the leader.

Let me tell you why I think that's possible, if not likely, when I think about the space for innovation and where new things might come out, new things that we can't even begin to describe. That space for innovation is really between the areas that we have today, somewhere between computation and biotech, or between biotech and chemistry.

All of those disciplines get very interesting at the nanometer-length scale. So we're all going to be driven to it. Now where in the world do you find double E's (electrical engineers), material scientists, biologists, physicists, chemists, all packed up in the great universities and all churning away like crazy?

My crystal ball tells me that if I were to try to identify one spot on the globe that is as likely or more likely than any other spot to take a leadership position in future nanotechnologies, I'd say the Bay Area.

Alivisatos: Add one more, which is the tremendous importance of the venture capital community that's here in the area and the fact that the science community here has a tradition of becoming very involved in taking inventions from the labs into the marketplace.

Eigler: And the mind-set of a community, of a dynamic, multicultural, multi-valued community that is interested in new things and they're not scared of it. It's a good recipe.

Q: You mentioned that nanotechnology (research at IBM) is a natural outgrowth of this drive toward miniaturization. Were you also at the same time inspired by what molecular biologists were finding in living things?

Eigler: The thing that I've thought of many times over the course of the last several years is to look at biological systems and to recognize that there's a hierarchy of length scales. (Editor's note: Eigler is referring to the wide variety of size scales that make up living things, from nanometer- scale cellular units that produce the chemical energy needed to move muscles, to the muscles themselves and nerve fibers that can extend a meter or more.)

You see different functionalities at different length scales, but they all add together to create the overall functionality of the biological organism. And those functionalities are absolutely extraordinary.

Sometimes when I give lectures, I like to take out some cute little black- and-white cows and start juggling them in front of my audience. When I ask the audience whether what they're seeing is ordinary or extraordinary, and they look at it as just a bozo scientist juggling, they're supposed to think, "Well, that's ordinary." Every bozo scientist can juggle.

But what I want is for them to see me as just a bunch of atoms stuck together. And to ask, how is it that a bunch of atoms stuck together can juggle?

In order to explain juggling, you have to talk about functionalities at length scales that, for instance, are at the order of a foot long, like my forearm and its motion while I'm juggling, all the way down to the molecular scale, and even changes that happen within a molecule, in the transport of energy within a cell, and muscles to contract, and everything else.

I use that as an inspiration. I use that as a way of thinking about all the incredible kinds of functionalities that we could get if we could design and engineer things in new ways at those smaller-length scales.

Q: Molecular biologists have gone just so far with their training in biology. Now you have this infusion of engineers (getting interested in the machinery of the cell). What can they add? How can they assist molecular biologists to take their science even further?

Jurvetson: They can add a lot. I think it's inspirational in both directions.

The decoding of the human genome, a sort of digital representation of our biology, opens it up further to computer scientists to look at the (DNA) code, look for error correction code and see things perhaps that the pure geneticist would not have seen, bringing in the disciplines and the frameworks and the pattern-recognition skills of adjacent disciplines. So let me say it more clearly. I think IT is driving biology. It is what makes biology accrue more quickly. Similarly biology is inspiring IT. And nanotech is in the center of all that.

Eigler: Biology creates an inspiration for us. If I was asked, if somebody came to me and said, "Your job is to build a nanometer scale monster truck; get to work,'' what would I do?

I would turn to biology. I would study how biology has evolved to have these beautiful rotary motors that it has. I would either grab those rotary motors and attach them to my little nano-monster truck, or I would try to find a way to mimic what biology has taught me about how to have a successful rotary motor. (I'd) get four of these and stick them on my two axles, and I'd have my little nano-monster truck.

Q: Since nanotech can require multiple disciplines (engineering, physics, molecular biology, materials science), is either our industry or our higher education system structured so that development is going to happen in any organized way?

Alivisatos: The fact is there's really only one subject of science. We have this breakdown into subjects that people have done in order to make progress on difficult problems. But it's an entirely artificial set of breakdowns into subjects. There's no real intrinsic breakdown.

One of the reasons why I think nanotechnology is evolving so well is that it's not a division. It's a unification of disciplines.

In terms of education, it's difficult for a young person because they do need to learn all of these vocabularies, and if they learn all of them, they'll probably know everything very superficially. So for the education system, it's a tremendous challenge. Eventually it'll be a big challenge for industries.

But it's fun, It means that we are at an important moment in the history of science and technology. Instead of breaking pieces apart, we're putting them all together. It's great.

Q: Biotechnology brought in a whole lot of ethical issues with Frankenfoods and whatnot. What will nanotechnology bring?

Jurvetson: I think we will have cut our teeth with biotech issues long before nanotech poses any similar threat. Even though it's worthwhile and very important to be thinking about these now, I think whatever you or a reader may fear is more likely to play out time-wise in a biological domain that might have nothing to do with nanotech, before anything of comparable complexity emerges in the nanotech world.

Alivisatos: There's the question of environmental or potential environmental or toxicological impacts of nanoscale materials, and that's a question that we now could engage in and answer. And we should.

Ten years ago, it would've been premature. It's only very recently that one would begin to say there are some materials that have enough promise and are close enough to a real application that it would be worthwhile to try to answer those kinds of questions.

So that's imminent, and my guess is what will happen is some materials are going to be benign, and that we can almost say for sure because we've evolved in an environment full of nanoscale materials.

It's part of how nature makes things. So we know that we'll be able to make materials that way that are benign. But we have to make sure the artificial ones (are safe). There's a good prospect to work together, rather than having an adversarial relationship, because many things we do in nanotechnology can have health benefits or improve energy efficiency, goals that we all would share in order to make the world more environmentally stable and sustainable.

Then there's this sort of feeling of unease that many people have, that science and technology are becoming darned powerful, and "gosh, what is that going to unleash on the world?"

That's a more diffuse feeling, and in the nanotechnology arena, to my knowledge, there is nothing specific that you can really grab hold of there and say, "This is the thing that you should really worry about."

But the other day I was working in my study at home, and my kids came running up the stairs, "Dad, Dad, the bad guy's taking over the world. He's a nanotechnologist.''

Q: Eric Drexler has raised the specter of the "gray goo,'' (a nightmare scenario in which self-assembling nano-bots or tiny nano-elements proliferate out of control and turn the world into a mass of amorphous slime).

(Editor's note: Drexler is the Bay Area author of a visionary nanotechnology book, "Engines of Creation,'' and a proponent of the idea that nanoscale materials may someday be self-assembling or self-replicating. Drexler advocates advances in such "molecular manufacturing,'' but also warns it could unleash environmental consequences.)

Alivisatos: First of all, nobody knows how to make artificial material that can replicate itself. There's no example of that. And I'm not sure that any scientist I know of thinks that they can do that. Now, can you harness biological systems to make harm? Yes, that's (possible with) biotechnology. That's been the issue we've been talking about for 20 years. But in terms of what this field of nanotechnology has to do with creating new materials by patterning on small-length scales, we don't have an ability to make them self- replicating.

Eigler: The kinds of things that we've been talking about, about patterning matter on a nanometer length scale ... in terms of what we would be introducing into the world, it's no different than what the chemical industry or the pharmaceutical industry has been doing for eons.

If the chemical industry is going to be creating a new chemical and manufacturing any quantity of it, should its hazards to the biosphere be understood? I think everybody in the room would say, yes, it should be understood, and it should be dealt with accordingly. And the same with pharmaceuticals.

I don't see that what we're talking about in the nanosphere is any different at all.

Q: A long time ago there was a science fiction story about scientists who engineered a microorganism to digest oil because of oil spills, but the microorganism also digested plastic. So the world collapsed because all the different plastic parts in subways and planes and other structures turned into mush. Can you understand that kind of concern on the part of people who see science barreling toward this kind of convergence of living things and non- living things?

Alivisatos: But that again is a straight biotech engineering kind of thing, right?

Q: But in nanotechnology, when you're talking about taking a living element and sort of hijacking it for another purpose (such as engineering viruses to grow nanowires), isn't there the possibility that by doing things like that you can create unintended consequences?

Alivisatos: I agree with what you just said. I just don't think there's anything we have in terms of an ability that's different in that sense in qualitative ways. In the sense that we make artificial matter, we don't have an ability to make, as far as I know, artificial things that live. Most of these scenarios that we describe involve making something artificial that somehow takes off. That's the kind of thing you're describing. That's the sort of fear, and there's no example.

Eigler: No scientist I know of who's an honest scientist will ever say that that is impossible.

If I can describe that a little bit more -- an honest scientist has to admit that he or she has never thought of all possibilities. The issue that you bring up, there's an analogy that I use: Prior to the voyages of Columbus, there were stories about sea monsters and serpents out there in the Atlantic Ocean that could destroy whole ships, do all kinds of havoc. Did anyone bring a sea monster back and show it to Queen Isabella? Did anybody say, "I actually saw these great sea monsters?" Where was the proof of the sea monsters?

The problem is, imagine a conversation. There's two sailors standing on the shores of Portugal looking out on the Atlantic. One is convinced of the sea monsters, and says, "Look, we all know about big fish in the ocean. They go up to the scale of whales. If they go from little fish to whales, why not beyond whales to giant sea monsters that can eat whole ships?"

There's a certain rationality to that argument. The other sailor turns to the first and says, "Show me the monsters.'' There is no proof that the sailor who is skeptical about the monsters can give the other sailor to demonstrate that there cannot be monsters.

We're always going to be faced with this discrepancy between proving something is dangerous and proving something is safe.

Alivisatos: You have to balance all the benefits as well as your assessment of risk. In the case of nanotechnology, let's say that it turns out that we really develop a way of detecting cancers at a much earlier stage. I think there's a very good chance that things like that will emerge from this field.

Q: Can you give some examples? I was reading about a scientific team using gold nano-particles to which they attach organic groups that recognize tumor cells. Once they attach to the tumor, shining light on the tissues makes the gold particle heat up and kill the cancerous cells.

Alivisatos: That's an example of an area that's kind of in development. We're working with some of these (nano) particles that can be used for observing luminescence, with colleagues at UCSF, and we can introduce those inside cells.

There's one labeling experiment, and they can use it to track phenomena. They can see in this case a set of healthy breast cells in culture, then introduce cancer cells and watch them go in and try to attack the healthy ones. They can do all that with one labeling experiment at the beginning and follow something for 12 weeks. They couldn't do that before they had those artificial materials.

Q: A lot of nanotech skeptics out there are saying, "Is this a business? Is there a business model here?" Yet the kind of discoveries, should they become in wider use, seems to be gigantic. Is it just that we're in a very early stage?

Alivisatos: Yes. It's just that we're at a very early stage.

You know the famous Faraday story. In front of the Royal Society he demonstrated there was the second law of electricity, and he was asked, of what use is it? And he says, "I don't know, but some day they'll be taxing it. ''

(Editor's note: This refers to a possibly apocryphal story about the renowned 19th century chemist and physicist Michael Faraday. The quip was his purported response to a prime minister or chancellor who didn't grasp the utility of one of his electromagnetic discoveries.)

It's early.

Eigler: Very, very early.

Q: Of the companies coming to you looking for funding, what particular areas are most of them going into? Does there appear to be one area of interest, like computation?

Jurvetson: Initially it was, as I mentioned, a series of bulk materials companies (making large quantities of fine powders). We still see those. They don't catch our attention as much because once you've seen 30 or 40 of any one type of company, it's less exciting and unique.

Powdered aluminum, powdered alumina, powdered titanium dioxide for sunscreens -- there's been a variety of companies that were just making the bulk powder and then trying to sell it to other companies that were already in related industries and needed a finer grain size along a gradient.

Nothing revolutionary. Slightly revolutionary manufacturing processes, but the products are fairly well understood by the customers, and that's why we didn't invest in them because it didn't seem like it was a change-the-world kind of breakthrough.

The next category of companies -- and these are also some of the earliest to revenue -- are in the tools sector, people who are developing new mechanisms for doing research and development. Eventually they hope to mature into tools for manufacturing.

In terms of venture propositions, though, we're trying to look to the three- to five-year horizon. If it's an obvious moneymaker today, it's again a little less exciting. We'll invest in a few of those, but we're really trying to look a little bit farther out, but not, let's say, 20 years out, before you get your first customer.

So that has largely for us clustered on molecular electronics and energy, and secondarily around things touching upon medicine.

So molecular electronics was one of the first areas that was a square hit with what we're looking for, for a variety of reasons: There's near-term revenue prospects, near-term meaning three to five years. They can have a huge impact, like revolutionary impact, in the long term, meaning they can be the succession to CMOS (the most widely used type of integrated circuit for digital processors and memories).

In energy, there's everything from energy storage in batteries (to) new solid-state batteries, new solar cells like Nanosys (Inc. of Palo Alto) and Konarka (Technologies Inc. of Massachusetts) and others who are finding novel ways to manufacture solar cells.

Generally speaking, if you control matter more precisely, you can get more efficiency out of any process. Then there is a variety of near-term opportunities in drug delivery and eventually therapeutics. But diagnostics, sensors, initially, because you don't have to go through the same hoops for one of those products as you do for a therapeutic agent.

There's a company in Chicago, Arryx (Inc.), that uses thousands of laser tweezers to grab cells. They can literally, without ripping into the cells, weigh the DNA inside the cell, determine if that's going to be -- if it's a sperm -- a male or female baby that this would create, for animal husbandry applications. If you want a milk cow, you want it to be female. If you want a beef cow, you want it to be male. They can do all that without physically penetrating the cell membrane. These are unusual techniques that one can start to explore with these new tools.

And so, in biology there are a lot of early applications where you don't have to go through the (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) cycle to get there. Regulatory environments always slow the pace of progress, rightly so. And so I think it's an unpredictable delay on what would be the bold new world of therapeutics and nanomedicine, which I think is a long way off for a variety of reasons.

Q: From the investment side, is it too early for the individual investor to be involved?

Jurvetson: I think the sane answer is yes. There are very few public stocks, for example, and that's where the average investor would look, so you don't want to.

If (you) think pretty broad-definition, you include companies like IBM that have a very large initiative here, but clearly it's not a pure play. A lot of the work is in large companies and private companies, so you can't really pinpoint investment yet.

Q: But why should investors educate themselves about it now?

Jurvetson: To understand how it will affect the semiconductor industry and a variety of other industries that they may be investing in. The energy industry. Technology business increasingly becomes difficult to predict because technology itself is accelerating in change, and human nature and markets are more stagnant and static. But the dynamic engine of technological innovation continues unabated. And so disruption, change, changes in paradigms, new entrants -- this theme I think will accelerate.

Q: How important is government funding in the United States to establish a strong position in nano?

Alivisatos: I just want to say how important I think it is for people who are trying to understand the world around them to start to hear more about this area because it's going to impact their lives. Stepping back from that to take a really long historical perspective, Don (Eigler) was the first person to take an atom, pick it up and put it down, and he spelled IBM with atoms. I really think that is an event in civilization to be able to do that. That's the fundamental building block -- an atom. It is just a tremendously important field in terms of our ability to understand the world around us and to interact with it. And that's a big deal for humanity.

Jurvetson: Not to mention the future of the U.S. economy probably depends on our collective fluency.

Alivisatos: The government is investing heavily because the case has been made by scientists and industry that this is going to be very important and pay off over the long term. It has not been a partisan issue in any way, and it's been an issue in which the scientists have come together. There haven't been cases where one group of scientists are against and another for, because it is a unifying field. I think it's great that the investment is coming in, and over time it will bear lots of fruit.

Eigler: I think it's essential ... it's only the government and the largest companies that can afford to make the investment in the leading edge research.

Jurvetson: Absolutely, we have to come in much later, after (something that) was an incredibly risky proposition bears some fruit in terms of a prototype or some products. That's when we first invest. As I mentioned earlier, every one of our nanotech and related companies was first federally funded in a university setting or in a government lab.

Q: Is there significant work being done in other countries?

Alivisatos: Oh, sure. First of all, I think it's important to say that it's a global field of research and the United States is an important player, but there's great activity going on all around the world. There are large initiatives in Europe, in Asia, that are extremely effective.

Q: Nanotechnology has been described as "the science that can change everything.'' How much of those changes can we even imagine right now, and how much of it is just beyond imagination?

Eigler: I'm too old to imagine it. Steve, you're probably too old to imagine it.

Jurvetson: I try to maintain a childlike maturity.

Eigler: I'll just speak for myself then. Although I try not to be, I am saddled with the limitations of viewing things the way I've viewed them in the past or the way other people of the past have viewed them. It's always been this way: Younger generations have carried less of the baggage of older generations, and so they'll see things new and fresh. That's where real innovation comes from.

I suspect we can imagine a whole bunch of wild applications. The chances that we're going to actually nail some of the big ones on the head are, I think, fairly low.

There will be extraordinary innovations, ideas that pop up out of nowhere. If I knew what they were, I would have already achieved the innovation on the spot.

That absence of the same set of barriers, combined with brains and spirit and everything else, will create the things that we can't even imagine. Who imagined the Internet back in 1963? Now we say, "You want to find out something? Go Google it.''

Alivisatos: There's another exercise we can go through which is in some ways just as valuable. Let's think about some areas where we're pretty sure there's no law of science that prevents us from doing certain things. We just need to do it. Examples of that involve how we manipulate energy. We know that there are much better ways in which we can store and use energy that are sustainable.

Nanotechnology will enable us to do certain things like that, very important goals that we can achieve over time if we set those goals for ourselves, (such as) wanting to detect cancer when it's only a couple of cells in size.

It can be done. So let's set those goals and try to work toward them.

Jurvetson: The only thing you can safely say (about predicting nanotech's potential) is the farther out you look, the tougher it gets, and the more bold and the more futuristic the prediction. If it doesn't sound like science fiction, it's almost certainly false.

I can tell you the pace of technological change is accelerating; therefore, predictability is harder.

You can think philosophically of where it might lead. What is this brave new world we're heading into? Are we going to be able to evolve evolvability? Are we going to have digital-controlled matter?

I think we're going to learn more in the next 20 years than we have in the last 200 about all these things we talked about today and their intersections with medicine, and therefore we can't really predict.

All we know is it's a great time to be learning, to have an open mind, be interdisciplinary and figure out what's going on.

Participating in this interview were Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, Business Editor Ken Howe, Deputy Business Editor Alan T. Saracevic, Deputy Business Editor Steven Zuckerman, Assistant Business Editor Marcus Chan, staff writers Bernadette Tansey and David R.Baker, and editorial assistants Colleen Benson and Steve Corder.