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Freeman Dyson Compares Biotech To Nanotech

Figure: Famous physicist Freeman Dyson talks with Mentor Graphic’s Ry Schwark following an ISEEP lecture.

Figure: Famous physicist Freeman Dyson talks with Mentor Graphic’s Ry Schwark following an ISEEP lecture.

Recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the famous physicist, Freeman Dyson, talk about the future of mankind. This was part of an ongoing lecture series sponsored by Mentor Graphics and others as part of the Institute of Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (ISEPP). Dr. Dyson talked about many things ranging from his personal observations about the need for the unilateral destruction of nuclear weapons to the importance of bio-technology. He also spoke—often indirectly—about semiconductor technology.

In his comments about the origins and growth of bio-technology, Freeman seemed to mix fact and personal opinions. For example, he 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 U.S. Since that time, computers have gotten smaller and more powerful, leading Freeman to conclude that computers have now become domesticated.

This seemed like an oddly agrarian choice of words. After all, “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 “computer domestication” suggests a lack of appreciation for the countless man-hours spent in R&D, architecting, testing, and manufacturing, which were required to give birth to the electronic age that so many people take for granted.

Although some may argue that this is just a problem of semantics, it highlights the growing gap of technical literacy among even the most educated and respected of our community. Later in his talk, Dr. Dyson observed that biotech—not nanotech—is the faster-growing area of technology. He mentioned that nanotech had been around for almost 50 years. I assume that he was referring to Feynman’s casual mention in the late 1950s of building an atomic-level molecular machine.

In contrast, biotechnology is still in its infancy. Yet it has become far more commonplace 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 semiconductor work, I would argue that building atomic-level nano-machines is somewhat more involved than gene splicing appears to be. Few semiconductor visionaries predict that 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, Dyson theorized the possibility of creating an enormous spherical structure around a star. Lifeforms would grow around the interior of the sphere by absorbing the energy of the star in its center.

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 tidying-up the details left over from more revolutionary thinkers like Richard Feynman, Sin-itiro Tomonaga, and Julian Schwinger. The modesty of this man in his 80s was endearing. Freeman’s humbleness, combined with his obvious eagerness for new ideas and theories, was inspiring. I hope that it motivates a new generation of geneticists, physicists, and maybe even a few semiconductor engineers.

Originally posted on Chip Design and System-Level Design

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