Interview with Nanotechnologist Jim Gimzewski

“My sights are set on building a machine that demonstrates intelligence without programming.”

Jim Gimzewski, professor at UCLA.

Jim Gimzewski is a leader in the field of Nanotechnology. A Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, he is also the Director of the UCLA CNSI Nano & Pico Characterization Core Facility. In 2009, Gimzewski was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the highest award in Britain for excellence in Science.

A Growing Technology

The Global Intelligence: As a pioneer in the field, what is nanotechnology to you? What is it not?
Jim Gimzewski: Nanotechnology is a fairly broad subject impacting and traversing many existing fields of research from medicine to spacecraft. Generally speaking, nanotechnology is where critical dimensions of a system are in the range of 1 to 100 nm. That is of course small, but nanosystems themselves can be assembled on larger scales, such as solar panels or self-cleaning walls, and also on smaller scales, such as 50 nm for targeted drug-delivery systems. Metrics aside, nanotechnology is about convergence of fields of science and the development of new approaches and paradigms for science and technology. In most existing areas of science and technology, the nanometer is a new frontier, and it’s necessary to converge those fields for many desired properties, applications, or new technologies to develop. What is not nanotech is some person telling you how big a nanometer is in relation to a penny or something. Aside from the fact that humans can’t understand size on this scale, it’s really boring and I have heard it being repeated for the last 25 years.

TGI: Nanotechnology is allowing for revolutionary developments in many areas of science. In which fields do you see nanotechnology having the most profound impacts?
JG: The most profound areas I see making a big impact are firstly in medicine, both for fast, cheap diagnostics and for a whole new class of therapies. I think of cancer diagnosis and treatment in particular with Nano encapsulated drugs that target tumors. Already Abraxane is an anticancer drug that employs some moderate aspects of nanotechnology, and there are many developments going on at present. Next I believe it will be in materials that are getting big. For instance, nanoconcrete has been developed by Iran that is impenetrable by conventional bombs but which cuts down on greenhouse gases and is earthquake proof. Likewise self-cleaning windows cut energy consumption. Insulating paints and eventually solar ‘paint-on’ panels are already partially developed. Nanoclay is employed in food packaging to reduce gas permeation. New sports items are using carbon nanotubes. Materials for cosmetics are also a very large area through the use of encapsulation technology.

TIG: Do you see the most useful innovations of nanotechnology coming out of a focus on brand new applications or efficient replacements for older technology?
JG: Both revolutionary and evolutionary innovation needs to occur in parallel. To increase solar cell efficiency a few percent with a cost reduction is clearly an important evolution for energy. To develop a new form of computer with physical intelligence is clearly revolutionary. What appears as a revolution will be unexpected, but it’s fair to say that there are so many evolutionary areas in energy, medicine, national security, and ITC where nanotechnology can help that all of those small developments add up such that we can change the world from energy inefficiency and polluting to clean and green.

TGI: Efficient and affordable technology can be critical in dealing with the issues faced by developing nations. What has been nanotechnology’s single greatest contribution in this area so far?
JG: The danger is that developing countries will be alienated by nanotechnology development. Worse still, nanotechnology offers the opportunity to reduce jobs in those countries through automation, robotics AI, and self-assembly. Exceptions are China where nanotechnology is important in their long-term strategies. I also believe the Middle East is and will continue to develop nanotechnology for issues such as water desalination and solar power.

TIG: New technology often creates fears both real and imagined in society. Are there any areas of nanotechnology that have given you cause for concern?
JG: There are always utopian and dystopian visions of any new technology that seems like magic to the layperson. For instance, swarms of nanobots and so on are good for science fiction, but those are not real dangers. There are areas of concern however. As nanoparticles, such as silver, are being increasingly found as antimicrobials in sports gear, food packaging, fridges, and so on, one does need to evaluate not only their potential toxicity but also their effects on the environment. For instance, how do they influence wastewater treatment, and how do they potentially affect wildlife. Also in food, nanotechnology is growing exponentially whether it’s nanoencapsulated nutrients and flavor or packaging. Labelling is not obligatory in the U.S., and people have a right to know what they eat and drink. We should not repeat the genetically modified food story again and instead have open information and debates. The other area regards how nanotechnology will be exploited and controlled by corporations and governments and how it will play out in determining the world’s economies. Most large corporations are using Nanotechnology in products or in the factory. The influence they will have on protecting or destroying nanotechnologies is complex. For instance, imagine we don’t rely on oil as a major energy source. What would oil companies’ lobbying do against the development? How would wars and unrest in the Middle East be influenced? Nanotechnology will influence us globally both positively and negatively.

TGI: Though many developments in nanotechnology have been private ventures, do you feel there is room or necessity for public oversight into this growing science?
JG: Nanotechnology should not be allowed to be the owned and controlled by a small group of corporations. It is part of humankind’s development. As such public engagement and transparency should be guaranteed and provided by governments and NGO’s. Education is a key component for the development of nanotechnology, and it should not be confined to science and technology but also to the humanities and arts where the ethical and moral aspects can be analyzed and where public outreach can be achieved through communication using the media of the arts. If we don’t do that, we firstly endanger the sustainability of society by not creating the young, educated, and creative people we need for nanotechnology to succeed, and we would also do disservice to the public in not letting them have some say in their and their children’s destiny.

Getting Personal

TIG: How did you get your start in nanotechnology? What was it like then?
JG: I joined the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory in 1983 to work on a microscope called the scanning tunnelling microscope that made atoms and molecules visible and capable of individual manipulation. That promulgated nanotechnology to come into existence. Back then it was the most exciting journey to see nano-landscapes that no one had seen before. It was like space exploration in the opposite scale. Everything seemed possible, and we felt we were challenging many of the basic assumptions of science.

TGI: In your prolific career, what was the single most astounding moment of innovation for you?
JG: I was sitting in IBM trying to use a nanomechanical sensor to study the reaction of hydrogen and oxygen to form water on a platinum coated cantilever when it started to oscillate. We thought it was an artifact and could eliminate it. It turned out that we were watching an oscillating chemical reaction but studying it using nanomechanics. I loved that moment of satori because I recalled a discussion in the Max Planck Institute in Berlin with Professor [Gerhard] Ertl where he showed me beautiful patterns set to music for his birthday that were due to oscillations in another reaction. My mind connected that musical moment with what was happening in the nanoscale sensor.

TGI: What are your sights set on next?
JG: My sights are set on building a machine that demonstrates intelligence without programming — a system where ‘thought’ and ‘memory’ emerge. We have started on the research work, and when it functions, it could challenge the whole concept of human and machine as separate and different entities.


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