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Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies
Waiting. That feeling is creeping over the nanotechnology community: waiting for the "killer app" to burst into the commercial marketplace, into full public view before the glaring stage lights of the media.
September 27th, 2007
Nanotechnology: Waiting for the Killer App
VLADIMIR: What are you waiting for?
ESTRAGON: I'm waiting for Godot.
Waiting. That feeling is creeping over the nanotechnology community: waiting for the "killer app" to burst into the commercial marketplace, into full public view before the glaring stage lights of the media. Voilà!
The term killer app (short for killer application) came out of the computer industry. Originally, it referred to a program that helped drive people to adopt the system that the program ran on. The "Ur" killer app was VisiCalc, the clunky predecessor to the spreadsheet program Lotus 1-2-3, which convinced a lot of people that a computer on the desktop could have some utility—and eventually unleashed an army of number-crunching polymaths on the world. The World Wide Web was the killer app that helped successfully launch the Internet. Who would have climbed on board if we were still using Gopher and the File Transfer Protocol?
Killer apps play a critical role in the introduction of new technologies into our society. They are the trump card delivered at the end of a long and high stakes game of research and development (R&D). A killer app changes the publics' tune from "I don't want it" to "I've got to have it." But so far, expect maybe for the iPod Nano, consumers are not singing the praises of the nanotech revolution. Frankly, there is not much to sing about: anti-wrinkle creams, microbe-killing mouse pads, odor-eating socks and underwear, car wax, the nano baby pacifier, or maybe the anti-bacterial make-up kit or watch chain. In fact, recent surveys indicate that 70-80 percent of the public have heard little or nothing about nanotechnology, and when they do find out about it, many are skeptical (2).
When people are made aware of the array of existing nano-enabled consumer products, they are left scratching their heads. There has got to be more, they often say, especially if the public and private sectors are investing over $12 billion per year in R&D. Certainly, the promise is there, including better treatments for disease, cheaper energy, clean water, and more powerful computers--all of which will likely tip the risk/benefit equation squarely in nanotechnology's favor. But breakthroughs take time. It took decades for chemical synthesis to deliver fertilizers, explosives, plastics, and drugs. In fact, eighty to ninety percent of the applications the nanotech community is salivating about will probably never make it to market; it is a long way from the lab bench to the store shelves, the pharmacy, or the operating room.
Results from surveys and focus groups we have done provide a clear indication of what the public would see as potential killer apps. When given information about possible future applications of nanotechnology, people focus overwhelmingly on medicine, followed by environmental and energy applications, and then uses in the national security realm. Nano-engineered cosmetics, and many other consumer products, are way down on their priority lists. As one person in a recent focus group succinctly put it, "Save for medical applications, all the other uses of nanotechnology rate a zero." Another participant said, "The environment and medicine have the most to gain from [nanotech]. Both could change the shape of the debate" (3).
I am sure that nanotechnology will produce plenty of killer apps and that society's return on the research investment will be considerable. But for now, how do we convince the public that the wait, the investment, and the uncertainties about risks are worth it? If we are 3-5 years away from the nano killer app, then the challenge is to make sure that public confidence remains strong in the interim. A lot could go wrong, especially since products are flooding the market, oversight is weak, and trust in both government and industry to manage the risks of this new technology is declining (2).
Keeping the nano revolution on track requires that governments reach out and engage the public about nanotechnology, adequately fund strategies for risk research, and develop effective and transparent oversight mechanisms. Three or four years ago, it would have been much easier to put these pieces in place, but time is running out—and the political feet are dragging.
VLADIMIR: What are you waiting for?
ESTRAGON: I'm waiting for [government].
(1) Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot.
(2) In August 2007, Hart Research repeated a national survey on public perceptions of nanotechnology conducted in 2006. Results indicated that trust in government agencies (specifically FDA, EPA, and USDA) and industry to manage the possible risks associated with nanotechnology had decreased. The number of people who said they had heard nothing or just a little about nanotechnology remained at 70 percent, the same as last year. The full report is available at http://www.nanotechproject.org/138/9252007-poll-reveals-public-awareness-of-nanotech-stuck-at-low-level
(3) Comments from focus groups conducted by Hart Research for the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies in Baltimore, MD, on August 15, 2007.