The Black Swans of Nanotechnology

I spent a relaxing weekend floating around the Norfolk Broads and catching up with a little reading. Top of the pile was Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s the Black Swan, which has some interesting points to make about unexpected events. In a nutshell, a Black Swan is an unexpected event that changes conventional wisdom, but by its very nature cannot be predicted.

This is relevant to nanotech for a  couple of reasons. Firstly, we have seen a variety of outlandish predictions about nanotech being a disruptive technology, all of which have proved to be completely false. Nanotechnology hasn’t really disrupted anything , yet, and the areas in which it has has the greatest impact such as textiles were ones not even considered by anyone attempting to predict the impact. If you buy Taleb’s thesis that getting into fine detail makes you less able to predict the future, then organisations such as CRN and ‘visionaries’ such as Ray Kurzweil are either barking up the wrong tree or barking mad.

The second area of relevance is when we try to make a call on nanotech investments or predict market sizes.  All of the Cientifica forecasts have always explicitly stated that we can only predict the predictable, and that a scientific discovery or flash of entrepreneurial brilliance next week could throw all our predictions out of kilter ( with the caveat that we do have a very robust economic model which allows is to recalculate the effect of breakthroughs and update our numbers). According to the Black Swan thesis, knowing what you don’t know is more important than what you know, and the numerous studies of the toxicology of nanomaterials are a nice illustration, where understanding where research needs to be focused, in those blank areas of the map, is of paramount importance.

Taleb’s book poses a few interesting questions, and postulates a new way of looking at the impact of technologies, but disruptive technologies are never predicted, from text messaging to social networking, and it will be the same with any disruptive applications of nanotech.

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