Why feed and cure your hungry, sick population when you can build tiiiiiiny evil robots and try to take over the world?
Wired magazine reports on Russia's latest crazed neo-Soviet gambit:
Back in the mid-1980s, a joke made the rounds that the Kremlin was preparing a major announcement: After a decade-long top-secret crash program, socialist science had succeeded in building the world's largest microprocessor.
That was then. After sleeping through the high tech revolutions of the late 20th century, the Russian government is dumping billions into the burgeoning science of nanotechnology. The Kremlin last June announced the creation of Rosnanotekh, a state nanotechnology corporation slated for $5 billion in initial funding -- an outlay that propels Russia past China in nanotech spending, and puts the country on a par with the United States in government-funded nano research.
"Nanotechnology will be the (foundation) for all industries in a science-driven economy," said Mikhail Kovalchuk, director of Moscow's Kurchatov Institute. "Nanotechnology will be the driving force of the Russian economy -- if it can overcome the legacy of the recent past."
Russia's leap into nantotechnology is the sharp edge of Russian President Vladimir Putin's push to make up for this country's failure to develop high tech industries during the computing and biotech revolutions, and to compete globally in a field considered ripe for new discoveries. Nanotechnology is the science of assembling devices out of individual atoms or molecules. It was first theorized by physicist Richard Feynman in 1959, and today is widely expected to produce major advances in everything from pollution control to cancer treatment. It also represents a quiet admission that Siberian oil and gas, Russia's financial wellspring, won't last forever.
For Russia to succeed in nanotech, it must first overcome the yawning chasm between its deep intellectual resources and its economic infrastructure. Russian scientists have been quiet theoretical pioneers in nanotech since 1999, when the Russian Academy of Sciences began publishing the well-regarded Journal of Nano and Microsystem Technique. But Russia has no industry to put that research to use. When St. Petersburg hosted Russia's first international nanotech conference last fall, the audience was noticeably bereft of Russian companies, but packed with note-scribbling headhunters from Western technology firms like Intel, Siemens and Bosch.
"We could compete in the world market, and we are interesting to foreigners in the field of new ideas," said Sergei Kozyrev, director of the Center for Perspective Research in St. Petersburg, during the conference. "But when it comes to competition in the realm of production, to producing working samples, we find ourselves far behind other countries.... That has been our problem ever since Soviet times."
There's also the question of where all of Rosnanotekh's billions will end up. Transparency International routinely rates Russia among the most corrupt countries in the world, and state enterprises are dominated by Kremlin insiders with little public accountability and oversight. Rosnanotekh will likely be no exception.
"There's a lot of technical talent in Russia, but not all of the funds allocated to nanotech will be deployed effectively,” said Christine Peterson, a vice president at the Foresight Nanotech Institute, in an e-mail interview. "The lack of commercialization infrastructure will also be a serious handicap. Success will depend on convincing joint-venture partners from outside Russia that it is financially safe to participate."
Rosnanotekh will be a state entity, but will be free to pursue private partnerships unburdened by direct Kremlin control. While the company will dispense the research funds, the actual work will be overseen by the Kurchatov Institute, the leafy Moscow research campus named after the father of the Soviet bomb and home to the luminaries of 20th-century Russian science. Officials at Kurchatov will oversee grants to 50 state institutes engaged in nanotech research.
At the center of Russia's nanotech dreams is Kurchatov director Kovalchuk. The 62-year-old physicist from St. Petersburg is expansive to the point of dreaminess about the potential of nanotech. In a September lecture at a conference in Helsinki, Finland, Kovalchuk shared his vision of a postindustrial future defined by the "dematerialization of production" (write your own Marxism joke) and an energy grid fueled by nano-enabled solar and nuclear power. He envisions nothing less than a "nano revolution" that will solve the energy and environmental crises during his lifetime. "Nanotechnology is key to de-energization in the next century," Kovalchuk told Wired News. "Coupled with bionics, it has the potential to reduce drastically the amount of energy we consume, and the corresponding waste."
An interest in cleaner energy is also a pet interest of metals oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who sits on Rosnanotekh's board. Prokhorov has pledged to channel part of his new $17 billion investment fund into developing hydrogen fuel cells using nanotech. This talk of clean and renewable energy can sound strange in Moscow. Russia is a petro-state known for its lax attitude toward domestic and international pollution. It has by far the most wasteful pipeline and electricity-transmission infrastructure of any industrialized nation, and is being outspent in alternative energy research by its fellow petro-states in the Persian Gulf.
But oil and gas are increasingly seen in Russia as a means to an end -- a bridge to a clean-energy future beyond oil and gas. Kovalchuk is even hopeful that nanotech will find the magic bullet to make all carbon-based fuels obsolete: fusion power. The key, he believes, lies in the nano-engineering of the Tokamak, a magnetic-confinement device considered the leading candidate to one day produce fusion energy. Its inventors? Two Kurchatov scientists named Igor Tamm and Andrei Sakharov.