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This impulse to misrepresent is natural. Innovators have it tough. There are no sure things. They must battle for “mind share.” Especially when an innovation attacks an existing technology-as most do-it takes a lot of sizzle to get consumers to pay attention. And investors don’t like to spend their money on losers. So every new technology must be a winner, which is how little lies grow up to be big ones.

In the claims for molecular computing-claims that have periodically erupted since the 1980s but without hard evidence-the little lies are growing up at a rapid clip.

Begin with economics. Though molecular computers have only been crudely demonstrated, leading researchers already are touting their presumed efficiency. The molecular computer will not just be cheap, says Mark Reed, head of electrical engineering at Yale, “it will be dirt cheap.” We’ve heard that before. Or consider the perennial problem of scaling up from a simple molecular device to a real working computer. It’s one thing to demonstrate a single molecular switch, which has been done. But no one has yet shown how to tie together gangs of billions of switches with “wires” only a dozen atoms thick.

Still, there’s enough potential here to create a buzz. Hewlett-Packard, a top computer maker, is experimenting with both molecular switches and molecular “wires” in its labs. Academic research teams are doing the same. Papers are getting published. The Clinton administration is even talking about launching a national nanotech initiative. And predictably, the Pentagon is already taking a few bows, boasting of the fore-
sight of its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which has financed much of the early work in this field.

Don’t get me wrong: The advances in molecular computing deserve attention. But that attention should be balanced by a tough-minded skepticism. And that’s not happening. Unfortunately, the suspension of disbelief that lets us believe the tall tales is being fueled by the mania for the “new new thing” (to quote the title of a recent book by Michael Lewis) and the abject fear that some unheralded innovation will change the world as we know it-but that we will have missed seeing it coming. The over-the-top quality of the current nanotech hoopla seeps out in odd ways. One sign that the nano-bubble will burst is the admission by a leading nano-advocate that until this latest news flurry, he and his fellow travelers harbored their own doubts. “Although we believed in some rational way this was the way to go,” he told The New York Times, “among ourselves we were continually forced to reassure ourselves that we weren’t crazy.”

Excuse me, but maybe you are crazy.

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