Sunday, September 24, 2006


When it has been fully developed, molecular nanotechnology will be able to create almost any structure consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry. Nanotech assemblers will do so by manipulating individual atoms, building physical materials from the bottom up through the precise placement of particular molecules. In terms of the quality of products such molecular manufacturing will be able to generate and the efficiency with which assemblers will convert cheap feedstock into valuable materials, molecular nanotechnology will offer unprecedented economic benefits. The ability to rapidly produce and disseminate digitized information will have migrated into the realm of physical object space. Understandably, the results of such a phenomenon are both encouraging and worrisome.

Richard Feynman, on the bongos

Delivered in 1959, one early proposal for storing information by means of precise atomic manipulation was Richard Feynman’s informal conversation piece entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” There, the influential physicist remarked, “Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance. The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if the ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed—a development which I think cannot be avoided.” Feynman offered a thousand dollar prize to anyone who could take a page of text and reduce the size by a scale of 25,000. That level of miniaturization would allow for the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, all twenty-four volumes worth, to be written on the head of a pin. This Feynman prize was claimed by a Stanford graduate student named Tom Newman, who in 1985 wrote out the first page of A Tale of Two Cities in the space of a 1/160 mm square. He was using electron beam lithography intended for making integrated computer circuits.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," written by Charles Dickens with the help of Tom Newman using an electron beam lithography machine with a reduction size of 25,000 to 1

The term nanotechnology to describe the creation of working machines on the nanometer scale was coined by MIT engineer Eric Drexler. For years Drexler fought the prevailing wisdom that atoms could not be manipulated to make complex machines due to the interfering factors of uncertainty in quantum mechanics. Because atoms behaved more like erratic gnats than billiard balls one could not construct reliable devices out of them. Drexler countered that such devices already existed in nature. For instance, note the ribosome: 200 nanometers in length.

In his book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (freely available online) Drexler described the applications of molecular nanotechnology. The chapter entitled Engines of Healing details the potential for MNT to provide radical life extension and the revival of cryonics patients. The book also describes the possibility of self-replicating nanodevices to cause massive terrestrial destruction. With that in mind, taking the necessary precautionary measures so that mature nanotechnology could be safely deployed became a central concern of Drexler’s efforts and led to his creation of the Foresight Institute in 1986, whose headquarters were located in Palo Alto. Taking all factors into consideration, one cannot overstate the thoroughness of Eric Drexler’s work in the foundational research, theory, and deployment of safety measures surrounding nanotechnology.

K. Eric Drexler
Listen to his recent presentation at the Singularity Summit here.

Unfortunately, the moniker of “nanotechnology” became a buzzword years after Engines of Creation and was co-opted by marketing forces hoping to glamorize almost any product involving nanoscale blobs. Clearly the so-called ipod nano is some orders of magnitude larger than a nanometer. By the common criteria, Drexler remarked, producing cigarette smoke would be a form nanotechnology. The phrase molecular nanotechnology then specifies the more complex designs detailed in Drexler’s engineering text Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. These devices, when they are finally implemented, will be the smallest, fastest, most precise mechanisms allowable by the laws of physics.

Those who heard about nanotechnology in 1986 with the publication of Engines of Creation might hastily dismiss the importance of this developing area of scientific inquiry. Like strong artificial intelligence, nanotechnology has developed the reputation of being science fiction, that nanotechnology “is tens years away, and it always will be.” A number of developments at work today speak to the contrary. Nanotechnology will not always be ten years away. As Ed Regis notes in his engaging nanotechnology primer Nano, “Just try to stop it.”

In 2002, The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology was founded as a non-profit organization devoted to considering the ethical concerns surrounding the impending development of molecular nanotechnology. The company Nanorex is designing computer simulations of nanoscale devices so that when the physical technology is developed, engineers will have the tools needed to hit the ground running. And Zyvex, based in Richardson, Texas, the first private company focused on nanotechnology to earn a profit, has in their mission statement the goal of producing the world’s first assembler. They can count among their research scientists influential thinkers such as Ralph Merkle, Rob Freitas, and Eric Drexler. Considering the facts it should be obvious that nanotechnology will change the face of the earth within our time. It will change everything from the bottom up, and will test the sustainability of human civilization like never before.

Productive Nanosystems: From Molecules to Superproducts. The film, sponsored by Nanorex and the Foresight Institute, depicts an animated view of a nanofactory and demonstrates key steps in a process that converts simple molecules into a billion-CPU laptop computer.


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