|Foresight Update 20 - Table of Contents|
Roald Hoffmann has made numerous
contributions in the field of chemistry, most notably
in geometrical structure and reactivity of molecules. His
contributions have earned him numerous honors, including the 1981
Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He is currently a professor of
chemistry at Cornell University, focusing in the area of applied
theoretical chemistry. He is also on the technical advisory board
of Molecular Manufacturing
Enterprises, Inc. (MMEI). Here he gives his initial
and expanded reactions to the goal of nanotechnology:
The first reaction is "I'm glad you guys (that includes women, of course) found a new name for chemistry. Now you have the incentive to learn what you didn't want to learn in college." Chemists have been practicing nanotechnology, structure and reactivity and properties, for two centuries, and for 50 years by design.
What is exciting about modern nanotechnology is (a) the marriage of chemical synthetic talent with a direction provided by "device-driven" ingenuity coming from engineering, and (b) a certain kind of courage provided by those incentives, to make arrays of atoms and molecules that ordinary, no, extraordinary chemists just wouldn't have thought of trying. Now they're pushed to do so.
And of course they will. They can do anything. Nanotechnology is the way of ingeniously controlling the building of small and large structures, with intricate properties; it is the way of the future, a way of precise, controlled building, with, incidentally, environmental benignness built in by design.
Our thanks to Steve Vetter, president of MMEI and a Senior Associate Colleague of both IMM and Foresight, for obtaining this statement.
|Foresight Update 20 - Table of Contents|
I've been told that a new idea is declared to be impossible until the day it is declared to be obvious. Many Foresight members have heard the response "impossible" as we've explained nanotechnology. But, within the last six months, I've had an increasing sense that the world has changed, that nanotechnology has become (almost) obvious in the circles where we've spent so much effort over the years. To see how much has changed, it may help to spend some time remembering how things had been.
Once upon a time, hardly anyone had even heard the term nanotechnology.
In 1986, counting both technical and popular pieces, there had
been perhaps a dozen articles on the subject, and only one book, Engines of Creation.
Since I had coined the term only a few years before, the scarcity
of articles should not be too surprising.
In those days, people hearing of nanotechnology often regarded it as being centuries away or impossible. Quantum effects were the most popular objection and aroused a widespread suspicion that manipulating individual atoms and molecules might simply be forbidden by the laws of physics. Although the STM had been invented, and its possible use in nanotechnology had been mentioned briefly in Engines of Creation, in 1986 it had not yet been used to arrange individual atoms into corporate logos.
Another reason given for placing nanotechnology in the distant-or-impossible category was a belief in the great difficulty of protein engineering. When Foresight began, engineering new protein molecules had only recently become an articulated objective of the scientific community, and many were still saying that it would prove to be enormously difficult-- that we couldn't understand how proteins fold, and that this was a prerequisite for engineering and might take generations to learn.
My 1981 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the first journal article written on nanotechnology, had relied on the engineering of protein molecules as an argument for the feasibility of developing molecular machine systems and molecular nanotechnology, but it also pointed out that we needn't understand the folding of natural proteins in order to engineer artificial proteins. Protein engineering was also the primary route outlined in Engines of Creation, which suggested that success might not take quite as long as some thought. And indeed, by 1988, Dr. William F. DeGrado of DuPont had announced the engineering of a small protein, and there has been steady progress since.
Adding to the overall confusion about the subject, hardly anyone understood the difference between molecular nanotechnology and micromachines, and there was widespread confusion between top-down nanoscale technologies, such as nanolithography, and the bottom-up approach of atomically precise nanotechnology. In other words, you couldn't even talk about nanotechnology without sinking into a mire of basic confusions about what physics permits, what molecules can do, and what the subject is about in the first place. In the late 1980s, as the broader meanings of nanotechnology came into common use, Foresight introduced the term "molecular manufacturing" to refer more precisely to molecule-by-molecule fabrication using molecular machine systems.
The multidisciplinary nature of the subject multiplied the difficulty of holding a discussion. Usually, the computer scientists didn't understand the physics; the physicists didn't understand the chemistry; the chemists didn't understand the mechanical engineering; and the mechanical engineers had never thought about molecules. Each specialist group could say that the area that they understood was sound, but the rest of it was a mystery shrouded in the jargon of another discipline. Chemists had the added burden of a deep understanding of molecules moving in solution that just didn't apply (without careful reexamination) to molecules moved by molecular machinery.
It was difficult enough to discuss even the basic principles of nanotechnology, but discussing the idea that nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing are an important part of our future, presenting historic opportunities and dangers, was essentially impossible. From the beginning, the discussion would get bogged down in the questions, "What are we talking about--is this biotechnology, microtechnology, or chemistry, or something silly? Why should I take it seriously? If it's so important, why haven't I heard of it a dozen times before?"
Today there are many people who still haven't heard of it, but there are also many who have heard of it dozens of times, and are ready to take it seriously.
It is clear that the Foresight community has had a major
In its initial phase, Foresight Institute set out to establish the credibility of the concept of advanced nanotechnology, and to educate the science and science policy communities about both the technology and its implications. Our concern has been not only with the development of nanotechnology, but with its development in a way that improves our chances of a good outcome. Hence, there has been more to Foresight's message than merely that STMs will be able to manipulate atoms, that protein molecules can be designed, and that extensions of such technologies will someday be useful for making better computers. We set out to link emerging research developments to an understanding of longer-term consequences, to a realization that nanotechnology will be much more than just business as usual.
To accomplish this goal, Foresight members and leadership have used a variety of techniques: publishing in scientific journals, lecturing at leading research institutions and at scientific meetings, building accurate computational models of nanodevices, organizing discussion groups, sponsoring our own technical and general conferences, publishing the Foresight Update newsletter with its research and funding news, working with the media to improve the accuracy of their coverage, writing books and other education materials, publishing on the Internet, even testifying before a Senate subcommittee.
Throughout this effort, success has taken longer because we have insisted that the message is not simply scientific and technological: from the beginning we have discussed the economic and social effects of the applications of nanotechnology, both positive and negative. This can make researchers a bit nervous: to working researchers concerned with current funding, this strategy seems both to promise too much in the way of benefits, and to plant in people's minds the distressing idea that there could be negative, even dangerous, uses of this new technology. It is far more comfortable for today's researchers if these large-scale effects are not discussed until much later. So it's taken a bit longer for nanotechnology to be accepted as a research goal that it otherwise would. However, as acceptance emerges, it will include an understanding that a technology this powerful must be prepared for in advance.
The acceptance process is now moving rapidly. Just over the past few months, many examples of progress have been piling up. Some we've published in past Updates; some are in this issue; some we haven't yet had space to publish at all. Let me list a few of them here in highly condensed form:
And finally we're seeing more happening in the U.S.:
These last two are more significant than they may seem at
first glance. One doesn't become Editor in Chief of JACS
or US Science Advisor without some ability to read the attitude
of the scientific community on technical issues. Support from
people in these positions mean that the the concept of
nanotechnology has passed into the realm of solid credibility.
What these and other bits of evidence add up to is this: molecular nanotechology is fast becoming a research goal for the research and development establishment. It's been a long haul, but from the terminology used and the development pathways being discussed, it's clear that the Foresight community has had a major influence in this process of defining both the goal and its anticipated results.
The mark of our success is the growing acceptance of the fundamental idea that the future of technology will involve construction at the nanometer scale, and the sense that it's reasonable to expect that this will include machines that can build other things, as in molecular manufacturing. Foresight was founded, however, to focus on the question: What then? How can we best approach the transition to these technologies? What capabilities and policies must we have in place to handle them well? Over the next year, you'll be reading more in these pages on how Foresight will approach these complex and important questions.
Again, as in the past, our focus will be on areas that seem to almost everyone to be premature--because that's where the leverage is. I ask you to continue your participation with Foresight as we move into this new phase of action.
K. Eric Drexler is Chairman of the Foresight Institute and a research fellow of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.
From Foresight Update 20, originally published 1 February 1995.
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