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|Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents|
magazine has named two prominent nanotechnology researchers as
recipients of its Editors' Choice Award for Emerging Technology.
In its July 1997 issue, released in mid-June just as Update
29 was going to press, the technology-focused magazine
selected IBM's James Gimzewski and New York University's Nadrian
Seeman for their work in "a technology so novel that its
applications are far from clear....the field of
Both researchers are scheduled to speak at the upcoming Foresight Fifth Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology (see above story). Gimzewski was honored by Discover for his creation of a molecular-scale abacus using C60 molecules (also known as buckyballs) that could be manipulated in grooves on a copper plate with probe devices.
"In theory, Gimzewski's abacus could store a billion times more information than the memory in a conventional computer can. In practice, however, the abacus is cumbersome," Discover said. "But it does demonstrate how adept scientists have become at manipulating the very smalland it may even be a first step toward building machines the size of molecules. 'If you watch young children, they pick things up, turn them around, put them downvery basic actions,' he says. 'We're at that stage now. This sort of simple device is just a demonstration of the kinds of things we hope to achieve.'"
Seeman was selected for the award for his work on designing and constructing three-dimensional molecular structures using DNA moleculesa continuation of the work that won for him Foresight Institute's $10,000 Feynman Prize at the 1995 Foresight Conference. "Although DNA strands are rigid enough to serve as girders in a molecular framework, the junctions, it turned out, flopped all over the place. In June 1996, however, Seeman designed and built a stiff double junction that keeps his structures from sagging. Now he thinks he's got the basic technique down for making micromachines," the magazine said. It continued, quoting Seeman: "'We believe we know how to make almost any shape out of DNA,' he says. After taking nearly two decades to reach this point, however, Seeman takes nothing for granted. 'I regard most of what we're doing here as engineering,' he says, 'but every now and then something doesn't work as expected and we have to do some science.'"
|Foresight Update 29 - Table of Contents|
Suppose that Neil Armstrong had found footprints when he first
set foot on the moon. The surprise would have been boundless.
Suppose, similarly, that when molecular nanotechnology is realized, other technologies have gotten to places that it once was thought only nanotechnology could go.
A prominent technology forecaster thinks that's happening. Technologies that are here today appear capable of achieving some (though not all) of the breakthroughs envisioned as outcomes of nanotechnology, says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at the Institute for the Future (IFTF), a 30 year old management consulting think tank in Menlo Park, CA.
Saffo is talking about the capabilities of MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS), which are being made today and appear capable of bringing some of the social challenges that nanotechnology is expected to cause. To many in the nanotechnology field, this will be good news, because it will force society to begin coming to grips with these issues even before molecular nanotechnology is realized. "Think of MEMS as training wheels for nanotechnology," Saffo said in an interview with Foresight Update.
Saffo, who calls himself a "friendly sceptic" regarding molecular nanotechnology, has followed developments in the field closely. "It has been hard for me to imagine that nanotechnology would come as fast as people said, but suddenly, with MEMS, you begin to see the shape of a ramp. It's steep, but nonetheless a ramp. Practical nanotechnology advances could easily fit in to the flow of MEMS technology," he said.
Although MEMS is a "top-down" technology, it will enable breakthrough applications that mimic many of the things envisioned to be done with nanotechnology, Saffo thinks. For example:
In an essay
Saffo has posted on the IFTF Web site, Saffo asks, "What
happens when we put eyes, ears, and sensory organs on (digital
computing) devices? Inevitably, we are going to ask those devices
to respond to what they 'see,' to manipulate the world around
them...This has profound implications.
"Two parallel universes exist todaythe everyday analog universe we inhabit, and a newer digital universe created by humans, but inhabited by digital machines. We visit this digital world by peering through the portholes of our computer screens, and we manipulate it with keyboard and mouse much as a nuclear technician works with radioactive materials via glovebox and manipulator arms. Our machines manipulate the digital world directly, but they are rarely aware of the analog world that surrounds their cyberspace. "Now we are handing sensory organs and manipulators to the machines and inviting them to enter analog reality. The scale of possible surprise that this may generate over the next several decades as sensors, lasers, and microprocessors coevolve is breathtakingly uncertain."
To those raised during the decades-long digital computer revolution, the ultimate consequence of MEMS technology may be the most revolutionary idea of all:"the emergence of a newer analog computing industry in which digital technology plays a mere supporting role, or in some instances plays no role at all," Saffo says in his essay.
"Consider a research initiative already underway to build turbulence-damping "smart-skins" for fighter wings. This work contemplates a leading-edge array of myriad 0.2 millimeter-sized silicon microflaps, interspersed between equally small MEMS turbulence sensors," he wrote.
"This array is comparatively buildable today, but computational control is another matter. Even if one had an infinitely fast supercomputer controller in the fuselage linked by fiber-optic network to the array elements, the limits of the speed of light alone would make it impossible for the flaps to respond quickly enough to sensor data sent downwire to the computer and then back out as a control instruction. The only option is to create radically new hyperdistributed computational architectures, in effect a community of processors interspersed throughout the array, where each element is a triad of processor, sensor, and effector."
Such a dispersed computing architecture might make sense in molecular nanotechnology design as well as MEMS designan extension, one might say, of the observation that the early classic science fiction movie "Forbidden Planet" got it wrong. Rather than building a humanoid robot that goes to open the door, you just build a robot door.
As a student of the history of technology, Saffo takes a long view of things. "When the steam engine was first created and used to make ships move through the water, they didn't wait to perfect the system. The first steamships used paddle wheels and still had sails. The sails were not vestigial organs either. It was relatively crude technology, but it still was a great improvement over the sail. And it got results; it opened the Mississippi River basin to settlement and greatly expanded ocean trade."
And the parallel with nanotechnology? "What's interesting to me is whether micron scale devices can be used to build nanoscale materials more effectively," Saffo said. "We're starting to see pumps and pulleys at the MEMS scale; Xerox has MEMS-like architectures for moving paper around. Right now, people are asking how you use MEMS to move macro-scale objects around, but at some point people will decide that micron scale devices could be the 'paddle wheels' in nanoscale assembly processes. They would still be big and awkward and ugly, but they might get some of the jobs done. Ugly and practical tends to be the winner in transitional technological periods."
If nanotechnology is eventually realized, it will have profound effects, Saffo said, but different only in magnitude from MEMS technology effects. "MEMS will happen faster though with a lesser magnitude of change. But it will have enough impact to get people to pay attention," he said. He analogizes to the development of inexpensive lasers, which have enabled change-of-scale growth in communications bandwidth through fiber optics. "People will look at the artifacts and not the causative forces," he said. They will notice the products created with MEMS sensors, but not the sensors themselves. "MEMS won't be a household word except at the Merkle household, where Ralph will grumble about how macro it is."
From Foresight Update 29, originally published 30 June 1997.
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