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From Feynman to Nanofactories

Chemistry builds molecules from precise arrangements of atoms. Biology builds cells and organisms from polymers composed of precise sequences of specific molecules that fold into specific shapes. Human ancestors began making crude stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. Succeeding species learned to make finer and more complex stone tools, and succeeding cultures of modern humans learned to build more complex and useful products as they learned ever finer control of the structure of matter. But it was not until the mid-20th century that a scientist asked what could we build if we could put atoms wherever we wanted them, consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry: "What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them …" —Richard Feynman 1959

Arranging Atoms as We Want Them

Feynman's vision was elaborated by Foresight's co-founder, Eric Drexler (who is no longer associated with Foresight), in a 1986 book Engines of Creation. If human technology could be based upon putting atoms where we want them rather than upon handling "atoms in unruly herds", the consequences would be enormous. Devices currently made from strong materials—diamond, silicon, ceramics, metals—are fabricated with features far coarser than atomic precision so the complexity of these devices is severely limited compared to the complexity of biological structures. Biological systems are wondrously complex, but made from relatively weak and perishable materials because the molecular folding and associations are only stable in limited ranges of temperature and other conditions. What if atoms could be arranged into arbitrarily complex configurations connected with dense networks of strong covalent bonds? Applying known physics in his foundational work Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation to explore the limits of various fields of technology, Drexler's conclusions included the following.

Nanofactories Would Build with Reactive Molecular Fragments

The principles of mechanical engineering could be implemented on the nanometer scale, working in a vacuum, to position reactive molecular fragments to sub-nanometer precision so as to add specific atoms or small groups of atoms to an atomically precise location on a workpiece so as to build atomically precise, complex parts and systems. Through a bootstrapping process, it would be possible to build a desktop-scale nanofactory capable of inexpensively producing complex products built to atomic precision, such as a billion-CPU laptop computer. The operation of such a nanofactory is illustrated in a short animated film produced in 2005 by Eric Drexler and John Burch. The film is described here and on Drexler's web site.
The 86.1 MB movie is here: "Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts"

Because machine motions on the nanometer scale are a million times more rapid than comparable machine motions on human scale, and because the atoms are assembled in a several step hierarchical manner, complex products made from trillions of trillions of atoms could be assembled in mere hours or days.

The proposal for nanofactories begins with quantum chemistry and extensive computational simulation of the reactions necessary to add atoms to the workpiece, and continues with extensive systems engineering and multiscale physics, finite element analysis, etc. to analyze the various stages of assembling the product.

What Nanofactories Could Do

The advent of nanofactories will have a number of immense consequences. Here are just a few.

Greatly Reduce the Costs of Most Manufactured Products

The cost of most manufactured products, especially the most complex and currently most expensive ones, like computer chips, will be reduced toward a bottom limit set by the costs of the raw materials (cheap organic feedstocks) and energy; i.e., tens of cents per kilogram. Of course, this does not include costs arising from intellectual property, legal, regulatory, etc. factors. Perhaps the most significant cost component will be product design.

Consequently, since its founding, Foresight has been also extremely interested in the development of machine intelligence, or AI (see, for example "Dimensions of Progress"). There are different aspects of AI or AGI, for Artificial General Intelligence, as it is often termed, that are of interest when considering the impacts of emerging transformative technologies, but the aspect that is most relevant here does not depend on reproducing the full range of human cognition in computers. Instead, what would be most useful is machine systems for engineering and technical work that could design new nanofactory products thousands of times faster than could teams of human engineers. Such systems would be facilitated by the ability to manufacture computers that are thousands of times more powerful and simultaneously thousands of times cheaper than are current computers. Thus progress in nanotechnology and in AGI will be mutually accelerating.

Greatly Reduce the Doubling Time for Capital Formation

The doubling time for capital formation will be reduced to mere days or less. Among the products that a nanofactory will be able to manufacture is another nanofactory. Given the proper legal environment, the perfection of the first nanofactory could quickly lead to nanofactories in every home on the planet.

Eliminate Industrial Chemical Pollution

Chemical pollution from industrial processes will be essentially eliminated. Because a nanofactory guides every atom in the feedstock on a defined trajectory into either the final product or into properly packaged waste (which would often be pure water), there would be no polluting atoms released into the environment.

Lower Energy Costs

A very wide range of materials with superior properties will produce efficient solar cells cheap and durable enough to use in roofing and paving for sidewalks and roads so that solar energy will produce a bounteous energy supply without environmental degradation. Energy costs will no longer limit economic growth.

Strong, Light Materials Will Open the Space Frontier

Building materials 50-100 times stronger and lighter than steel will produce inexpensive personal spacecraft comparable to a van able to carry a family and its luggage to earth orbit. The space frontier will be truly opened and the human settlement of the solar system will commence.

Medical Nanorobots will Cure Diseases and Reverse Aging

The ability to design and build inexpensive microscopic robots opens the road to producing fleets of trillions of medical nanorobots that could be introduced into the human body to cure specific diseases by performing cellular and molecular surgery, repair specific injuries, or monitor and patrol the body to guard against disease and to reverse the ravages of aging. Such cellular repair machines were proposed in Drexler's early work and the topic has received intense attention since the early 1990s from Robert A. Freitas Jr., author of the Nanomedicine book series. Foresight has worked with Freitas since the late 1990s to showcase the potential of nanomedical robots:
Nanomedicine
Nanomedicine Art Gallery

Among the many nanomedical robot systems that Freitas has designed, decades in advance of our ability to produce nanofactories to manufacture such microscopic robots, is a system that will allow a patient to instantly communicate with the nanomedical robots monitoring and safeguarding her health. Based upon Freitas's designs, Gina Miller has produced a short animation to illustrate how such a system would work.
Dermal Display animation
Version of the animation narrated by Freitas

A very recent update and summary by Freitas of the potential applications of medical nanorobotics has been placed on his web site, as noted in this post on our blog Nanodot.

Potential for Economic and Political Disruption

The capabilities that nanofactories will enable have the potential to produce massive economic and political instabilities. Therefore, from its beginnings, Foresight has had the dual purpose of promoting the development of nanotechnology and of studying the potential problems that could arise so as to maximize the benefits of the technology to improve the human condition and to minimize any downsides.
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