Reprinted with permission from Foresight Update 15:
Only days before he became a candidate for vice
president, Senator Al Gore held hearings on "New
Technologies for a Sustainable World," including
testimony by Foresight president Eric Drexler. In an
earlier issue we printed Dr. Drexler's written testimony;
the following is the oral testimony followed by
discussion with Senator Gore. (Ordering information for
the complete hearing transcript is included at the end of
Dr. Drexler: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the
opportunity to address this committee on a topic that I
believe will one day become a dominant concern in these
halls. The focus of this hearing is particularly
appropriate because a concern with long-term consequences
of technology for human welfare and the environment has
guided my research for many years. Partly as a result of
that concern, the technology that I am about to discuss
does address issues of industrial ecology, including
decarbonization and dematerialization, as discussed by
Dr. Ausubel, and also addresses the wholesale
transformation of the technology base called for by Dr.
Banks. I believe it does meet the criteria for an
environmentally critical technology.
In the decade since I first discussed molecular
nanotechnology in the Proceedings of the National Academy
of Sciences, we have seen these ideas go from broad
theoretical concepts to a set of detailed designs,
supported increasingly by computer simulation using
state-of-the-art tools and drawing from chemistry, and to
the beginnings of experimental demonstration of the
Five years ago when I spoke on the subject, audiences
would reply, "You say that the basis of molecular
nanotechnology is putting molecular building blocks in
precise places, but is that really possible?" Today
that question does not arise because part of my talk is a
slide showing 35 precisely placed zenon atoms on the
surface of a nickel crystal, spelling the letters IBM,
from work done by Don Eigler's group at IBM's Almaden
As chairman of the Foresight Institute, I have chaired
the Foresight conference series on molecular
nanotechnology. The most recent of these was cosponsored
by Stanford University and the University of Tokyo. There
is strong interest in these topics in Japan, as I think
is shown by the recent commitment by MITI of US$185
million over the next 10 years to an effort that the
journal Nature describes as developing nanotechnology.
Momentum toward the development of this technology is
building around the world, and I would like to briefly
describe the results and studies of where these
developments can lead.
The basis of this technology, as I said, is building with
molecular building blocks and precise positional control.
This molecule-by-molecule control can become the basis of
a manufacturing technology that is cleaner and more
efficient than anything we know today. It is a
fundamentally different way of processing matter to make
products that people want.
In working with molecular building blocks, it resembles
processes we see in farms and in forests and, like those
processes, rather than consuming fossil fuels and
emitting CO2, it can take sunlight and CO2 and convert
them into products, acting as a net CO2 consumer.
This technology will clearly have broad applications. If
you can work with the basic building blocks of matter,
you can make virtually anything, producing a much wider
range of products than can be made by processes that lack
this direct control of the fundamental pieces.
Among the applications that have been identified are new
molecular instruments for science and medicine. One
example of that would be a device able to read DNA at the
rate we see DNA being read in the cell: a dividing cell
performs operations that are like those of sequencing a
human genome, but does this in a matter of hours rather
than years, and does it in a microscopic volume rather
than in a large collection of laboratories.
Design studies indicate that one can build extremely
compact and energy-efficient computers, decreasing both
the volume and energy consumption by factors of roughly 1
Stronger materials can be constructed, including
materials that can be used to make lighter, stronger,
more efficient vehicles. Another capability will be the
manufacture of inexpensive solar cells that are
mechanically tough enough to be used as roofing materials
and paving materials. It would seem that this combination
of capabilities can address some of the basic problems of
the environmental crisis that faces us today.
Because this technology does not depend on new
breakthroughs in fundamental science - though it will
surely require a vast amount of applied science - it
seems that the pace of development will depend not on
unpredictable breakthroughs but on the magnitude and date
of initiation of a strongly focused system development
effort, an effort aimed at developing pieces and putting
As I note in my written testimony, there are cultural
problems in the scientific community, which is aimed at
the study of nature, when the problem at hand is making
pieces that fit together to form systems. Pieces fitting
together does not happen spontaneously; it requires a
degree of planning that is unfamiliar in the molecular
I would also note that development in these directions
appears likely to yield large scientific benefits long
before it produces results on a large enough physical
scale to have environmental consequences. So, it does
seem that the developmental pathway will deliver major
rewards at an early date.
Today the U.S. research community has not yet reached a
consensus regarding the potential of this field. I
believe this is because it has not yet addressed the
basic scientific issues in a systematic way. This is an
interdisciplinary topic. Putting the pieces together in a
single mind or in a single group takes effort, and that
effort has not yet been made.
If we conduct idle debates on molecular nanotechnology,
batting words around in the press, while others are
conducting active research, we are going to find that
others learn the answers to our questions and are in a
better position to exploit the technology. I believe that
it is time to assess the potential of molecular
nanotechnology and to choose a course of action. An
appropriate body for conducting a preliminary study might
be the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.
There may be other options.
I think it is clear that if the potential is even half as
great as the evidence now indicates, then medical,
economic, and environmental concerns will favor vigorous
development. The first question is, Are the facts
actually as they now appear?
This technology will not by itself solve our
environmental problems, but in the coming years, I
believe that molecular nanotechnology can become a basis
for sustainable development, raising the material
standard of living worldwide, while decreasing resource
consumption and environmental impact. Thank you.
[Inserted at this point in the hearing transcript are the
written testimony and an
illustration of the 3,557-atom planetary gear.]
Senator Gore: Well, that sure was
interesting. I will tell you right now, as I have
just communicated to Mike Nelson here, I will
formally request an OTA report on these technologies.
They have already done a background paper, but I will
request the report that you suggest. Just one brief
question before I go to Mr. Weinberg. You mentioned
that MITI has dedicated US$185 million to the
development of this technology. Do you have an
estimate of the comparable U.S. figure?
Dr. Drexler: Well, first, I would like to make
a slight sharpening of the point regarding MITI. When
they speak of nanotechnology, they are speaking of a
certain range of technologies that has a strong
overlap but is not a one-to-one correspondence with
what I have described. In terms of money being spend
in the United States that is earmarked for the
development of complex molecular systems, a molecular
systems engineering effort that can lead toward
molecular nanotechnology, I am not a close observer
of these matters. Someone may well correct me and
say, "Oh, look at this budget item here,"
but I do not know of a major investment. But there
certainly is strongly relevant work being done in
many laboratories. I in no way would wish to slight
the importance of that.
Senator Gore: Nothing comparable is underway
in the United States.
Dr. Drexler: Nothing comparable.
Senator Gore: One other point: When you use
the word nanotechnology, a lot of times these
new concepts come at us with words attached to them,
and the words are used in different ways by different
people. Just so I am clear in my own mind about this,
the first part of that word, nano, is really a
measurement word that connotes something that is real
small, right? [Laughter.]
Dr. Drexler: Yes.
Senator Gore: All right. There seemed to me to
be three different ways in which the word has been
used. Nanotechnology has sometimes been used to
describe very small etching operations of the kind
you see in the smallest computer chips; correct?
Dr. Drexler: Yes.
Senator Gore: That is not really what you are
talking about. There would be some overlap at the
boundaries, but that is not really what you are
talking about. Second, there has been an interesting
discussion of what might be called micromachines,
and sometimes the word nanotechnology has been
used to describe that whole effort. Correct?
Dr. Drexler: Yes.
Senator Gore: And that is not really what you
are talking about, either; although again there is
some overlap at the boundary. What you are talking
about when you use the phrase molecular
nanotechnology is really a brand-new approach to
fabrication, to manufacturing, whereas the way we
make things [today], we will take some substance in
bulk and then whittle down the bulk to the size of
the component we need, and then put different
components together and make something.
What you are describing with the phrase molecular
nanotechnology is a completely different approach,
which rests on the principle that your first building
block is the molecule itself, and you are saying we
have all the basic research breakthroughs that we
need to build things one molecule at time, all we
need are the applications of the research necessary
to really do it.
You are saying that the advantages of taking a
molecular approach are really quite startling, and
that as a result, you believe it is advisable to
really explore what it would take to develop these
The best evidence that the research breakthroughs and
the conceptual breakthroughs have long since occurred
is that Dr. Richard Feynman made a speech 33 years
ago in which he essentially outlined the whole field,
and even the researchers at the cutting edge today
were sort of surprised when they went back and read
the speech, and found out that the basic concept has
been available for a long time.
Is that basically on target, or would you like to
qualify it or recast it?
Dr. Drexler: I would say that the set of
distinctions that you draw are correct and are very
important to understanding the field. With respect to
the terminology, so nearly as I can tell from what I
have seen in print, I coined the word nanotechnology
in the mid-1980s, and it has subsequently become a
buzzword. It is appropriate etymologically to use nanotechnology
to describe other small-scale technologies, but, as
you point out, those are fundamentally different.
The degree of overlap between nanolithography and
micromachines, on the other hand, and molecular
nanotechnology, on the other hand, appears to be
remarkably slight, even though those subjects have
commonly been confused in the popular press.
As I said, I think that we will need a lot of
applied-science research in pursuing these goals, but
you are correct in stating that the basic science is
in place. Richard Feynman did indeed point in these
directions, in a talk in December of 1959, and that
has been an inspiration to many people.
Senator Gore: All right. Thank you very much.
We will come back to this as time permits.
[Editor's Note: The following are excerpts from
discussions later in the hearing. An ellipsis indicates
some discussion has been omitted.]
Senator Gore: There are at least three
generic problems here.
No. First, this discussion cannot take place without
reference to the larger macroeconomic signals that
stifle the introduction of new technologies if
consumers of technology are getting a misleading
signal from the marketplace.
You talked about how cheap fossil fuel prices were
back then. They are cheaper now than they were then.
. .Consequently, we are getting inaccurate and
misleading signals from the marketplace, because the
national security cost is not calculated in the
price, the environmental cost is treated as an
externality, which is absurd but there it is.
Consequently, we are getting the inaccurate market
The second generic problem is that when a new
technology is developed in a Government program, it
sometimes remains unattached to the stream of
incentives that we rely on to pull new developments
into the stream of commerce. That is not an
unsolvable problem, but it is one that needs to be
recognized clearly and precisely in the construction
of any new technology development program.
The third generic problem is, in my view, by all odds
the most serious. That is, inertia. When an existing
suite of technologies and patterns gain currency, the
ability of an organization, let alone a society, to
introduce a totally new, in some ways incongruent,
technology into that pattern is extremely difficult,
and can often only be accomplished if there is a
focused effort to address the overall context within
which the new technology has to be introduced.
We are now at a major turning point in the history of
civilization in which a large number of new
technologies have to be introduced on a broad scale
simultaneously. The inertia we confront, in trying to
think through how to accomplish that, is really
almost overpowering. Indeed, it has been up until
now, overpowering, and it cannot remain so. I am
wondering if any of you have any comments on those
three generic problems, or any of them.
Dr. Drexler: In connection with your earlier
remarks regarding the advantages of developing
technologies that are simultaneously more productive
and cleaner, I think that to the extent that people
see benefits on many different sides from a
technology, they are more likely to adopt it. On the
other hand, when something is different enough from
the existing technology base that it changes many
assumptions simultaneously, it becomes hard for
people to think about it, as it is hard for people to
imagine the consequences of large scale climate
change. I think that has been a major factor in
people not coming to grips with such issues. One sees
this pattern in many areas: not just in the
marketplace, but also in the intellectual world where
people have an accumulation of intellectual capital
and concerns with its obsolescence.
Senator Gore: Yes. Ironically, as some have
noted in the past, one of the reasons why Japan was
able to move more quickly to the introduction of
those technologies considered new in the 1950s and
1960s was that they encountered less inertia due to
the level of destruction following the war there as
compared to here.
Any other comments before I move on to the next?
Dr. Drexler: The technology you described in
your testimony is actually referred to, is it not,
Dr. Banks, in your report on critical technologies.
How would you evaluate the relative significance of
Dr. Banks: [Director, Program on Technology
and the Environment, World Resources Institute]:
Well, it certainly is in our list. What I think is
also significant is that our researchers looked at
comparable lists on environmentally critical
technologies and found this technology as a prominent
item in the lists of other nations surveyed.
For the reasons that Dr. Drexler mentioned, this
technology is now at a stage that we call a
precompetitive stage where it still can benefit from
further development which would have a wide scale of
applications to an array of industrial uses, it is
quite promising. It certainly meets the bill that we
have talked about throughout our discussion. . . .
Senator Gore: How far off is this stuff, Dr.
Drexler? Suppose that molecular nanotechnology got
the kind of Federal and private support that
biotechnology got over the last 10 years, what kind
of advances would you expect to see by the year 2010,
Dr. Drexler: That kind of question is one of
the hardest to answer in this area. I know how to do
calculations of the behavior of molecular machinery,
but I do not know how to do calculations of the rate
of progress of a research program, where there is a
whole series of challenges to be surmounted.
In answer to that, what I have recently said is that
I think we are 1 to 2 years away from a fundamental
advance in capabilities in this area; namely, the
ability to position individual molecules accurately,
to get positional control of chemical synthesis,
finally giving chemists the equivalent of a hand with
which to put parts in place.
That will be a fundamental change. Organic synthesis
has been going on for over a century now, without
that kind of tool. With it, I expect to see much more
Senator Gore: What would that hand consist of?
How do you actually move molecules?
Dr. Drexler: In laboratories today, there is
an instrument called the atomic force microscope,
which is sold commercially by a number of companies.
It can position a tip near a surface to an accuracy
of less than a 10th of an atomic diameter.
What is needed to turn that into a molecular
manipulator, into something that can use molecules as
building blocks - very far from large-scale
environmental applications but a key step on the
development pathway - is some kind of a gripper, a
device with the function of a hand attached to that
tip. Certain protein molecules can serve that
function. What the instrument would look like is a
US$100,000 AFM, perhaps from Digital Instruments in
Santa Barbara, with some molecular modifications on
Senator Gore: What we have seen now with that
famous picture of the letters spelled with molecules,
that is accomplished by using the tip to just sort of
nudge them to where you want them? Is that basically
Dr. Drexler: Yes.
Senator Gore: What you are talking about is a
quantum advance, when you can actually take hold of
them, and place them more precisely in less time.
Dr. Drexler: Yes. The instrument used for the
IBM work was actually a scanning tunneling microscope
working at very low temperatures. There are a number
of differences, but it was essentially a nudging
process. This would be essentially a gripping and
Senator Gore: All right.
Dr. Drexler: To answer the question regarding
time span, it seems that a 5-year development cycle
with that instrument could get you to another plateau
of capability; another 5-year development from that
could get you a long way. I commonly answer that 15
years would not be surprising for major, large-scale
Senator Gore: That is very interesting. I know
we will be hearing a lot more about it. . .Can the
effort [in technology development] in Japan and
Germany help them become even more competitive? Is
this as serious as I think it is? Are we really
missing a beat by not keeping up with this?. . . .
Dr. Drexler: Yes. With respect to a comparison
of interest and directions in the United States and
in Japan, I was struck by some material in the
"Backs to the Future" report here.
If I look at the OSTP's list of critical
technologies, the one that jumps out at me as being
most nearly a description of the directions I think
are important is micro- and nano-fabrication. .
.Combining micro and nano in this entry suggests that
the primary focus is on the etching-based
lithographic technologies that you so properly
Looking at the Council on Competitiveness list, the
main one that jumps out at me is chemical synthesis,
but that is extremely broad and, again, has been
underway for a century.
On the MITI list, there are a whole set of points,
each of which strikes me, just reading the words, as
a better description of something that is an enabling
They include: molecular-functioning materials,
biomimicking materials, protein-alignment technology,
precision molecular-alignment technology, and
atomic-level precision manipulation technology. The
last one hits the nail right on the head.
Senator Gore: So there is just a higher level
of clarity even in the basic description of what they
are doing, and that is obvious to you just looking at
Dr. Drexler: Yes. Dr. Banks. And it is
reflected, again, when one looks at the degree of
effort and the sustained support and the seriousness.
We have seen that throughout.
Senator Gore: Dr. Heaton, do you want to add
Dr. Heaton: Yes. There is also a much higher
level of consensus on the issue in Japan. I was just
in Japan in May and talked to about 40 or 50 people
on this general issue, and one of the amazing things
when you talk to 40 and 50 people in Japan is you get
the same answer 40 or 50 times.
It is absolutely clear that the Japanese nation as a
whole believes in the environmental imperative.
Indeed, over the next century, the Japanese have a
100-year plan, which sounds almost ludicrous to us,
but they also have a 2-year plan, and there is some
consistency between the two.
I think it is also important to note, as someone has
already, that MITI has very much taken over this
initiative, not exactly taken it away from the
Environment Agency, because indeed there are still
very strong regulations, but the consistency between
the environment and economic competitiveness is
reflected in the fact that MITI has become the lead
agency. So, I think that is an important consensus.
Senator Gore: I cannot remember a panel that I
have found more interesting and I cannot remember a
time when I have had a bigger stack of questions that
I really want to ask and hear you respond to but, as
usual, we have a limit on the amount of time that is
available, and we have another panel to go after this
one. . . .
I really think this has been one of the most
interesting hearings that I have been able to
participate in a long time, and I am grateful to all
the witnesses who have appeared here today. They have
provided a lot of useful information.
I look forward to working with you in the future as
we move forward in this area. Again, very soon we
will be introducing this legislation based on the
I want to thank our witnesses for being here today.
This has been a very exciting, interesting hearing -
one that gives us hope that with a concerted effort
we can find and apply new technologies to solve many
of the environmental problems we face. In the past
year, I have chaired more than 10 hearings on global
environmental problems, and quite frankly, the
picture can look pretty bleak. Carbon dioxide
concentrations keep going up and up; stratospheric
ozone levels keep dropping to historic lows. Our
oceans, particularly near shore are becoming more and
more polluted. Millions of species are going extinct
as we destroy their habitat. The news is not good.
What we have heard today is that there may be new
technologies that can alleviate some of these
problems - if we find the resources and political
will to make the long-term investment needed to
develop them and if we work together nationally and
internationally to deploy them.
The complete hearing transcript (ISBN 0-16-039898-3)
can be ordered from the U.S. Government Printing Office