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Nanotechnology: From Concept to R&D Goal

Reprinted with the permission of the original publisher, HotWired.

Copyright © 1995 Ventures LLC All rights reserved.

Intelligent Agent

By Chris Peterson

Nanotechnologists tell the joke:

Q: What is the Uncertainty Principle?

A: The Uncertainty Principle states that people who know just a little physics are Uncertain about

But it's not a difficult concept, really. Nanotechnology is merely systems of molecular-scale machinery, like the ones that evolved in life, but doing what we want. So simple.

Picture the response of a teenager with a normal IQ: "OK, I got it. Tiny machines. Like in nature. Working together to do stuff. Maybe kill AIDS viruses, or whatever. What's so hard to understand? It's, like, obvious."

Compared to the teenager, it's taken the scientific community a lot longer to figure this one out. With hindsight, it's easy to see why: The scientific community was intellectually handicapped. Narrow specialization, an aversion to engineering, a focus on government-approved research areas, the need to spend lots of time writing grant proposals - so many good reasons.

When Engines of Creation was published, the intellectual sorting process got started in earnest. Some read the book and "got it"; many read only media coverage and remained - relatively - clueless about nanotechnology. Standard objections, such as the favorite What about the Uncertainty Principle?, became popular.

Tearing their hair out, early nanotechnologists explained, for the thousandth time, why the Uncertainty Principle doesn't prevent nanotechnology. And pointed out, for good measure, that the molecular machines in nature are an existence proof that such machines can, indeed, exist without violating known physical law.

It became increasingly clear that Engines of Creation wasn't going to succeed at the education job by itself. Therefore, in accord with a great American tradition, an organization was formed. The Foresight Institute, which I helped found and now direct, launched its publication work.

But Foresight, for some reason, chose to work in an antique cellulose medium, relying on snail mail to get the word out. Fortunately, the rather more foresighted Josh Hall of Rutgers figured out a better way, and started the sci.nanotech discussion group on USENET. As an active moderator, Hall has kept the discussion on track for years, a tough job, given all the peculiar directions that nanotechnology discussions tend to take, given half a chance.

Despite these efforts, there was a large portion of the scientific community that just didn't get it. Nature's existence proof wasn't convincing enough. They needed equations, many equations and graphs and charts. In short, they needed a textbook - not to read, but to flip through and say: Wow, look at all that math. This must be for real.

As a warm-up for writing such a book, Eric Drexler taught the first college course in nanotechnology at Stanford. Many of his students had to sit outside in the hall of the overflowing classroom. The more resourceful ones climbed in the windows. Almost all the students caught on to the concept of nanotechnology quickly.

There were some early adopters other than the students: It was Global Business Network, and specifically Stewart Brand, who urged Foresight to have the first nanotechnology conference in 1989. When your clients have planning horizons as long as GBN's do - Should we build that oil refinery, or not? - you have to take the future seriously. GBN does, often in the form of scenario planning.

GBN's influence showed up in the second nanotechnology book, Unbounding the Future. It incorporates lots of scenarios - stories, basically - that enable the reader to picture nanotechnology and its applications. These vivid stories, created by Gayle Pergamit, sketch how nanotechnology could be used to cure disease and heal the environment. As outlines of what nanotechnology will mean for humanity and the biosphere, these brief scenarios are our most concrete images of how nanotechnology will affect our daily lives.

Although research leading toward nanotechnology was progressing, it was fragmented and uncoordinated. Developing nanotechnology is fundamentally an engineering project, not a natural science, and as such it requires a cooperative effort. To begin this process, the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing was founded in 1991. Its initial project was funding the first textbook in the field, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, which won the award for best computer-science book of the year.

From this, we can see that nanotechnology is actually a subcategory of computer science. Further evidence is provided by the source of the first doctorate awarded in molecular nanotechnology: an interdisciplinary program coordinated by the "computer-sciency" MIT Media Laboratory.

In fact, throughout the field's evolution from concept onward, it has been those in the computer field who have been quickest to understand and project applications of nanotechnology. Like computers, nanotechnology will:

  • operate at the most fundamental level (here atoms and molecules, instead of bits and bytes),
  • work very fast, because it works at a very small scale,
  • have plummeting costs, as the technology is applied to itself, and
  • eventually, be ubiquitous. Just as today's computers are showing up in more and more products, nanocomputers and nanodefined materials will be able to improve just about any object we use, including our own bodies.

This computer orientation shows up yet again in the backgrounds of researchers who've plunged into nanotechnology. Very early in was Ralph Merkle, well-known in cryptography circles for his seminal work in public key cryptography. Despite the timeliness of that field, nanotechnology succeeded in luring Merkle away. Now at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which seems always to have its fingers in coming technologies, Merkle collaborates with IMM's Drexler on computational nanotechnology.

Where else would one expect to see R&D being done on such an advanced technology? How about...Japan? Maybe a project funded by MITI, another organization well-known for having its fingers in new technologies? Maybe a great big, well-funded, long-term project?

And sure enough, there it is: a US$200 million project at NAIR, the National Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary Research. (Be cool: Pronounce it En-Air, not like the hair-removal product.)

Looking east, over the other pond, we find less to get excited about. In England, France, and Switzerland, you'll hear the word nanotechnology, but usually the speaker means the old-style nanolithography, or other nonatomically-precise techniques. But there's hope, for instance, the British journal Nanotechnology is evolving in a more molecular direction, under steady pressure from one of their advisors, the highly active Ralph Merkle.

To find groups paying attention to molecular nanotechnology today, just think about which ones have long-term horizons and a healthy respect for technology. Examples include:

  • U.S. Military. Nanotechnology briefings and talks have been held at the Pentagon, at a technology-games exercise, and for the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral David Jeremiah. Now retired, Jeremiah is expected to address this fall's nanotechnology conference.
  • Environmental community. The first Senate testimony on nanotechnology was requested by then-Senator Al Gore for a hearing on sustainable technologies. And much earlier, one of the first nanotechnology essays showed up in the Whole Earth Review, well-known for looking ahead.
  • Pharmaceutical industry. Developing drugs takes so long and is so expensive that you'd better be looking ahead. The U.S. Pharmacopoeia - the group that puts its abbreviation, USP, on your prescription bottles - recently funded a study by the Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology about the effect of nanotechnology on the future of medicine.
  • Space-development crowd. Remember the people who wanted to build space colonies back in the 1970s? They still want to, and they've figured out two key points: NASA is not going to succeed at this task, and nanotechnology will solve their cost problems. Accordingly, the National Space Society recently published a position paper calling for the development and use of nanotechnology for space development.
  • Legal community. The law sees technologies come, and it sees them go. Meanwhile, the law evolves to accommodate the strange new properties of technologies. The first crack at figuring out how nanotechnology fits into the law as we know it today has been taken by Professor Glenn Reynolds and Frederick Fiedler, MD, in their article in Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal.

So the early days of nanotechnology, when the responses varied all the way from huh? to nah, are over. Now the more alert players are jumping on board.

The biggest jump - outside Japan - has been taken by Rice University in Texas. A new president has joined forces with chemist Richard Smalley to set up a nanotechnology program that extends all the way to the undergrad level. While Harvard, Stanford, and MIT sit on their potential nanohands, Rice may steal the show - and the inevitable federal grants.

Another nanoly-ambitious group has surfaced at the University of Southern California, where the new Molecular Robotics Lab is being led by Professor Ari Requicha. Requicha is a classic early nanotechnologist. Like Merkle, he's smart enough to be able to change fields. He forced himself to learn about nanotech by signing up to teach a class on it, using the book Nanosystems.

For chemists, the jump to nanotechnology isn't so large. It's more a change of attitude: realizing that we can go beyond building molecules to building molecular machines, and then on to systems of those machines. Nobel prizewinning chemist Roald Hoffman signed onto the concept recently.

But for the last step in credibility, we turn to the U.S. Science Advisor, Dr. Jack Gibbons, whose call for nanotechnology R&D has been loud and clear.

So the fun days, when nanotechnology was more a fad than an engineering project, are over. We knew for sure when it showed up on the "tired" list in Wired. Fun's over - now the long, hard R&D slog begins.

But there's one last phase to go through before we're done with nanotech as a fad. The venture capitalists have yet to do their traditional stampede: fund everything in sight labeled nanotech, experience a horrific shakeout, and run away licking their wounds. Hint: Start-ups with real market advantages may avoid using the buzz prefix nano, to avoid being caught up in this inevitable, painful process.

So who can you turn to for projections of what is to come? Don't expect that reading science fiction will help. As has been discussed in the science fiction community for years, nanotech messes up stories - so many things change that it's hard to write a story that people today will identify with. Science fiction fans have gone so far as to hold an "I Hate Nanotech" session at their annual meeting. So, science fiction stories almost inevitably cripple the nanotechnology they do use.

One approach is discussion on the Web. Foresight Institute is working on a Web-enhancement project to add the advanced hypertext features, such as backlinks, filtering, fine grainedness, needed for critical discussion of topics like this. When the features are ready, join in.

Or come to this fall's conference, where everyone who's anyone in nanotech will be. If you can't make it this year, check out the abstracts and preprints as they're published on the Web.

But hey, it's better to be at the meeting. You have to be there in person to win this year's Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology, worth $10,000. Is there a connection between your work and nanotechnology? It's worth a shot.

Chris Peterson,

Chris Peterson will be appearing in Club Wired at 6 p.m. PDT, Wednesday, 19 April to talk about nanotechnology and how it will affect our future.

Copyright © 1995 Ventures LLC All rights reserved.

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