A publication of the Foresight Institute
It got international press coverage: two IBM researchers used
a scanning tunneling microscope to fabricate
their company's logo from xenon atoms.
D.M. Eigler and E.K. Schweizer accomplished this feat after careful consideration of the play of forces between the tungsten tip of an STM and various candidate substrates and working materials. They chose a carefully prepared nickel surface as a substrate and xenon atoms as a working material because the surface corrugations between rows of nickel atoms are large enough to keep xenon atoms in place during STM imaging, yet small enough to permit the xenon atoms to be pulled along the surface during fabrication. To relocate a xenon atom, the investigators positioned the STM tip over a xenon atom (using the imaging mode), then switched to fabrication mode by turning off scanning and lowering the tip toward the xenon atom until the tunneling current increased severalfold. The xenon atom, attracted to the tip, could be dragged by moving the STM tip horizontally. Reducing the tunneling current retracted the tip, leaving the atom in a new location on the nickel surface. [Nature 344:524-526, 5Apr90]
The rush is now on to construct more elaborate objects. In this connection we note that K.E. Drexler and J.S. Foster have suggested that probe tips might be made much more versatile and reliable if equipped with specially constructed molecular tips. [Nature 343:600, 15Feb90]. This would be a first step toward the "hybrid protoassembler" proposed by Drexler at the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology.
In 1986, I was a member of the faculty at Trinity University
in Texas directing their intercollegiate debate program. One day,
Timothy Wilkins, a student debater, returned from the library
with a new book, Engines of
Creation. He showed it to me, and left with it for his
dorm room. The next day, he stormed into my office and demanded I
read it at once. I did and during the next eight months, we
introduced the subjects discussed in Engines into
competitive debate, and ever since then nanotechnology has become
an area of contention in hundreds, if not thousands, of debate
rounds across the nation.
Competitive debate is a laboratory for instruction in public speaking and argumentation. On every competitive level, this lab features a series of speeches which center on an agreed-upon resolution or topic. These topics mainly encompass issues which examine the causes and consequences of government policies which attempt to address grievous phenomena: megaissues like the greenhouse effect, resource depletion, hunger and overpopulation, medical care, nuclear proliferation, and so on.
When Chris Peterson asked me to write this short piece, she said she gets many calls from debaters and wants to know how debate has used information on nanotechnology. The answer to her question is Engines seemed to have been written for debaters. Assuredly that was not the case, yet the interface between the way megaissues were discussed in Engines and how the same issues are debated was and still is remarkable.
There are three reasons why Engines has been so popular in debate. First, in debate, rationalistic discussions are rewarded over incremental ones. For that matter, debate may be premised on the failure of incremental problem solving. In debate, we tend to examine problems macroscopically, and the most successful arguments are from visionaries who reason beyond our current experience. For example, when a debater pleas for food assistance for underdeveloped countries to relieve malnutrition, the knee jerk reaction from a competitor would be to argue that hunger and starvation are a necessary population check: Malthus is right. When a debater demands increased personal freedoms, her opponent will argue liberty begets misguided consumption and profiteering which doom our ecosystem. In debate, for every benefit, there is a greater or lesser harm, and it is this sparring which is the force driving controversy in debate.
From Engines, Tim and I initially discovered a way to resolve the megaissue that carbon dioxide concentrations were feeding global warming. Conventional counterargumentation claiming warming was beneficial was, and still is, inane: rising mean temperatures increasing the amount of arable land in one location is grossly outweighed by desertification and flooding elsewhere. This issue was difficult to mitigate in an argument; it seemed inevitable and significant. However, when Engines considered how replicating assemblers could remove carbon dioxide and reduce the need for fossil fuels, we began to argue that clean-up could halt the oncoming disaster while simultaneously reducing our reliance on fossil fuels which also poisoned our air and streams in addition to its greenhousing effect. While our opponents could only advocate ways to slow the accumulation of dangerous levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (incrementalism), we responded with assemblers that could reduce CO2 and mitigate its primary causes forever (rationalism).
Soon after Hapgood's essay appeared reminding us of the "grey goo" scenario, on-point debating on the merits of nanotechnology began to occur, but by then, the spring of 1987, I relocated to the University of Vermont.
During the summer of 1987, I lectured to a group of high school debaters at a workshop at UVM about nanotechnology and its utility as a strategy in megaissue debating. These students returned to their hometowns in August and for the next few months, my office became inundated with requests for more information about "all this nanostuff." I responded: "Read Engines and call FI." I guess they did.
This brings me to a second reason why the principles of nanotechnology discussed in the book have become so popular in competitive debate: It examines problems by reworking the causes from the bottom-up; it reexamined fundamental premises which have made many of the world's megaissues impossible to solve.
Debaters have always been intrigued with the systemic causes of problems, consequently Engines fascinated them. Engines mooted the conception of technology as large metal beasts spewing black smoke and klaxing deafening dins when it discussed a tool which could enhance a person's skills and powers and did not turn her into a mechanical slave; it liberated and did so eco-synergistically. Engines mooted bureaucratic myopia favoring immediate payoff solutions when it entertained a consciousness shift premised upon foresight and the creative application of science. Debaters found that Engines was profound in its worldview.
My third and final reason: Engines was readable by everyone and only misunderstandable by those who refused to open their minds, who were not, as Maslow said, being-cognitive. Nanotechnology was different, if not bizarre--tiny machines building offspring and tools--but it was fathomable. More important, its explicative style reads as easily as fiction. High school students and undergraduates found in Engines a wonderfully fantastic discussion of technology, a story which was never intimidating in its presuppositions.
I have judged hundreds of academic debates, and have heard many in which nanotechnology was an issue: active shields as an SDI alternative, hypertext to wrest power from ideologically tainted publishing houses, assemblers to repair cells and makes viruses benign, to mine asteroids and fabricate space colonies, to clean air and water pollution including toxic and radioactive wastes and substitute energy sources which would not hold our environment hostage to our obsessive need to grow, to reduce the ravages of aging, to produce inexhaustible food supplies, to spread wealth, and, most often, to enable us to evade the entropic nightmare painted by Jeremy Rifkin and others.
More recently, on the last weekend in March 1990, two groups of intercollegiate debaters held national championships and, at both, nanotechnology was hailed as a way to insure balanced economic growth to maintain a competitive posture in the world's markets and to reduce overdependence on fossil fuels.
As long as debate topics address "megaissues," nanotechnology will be an issue. Thanks to the increasing number of publications featuring articles on nanotechnology, the debates are becoming more and more sophisticated.
These debaters, young men and women, will be tomorrow's leaders and it's somewhat heartening to know that when they design remedies for some of the problems confronting society in the 21st century, nanotechnology will, at least, receive a serious and fair discursive treatment.
David M. Berube is an Assistant Professor of Speech at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, and author of many articles on argumentation, logic, and philosophy.
Users of large commercial computer networks often complain about difficulty in reaching the nanotechnology newsgroup on Usenet, called sci.nanotech. Russell Whitaker reports that those who have CompuServe accounts and wish to receive and contribute sci.nanotech messages can contact the moderator, Josh Storrs Hall, by going to the electronic mail area and entering at the "To:" prompt this address: >INTERNET:email@example.com. There are a couple of other addresses which work, and which may show up as headers on received text. If you have questions, Russell Whitaker can be contacted through CompuServe at 71750,2413.
Thanks to Nils Andersson and Walter Vannini for offering to
translate into English from German and Italian.
Journal and magazine coverage of topics of interest to Foresight is booming, as can be told by the number of people we hereby thank for sending in copies. Please keep sending these--we often hear of important articles only once. Thanks to Joseph Bonaventura, Jamie Dinkelacker, Jerry Fass, Darrell Flynn, W.C. Gaines, Stan and Kiyomi Hutchings, Tony Johnson, Jeff MacGillivray, Joy Martin, Tom McKendree, Leonard Micko, K.E. Nelson, Ed Niehaus, Anthony Oberley, Brian D. Ornstedt, John Papiewski, Jack Powers, Naomi Reynolds, Howard Rheingold, Stuart E. Scott, Alvin Steinberg, and Tihamer Toth-Fejel.
Thanks for book recommendations go to Jerry Fass and Max O'Connor.
From Foresight Update 9, originally published 30 June 1990.
Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 9 to html for this web page.