Foresight Update 32

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 32 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Book Review

Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance. Edited by BC Crandall. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England. 1996.

by James B. Lewis

book cover This very readable compilation presents to a nontechnical audience the basic principles of molecular nanotechnology (also called molecular engineering), along with a diverse and entertaining collection of proposals and speculations on some of the applications of molecular nanotechnology.

The introductory chapter on molecular engineering, written by Crandall, covers an impressive range of ideas and facts and introduces some novel perspectives. He begins by explaining measurement systems and physical scales, and then introduces atoms and molecules, giving both scientific basics and historical perspective, and segueing into the most relevant facts from biochemistry and molecular biology.

A section on "A Genealogy of Nanotechnology" presents the novel (and debatable) perspective that "The companion fields of nanotechnology and artificial-life studies can be usefully thought of as being the inside-out of each other. Each is dependent on and implicates the other; each is essentially useless and meaningless without the other." From this view, Crandall begins his treatment of the roots of nanotechnology with Schrödinger's 1944 essay, "What is Life?" and with von Neumann's work on automata.

Paralleling descriptions of the contributions of Feynman and Drexler, and the progress in diverse "top down" and "bottom up" fabrication technologies, are descriptions of progress in artificial life. A final section on "Research Frontiers" includes brief synopses of recent (circa 1995) work with scanning probe microscopes, nanotubes, biomolecules as motors and computational elements, rational design and directed evolution of molecules, evolution of software and genetic algorithms, self-replication, reversible logic and other computational architectures, and artificial membranes to encapsulate reacting molecules.

These summaries are not meant to provide sufficient depth to satisfy the technically inclined, but they give an excellent overview of the sorts of research currently leading, more or less directly, towards molecular nanotechnology. Indeed, Crandall's introduction achieves remarkable breadth of coverage in relatively few pages and, like the rest of the chapters in the book, is supplemented by copious notes and references. An interesting point for further consideration is the inherent tension between Crandall's view that the development of nanotechnology will require the evolution of a form of artificial life, beyond the direct control of human designers, and the position that Ralph Merkle has taken that, for the sake of safety, it is imperative that we not design self-replicating systems with any capacity to evolve.

The remaining chapters cover a fascinating range of potential applications of nanotechnology in everyday life. A chapter by Ted Kaehler begins by describing a laboratory-scale "in vivo nanoscope" capable of providing atomic resolution, real time movies of happenings inside living cells in intact living animals. This nanoscope is a hybrid of conventional technology and early (pre-assembler) nanotechnology, yet provides an enormous leap in the ability of biologists to understand the workings of cells and develop medical therapies. Kaehler uses this description of pre-assembler nanotechnology as a springboard to attack the idea of the "two-week revolution"—the proposal that once the first assembler is built, generations of nanomachines of increasingly powerful capabilities will be built increasingly faster, radically altering all human existence within a matter of weeks. Using complex technologies we already know as examples, Kaehler argues that "design ahead" is severely limited without the opportunity to test and debug: "Two weeks after the first assembler works, it will be in the shop for repairs."

Continuing with the theme of early applications of nanotechnology to the human body, Richard Crawford describes how cosmetic nanosurgery done with simple nanomachines (no on-board computers, for example) could change hair color, cause hair to grow or not to grow in specific locations, keep teeth clean and skin smooth, etc., all far more effectively than with current day treatments. Looking somewhat further in the future at more radical modifications of the human body through nanotechnology, Edward Reifman describes dentistry with assembler-fabricated teeth, and even with teeth and jaws made of diamond.

Listing dozens of early applications of nanotechnology, Harry Chesley covers the gamut from "full-wall video screens" with micrometer resolution, to "always clean, nonslip bathtubs", to "fully encased virtual reality [that] completely surrounds the user, providing full-bandwidth, visual, auditory, and tactile stimulation..." He then discusses plausible designs for general purpose nanomachines (machines that have nanometer-scale parts but the entire machine is micrometer in scale) that could be programmed for different uses, how such machines could be manufactured, and the properties of the materials they could produce. An alternate approach to building such general purpose machines is provided by J. Storrs Hall in the chapter on "utility fog." The nanomachines here are "foglets", each spanning about 10 micrometers and containing about five trillion atoms. Mostly empty air would contain many trillions of foglets linked together in a network that could simulate the existence of almost any physical object. Hall describes a city, for example, in which fog substitutes for permanent buildings, vehicles, and household objects, and speculates how social interactions would be regulated by the fog's programming. The physical and computational capabilities of the fog are described in some detail.

In a chapter on "The Companion-A Very Personal Computer", John Papiewski focuses on a very specific device that would use the enormous increases in computer power and storage density expected from molecular nanotechnology. Looking very much like ordinary eyeglasses, the companion will provide audio and visual input, indistinguishable from reality, generated by prodigious on-board computation and high bandwidth optical communication links. Hundreds of channels could be simultaneously monitored by on-board neural net computers for items of interest to be recorded and presented to the user. The user interface, provided by speech recognition and eye-tracking sensors, would give access to books, movies, music, databases and knowledge bases, etc., stored in the device's library. An important component of the visual display system of the Companion is Phase Array Optics, the topic of a chapter by Brian Wowk. He explains in some detail how nanotechnology will allow PAO to create whatever scenery can be imagined by using only two-dimensional displays constructed from light sources 0.2 micrometers apart to produce light with phase and amplitude calculated to form perfect three-dimensional images. An amazing feature of such images is that they would continue to be realistic even if magnified many times by viewing them through a large telescope. A suit covered by PAO could even render the wearer invisible, as in the movie Predator. A room with all interior surfaces covered by PAO would be the visual equivalent of the holodeck in Star Trek.

Rounding out the book with everyday applications are chapters on "trivial" uses of nanotechnology, by Keith Henson, and "Nanotech Hobbies" by Tom McKendree. Henson's trivial uses range from tree-like objects that "grow" gasoline and roofing tiles that convert solar light to household electricity, to reinforced, self-repairing houses immune to all natural disasters "short of a large incoming meteor," to a nanotechnology-provided Valhalla, where participants can be hacked apart in Conan-style blood combat, and then be stitched back together again by medical nanomachines. McKendree expects hobbies to become more important as replicating assemblers provide material abundance sufficient to eliminate the need to work for a living. His suggestions range from model railroad-scale human figurines that move and act realistically, to creating atomically perfect copies of collectibles, such as comic books, so many people could become collectors (perhaps with some authentication scheme for the originals), to nanotech "garden protectors" to aid gardening by killing pests, to jumping out of airplanes without parachutes.

A common feature of the contributed chapters is that they provide optimistic prospects for benevolent applications of nanotechnology; none consider the disasters that could result from abusive applications. In a postscript, Crandall hints at the danger of human extinction and speculates that nanotechnology will enable the dispersal of self-contained human ecosystems into space so that all of our eggs would no longer be in one basket.

This book provides an excellent introduction to nanotechnology. For those already familiar with the concepts, it makes more concrete the possible early stages of implementation and the effects upon everyday human life.

James B. Lewis, PhD., is a molecular biologist, consultant, and Webmaster for Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.

Order a copy of Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance from our Online Nanotechnology Bookstore

Foresight Update 32 - Table of Contents


IMM Report: NIST Holds
Microsystems/Nanosystems Meeting

Dr. John Storrs Hall, a computer scientist most recently from Rutgers University, who has lectured and written on nanotechnology and served as moderator of the sci.nanotech news group for the past decade, has been appointed as a Research Fellow at the Institute of Molecular Manufacturing. Besides his work as moderator of the most widely used forum on nanotechnology, sci.nano, Dr. Hall is perhaps best known within the nanotechnology community for his proposal for "Utility Fog", and for his work on reversible logic. He can be reached at

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) held a meeting in Albuquerque, NM on January 21 to define a new Advanced Technology Program (ATP) focus on microsystems and nanosystems. Approximately 100 representatives of industry, academia, and research labs participated. The ATP is a funding activity by NIST that is intended to spur the commercialization of advanced technologies by cost-sharing their development where this would be too risky for the private sector alone.

The one-day meeting consisted of a series of white-paper presentations, followed by a breakdown into eight working groups by areas of interest. The purpose of the meeting overall was to define the areas where a focussed program within the ATP would be most promising. White papers had been solicited to propose cases where a moderate research or development effort lay between current practice and useful application. The workshop organizer and facilitator, Jack Boudreaux of NIST, broke the white papers down into categories of commercialization, packaging, nanosystems, infrastructure, optics, and devices; the working groups slightly rearranged this, primarily by way of adding a materials group.

The nanosystems group in the breakout included representatives of the Michigan Molecular Institute, Dendritech, the Air Force, Sandia National Labs, Boeing, and Kodak, as well as its chairman, Ken Smith of Rice University, and myself, representing the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. All of the other groups were fairly strongly focussed on MEMS (micro- electronic and mechanical systems), and our group was challenged to find specifics where existing or near-term nanotechnology could either enhance MEMS or be commercialized on its own.

The clearest case for enhancement was in the area of sensors; this forms a major portion of present-day MEMS applications. An example was given in Smith's white paper, which showed the use of a fullerene nanotube as a scanning probe microscope tip extension. A significantly clearer and more accurate picture is obtained with the nanotube. Another existing enhancement is the addition of molecular constructions with chemical reactivity or specificity for detection, analysis, and filtering.

Nanoelectronics received a fair amount of discussion; advantages and applications are fairly straightforward, especially in conjunction with micromachines. Another area seen as promising was the application of micromachined scanning probe technology to mass storage in computers. The provision of a writable substrate for such a device would be an application of near-term nanotechnology.

The other main area considered by the nanosystems working group was surface physics and similar cases where macroscopic engineering approximations begin to break down with decreasing scale. A major problem in existing micromachines is the phenomenon of "stiction", wherein adhesive and frictional forces between touching parts becomes much more significant than in macroscopic machines. Another phenomenon is that at small scales, turbulence in fluid flow disappears and all flow is laminar; this makes it easier to simulate but also means that shapes that would cause fluids to mix at larger scales do not work. It was proposed that nanoscience could help to analyze, and nanostructures to ameliorate, these and similar problems.

Most of the working groups, not just the nanosystems one, pointed to the development of software for analysis and design as both an immediate need and opportunity.

The Microsystem and Nanosystem focus now faces a standard review process within NIST. If successful, it is projected to come "on-line" in 1999. The technical contact is Jack Boudreaux, He points out that proposals for the area need not wait for the focus program, but can be entered in the general ATP competition immediately. For more information on the ATP in general, see, email at, or phone 800-ATP-FUND.

Foresight Update 32 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 32, originally published 15 March 1998.