Foresight Update 34

page 1

A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 34 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Finally, a True "Tiny Wheel"

by Lew Phelps

Some years ago researchers created tiny, but functional, gears through the process of photolithography to carve away minute quantities of silicon. Widely represented as the dawn of the nanotechnology age, they actually were no closer to true molecular manufacturing than a fly is to a virus.

Now, however, we have real molecular-scale gears.

On July 24, IBM scientists led by Dr. James Gimzweski, and a team of international collaborators reported the discovery of "molecular wheels": propeller-shaped molecules that rotate rapidly in a bearing-like structure formed by surrounding molecules. This unexpected phenomenon shows great promise for the development of molecular mechanical devices and further demonstrates the validity of using single molecules to perform the various functions required in such devices.

computer graphical view of rotating molecule computer graphical view of rotating molecule
Computer graphical view of rotating molecule Two STM images show a hexa-butyl decacyclene (HB-DC) molecule marked by an inner ring in an immobilized state (at left) and in a rotating state (at right).

In a paper published in Science, IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory, together with colleagues at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Toulouse, and the Riso National Laboratory in Roskilde, Denmark, report their design of the propeller-shaped molecules which can switch between two states -- rotating and immobilized, and the high-speed molecular rotation which they observed by using a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). The article and related illustrations were featured on the cover of the July 24 issue of Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among the citations in the article was Nanosystems by Dr. K. Eric Drexler, chairman of Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.

"Our discovery of the molecular wheel came about from recent molecular switch experiments in which we were investigating a reversible change in the shape of specifically designed molecules triggered by a voltage pulse from the STM tip," said Gimzweski, who leads the nano-engineering effort at IBM's Zurich Research Laboratory. "We believe that compared to other proposed or synthetic molecular mechanisms, the molecular wheel, which works in a dry state and appears to be wearless, is advantageous for creating gears and motors at the nanoscale level."

In viewing the STM images, the researchers found a ring-like object instead of the molecule that had been there. The object, now in a slightly different position, shifted by just one-fourth of a nanometer. It evidently jumped into a tiny space left vacant by an irregularity in the molecular layer and thus escaped the immobilizing grip of four molecules that surrounded it closely on one side. An adjacent molecule on the other side confined its further lateral motion and, in effect, contributed to forming a bearing for rotation of the central molecule. This rotation was responsible for the blurred, ring-like appearance of the molecule in the STM image. Researchers at CNRS calculated the behavior of the molecular wheel. Such wheels may someday become the smallest conceivable components of molecular engines.

Gimzweski presented a paper at last November's Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology, discussing work at IBM on room-temperature manipulation of atoms. [Update 31 contained a report on his talk.]

For additional information:

Foresight Update 34 - Table of Contents


Hot Debates: Is Techno-Surveillance Good?
Will Lawsuits Throttle Nanotechnology?

The annual gathering of Senior Associates of Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing has achieved renown as a weekend where conventional wisdom and conventional thinking take a serious drubbing. The 1998 event, held in late May in Palo Alto, provided no exception to the rule.

Topics for discussion ranged from the legal implications of tort law for nanotechnologists to the implications of nanotechnology-enabled life extension for the law; from possible military applications of nanotechnology to next-generation cars built in a nanotechnology future; from ubiquitous surveillance to cheap space travel.

Much of the discussion focused on issues within the scope of the realizable future, often provocatively. Consider, for example, the Sunday afternoon session on "Controversies and Fusses, Now and Soon."

Paul Saffo Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Institute for the Future, proposed that near-term technology developments in sensors will help prepare people for the eventual impact of nanotechnology. Within the next few years, Saffo said, a variety of sensor-enabling technologies, such as MEMS (micro electro mechanical systems), piezo-materials, VLSI video and micro-power impulse radar will produce staggering changes in our society by marrying analog sensors with digital computers.

"The next decade will be shaped by cheap sensors; we're going to hang eyes, ears and other sensors onto our computer networks. We'll invite computers to observe --and interact with -- the physical world on our behalf. The consequence will be a dramatic increase in the importance of computers in our lives," he said.

For more on MEMS, see "MEMS Technology: 'Training Wheels for Nanotechnology'?" in Update 29, and Saffo's essay "Sensors: The Next Wave of Infotech Innovation"

David Brin The implications of ubiquitous sensors were explored by David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, an analysis of a world heavily populated by sensors. "We will all live in glass houses," he said. In Brin's view, privacy won't be protected by encryption, because powerful computers will break any codes. Password protection? "A (MEMS-based) airplane the size of a gnat will be able to fly into your office, perch on your ceiling, and watch while you type your password into your computer." The best defense: "Make sure that the mighty live in glass houses, too."

Will privacy be a thing of the past in a world of ubiquitous sensors? No, Brin said. "We'll still have privacy, but we can defend it only through knowledge; we have to be able to catch the Peeping Toms."

For more discussion based on Brin's book, see the "Discussion Forum on the Social Impacts of Surveillance and Encryption" at

Jim Halperin Jim Halperin, author of a hot new science fiction novel, The First Immortal, contributed to the discussion of futures reshaped by emerging technologies. His novel, reviewed in Update 33, explores the effects on society and individual lives from the ability to achieve cryonic suspension and revivification. "It will be uncomfortable with these machines. To live with them, we have to hold people accountable for their actions and their intentions; the latter is necessary to prevent malicious actions," he said. (Halperin's novel hypothesizes a "Truth Machine" that allows anyone to determine whether another party is lying, thus revealing intentions separately from actions.)

Greg Burch Attorney Greg Burch, a partner with Liddell, Sap, Zivley, Hill and LaBoon, L.L.P., told the assembled nanotechnologists to quit focusing on intellectual property law and start thinking about something even more serious for those who seek to invent the future -- tort law. A "tort" is "a civil wrong, other than a breach of contract, for which the law provides a remedy," he said, also rendering the subject as a simple formula: T = D + B + C + H (Tort = Duty which has been Breached Causing Harm).

Drawing from U.S. and English common law, Burch explained how those who create nanotechnology will surely be held liable if their work causes damage that could reasonably have been expected and prevented. "A web search on the term 'grey goo' will be sufficient for any plaintiff's lawyer to convince a court that the very founders of the discipline were willing to entertain scenarios that make the term 'ultrahazardous' seem an understatement," he said, noting that "ultrahazardous activities" are in a special class in tort law which can lead to liability without proof of fault. Product liability issues also can arise, he said, from design defects, manufacturing defects, or defective warnings.

Eric Drexler Eric Drexler, chairman of Foresight and IMM Research Fellow, surveyed changes he's seen in the last few years in the scientific community's view of nanotechnology. "On the technical side, we've seen the emergence of combinatorial chemistry and associated chemical techniques and lab techniques. Chemists are getting systematic about making things. Driven by interest in pharmaceuticals and the need to make a wide range of molecules that 'look like drugs but we're not sure what it does,' chemists are now looking to create small amounts of many chemicals so that they can test many things," Drexler said. "At the same time, finally, chemists are turning their minds to basic engineering tasks -- How can we find sets of things and systematic procedures to make whatever we need? How can we make building blocks? Which are necessary for the whole system? There's a new pattern of activity among chemists to put hundreds and even thousands of atoms together in a precise way....a shift in emphasis from one-of exotic structures to routine building blocks."

On the cultural side, "national research organizations such as the U.S. National Science Foundation are now saying 'yes we're doing it.' They're actually just relabelling existing research as nanotechnology. For those who deal with such funding sources, there is now an open door for a flow of funding for goals that are aimed at things called nanotechnology. Over time, this will look more and more like molecular manufacturing," Drexler said.

"What's encouraging is that this is putting us in a visibly better position to deal with the serious problems that motivated me in the first place-- dealing with the political, social and economic consequences of this technological revolution," he said.

"We need a shared community of bright individuals who have identified what's stupid and shouldn't be done, and what's smart and ought to be done. This community will eventually advise policy makers as they come to grapple with the 'crisis' that emerges through the realization of nanotechnology."

John Storrs (Josh) Hall John Storrs (Josh) Hall, formerly of Rutgers University and now an IMM Research Fellow, discussed his work on design aspects of a flying car. His concept is discussed in depth in his column, within IMM Report.

Bob Santer Bob Santer of the Ford Motor Company discussed his view of the automobile of the year 2015 and what it might look like. Santer assumes the availability of high-strength materials created by molecular manufacturing, and sensor/computer systems embedded in cars and highways that will allow vehicles to queue much more closely on highways than today.

Surprisingly, "What this produces is very much like today" Santer said. "You still have to meet the needs and expectations of the customer, who will still need to get there safely, cleanly and efficiently, and have their problems solved along the way". "Nanotechnology will make cars smarter, stronger and cleaner, but they'll still be recognizable as cars," he said. And because people have a significant emotional attachment to their vehicles, "People will still want good looking cars."

Other presenters were further out, both literally and figuratively. For example, Tom McKendree discussed the implications of nanotechnology for space development. Once humans learn to build diamondoid and other high- strength, light-weight materials at low cost "space travel for the masses becomes not just feasible but cheap," he said. "You could put four people into orbit with a five ton vehicle, including the weight of the fuel." Affordable space will allow colonization of the asteroid belt and beyond, a wave of exploration "like the New World times one million," he suggested. With widespread space colonization, serious new issues must be dealt with: property rights vs. squatters on asteroids; and ultimately, the fate of planets.

McKendree, a Systems Engineer with Raytheon Systems Co., pointed out that Jupiter represents an enormous reservoir of matter, which could be converted into a Dyson Sphere of orbiting platforms that would surround the Sun and capture all its energy output. This raises political and ethical questions including: how do we decide what to do with the mass of Jupiter? If we build a Dyson Sphere, how do we allocate a vast but finite resource -- sunlight? If that's not far enough out for you, consider another concept he proposed: in a universe with advanced civilizations expanding at nearly the speed of light, most of the universe is either already overrun by some civilization or is a place where the entire universe looks pristine, as it looks from Earth, leaving only very thin shells where one can see an approaching civilization, but where such a civilization has not yet already taken over.

Ralph Merkle How do we achieve the technology to make such products possible? Ralph Merkle, of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a leading nanotechnology thinker and IMM Advisor, discussed what's needed to move nanotechnology research forward. "People now generally accept that it's possible, but they're still confused about what it is," he said, noting that most thinking about nanotechnology is still constricted by:

Faced with these views, "our core goals should be to reduce confusion, develop the technology, and prepare for consequences," he said.

Merkle called for more applications books related to nanotechnology (space, medicine, computers, military, environment, etc.). He noted a book in the works by Foresight Senior Associate Robert Freitas on medical nanotechnology. (See for details.)

Neil Jacobstein Neil Jacobstein, Chairman of IMM and President of Teknowledge, Inc., discussed "what's unique about IMM." His answer: "a focus on R&D for effective and responsible use of molecular manufacturing." (See his column for a detailed discussion of the topic.)

"In 1968 Hollywood created a vision of artificial intelligence with HAL 9000 (in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). We need that same vision of NanoWorld in a movie -- one that addresses the questions we think are important. If we took such a concept to Disney or Pixar and they did it, people would be asking why they can't yet buy a matter compiler. All of our incremental technical achievements would be judged by their proximity to the most vivid movie images, just as AI is judged by its proximity to HAL."

Jim Von Ehr Jim Von Ehr, founder and President of Zyvex, the world's first nanotechnology company, discussed the technologies his company is exploring. His goal is to achieve commercial products within 5 to 10 years, specifically the first Drexlerian assembler. "We're attacking the core problems. Nanomanipulation, system design and mechanochemis-try are the big three," he said.

"Nanomanipulation requires positional accuracy to ± 1/2 bond length, he said. Today's scanning tunneling microscopes can achieve that accuracy, but they're not stable, and also are limited to 3 degrees of freedom," he said. Mechanochemistry -- the idea of pushing reactants together to force them to bond together, and maintain the bond -- is likely to begin with Carbon-Carbon bonds with Hydrogen termination.

"System design is a big nanoengineering problem," Von Ehr said. "We have to figure out how to attach reactive building blocks to a probe tip, to build with a 3-degree-of-freedom probe (or improve the probe), and manipulate resulting product," he said.

Early products might include next-generation assembler, nanostructured materials, small precise parts such as "perfect" probe tips, and simple logic mechanisms.

Pat Parker Pat Parker, an economist and instructor at the U.S. Navy Postgraduate School at Monterey, CA, discussed the military's relationship with nanotechnology. "By and large, the time horizon of the Department of Defense (DOD) is very short, dominated by day to day budgetary considerations, and limited to 5 years planning time horizon. Thus, things like nanotechnology receive short shrift," he said. Nevertheless, attention within the military is beginning to focus upon the military implications of nanotechnology and also upon MEMS in the nearer term.

Drawing on decades of experience within DOD, Parker said that three barriers face advancement of nanotechnology in the military. First, whenever there is a new approach, DOD tends to underestimate the systems engineering problems, he said. He described an integrated radar-computer system that was proposed some years ago, which his analysis showed would be functional for 20 minutes per week. The project was killed. "However, the concept was so good that the military invested in solving the problems, and created the Aegis battle control system. It's the world's most expensive weapons system, but worth it." Second, experts overestimate the difficulty of solving technical problems. "When you put resources to the task, problems get solved," he said, pointing to the rapid ability of researchers to overcome the basic technical challenges involved in President Reagan's Star Wars program.

Third, "you have to recognize that when dealing with experts, there is frequently a hidden agenda," he said, describing how he once confronted Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling about falsely made claims, to which Pauling admitted, "Sure, I lie. I'll do anything to advance the cause (of nuclear disarmament)."

Virginia Postrel Virginia Postrel, Editor of Reason Magazine and Forbes columnist, discussed the main thesis of her new book, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. Rather than relying on old classifications of "Right" and "Left," she proposes a new way to view the factions contesting our era's most important issues. She argues that the struggle for the 21st Century will pit the proponents of "dynamism," who embrace open-ended discovery, critique and competition, against the advocates of "stasis," who demand a return to an earlier time or the bureaucratic managment of the present.

Other speakers at the conference included Philippe Van Nedervelde, Executive Director of Foresight Europe, who spoke on progress in forming and growing that arm of Foresight; James C. Bennett, who discussed politics in the Diamond age; and Doug Engelbart, founder of Bootstrap Institute, who discussed new ways of group learning that will be necessary to deal with the challenges the future will bring.

Foresight Update 34 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 34, originally published 30 August 1998.