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1986 through 2016: Thirty Years of Nanotechnology and Foresight

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Securing a future worth having by advancing understanding of emerging revolutionary technologies

The ultimate manufacturing technology: synergies, opportunities, challenges and solutions

Founding Vision

The Foresight Institute was founded on a vision set forth by Foresight's co-founder K. Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation (Engines), published in the spring of 1986. Foresight was founded coincident with the publication of Engines to advance understanding of the picture painted in the book—a web of emerging revolutionary technologies that will present opportunities to vastly improve the human condition, and a web of strategies to secure those benefits while avoiding the problems that could come from careless or malicious misuse of those technologies, or from unintended consequences.

These emerging revolutionary technologies are often seen to comprise nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technologu, and cognitive science. These are related to each other and to other important technologies like robotics and space exploration/settlement in complex ways. However, two capabilities hold central positions in this complex web: the evolution of nanotechnology into an advanced nanotechnology—variously termed molecular nanotechnology, molecular manufacturing, or productive nanosystems—that enables general purpose, high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing, and the evolution of computer science and machine learning to enable artificial general intelligence.

Engines elaborated a concept first proposed in 1959 by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman : use systems of microscopic machines to build complex, atomically precise products by, as Feynman put it, "maneuvering things atom by atom". In a seminal technical paper published in 1981, Drexler outlined a path to implementing Feynman's vision of "the structuring of matter to complex atomic specifications" through a molecular engineering program to redesign biology's molecular machinery—protein molecules—to position reactive groups to atomic precision. He proposed that several generations of such molecular engineering would lead to "machines able to perform extremely general synthesis of three-dimensional molecular structures, thus permitting construction of devices and materials to complex atomic specifications."

Engines incorporated Drexler's 1981 proposal into a larger framework explaining the ability to arrange atoms as the the foundation of technology, and why we could be confident, based on general rules of how change happens and order emerges from chaos, about predictions of a technology that did not yet exist when we have only general ideas about paths to develop this technology. He then explored the opportunities and challenges the ability to arrange atoms would open, and strategies to survive the challenges and to use the opportunities to achieve a future in which human diversity could flourish.

Since the core idea is the central importance of a general ability to arrange atoms as we wish, the book begins with a vivid image of why the "ability to arrange atoms lies at the foundation of technology." Two examples: atoms arranged one way give sand, but arranged another way give computer chips; atoms arranged one way give healthy tissue, but arranged another way give diseased tissue (or a cadaver). For two million years, since our ancestors began to make stone tools, atoms have been handled "in unruly herds". By the time Engines was written, chemists had been rearranging atoms in small molecules for not much more than a century; biochemists and molecular biologists had been working with larger biomolecules for only a few decades.

Thus biology and biotechnology play at least three roles in Drexler's proposals:

  1. The complex systems of molecular machines that underlie the miracle of life provide an existence proof that complex systems of molecular machines are possible and can build marvelous things.
  2. The often subtle differences between the arrangements of atoms in health and in disease point to an enormously important application of general technological means to arrange atoms as we wish. Cell repair machines, often called medical nanorobots, could perform surgery on the cellular level, or even on the molecular level, thus preventing or curing almost every disease and injury, including the currently inevitable disabilities of aging.
  3. A path exists through biotechnology to ever more capable molecular machines, leading to biomimetic machines made from other folding polymers, or other three-dimensional arrangements of atoms and functional groups, and culminating with molecular machines able to handle very reactive molecular fragments in vacuum with sub-atomic positioning accuracy to build ever more complex structures by adding atoms where they are wanted with the bonds required to lock them into the desired position.

From "assemblers" to "nanofactories"

Drexler originally termed these microscopic machines able to "build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist" assemblers. Assemblers able to build copies of themselves were called "replicators", and machines able to disassemble complex structures to determine how the constituent atoms were arranged were named "disassemblers". Assemblers would also be able to build powerful microscopic mechanical computers, named "nanocomputers". Building macroscopic objects with swarms of assemblers invoked images of swarms of microbes. Such images arose naturally from using biology as an existence proof, and from mimicking biology to guide the design of early stage molecular machines.

However subsequent analysis by Drexler and others revealed that microscopic replicating assemblers were far from the most efficient method of implementing atomically precise manufacturing. Further, the picture that Drexler himself painted in Engines of the destruction such swarms of virtually indestructible synthetic microbes might cause (the "gray goo problem") proved to be a major impediment to many scientists taking Drexler's proposal seriously. Scientists did not want to be expected to build medical miracle machines they could not yet see a way to build, nor blamed for building dangers they considered impossible.

Thus Drexler's concept of the ultimate implementation of nanotechnology changed from swarms of microscopic cooperating assemblers to a desktop apparatus about the size of a microwave oven that would convert inputs of pure industrial chemicals into final consumer products of atomically precise patterns of diamond and sapphire. Other robotic machinery would then assemble the smallest manufactured components into subsystems and products of any needed size.

From popular science to planning paths forward

Engines was a work of popular science. Six years after Engines appeared, Drexler published his MIT Ph.D. thesis, the first in the new field he had by then named "molecular nanotechnology", as the book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (WIley, 1992), a technical work in a new field of science and engineering. In this work, he justified the emergence of molecular nanotechnology, not merely by the existence proof provided by biology, but by what the known laws of physics and extrapolations from known chemistry, both experimental and computational, tell us about the potential properties of systems of molecular machines.

Paths forward from current laboratory science to advanced nanotechnology were identified. These were largely based on biotechnology and chemistry, sometimes in combination with scanning probe microscopy and other surface physics tools. Other researchers envisioned paths forward based upon building small atomically precise systems by direct manipulation with scanning probe microscopes. In considering various paths forward from current and incremental improvements of nanotechnology, special attention was paid to the differences between curiosity-driven scientific research and large, organized engineering projects aimed at achieving specific grand goals. Drexler christened the new field "exploratory engineering", in which the goal was to explore manufacturing possibilities not currently known to engineering, constrained only by known natural law.

Drexler anticipated many of the challenges Foresight encountered during the first two decades after Engines was published, and pointed in Engines itself to important features of the way forward. He explained the principles that govern change and the emergence of order: the generation of variations that are then tested against an array of constraints and requirements. He described how these principles explain the emergence of order in molecules, organisms, and minds, and how these same principles can be used to explain the design process that leads to the evolution of technologies. Commercial and military competition will ensure that the most powerful technologies eventually emerge.

Synergies and strategies

These principles of change form the foundation of strategies to deal with the potential problems that may accompany powerful technologies. For example, anti-technology initiatives are not likely to prevent abuse of powerful technologies because local prohibitions are unlikely to block advances in commercial and military technology. They would simply drive the technology underground or offshore.

These principles allow us to have some confidence in our expectations of future technologies as far as they rest upon engineering innovations within the boundaries of known science. We can be confident that commercially and militarily important technologies will evolve to the limits set by physical law, although we cannot predict confidently how, when, and at what cost this will happen, because there are too many variables, many rooted in human choices. Thus we can separate wild, implausible-sounding ideas that are possible and ultimately likely, from wild, implausible-sounding ideas that are in fact nonsensical.

Drexler further explained how deep differences in the methods and goals of science and engineering combine to create a crucial blindspot in our ability to imagine the future, and how this gap can be filled. Few scientists or engineers are interested in future engineering developments that are firmly based upon current scientific knowledge but cannot be manufactured with current fabrication tools. A large part of Foresight's mission over the past 30 years has been drawing attention to what advanced nanotechnology that we can begin to design today will enable once we learn how to manufacture with atomic precision. These efforts fall under the banner of "exploratory engineering" cited above.

Abundance, automated design, space, and medicine

In considering the implications of general purpose, high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing, Drexler first explores how inexpensive, non-polluting assemblers/nanofactories will create a world of unprecedented abundance, transforming the world economy. Manufacturing with atomic precision means building by adding reactive molecular fragments, each comprising a precisely specified small group of atoms held in 3D space by a specified arrangement of chemical bonds so that it links to the workpiece in a predetermined position and orientation. One very important insight is that factories based on molecular machine systems building with atomic precision will have one very important advantage compared to large robot-filled factories using conventional technology: ultimately, the parts they will use are atoms, and atoms come ready made, identical, and perfect.

Advances in manufacturing technology will not occur in a vacuum; rather they will occur in a world in which progress in a number of technologies is accelerating, so the usual methodology of isolating one trend for analysis is likely to mislead. Drexler spotlights a particularly important synergy between the ability to place atoms where you want them and the ability to know what arrangements of atoms will be useful, leading him to consider progress in artificial intelligence. Drexler's interest here is in "Engines of Design"—machine intelligence to automate scientific inquiry and engineering design. The possibility and implications of machines achieving awareness or consciousness are left as open questions.

The combination of atomically precise manufacturing and automated engineering design will enable a number of applications that sounded fantastic in 1986, and still do. These technologies will first of all enable inexpensive access to space, leading to abundant low cost resources, and a vast expansion of habitats for humanity. They will revolutionize medicine, banishing disease and rendering aging an option that can be either chosen or postponed indefinitely. The prospect of future medicine providing cures for those terminally ill today provides a rationale for cryopreservation of those dying today.

Evaluating claims, meeting challenges

Because the fruits of high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing combined with automated scientific inquiry and automated engineering design enabled by artificial general intelligence seem so miraculous, Drexler emphasized "mental immune systems". These are needed to distinguish what sounds like science fiction but is in fact a credible extrapolation to be taken seriously, from what is in fact fantasy and nonsense.

Technologies can only be improved up to the limits established by the laws of physics. Our scientific understanding of atoms and molecules, planets, and stars is largely complete, so it seems unlikely that our understanding of the laws relevant to atoms and materials will change much. Whatever the true laws are, they impose limits to the properties of materials and the machines that can be built from them. Some popular proposals are bogus because they ignore the real limits imposed by the laws of nature. Other claims that proposed technologies would be impossible are bogus because some wish to avoid dealing with the challenges accelerating technologies will force upon us.

Although emerging technologies can bring seeming miracles, they could also lead to serious or even fatal consequences through accidents brought about by reckless development, through malicious abuse, through conflict resulting from aggressive competition leading to an arms race, or in general through economic or political disruption. They could also be powerful instruments of oppression in the hands of oppressive governments.

Drexler therefore describes strategies to avoid the threats progress could bring. These strategies include sealed labs for possibly dangerous experiments, and assemblers or nanofactories limited to making approved products. Transparent and open development of the core technology by a large consortium could decrease suspicion that the technology is being prepared for use in military aggression. Fact forums that use due process and impartial but knowledgeable juries could establish the scientific facts upon which rational policy should be based. A network of knowledge (hypertext publishing system) would make it easier to determine which arguments have been decisively refuted, which have been buttressed by additional evidence, and which have gained credibility through the absence of effective criticism.

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