From Nanotech to Zettatech

In a paper for the Royal Society's Working Group on Nanotechnology, Eric Drexler discusses the confusion surrounding the word 'nanotechnology' and suggests a clarifying addition to terminology in the field.

Eric Drexler writes:

From Nanotech to Zettatech

Dr. K. Eric Drexler
Chairman, Foresight Institute

Excerpted from a background paper provided to the Royal Society's Working Group on nanotechnology in preparation for an oral evidence session, 29 October 2003.

What is meant by "nanotechnology"?

Confusion around divergent uses of this term have spawned much of the confusion around the subject. The term was used by an author in Japan in the early 1970s to describe, among other things, precision glass polishing. It came into wide use and gained an aura of excitement after 1986, when I used it to label the Feynman vision of nanomachines building products with atomic precision. Over the next decade and a half, it has increasingly been used to re-label a diverse and often little-related collection of research efforts involving small parts or particles, embracing microlithography, fine particles, chemistry, thin fibers, and so forth.

It was the Feynman vision and its consequences that gave "nanotechnology" its reputation as a revolutionary technology with enormous promise and dangers, but it is current research that gives a different sort of "nanotechnology" a reputation as something happening right now. Confusion between these meanings — and the natural urge of numerous researchers to dissociate their current work from promises and dangers that they neither understand nor plan to deliver — has generated much heat. Since some current research is, in fact (largely unintentionally) developing the capabilities needed for implementing the Feynman vision, the two meanings of "nanotechnology" do have some relationship. Further, although the research community has settled on the inclusive, current-technology meaning for the term, the chief fears and concerns articulated by the public stem from the previously established meaning of "nanotechnology" as a label for molecular manufacturing and its products.

Moving from history and analysis to prescription, how should "nanotechnology" be used? The natural course would be to follow general usage, which applies the term to any technology with significant nanoscale features. This has the advantage that recent computer chips, for example, are now "nanotechnology", making broad, simplistic fears absurd.

This leaves the problem of how to describe and distinguish the Feynman vision from this diffuse field. I have since the early 1990s used the term "molecular manufacturing" to describe the core enabling technology of the Feynman vision (large-scale mechanosynthesis based on positional control of chemically reactive molecules). Since the emphasis is on large-scale atomic precision, it is natural to seek a name that refers not to the nanometer scale of the parts, but to the number of distinct, designed parts in a macroscopic product, typically on the rough order of a sextillion (1021). Since the prefix "zetta-" denotes this number, the term "zettatechnology" naturally describes molecular manufacturing and its products (for comparison, the total world output of transistors has not yet reached one sextillion). One can thus speak of advanced nanotechnologies as eventually enabling zettatechnology, through further development of basic techniques followed by a major systems engineering effort. This clearly separates the concepts by providing distinct, contrasting labels.

Regardless of the choice of terms, it is crucial to recognize the confusion described above, including its effects on both press accounts and the response of lab scientists to the longer-term vision. Allaying false fears (and false denials of fears) begins with drawing the correct distinctions.

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