The nanotechnology we were promised

The nanotechnology we were promised

A response to my “Parricide” essay has been seen on IEEE’s Tech Talk blog. Dexter Johnson gives a fair summary of the positions taken to date, and says

As the argument seems to go, Drexler popularized the term nanotechnology in his book Engines of Creation, and so when the general public heard that thousands of scientists were working on “nanotechnology” of course they thought that table-top factories and nanobots were just around the corner. This is why nanotechnology has failed in its promise.

If I follow that logic, all would be well with the world if material scientists described their work at engineering and manipulating materials on the nanoscale to bring about novel properties as anything but “nanotechnology”.

Well, almost. We’re still concerned about the situation in Darfur. But it would have prevented some confusion. (Although why anyone would think that “X-technology” wouldn’t mean “building working machines in the regime X,” as does microtechnology, is beyond me.) But then Johnson, perhaps unintentionally, completely underscores my point:

And no doubt if this had held true, all the funding that now gets funneled into national nanotechnology initiatives around the world would either not exist at all or be aimed at quite different purposes.

Why would this valuable research not have gotten funded if it had happened to have a different name? Are the funding agencies driven by nothing but buzzwords? If so, the point is made; if not, why use a term that was bound to cause confusion and raise false hopes?

Let me go on record here as saying in the strongest of terms that basic science of the sort that the NNI supports should be funded and not one cent spent on it has been wasted in any reasonable sense. A billion dollars a year sounds like a lot of money but recently we’ve been spending more than that per day to prop up failed investment houses. Materials science, surface physics, macromolecular chemistry, and so forth should have been funded and they were. Nanotechnology should also have been funded and it was not. One tenth of one percent of the NNI budget would have funded an extremely valuable in-depth feasibility study of molecular manufacturing, for example. The possibility wasn’t ignored — it was actively excluded. (And again let me add that the situation is changing and it’s no longer politically incorrect to be working toward nanoscale machines or mechanosynthesis.)

One result of these different purposes might have been that today we would have much better computer-generated animation of how a table-top factory might work someday.

Well, yes — as part of that feasibility study, for example. And that might include better dry molecular dynamics force fields, more well-studied deposition reactions, better multimode multiscale simulation engines and CAD systems, and some more major insights into the math of scaling in manufacturing systems such as were discovered in the process of developing this one animation.

But let’s take Johnson at his word and assume that a billion a year had been spent on real nanotechnology from, say, 1989, the year of the first Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology. For the sake of as much concreteness as any such what if scenario can have, let’s suppose I had been running it personally. What might be different?

In 1960, after Feynman’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom talk, he gave a $1000 prize to William McClellan for constructing an electric motor that fit in a 1/64-inch cube. Feynman had envisioned a way to nanotechnology:

You know, in the atomic energy plants they have materials and machines that they can’t handle directly because they have become radioactive. To unscrew nuts and put on bolts and so on, they have a set of master and slave hands, so that by operating a set of levers here, you control the “hands” there, and can turn them this way and that so you can handle things quite nicely.

Most of these devices are actually made rather simply, in that there is a particular cable, like a marionette string, that goes directly from the controls to the “hands.” But, of course, things also have been made using servo motors, so that the connection between the one thing and the other is electrical rather than mechanical. When you turn the levers, they turn a servo motor, and it changes the electrical currents in the wires, which repositions a motor at the other end.

Now, I want to build much the same device—a master-slave system which operates electrically. But I want the slaves to be made especially carefully by modern large-scale machinists so that they are one-fourth the scale of the “hands” that you ordinarily maneuver. So you have a scheme by which you can do things at one- quarter scale anyway—the little servo motors with little hands play with little nuts and bolts; they drill little holes; they are four times smaller. Aha! So I manufacture a quarter-size lathe; I manufacture quarter-size tools; and I make, at the one-quarter scale, still another set of hands again relatively one-quarter size! This is one-sixteenth size, from my point of view. And after I finish doing this I wire directly from my large-scale system, through transformers perhaps, to the one-sixteenth-size servo motors. Thus I can now manipulate the one-sixteenth size hands.

Well, you get the principle from there on. It is rather a difficult program, but it is a possibility. You might say that one can go much farther in one step than from one to four. Of course, this has all to be designed very carefully and it is not necessary simply to make it like hands. If you thought of it very carefully, you could probably arrive at a much better system for doing such things.

In other words, along Feynman’s pathway to nanotechnology, manipulating things at the atomic scale is the last thing you do. I find much to like in Feynman’s scheme. If your goal is a widely-capable industrial base of productive machinery at scale B, and you already have a widely-capable industrial base of productive machinery at scale A, it doesn’t really make much sense to throw away the capabilities of your existing technology and poke around at scale B, at the very limited limits of your capabilities, just because you can.

One of the reasons for the disconnect between the current-day nanoscientists’ announcements and real-world products, as pointed out by Richard Jones in the original blog post, is that the scientists do in fact discover and build experimentally a wide variety of devices, from switching elements to actuators. But unlike at the macroscale, where if you have a new actuator you can turn right around and use it in a machine, the nanoscale stuff exists in isolation because there is no prosaic background of everyday manipulation and fabrication technology to make the new devices in quantity and assemble them into working systems.

Besides, even if you do have working nanomachines, to make systems that do real-world tasks you tend to need machinery at every intermediate scale anyway, as illustrated in this early concept for the nanofactory:

Early nanofactory concept

So instead of starting at the bottom, start where we actually have widely-capable productive machinery, and scale our way down. McClellan’s motor had a radius of 195 microns. By odd coincidence, Drexler specifies a motor in Nanosystems with a radius of 195 nanometers (p. 339) — a neat factor of 1000. That’s just 5 of those factor-of-4 scaledowns. Over the two decades since 1989, that’s four years to do each scaledown.

Now that would be a tall order for a research team of, say, five people, however skilled, and a small lab, such as would need a million-dollar budget. Feynman said “rather a difficult program,” and he understood that you’d have to invent new techniques, use different physical phenomena, and so forth as you went down. But you’d have 1000 such teams! Who’s prepared to bet that we wouldn’t have at least a 50% chance of nanometer-scale mechanical engineering by now?

And if we didn’t, we’d certainly have a widely-capable industrial base of productive machinery at some intermediate scale. For example, if only 3 stages had been completed, motors would be smaller than a human cell, shafts less than a micron in diameter, and tolerances would be approaching atomic dimensions. But there would be lathes and milling machines and manipulators and robot arms all at that scale.

Such a technology would find a host of uses outside of the lab. But importantly, perhaps, when people asked us where was the nanotech we had promised, we could say, “We’re 60% of the way there.” This would be more than blowing smoke because we’d be proceeding along a pathway with a specific, measurable figure of merit (scale), and we’d require that in order to claim a given scale, someone would have to demonstrate a complete, closed-loop manufacturing base at that scale.

This isn’t by any means the only way to nanotechnology. What it is is a coherent program specifically directed at the goal of producing a widely-capable industrial base of productive machinery at the nanoscale. There are other pathways that make as much sense — including bottom-up approaches such as protein engineering. (On the other hand, it looks like we’re about to start tossing another couple of billion dollars a day at stimulus projects; and the whole state of Michigan seems to be full of laid-off engineers and machinists these days. Why not give it a try? What could it hurt?)

We’re probably not five full generations away from that general technological base. While we didn’t concentrate very well on the real goal for 20 years, we haven’t stood still either. Current macroscopic mechanical actuators have a precision of about half an angstrom. We know a lot of the meso- and nanoscale science (e.g. tribology) that would have had to be learned while building smaller and smaller machines.

So a top-down approach today could start closer to the finish line and be integrated into a lot of other new capabilities. But there has to be some actual plan for getting from A to B, some milestones or figures of merit that measure progress. Whatever the approach, there must be the fundamental understanding that the goal of a nanoscale industrial base is the priority, and that all achievements will be judged on that basis.

The major reason for unfulfilled promises, in my view, is simply that there really hasn’t been a plan at all. If nanotechnology is five generations out along any dimension, what we should be working on is the tools to make the tools to make the tools to make the tools. But that requires a coherent, committed effort with a well-defined long-term goal. And that in turn requires a vision of the goal: a widely-capable industrial base of productive machinery at the nanoscale.

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  1. Anonymous February 16, 2009 at 10:34 am - Reply

    I don’t believe I “unintentionally” underscored your point. Rather I anticipated it.

    I would like to address one of your fundamental assumptions about the public’s understanding of what nanotechnology is that I didn’t discuss in the blog entry. It seems to me that beyond the idea that “Engines of Creation” inspired Star Trek’s Borg characters, you would be hard pressed to argue that the general public’s understanding of what nanotechnology is comes from Drexler’s book since I imagine most don’t even know that it exists, never mind have read it. Do you think this second-hand understanding diminishes the full ownership of the term?

    Another issue that has always troubled me is the idea that is argued here again is that MNT was not ignored, but rather actively excluded, I often wonder why this would be the case, and assumed it was to get funding for material science that wouldn’t otherwise get funding. But, if, as you say, all the material science would have been funded anyway, what is the motivation for this vast conspiracy to rob MNT of its rightful place as the one and only true nanotechnology? I am left without an answer after reading your entry here.

  2. Anonymous February 16, 2009 at 7:34 pm - Reply

    MNT has been excluded. That much is obvious, we can thank the ignorant people who don’t understand the technology who make comments about it being ‘like the rapture’ or ‘like star trek’ etc. The technology is not taken serious because of propaganda and ignorance, plain and simple.
    And there’s really no way to combat this phenomenon, it is pervuasive in society and affects many things (religion, politics, computers, etc.) So basically, I do not have a solution either, but I recognize the phenomenon. Nanorobotics would solve so many human problems, it’s a tragedy and catastrophe that there are not crash programs to make nanorobotics already. When this technology finally comes along (sometime in the next decade, imo), it will be recognized that millions of people died because a few arrogant and ignorant people couldn’t resists sniping at the technology early on, thus insuring it’s delay for years.

    James G.

  3. Anonymous February 17, 2009 at 5:22 am - Reply

    We have become explorers and fallen off many edges of the World’s end. The fact the we are still bound by physical boundaries and mental constraints, spells portent for all our best laid plans. Maybe by shear luck we shall dive into parallel thinking as we trust Thinkers from an ocean away and divide the plunder of a runaway GDP into a new stock market,
    The best presenters of Developmental Convergence claim that we are on the verge of the developmental singularity, a much clearer expression of the Singularity. Maybe nanotechnology doesn’t have to deliver anything other than itself. We stand on the shoulders/graves of giants and think we can pretend about something 5 years away? Obviously,something has to change, and when it does, I don’t pretend to know it any better than I know the fellow next to me.

  4. Anonymous February 17, 2009 at 5:27 am - Reply

    I imagine that I am lumped into your group of “arrogant” and “ignorant” people “sniping” at nanotech. But in my defense I have never likened MNT to the rapture or Star Trek. My reference to Star Trek was merely to point out that the general public’s understanding of nanotech was likely not formed by reading “Engines of Creation” but by the popular TV science fiction series.

    You attribute two factors to MNT not being taken more seriously: Ignorance and Propaganda. Ignorance has no motivation, but propaganda certainly does. Again, I ask ‘What is the motivation for this propaganda?’

    Apologies for not signing my previous entry.

    Dexter Johnson

  5. JamesG February 17, 2009 at 4:58 pm - Reply

    Mr. Johnson, I wasn’t referring to you specificly, so don’t take it personal. The motivation for the propaganda is fear of change, and bully euphoria, the sense of pleasure people get from bullying others, and so on. Primitive human psychological insticts, the obvious stuff. It’s almost paranoia, any researcher who says nanotech is possible, is a quack, anyone who posts on the internet that they believe in it, is a delusional rapturist, and so on. It’s paranoia all the way down, for some of these folks. I’m not sure how to combat it, MNT is almost the ‘George Bush’ of science at this point.

  6. Anonymous February 17, 2009 at 7:49 pm - Reply

    Dexter, there are several answers to your single question:

    Since the funding was obtained politically, it had to meet political standards set by both the public’s understanding of the technology, and the politician’s (and his business advisers, in this case) perception of what that understanding was. Lastly, the politician has to anticipate the public’s reaction to funding this technology, and get the most political benefit out of that reaction as is possible for *both* the business advisers and the politician. There are problems in each of these areas.

    The public’s perception of the technology *was* formed early on by the media interest in “the grey goo hypothesis”. The politicians and their politicized business friends perceived that, and told themselves that *any* funding approach that could even vaguely be made to look like funding “grey goo” was politically deadly, for both the politician and for the businessmen who wanted to profit in about the first 5 years from the tech. Their perceptions of what the public would accept nearly froze solid. Despite the positive work that has come out about medical nanotechnology, for instance, there has continued to be resistance to any public funding that faintly looks like it could bring about anything that could become a “disassembler”.

    So, mistaken early perceptions, and, in my experience, frozen political perceptions were much of the problem. There *is*, however, one point that few nano-optimists like me like looking at. I first found this with spaceflight technology in the 1960s, even at the height of its popularity. When I described what that tech could do for us, many scoffed. When I showed with logic that their reasons for that were unfounded, many could be convinced. However, a *large* fraction could not be convinced. I found that about 20-30 percent of the local population reacted to the real world large scale changes a truly spacefairing society could introduce, with fear. They spouted wilder and wilder reasons the tech could not work, and were shown to be logically mistaken. This did *nothing* to decrease their opposition. Rather, it *increased* it. They were not truly afraid that the technology that could not work. They were terrified that it could!

    They wanted no change in their world. They had spent too many years getting a coherent and working life in the world we had then. They did not want *anything* to upset their applecart! Simply, I have seen this pattern repeat itself with nanotechnology. Such people could ignore the “nerds” building stuff in their garages, who built the microcomputer portion of the industrial revolution, because they were not pushed by the press as real changers, till it was too late to stop their market-based industry from takeoff. They had a precious period of time to work, out of the spotlights.

    This is *not* the case with nanotechnology. From day one it has been held up as transformative. Drexler, and myself, and many others, view this with pleasure. *Many* others view it with terror. This is *not* because they still believe in “gray goo”, but because funding this technology makes their future less predictable, *for*them*. People will continue to oppose nanotechnology unless some event makes people more afraid of a nanotechnology competitor than they are of *us* developing mechanosynthesis nanotechnology, as happened with spaceflight, lifting that technology politically, even as it warped its development away from market-viable technologies.

    The idea that politicians don’t know about such people is not viable. They want political profit, and with any publicly transformative technology, they start off 20-30 percentage points in the hole. Thus, it was easy for businessmen wanting a profit in 5 years to make a case that molecular mechanosynthesis nanotechnology *had* to be treated as fantasy, in order for the entire field to remain a viable recipient of political funding.

    We, on the other hand, should now see that our task is doubled:

    1.) To gain the attention of all that we can of the population to the positive aspects of nanotechnology, so that political profitability for the politicians is assured for funding, without the irreconcilables, and even in spite of them.

    2.) To make private investment funding the dominant source of funding as soon as possible, so that the political profit/loss balance affects the situation as little as possible.


    Tom Billings

  7. Anonymous February 17, 2009 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    The motivation behind the propaganda concept is clear. The men in control are desperate to remain in control. This same circle of men suppress cold fusion, zero point energy, antigravity, and other technologies that you may or may not believe exist. They fear decentralized molecular manufacturing because it will be the death knell of their control. We must also think in a nonlinear pattern. Nano manufacturing means we will be able to make materials that interact with the submicron level, which means the casimir force, the zero point field. This will mean free energy. The two “fields” overlap.

  8. J. Storrs Hall February 18, 2009 at 9:00 am - Reply

    @Dexter: Thanks for your original blog post, btw, I don’t think our opinions on the subject are hugely at odds. The point here (as opposed to last week’s post) wasn’t so much about who owned the word (nobody does) but that the thing to do now is to move toward the goal, by whatever name. A subtext is that the goal is perhaps closer than many think: in the past 20 years we’ve made 10 years’ progress. Focussing now would mean the difference between another 20 and another 10 years.


  9. Anonymous February 18, 2009 at 2:20 pm - Reply

    “in the past 20 years we’ve made 10 years’ progress”
    One of nanotech’s perceived promises is life extension in about 30 years. How much use is this to decision makers aged 60-70?

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