18 seems to be the magic number in
today’s manufacturing process. Intel and AMD both boast their
upgraded production, and note that it will lead to ever increasing
speeds and capabilities. Quietly, however, there is a growing
consensus among the scientific community that silicon based-chips are
on their way out. Tiny, molecular computers are becoming more and
more feasible, and may do to silicon what transistors did to vacuum
Across the world, universities and
government institutions are making advances in nano-technology that
could shatter today’s concept of electronics. As far as speed and
memory are concerned, the results may be incomprehensible to
consumers and businesses alike.
Consumers are routinely fooled by the
false-security of a megahertz rating. Most buyers think an extra
50Mhz is appealing, despite a $75-$100 increase on the price tag.
True, a 550 Pentium 3 has a 10% speed advantage over a 500 Pentium 3,
but it realistically only performs a 5% increase in most
applications. Consumers need to understand that speed and performance
are mutually exclusive. An extra 100 bucks is hardly worth the
10-12-millisecond improvement when launching Microsoft Word. Still,
an 800 Athlon this Quarter, a 900 next Quarter, seems to signal the
dominance of silicon-based computers for some time. Most
computer-chip manufacturers estimate that they will have plenty of
business until 2014 when they expect to reach their theoretical limit
in silicon-based computers: .10 microns. The translation meaning
processors and other components would be built at 100-billionths of a
meter, or 100 nanometers- 100 nanometers being the distance between
Now, realize that with nanotechnology
we could shrink components down to .001 microns- one nanometer. Chips
would be exponentially faster, more efficient, and powerful than
anything on the drawing board today. While some labs, like the ones
at UCLA, IBM, and HP are well publicized, many are working under
top-secret conditions and have supposedly made several prototypes of
working nanotechnology. One such rumor is of a molecular device
capable of functioning as RAM in a nano-computer.
The impact would be tremendous on the
scientific and commercial communities. A near-term application in 2-5
years might be a DVD-like movie stored in a space half the size of
today’s semiconductor chips.
If nanotechnology were to exist
today, it would make every CEO in the computer chip industry cringe
at the costs they have endured to produce the latest and greatest
chips. Current chips are made in multi-billion dollar fabrication
plants (fabs) that use light waves to etch layers of circuitry onto a
silicon wafer. It is an enormously expensive process, mostly because
of the conditions in which the “clean rooms” must be maintained.
Any dust or particles in the room would contaminate the chips
produced. Nano-produced computer components would not require any
such plant. While the current trend provides that with the advances
in computer technology, the more ‘finicky’ they are to produce.
Molecular computers would have their components produced in vast
numbers without such hindrances. One such idea involves massive
“self-assembling” vats that produce the chips using chemical
reactions at a fraction of current costs.
The idea behind nanotechnology is in
reproducing what nature already does: produce things atom-by-atom,
molecule-by-molecule. Not only would this allow humans to control
properties like color, texture, and density, but also it might be
possible to create things that repair themselves when damage occurs.
Self-Assembly seems to be a key concept in the nanotechnology
movement, which was revolutionized only ten or so years ago.
While the idea is not new, advanced
microscopes and computer software have brought it from theories and
crazy ideas to feasibility. For instance, in 1990 IBM brought
nanotechnology to the headlines when it spelled IBM with 35 atoms of
the element xenon.
Nanotechnology carries with it the
idea of building anything imaginable, from a diamond coat to paint
over your car (to prevent scratches), to diagnosing illnesses from
one droplet of blood.
In 1998, the White House Science and
Technology Council created the Interagency Working Group charged with
developing ideas for future nanotechnology in 10-20 years from now.
They have drawn up ideas about curing cancers and legions on the body
with nanoparticles traveling through the body to fix it from the
inside. Artificial limbs could be made up in batches and its
prospective owner would personalize prosthetic limbs for use. Of
course, memory and storage would be millions, if not billions, of
times faster and larger.
Unfortunately, we are still in the
blueprint and laboratory stage. An Interagency Working Group report
noted that nanotechnology today is where transistors were in the
1950’s. Problems persist, not with the application of such
technology, but with the execution of it.
No one, for instance, has discovered
a way to link all the nano-particles, which process data as 1’s and
0’s together. And it was only recently that UCLA was able to get
the components to repeatedly work. Basically, it could only work with
data once, and could not switch back and forth between the 1’s and
0’s. As with any other technology, the bumps in the road and
problems to come will meet with new questions and innovative
But the most exiting part of the
whole nanocomputer idea is that it will require radically different
architecture that would look alien to any computer engineer working
in today’s laboratories. At the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, they are working on architectures that resemble their
biological counterparts in mammal brains. The idea is to assemble
trillions of circuits and then map out and identify the good and bad
pathways- much like the human brain. A simplified comparison might be
declaring faulty sectors on hard-drives off limits for
reading/writing. Possibly, that could mean every nanocomputer would
be unique and personalized-much like the human brain. The ideas are
innovative and most go out on a tangent from current doctrine. A
program manager at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency
noted, “We don’t want to be standing on the shoulders of
Recently, IBM showed how the
circuitry of atomic scale computing could be achieved. Called a
“quantum image” the technique demonstrates that it could one day
be technologically practical to make a nano-circuit. Heat would be
virtually eliminated and batteries that never die out might power the
computers. The IBM researchers found that they could project the
image of one cobalt atom (about 20 nanometers) onto a second point
within the same area. This experiment proves that it is possible to
read and write 1’s and 0’s without the benefit of wiring. The
research is the benefactor of the increasing wealth of IBM and thus
its augmented Research and Development budget.
All this comes as the Clinton
Administration, along with bipartisan support in Congress, proposes
an increase from $260 million to $487 million dollars in
nanotechnology research. The increase will mostly benefit University
research and joint ventures like the UCLA-Hewlett Packard alliance.
Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, the Department
of Defense, the Energy Department, NASA, the National Institute of
Health and the Commerce Department will all have earmarked funding
for nanotechnology development.
Will the new millennium herald us
into a new era of computing and personal electronics? Yes. Will we
see nanotechnology tomorrow? No. In 10-20 years, however,
supercomputers might be the size of calculators and consumer
computers may fit on your watch. No one can predict the new abilities
we will have or the upcoming products that will fill our closets
after we don’t want to use them anymore. In the end, the only real
question that remains is: What kind of games will run on these bad
What objects we commonly know should
disappear because of nanotechnology?
People living before and through the
transition – at first and because of prejudice for things we know
and because people have not imagined the variety and super rich realm
of new possibilities — the objects failure to everyday life will be
sought by the public and reproduced by assembler technology. People
will still want cotton beach towels, although the cotton farmer will
no longer be needed when fibers can be manufactured atom by atom from
carbon in the air or from limestone. Lots of familiar items will
appear “traditional” on the outside, yet posses a multitude of
new tricks and functionality made possible with MNT — cars with
Utility Fog crash protection for instance. Of course, MNT Smart
Materials can look like anything, yet perform “magic”.
Now, the next generation and
generations to follow, born into the age of nanotechnology will a
“clean slate” without concrete historical prejudices, will design
objects and lifestyles that take advantage of the new wealth of
possibilities and I should expect design objects and “environments”
that would appear bizarrely alien, extraordinarily novel to even the
most advanced nano tinker today. The general concept is familiar in
science fiction, only now we have a clear engineering path to make
real, the stunning constructs of uninhibited imaginations and those
yet to be born.
The wild card to consider and the
reason that frankly, it is ludicrous to project past a few decades —
or more than say, one generation or so, is the effect nanotechnology
will have on intelligence enhancement efforts. Once these efforts are
even mildly successful, the the “experimenters” will spend much
of their time amplifying intelligence enhancement efforts and the
valve controlling what is imaginable and what can be engineered opens
at a geometric rate. By definition, what can and will be is
unimaginable now, and I’m not even addressing the issue of machine
intelligence in the equation. The curve approaches vertical.
What new objects should appear
because of nanotechnology?
Perhaps the big story — with mature
nanotechnology, any object can morph into any other imaginable
object… truly a concept requiring personal exposure to fully
understand the significance and possibilities, but to get a grip on
the idea, consider this:
The age of digital matter —
multi-purpose, programmable machines, change the software, and
something completely different happens.
A simple can opener or a complex
asphalt paver are both, single purpose machines. Ask them to clean
your floor or build a radio tower and they “stare” back blankly.
A computer is different, it is a multi purpose machine — one
machine that can do unlimited tasks by changing software… but only
in the world of bits and information.
I’m involved with a company
developing Fractal Shape Shifting Robots. Fractal Robots are
programmable machines that can do unlimited tasks in the physical
world, the world of matter. Load the right software and the same
“machines” can take out the garbage, paint your car, or construct
an office building and later, wash that building’s windows. In
large groups, these devices exhibit what may be termed as macro (hold
in your hand) sized “nanobots “, possessing AND performing many
of the desirable features of mature nanomachines (as described in
Drexler’s, Engines of Creation, Unbounding the Future, Nanosystems,
etc.). This is the beginning of “Digital Matter”.
These Robots look like “Rubic’s
Cubes” that can “slide” over each other on command, changing
and moving in any overall shape desired for a particular task. These
cubes communicate with each other and share power through simple
internal induction coils, have batteries, a small computer and
various kinds of internal magnetic and electric inductive motors
(depending on size) used to move over other cubes (details here).
When sufficiently miniaturized (below 0.1mm) and fabricated using
photolithography methods, cubes can also be programmed to assemble
other cubes of smaller or larger size. This “self-assembly” is an
important feature that will drop cost dramatically.
The point is — if you have enough
of the cubes of small enough dimension, they can slide over each
other, or “morph” into any object with just about any function,
one can imagine and program for such behavior. Cubes of sufficiently
miniaturized size could be programed to behave like the “T-2″
Terminator Robot in the Arnold Schwartznegger movie, or a lawn chair…
Just about any animate or inanimate object.
Fractal Shape Shifting Robots have
been in prototype for the last two years and I rather expect this
form of “digital matter” to hit the commercial seen very soon. In
the near future, if you gaze out your window and see something
vaguely resembling an amoeba constructing an office building, you’ll
know what “IT” is.
This is not to say individual purpose
objects will not be desirable… Back to cotton — although Cubes
could mimic the exact appearance of a fuzzy down comforter (a
blanket), if made out of cubes, it would be heavy and not have the
same thermal properties. Although through a heroic engineering
effort, such a “blanket” could be made to insulate and pipe
gasses like a comforter and even “levitate” slightly to mimic the
weight and mass, why bother when the real thing can be manufactured
atom by atom, on site, at about a meter a second (depending on
Also, “single purpose” components
of larger machines will be built to take advantage of fantastic
structural properties of diamondoid-Buckytube composites for such
things as thin, super strong aircraft parts. Today, using the
theoretical properties of such materials, we can design an efficient,
quiet, super safe personal vertical takeoff airocar. This vehicle of
science fiction is probably science future.
Which industries should disappear
because of nano-technology?
Everything — but software,
everything will run on software, and general engineering, as it
relates to this new power over matter… and the entertainment
industry. Unfortunately, there will still be insurance salesmen and
lawyers, although not in my solar orbiting city state. If as Drexler
suggest, we can pave streets with self assembling solar cells, I
would tend to avoid energy stocks. Mature nanites could mine any
material from the earth, landfills or asteroids at very low cost and
in great abundance. The mineral business is about to change.
Traditional manufacturing will not be able to compete with assembler
technology and what happens to all those jobs and the financial
markets is a big, big issue that needs to be addressed now. I intend
to start or expand organizations addressing these issues and cover
progress in the pages of NanoTechnology Magazine.
We will have a lot of obsolete mental
baggage and programming to throw out of our heads… Traditional
pursuits of money will need to be reevaluated when a personal
assembler can manufacture a fleet of Porche, that run circles around
todays models. As Drexler so intuitively points out, the best thing
to do, is to get the whole world’s society educated and
understanding what will and can happen with this technology. This
will help people make the transition and keep mental, and financial
meltdowns to a minimum.
How does the technology evolution of
the last thirty years shape the future of your field?
Never before has 30 years been such a
long, long time, technologically. I am speaking of course, of the
ever increasing curve of advancement in all fields of tech and
Imagine a world without cell phones,
wireless phones, beepers, fax and answering machines, video tape
players, cam corders, cable TV, CD audio, Sony Walkmans, Microwave
ovens, Intendo, personal computers and the World Wide Web. Back then,
few people had the luxury of a remote control for their tube! I tell
ya… it was a dismal dark age of hand operated analog devices. We
should fall to the ground in pity for our parents and grandparents
and ourselves for the drudgery of just surviving grocery checkouts
with no laser readers.
Out side of these extraordinary
advances in computer tech, the rise of biotech and genetics has
conspired to make people think small. That’s where the power is.
Did you see that IBM logo spell out with 35 individual atoms back in
the late ‘80? That was done with a new microscope that can not only
image individual atoms, but move them around as well. This one act
proved definitively that atoms can be manipulated with precision by
Yes, technology is moving fast!
However, something bizarre is on the horizon… and I mean truly
bizarre. “Something wonderful.” (Clark)
If you found a genie in a bottle
offering the proverbial three wishes, what would you wish for? What?
Material wealth? End world hunger? A space condo orbiting the rings
of Saturn? Intelligence enhancement? How about the truly grand prize,
the ancient dream of (most) all humanity… youth and open ended life
If I found a green gen, I would
state… only one wish. Something called nanotechnology. Let me
Computers reproduce information at
almost no cost. A push is well underway to invent devices that
manufacture at almost no cost, by treating atoms like computers treat
bits of information. This would allow automatic construction of
consumer goods with out traditional labor, like a Xerox machine
produces unlimited copies without a secretary retyping the original
Electronics is fueled by
miniaturization. Working smaller has led to the tools capable of
manipulating individual atoms like the proteins in a potato
manipulate the atoms of soil and water to make copies of itself
(Drexler, Merkle paraphrased). The secret to self replication,
biological or synthetic, is prefabricated building blocks. Biology
uses atoms. Atoms are as new and squeaky clean as the instant they
condensed out of pure energy of the Big Bang, come in 92 flavors
(elements), each atom is identical (electronically) to any other atom
in a flavor and have the remarkable attribute of sticking to each
other like Lego Blocks. They are prefabricated building blocks.
Biology uses atoms and soon, so shall we.
This is the shot gun marriage of
chemistry and engineering called molecular nanotechnology (MNT). If
we can place atoms on a structure under construction individually,
this opens up a realm of super large molecules not found in nature,
designed by engineers (adhering to the normal laws of chemistry).
Structures, big structures, or microscopic structures and machines
could be made of materials with unusual physical properties like
carbon in its ultra-strong form, diamond. Ideally, programed
“nanites”, machines with atomic sized components could take any
source of required atoms and energy, make copies of themselves, then
“grow” things without traditional manufacturing techniques and
without byproducts. No waste and no side reactions means this tech
would be super green. Nanites could be programed and unleashed to
clean up existing industrial pollution (and will within two decades).
Nanotech’s goal is a device called
a “Universal Assembler” that takes raw atoms in one side and
delivers consumer goods out the other. It could also make a copy of
itself you could give to a friend. What happens to the economy if
demand for just about everything is foiled by a household appliance…
is a good question.
Scientists are on the verge of
manipulating atoms and molecules with the same precision as life.
Research in molecular biology, chemistry, and scanning probe
microscopy (scopes that can see and move atoms) are laying the
foundations for a technology of self-replicating molecular machines
by developing positional controlled chemical synthesis. By building
objects on such a fine scale, we could make extraordinary things from
ordinary matter. If the fields of molecular biology (which some call
wet nano), chemistry and solid state physics were all to shut down
today and make no more advances, chip manufactures in their quest for
evermore speed would develop MNT single handed. They have the
Society is in for a spin as we head
for a novel form of economics in an age of self replicating
machinery, where the design of an object cost about the same as today
yet production cost is nearly zilch. All first wave manufacturing
will be obsolete. No cobblers, just shoe designers, no autoworkers,
just car designers, no feed lots, just chefs. Ask yourself, what will
be of value? What is money in a nano age? How will politics and war
change when we don’t have traditional resources to fight over?
As an example of this new economic
era, here is a response to an inquire from a gentleman with the
Natural Resources Canada / Resources naturelles Canada:
Subject: hydrocarbon reservoir
characterization “I am curious if anybody knows of companies or
research organizations that work in the field of hydrocarbon
reservoir characterization using nanotechnology?”
Allow me to provide a perspective I
think you’ll find very relevant to your industry. I have good news
and bad… Perhaps the good news (although disruptive) is so good,
you won’t mind the bad.
Nanotechnology, building things atom
by atom, is not yet available. This is the level of technology you
seek. However, the first “nanotech company” formed to develop
this ability is up and running (Zyvex, see: http://www.zyvex.com/).
With reasonably mature Drexlerian
nanotechnology (see “what is nanotechnology”, www.nanozine.com)
not only could you flood large numbers of nano-robots into a
reservoir in order to collect information that characterizes the
reservoir conditions, but also program nanites to build capillary
collection systems out of the carbon in the oil (diamond), capable of
extracting extremely high percentages of a reserve (probably 95-98%).
Such nanites could easily be programed and engineered by modifying
medical nanites in design right now by Robert A. Freitas Jr.
(email@example.com). Also, with the “novel economics” of self
replicating machinery that “Drextech” represents, 10^15 oil field
nanites would cost only slightly more than developing and building
Now the bad news. Nobody will
(probably) ever build them, because the same effort could be used to
engineer nanites that deposit molecularly thin solar cells on road
and highway surfaces (then add a layer of tough diamond). Canadian
roads could supply the world’s energy needs several times over.
Nanotechnology is a truly
revolutionary. Yes, this does mean the obsolescence of oil as an
energy source. Carbon sources, (most important nano building blocks)
are numerous…. the atmosphere and limestone deposits for instance.
The oil business is not alone in the
disruptive transition to this most powerful technology. Virtually all
manufacturing processes will be obsolete, as will mining and logging.
Nanotechnology will allow the syntheses of wood on a molecular level…
including smell, with process that exclude our contemporary concept
of labor (just extrudes out of the box, pre-sized). The same
synthesized wood could be laced with carbon nanotubes (Buckytubes,
Fullerenes). Such a “composite” would exhibit structural
properties exceeding steel. Diamond will become as common as lumps of
coal. Gold could actually be mined from seawater.
As extraordinary as this sounds, a
little research on the web (you may have already) will tell the same
story. While you’re researching, you’ll no doubt also discover
the extremely positive benefits of nanotechnology. We are on the
threshold of material opulence and greatly enhanced physical health.
You will find these and other subjects of significance on the
Magazine’s webpage such as, “What will be monetarily viable
industries in the nano-era?” and the all important question,
“What’s the time frame?”
Best in the future (it’s going to
be a very different place), Bill.
Stop. Who thought all this up? Where
did this outrage originate? Dr. K. Eric Drexler is the father of
nanotechnology, seeing the pattern of the posable in his studies of
biology, computer science, etc. while still a student at MIT in the
late seventies. He realized what a different word we could have, if
we could build with individual atoms like nature. Drexler (and Dr.
Chris Peterson) fought one heck of an uphill battle throughout the
’80s and ’90s for acceptance of these radical ideas by the
scientific community. Now, things have changed. History will read,
Newton, Einstein, Drexler.
Yes, we are on the threshold of
material opulence and greatly enhanced physical health. However, in a
bed of roses, one still must avoid the thorns. Like all technology,
nano can be used for good or not so good (serious understatement) and
could cause considerable panic to the under informed during the
transition. As post-nano international relations thinker Tom McCarthy
points out, if China’s perception of its ancient rival India’s
advanced software and technology lead… might produce nanotechnology
first, this could prompt China to nuke Indian research centers before
India could strike with nanoweapons. Now conceder this; unlike
nuclear, nano is a desktop industry… and one sufficiently advanced
disgruntled hack working in a garage could program a self replicating
nanite to kill all bovine on the planet, or all people with brown
eyes, or indeed, all DNA based life…
But wait, check this small example of
the wonders possible building things with atomic precision.
Building on the atomic scale,
mechanical computers with the power of a mainframe could be
manufactured so small, that several hundred would fit inside the
space of a biological cell.
If you combined microscopic motors,
gears, levers, bearing, plates, sensors, power and communication
cables etc., with powerful microscopic computers, you have the
makings of a new class of materials. Smart materials.
Programmable smart materials could
shape-shift into just about any desired object. A house made of smart
materials would be quite useful and interesting. Imagine a wall
changing color at your command, or commanding the appearance of a
window where there was none, drapes of any style listed in the smart
materials software or from some source on the Internet. This is all
purely mechanical and can be done today, although with much larger
parts, resulting in a coarser effect (and at great expense!).
A fabulous type of smart material was
invented by Rutgers University’s Dr. J. Storrs Hall, computer
scientist, moderator of the sci.nanotech news group and seriously
creative nanothinker. He calls his brainchild, Utility Fog.
This “intelligent” polymorphic
(shape changing) substance consists of a mass of tiny identical
nanoengineered robots. Each utility foglet robot is mostly
telescoping arms 5 to 10 millionths of a meter long with a central
globular body 1 or 2 millionths wide housing motors, a battery and
one of those powerful nanocomputers. Dr. Hall designed the ‘bot
with 12 arms that can be waved back and forth and grip the ends of
other robot arms, making power and communication connections. 12
arms, so some could be free briefly when changing neighbors and still
be connected to the mass. Also, such an octet truss structure
(invented by Buckminster Fuller) remains rigid even if all the arms
are connected to the bodies by simple hinges This avoids a more
complicated attachment assembly.
Each robot body is small compared to
its arm spread, and the arms are relatively thin. This results in the
foglet taking up only 2 or 3 % of the space in a volume they fill,
the balance is left for air and passing light. A room filled with
Utility Fog would be fairly transparent, larger volumes would become
cloudy at a distance.
Much larger foglets can be built with
today’s technology however, the expense of producing enough to do
anything useful would be most prohibitive. Filling an average house
with the microscopic variety would require trillions of foglets, so
the whole concept depends on the economics of automatic nano-assembly
to be remotely affordable.
Now for the fun part. With all this
computing power, these puppies can be programmed with a wide spectrum
of behaviors that mimic materials of different mass, motion,
appearances and functions. Each Foglet can sense the force along each
and every arm, and react according to the magnitude and relation of
In the words of Dr. Hall in a recent
article in NanoTechnology Magazine, “If the program says, extend
when the force is trying to stretch, retract when it is trying to
compress, you have a soft material. If it says, resist any change up
to a certain force, then let go, you have a hard but brittle
material. If the programming says, maintain a constant total among
the extension of all arms, but otherwise do whatever the forces would
indicate; and when a particular arm gets to the end of its envelope,
let go, and look for another arm coming into reach to grab; you have
a liquid. If you allow the sum of the arm extensions to vary with the
sum of the forces on the arms, you have something that approximates a
gas within a certain pressure range. Note that because the Foglets
can use their own power to move or resist moving, the apparent
density and viscosity of the fluid can be anything from molasses to
Further Dr. Hall states, “Run a
distributed program that at a specified time, changes a certain
volume from running water to running wood. A solid object would seem
to appear in the midst of fluid. It can just as easily disappear. Now
fill your entire house with the stuff, running air in background
mode. Have an operating system that has a library of programs for
simulating any object you may care to; by giving the proper command
you can cause any object to appear anywhere at any time. You could
carry a remote control, which might happen to be shaped like a wand
with a star on the end…
More ambitiously, since you’re
embedded in the Fog, it can sense every detail of your bodily
position. It forms a “whole-body dataglove”, and you can control
it with extremely subtle gestures. At the ultimate extreme, the
Foglets can carry various special sensors ranging from simple
electrodes with voltmeters to SQIDs and form an extremely high
bandwidth polygraph. With proper programming the Fog would almost be
able to read your mind. This combination of extreme reactivity to
control and virtually limitless creative and operational ability
suggest a comparison with the Krell machine in “Forbidden Planet”.
Hall offers the average person with a
bucket of Utility Fog a great stage career in Vegas with these
observations. “Thus, here’s a short list of the powers you’d
have or appear to have if embedded in Fog:
Creation: causing objects to appear
and disappear on command. Levitation: causing objects to hover and
fly around. Manipulation: causing forces (squeezing, hitting,
pulling) on objects (real ones) at a distance. This includes a
distance of inches; bend steel bars (real ones) like Superman.
Teleportation: nearly any combination of telepresence and virtual
reality between Fog-filled locations. Shape-shifting: Want to be a
mouse? the Fog around you simulates very large feet, baseboards,
etc., while your telepresence drives a mouse-sized fog program. Want
to be the Statue of Liberty … ?”