The Basics: Part One
Getting Their Attention

OK. Now, we've established the grounds for further understanding nanotechnology. First, this technology is only a part of a general convergence of diverse scientific disciplines that will most likely arise prior to the year 2050 in what I have called "The Singularity." I have borrowed that term from others who have used it in the past to specifically describe the future effect of mature artificially intelligent computers on the global economy. I feel that adopting this term neither diminishes the opinions of the individuals who hold this view nor does it unjustly apply the nature of the word "Singularity" in a spirit that was not originally intended. I merely expand the horizons the term attempts to signify.

Second, nanotechnology will develop within a framework of what I call "human dynamics." That is, diverse persons and institutions will assimilate it (or reject it) in diverse ways. What is unique about this particular technology (and about most components of the Singularity as a whole) is that it will challenge the existing social fabric at its most fundamental level. It will challenge human mystery as a resource for a sense of wonder in our lives. This will have profound implications that can best be worked out in an open discourse within the framework of human dynamics.

So, that's the environment within which nanotechnology finds itself developing. Unique as a technology, yet inevitably packaged with a plethora of other unrelated technologies in the minds of human beings as the pace of change accelerates thereby blurring meaningful distinctions as it simultaneously generates unprecedented potential for those of us who welcome its possibilities.

Enough of that stuff. The stage is set. Now, what the hell is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology in its simplest form is the molecular engineering of individual atoms. In its maturing form it is the molecular engineering of machines composed of atoms that perform specific tasks. In its advanced form it is the molecular engineering of atomic machines that can do two fundamental things: replicate and assemble. By replicating, they simply make more of themselves. By assembling, they build something (anything!!) from the atoms on up.

Huh? (Remember the "anything" part.)

The best introduction to the subject is a book written in 1986 entitled "The Engines of Creation" by K. Eric Drexler. We'll come to know a great deal more about Dr. Drexler as we proceed. The neat thing about his book is that it's FREE! You can read/printout the whole thing from here.

But, you might not be into reading a 200+ page book about something that hasn't been defined very well yet. And, even if you dig the definition, what's the big deal about such a tiny thing anyway?

Fair enough.

Al Gore is a big fan of nanotechnology. Don't hold that against the technology if you don't happen to agree with Gore's politics. It's just a good starting point to better define the subject here.

In the summer of 1992, when VP Gore was still Senator Gore, he served on a little known government subcommittee officially dubbed "The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space." One Dr. K. Eric Drexler was summoned before this subcommittee without fanfare or any sort of news media coverage. Drexler, while a rather handsome chap by scientific standards and possessing a healthy sense of humor, speaks in a somewhat monotonous tone. After his opening remarks, Senator Gore took the mike.

SENATOR GORE: When you use the word "nanotechnology," just so I'm clear in my own mind about this, the first part of the word, "nano-," is really a measurement word that connotes something that's "real small," right?


SENATOR GORE: All right. Now there seem to me to be three different ways in which the word has been used. "Nanotechnology" has sometimes been used to describe very small etching operations, of the kind you see in the smallest computer chips. Correct?


SENATOR GORE: And that's not really what you're talking about. There'd be some overlap in the boundaries, but that's not really what you're talking about. Secondly, there has been an interesting discussion of what might be called nanomachines. And sometimes the word "nanotechnology" has been used to describe that whole effort. Correct?


SENATOR GORE: And that's not really what you're talking about either, though again there's some overlap at the boundary. What you're talking about when you use the phrase "molecular nanotechnology" is really a brand-new approach to fabrication, to manufacturing.…The way we make things now, we take some substance in bulk and then whittle down the bulk to the size of the component we need, and then put different components together, and make something. What you're describing with the phrase "molecular nanotechnology" is a completely different approach which rests on the principle that your first building block is the molecule itself. And you're saying that we have all the basic research breakthroughs that we need to build things one molecule at a time --- all we need is the applications of the research necessary to really do it. And you're saying that the advantages of taking a molecular approach are really quite startling.

Again, Drexler agreed with Gore. What's "really quite startling" about nanotechnology as Drexler uses the term is that, according to Drexler, human beings will have "effectively complete control of the structure of matter."

As Ed Regis points out in his book Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology: “…if Drexler’s assemblers could arrange molecules in the right ways, then they could build you practically anything --- they could synthesize just about any product, automatically. Every imaginable miracle device would be within grasp: self-cleaning carpets, for example --- ‘active rugs’ whose fibers rippled like cilia, moving dust and dirt off and away; or the gasoline tree, a genetically altered plant that dispense gasoline instead of tree sap; or the super-duper home shopping network, in which the blueprints for any desired product were sent by optical fiber to your own personal all-purpose household constructor, whose assemblers then manufactured that object at home, for free. Or if not exactly free, then for a cost that was trifling.”

The key for making the assemblers efficient would be the replication capability of the nanomachines. The appropriate machines would copy themselves for the appropriate tasks. At an atomic level, dozens then hundreds, then thousands, then millions and billions of machines would grow --- like a virus. Each would, in turn, perform specific molecular assembly tasks. You could build a house or a glass of purified drinking water. So, Gore’s use of the term “startling” is actually an understatement. An odd quality in a politician.

SENATOR GORE: How far off is this stuff, Dr. Drexler? Suppose molecular nanotechnology got the kind of federal and private support that biotechnology got over the last ten years. What kind of advances would you expect to see by 2010, for example?

DR. DREXLER: That kind of question is one of the hardest to answer in this area. I know how to do calculations of the behavior of molecular machinery; I don’t know how to do calculations of the rate of progress of a research program where there’s a whole series of challenges to be surmounted. I commonly answer that fifteen years would not be surprising for major, large-scale applications.

A “startling” new technology only 15 years away and not a single word about it in the news media!

Science fiction? Well, that depends on a couple of things. Your understanding of how far this science has progressed and where you get your sense of wonder. The fact is that a few months after this testimony Drexler had a private meeting with Admiral David E. Jeremiah, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss the possible weapons applications of nanotechnology. The military had a definite interest in what Drexler had to say. Also, according to a member of the government’s Office of Science and Technology Policy: “We take it very, very seriously.” Today governments and private organizations are pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into nanotech projects. What have they accomplished so far?

Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
Version 1.0

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