Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Nanotechnology, Past and Future

Following up on my post from a few days ago about the golden jubilee of Richard Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” lecture, I have a short piece in tomorrow’s Wall Street Journal saying a bit more about the lecture’s importance to nanotechnology.

In the piece, I outline the differences between “nanotechnology” as the term is often used nowadays and as it was first used, back when Eric Drexler brought the word to public attention.

These two understandings of nanotechnology are regularly conflated in the press—a fact that vexes mainstream researchers, in part because Mr. Drexler's more ambitious take on nanotech is cherished by several colorful futurist movements (transhumanism, cryonics, and so forth). Worse, for all the fantastical speculation that Drexlerian nanotechnology invites, it has also driven critics, like the late novelist Michael Crichton and the software entrepreneur Bill Joy, to warn of nanotech nightmares.

I end with a modest recommendation:

If this dispute over nano-nomenclature only involved some sniping scientists and a few historians watching over a tiny corner of Feynman's legacy, it would be of little consequence. But hundreds of companies and universities are teeming with nanotech researchers, and the U.S. government has been pouring billions of dollars into its multiagency National Nanotechnology Initiative.

So far, none of that federal R&D funding has gone toward the kind of nanotechnology that Drexler proposed, not even toward the basic exploratory experiments that the National Research Council called for in 2006. If Drexler's revolutionary vision of nanotechnology is feasible, we should pursue it for its potential for good, while mindful of the dangers it may pose to human being and society. And if Drexler's ideas are fundamentally flawed, we should find out—and establish just how much room there is at the bottom after all.

On his own blog, Mr. Drexler today wrote a post about the 2006 National Research Council report I mentioned. Here’s how Drexler summarizes the parts of the NRC report concerning molecular manufacturing:

The committee examined the concept of advanced molecular manufacturing, and found that the analysis of its physical principles is based on accepted scientific knowledge, and that it addresses the major technical questions. However, in the committee’s view, theoretical calculations are insufficient: Only experimental research can reliably answer the critical questions and move the technology toward implementation. Research in this direction deserves support.

That seems a fair summary of the NRC report. And, as I’ve explained elsewhere, members of Congress certainly seemed to have Drexlerian nanotechnology in mind when they decided to lavish billions on federal nanotech research.


  1. I would like to believe that "dry" or Drexlerian nanotechnology is possible, but I do not. All of the significant developments in this field in recent years involve "wet" or biologically-based nanotechnology. Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing area. As of yet, I remain unconvinced that "dry" nanotechnology is even possible.

  2. Great article, very astute analysis of the interplay between "nanotechnology" and "molecular nanotechnology".

  3. There's an implicit narrative in your piece that's much loved by the "colorful futurists" you refer to, but the reality, I think, is more complex and interesting than the futurists' fable. According to this narrative, Feynman laid out in his lecture a coherent vision of a radical new technology; Drexler popularised this vision and gave it the name "nanotechnology", then on the basis of Drexler's vision the US government launched the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which was then hijacked by chemists and materials scientists whose work had nothing to do with the radical vision. I think this account is hugely misleading at almost every point.

    To begin with, Feynman's lecture didn't present a coherent vision at all; instead it was an imaginative but loosely linked set of ideas linked only by the idea of control on a small scale (I wrote about this in an article in the December issue of Nature Nanotechnology, only obtainable by subscribers). Of these ideas, some have already come to pass and have indeed proved transformative. These include the idea of writing on very small scales, which underlies modern IT, and the idea of making layered materials with precisely controlled layer thicknesses on the atomic scale, which was realised in techniques like molecular beam epitaxy and CVD, whose results you see every time you use a white light emitting diode or a solid state laser of the kind your DVD contains. I think there were two ideas in the lecture that did contribute to the vision popularized by Drexler - the idea of “a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously, drilling holes, stamping parts, and so on”, and, linked to this, the idea of doing chemical synthesis by physical processes. The latter idea has been realised by the idea of doing chemical reactions using a scanning tunnelling microscope; there's been a lot of work in this direction since Don Eigler's demonstration of STM control of single atoms, no doubt some of it funded by the much-maligned NNI, but so far I think it's fair to say this approach has turned out so far to be more technically difficult and less useful than people anticipated.

    Strangely, the second part of the fable, which talks about Drexler popularising the Feynman vision, I think actually underestimates the originality of Drexler's own contribution. The arguments that Drexler made in support of his radical vision of nanotechnology drew extensively on biology, an area that Feynman had touched on only very superficially. What's striking if one re-reads Drexler's original PNAS article and indeed Engines of Creation is how biologically inspired the vision is - the models he looks to are the protein-based and nucleic acid machines of cell biology, like the ribosome. In Drexler's writing now, particularly on his blog, this biological inspiration is very much to the fore; he's looking to the DNA-based nanotechnology of Ned Seeman, Paul Rothemund and others as the exemplar of the way forward to fully functional, atomic scale machines and devices. This work is building on the self-assembly paradigm that has been such a big part of academic work in nanotechnology around the world.

  4. To continue from my last comment:

    There's an important missing link between the biologically inspiration of ribosomes and molecular motors and the vision of "tiny factories"- the scaled down mechanical engineering familiar from the simulations of atom-based cogs and gears from Drexler and his followers. What wasn't recognised until relatively recently was that the fundamental operating principles of biological machines are quite different from the rules that govern macroscopic machines, simply because the way physics works in water at the nanoscale is quite different to the way it works in our familiar macroworld. I've argued at length (for example, in my book "Soft Machines") that this means the lessons one should draw from biological machines should be rather different to the ones Drexler originally drew.

    There is one final point that's worth making. From your perspective I can understand that you would want to focus on the interactions between academic scientists and business people in the USA, Drexler and his followers, and the machinations of the US Congress. But I'd estimate that only somewhere between a quarter and a third of the nanotechnology in the world is being done in the USA. Perhaps for the first time in recent years a major new technology is largely being developed outside the USA, in Europe to some extent, but with an unprecedented leading role being taken in places like China, Korea and Japan. In these places the "nano-schism" that seems so important in the USA just isn't relevant; people are simply pressing on where the technology leads them.

  5. Dear Mr. Jones -

    Thanks for your comment (which, as you mentioned in a separate note, you expanded on your own website here). And thanks, too, for mentioning your Nature Nanotechnology piece. While I would still quibble with you about the National Nanotechnology Initiative, I actually don’t think that you and I are otherwise terribly far apart here: I join you in finding Chris Toumey’s historical investigations, which I cited in both my Wall Street Journal piece and my previous blog entry, very helpful, and also in believing that emphasizing Feynman can unfairly minimize “the originality of Drexler’s own contribution.”

    Adam Keiper

  6. Richard Jones is right about Eric Drexler. I can add more, based on my correspondence with people who knew him in the L5 days of the late 70's. Drexler came up with his original concept of nanotech while speculating on methods to manufacture and deploy large space solar power satellites in GEO. This was back in the heyday of the L-5 Society in the late 70's.

    His original concept was, indeed, biologically-based (he talked about protein synthesis in his first paper in 1981). What caused him to suddenly change gears was the unexpected development of the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) in the early 80's. It was the initial excitment over the STM/AFM that led to speculation about purely mechanical approaches to nanotechnology. I know, because I was around the people who built some of the first STM/AFM's, mostly in California (Digital Instruments) and Arizona (UofA and ASU).

    Unfortunately, this excitement coincided with the publication of Drexler's first book "Engines of Creation" in 1986, which was about the time I got into all of this stuff. I think this is the reason why his original biologically-inspired speculations got conflated with the more mechanical concepts of the time, eventually to be labeled "dry Drexlerian" nanotechnology.

    I read Drexler's book when it first came out. I thought his description of nanotech was quite vague, although it did seem biologically inspired. The initial excitement over AFM/STM died out and these techniques evolved into standard analytical instrumentation techniques (with a lot of failed start-ups along the way).

    Eric Drexler has recently gone back to the original biologically-based vision of nanotechnology. This seems to be the version of nanotech that is being researched all over the world. Jones is correct that most of the work is being done outside the U.S. (Europe and Asia) as that seems to be the largest market for the instrumentation used in such research.


[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field. Comments are moderated for civility and relevance and will not appear until the blog's editors have approved them.]