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Note: The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology was an affiliate of World Care, an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. The opinions expressed by CRN in our newsletters and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of World Care.
C-R-Newsletter #25 December 2, 2004
Crossroads Webcast Features Mike Treder
It’s been an eventful month for us, with big news and exciting
developments. Thanks to your support and participation, things are really
happening for CRN!
We’re pleased to report that the American Council to the United Nations University (AC/UNU) has designated CRN as a Consultant to their Millennium Project. We’ve written before about this fascinating project, an ongoing survey of attitudes and forecasts concerning advanced technology and changing societal conditions over the course of the next several decades. Because nanotechnology will make significant impacts on virtually everyone, it’s vital to include an exploration of benefits and risks—as well as administration options—in their future scenarios.
Anyone interested in contributing opinions to the current AC/UNU
survey on "Environmental Pollution and Health Hazards Resulting From Military
Uses of Nanotechnology" is
invited to participate.
Hollowness of Denial
Patrick Bailey has published
an article at Betterhumans.com that shows how bankrupt skepticism
about molecular manufacturing is. Titled "Unraveling the Big Debate over Small
Machines", the article examines and destroys the arguments against molecular
manufacturing. For example, Richard Smalley claimed that enzymes only work
underwater. But twenty years of experiment and hundreds of published papers
prove that he's ignorant on that point.
For months, the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative has said that nanobots are impossible "creatures" because "nanoscale materials are simply too small to manipulate for such purposes," and dangerous besides. They have finally removed that misleading entry, after complaints from a variety of journalists and researchers including CRN's Chris Phoenix. At this time, the page does not mention molecular manufacturing at all, but that's an improvement over the way it was. We hope the NNI will address molecular manufacturing sometime before it's developed.
The National Science Foundation held an international meeting
in June 2004 to consider the responsible development of nanotechnology. This is
a laudable goal. However, their just-published
final report focuses on nanoparticles and reflects no awareness or
consideration of molecular manufacturing—the
most significant long-term consequence of
reduces both the relevance and the credibility of their efforts. Their argument
seems to be that molecular manufacturing is "not scientifically verified". But
requiring absolute proof before addressing an issue is not a responsible
After many years as president of the Foresight Institute, Christine Peterson has turned the post over to Scott Mize. Scott, previously a co-founder of AngstroVision (a company that developed a significant nanoscale vision technology), has given CRN a sneak preview of his plans, and they're pretty exciting. Considering that they've also reinvented the Foresight Conference, which this year will focus on molecular manufacturing and its policy rather than nanoscale technology, we expect to be hearing more from Foresight in the near future. This is excellent news; as we've said all along, preparing for molecular manufacturing will require far too much work for any one organization to do.
On September 27, CRN Executive Director
Mike Treder will debate—or,
nanotechnology, anti-aging research, and the risks of nanotechnology with Mihail
Roco, head of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative. This is a real
feather in the cap for CRN. It will be interesting to see what Roco has to say
about molecular manufacturing.
The inaugural issue of CRN’s Responsible Nanotechnology
Report, issued for the 3rd Quarter of 2004, is being delivered to
C-R-Network members. The 10-page report covers nanotechnology science and policy
developments as well as CRN activities. This quarterly report is free, but it is
available only to those who have joined the C-R-Network, which also is free of
Living off-grid can be a challenge. When energy and supplies
no longer arrive through installed infrastructure, they must be collected and
stored locally, or done without. Today this is done with lead-acid batteries,
expensive water-handling systems, and so on. All these systems have limited
capacities. Conversely, living on-grid creates a distance between production and
consumption that makes it easy to ignore the implications of excessive resource
manufacturing can make off-grid living more practical, with clean local
production and easy managing of local resources.
President Calls for Military Nanotechnology
The president of India, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, has called for India to develop nanotechnology — including nanobots — because it will revolutionize warfare. Kalam is, literally, a rocket scientist, and he made this call in a speech at a military function; it seems likely that he's serious. Now, arms races don't always lead to war, but it may be difficult to have a stable arms race when no one has a clue what weapons may be developed and which ones will be destabilizing. (Remember that anti-ballistic missiles, a defensive technology, had the potential to destabilize the nuclear arms race.) This underscores the need for more studies: Which advanced manufacturing technologies can be developed, and when, and what can be built using them, and what are the implications of those products? These questions are the focus of our Thirty Essential Studies. Links to the India story are available in a post on our blog.
BREAKING NEWS: On July 31, 2004, President Kalam published in Hindustan Times an adaptation of his April address to scientists in Delhi. In it, Kalam writes, "When I think of nanoscience and nanotechnology, I am reminded of three personalities." The second name he lists is Eric Drexler, and the reason given is Drexler's technical work, Nanosystems: Molecular Machining, Manufacturing, and Computation. We've heard suggestions that Kalam was following the official U.S. and British line that nanotechnology is only about nanoscale technology and doesn't include molecular manufacturing. But this should remove all doubt that Kalam knows what molecular manufacturing is and that he thinks it deserves attention.
Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Stanford University, has written a hard-hitting article about "the politics of science" surrounding molecular manufacturing. Lessig writes, "The world of federal funding would only be safe, critics believed, if the idea of bottom-up nanotech could be erased." Lessig cites the removal of molecular manufacturing from the Nano Act, and Richard Smalley's objections which, as noted by Lessig and the editors of Chemical and Engineering News, "go beyond the scientific." Lessig's article is online.
Denial of molecular manufacturing is not limited to the United States. Britain's Royal Society has been working for a bit over a year to address concerns about nanotechnology, with initial impetus provided by Prince Charles's worries about 'grey goo'. Although grey goo is not a high-priority concern, the idea originated in studies of molecular manufacturing, and was introduced to the public — along with the word 'nanotechnology' — in Eric Drexler's book Engines of Creation.
They've just published
their findings. But the phrases 'molecular manufacturing' and
'molecular nanotechnology' do not appear anywhere in the body of the report. Even the
word 'Drexler' appears only once, in a claim that he has "retracted his
position". Anyone who's actually read the
they're referring to knows it's not that simple. The report does not
reference any of Drexler's technical writing. And it claims that they've seen no
peer-reviewed evidence that molecular manufacturing can work. It appears they
didn't look very hard.
A group in Russia has published a "roadmap to automated diamond mechanosynthesis” (read story on our blog). We have not yet seen a copy, but the table of contents makes it quite clear: the authors expect diamond to be buildable by small robotic devices.
North Carolina State University recently published the results of a survey on public opinion of nanotechnology. Although the survey did not distinguish between nanoscale technologies and molecular manufacturing, the results are interesting. Eighty percent of the people surveyed said they had heard "little" or "nothing" about nanotechnology. Out of a list of five most worrisome dangers, "a nanotechnology inspired arms race" was chosen second, by 24% of the people, and "the uncontrollable spread of self-replicating nano-robots" was last at 12%. Forty percent said benefits would outweigh risks, while only 22% said the opposite. Eighty percent said they are not worried at all about nanotechnology. It looks like the NanoBusiness fears that the grey goo issue will hurt the field may be exaggerated.
It's been six months since we started our Responsible Nanotechnology blog. We've made 270 posts, which have attracted almost 1500 comments. We've been very pleased at the high quality of discussion—we've received more than a few good ideas from the participants, and have been challenged to double-check our work in some areas. Thank you!
Executive Director Mike Treder will deliver a talk on "Making
a Safe Transition into the Nano Era" at
TransVision 2004: Art and Life in the Posthuman Era, taking place August
6-8, 2004, at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada.
Scaling laws are extremely simple observations about how
physics works at different sizes. A well-known example is that a flea can jump
dozens of times its height, while an elephant can't jump at all. Scaling laws
tell us that this is a general rule: smaller things are less affected by
gravity. This essay explains how scaling laws work, shows how to use them, and
discusses the benefits of tinyness with regard to speed of operation, power
density, functional density, and efficiency—four very important factors in the
performance of any system.
Phoenix/Drexler "Safe Exponential
The 'grey goo scenario', in which runaway self-replicating
machines devour the biosphere, has haunted and distorted discussion of
for many years. Although some kinds of free-range self-replicating devices
appear to be physically possible, we don't think runaway replication is the
biggest danger posed by molecular manufacturing, since development of such
devices would require massive and pointless engineering effort.
Press reaction was interesting. Overall, the reaction was positive. England covered the story pretty thoroughly and fairly. Australia picked it up. But the U.S. mostly ignored it. Perhaps this is because Prince Charles had been worried about grey goo; perhaps because IoP is a British journal; but we suspect it's because the U.S. still has a habit of pretending that molecular manufacturing doesn't exist and talking about it as little as possible.
Last month we announced the publication of a large list of urgently-needed nanotechnology studies. We've been posting these studies on our blog, one at a time, for comment and criticism. So far, reaction has been quite positive. We've gotten some helpful suggestions, but no major criticism, and several great discussions have been started.
With so much to be studied, there's no way CRN can do more than point the way and scratch the surface. So we've created and announced a student research program. It's targeted at undergrads, but advanced high school students and grad students can also apply. The instructor supervises the work, which should make it easier for students to get course credit. We provide review and advice. Both the instructor and the student have direct access to CRN's Director of Research.
NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts funds studies of advanced technologies.
study of machine self-replication (PDF) recently was completed. The study
investigated how simple parts could be mechanically assembled to build a complex
machine that could mechanically assemble simple parts. It did not investigate
how to build the simple parts, and in fact, it did not specify the size of the
parts—the same design should work for both large and nanoscale parts, making
research easier. It did point out that either dry chemistry (Drexler-style) or
wet chemistry (Smalley's favorite) could be used to build the parts.
John Burch has made some great pictures of a desktop nanofactory, illustrating how mundane and user-friendly advanced nanotechnology could be. Images in several resolutions are available on Foresight's website. Last year, Chris published a long and detailed paper calculating the size, mass, speed, reliability, and many other aspects of a nanofactory.
The question of whether a computer can think is no more
interesting than the question of whether a submarine can swim.
goes to China
The World High Technology Society invited me (Chris Phoenix) to China for a week for their Life Spring Forum conference in Dalian and a subsequent speaking tour in Hangzhou and Shanghai. The trip was quite productive and interesting; I made some good contacts and got a better feel for China's technological progress.
The trip wasn't quite what I expected. For one thing, they treated me (along with the other foreign speakers) as a VIP, not just a conference speaker. We met with government officials, had our picture taken with dozens of people, were taken on sightseeing tours, and were fed like a cruise ship.
My first afternoon in Dalian, I gave an interview for the Dalian Daily through a translator. The interviewer appeared to have at least some questions prepared; the translator referred to a printed sheet (in Chinese) for some of the questions. But I had plenty of opportunity to talk about not only the technical aspects of molecular manufacturing, but also the policy implications. I gave special emphasis to the danger that concerns me most: military competition between nations leading to unstable arms race and disastrous war. Several (perhaps all) of the other speakers were interviewed as well, and I haven't seen the article.
For a variety reasons, I was unable to hear most of the talks in the conference. But the nanotech session went very well. At the last minute, the conference organizer had to do something else, so I MC'd the session as well as giving the first talk. The audience asked good questions of each speaker—questions that showed they'd been listening. At the banquet-style dinner that night (did I mention they fed us well?), I got a plaque declaring me an honorary member of the WHTS. Below is a picture of me in a suit—a very rare occurrence—with Dong Qin, Neil Branda, and Mark DiIorio, the other speakers in the nanotech session. I'm told my talk was well-received and I did a very professional job of running the session.
We visited a research center in Dalian, another in Hangzhou, and two in Shanghai. I was too jet-lagged to see much in the Dalian center, and the Hangzhou visit was pretty quick. But the Shanghai visits were very informative. At the Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology, I gave a talk on "Advanced Nanotechnology and Human Rights" to perhaps 20 people. I'm told there were some government policy people in the room, but I didn't get a chance to speak with them. Then I got to tour a MEMS research cleanroom of 1800 square meters, with all the equipment needed to build two-inch wafers. I didn't learn much that was new, but it was great fun!
I did speak with scientists, there and at the second research center, attached to Shanghai Jiaotong University, where I gave a more technical talk—basically the talk I had prepared for the conference. (I didn't know I'd be giving that talk until the previous day.) The team there was working on a project to cut single strands of DNA with an atomic force microscope, pick up single fragments on the AFM tip, and analyze them. I thought this was pretty cool work—and it shows that they are using modern tools to do up-to-date research. I was able to suggest a method for detecting whether they had successfully picked up the DNA fragment; I haven't heard yet if my suggestion works. My impression of that team was that they felt more like a startup than like a university research lab. There was a strong sense of purpose, energy, and competence; a sense of 'Let's get this working so we can do the next thing.'
After each of my talks, in the discussion period, someone asked about the Drexler-Smalley debate. I told them what I thought: that Smalley was talking outside his field, that he was wrong about the capabilities of enzymes, that his position is looking weaker all the time, and that his position is motivated by a desire to debunk grey goo.
I asked a couple of questions about work that might be relevant to molecular manufacturing. The answer was: We're not doing that here, but maybe in Beijing. I got the impression that Beijing is where the cutting-edge research happens. So I didn't see any specific indication that China is working on molecular manufacturing, but I doubt that I would have seen it.
After the talk at the conference in Dalian, one professor gave me a tentative invitation to return to China next April, and another person suggested to me that CRN might work with Chinese universities on nanotech policy research. And a researcher in Shanghai told me that his research direction had been inspired in part by Eric Drexler's book Nanosystems. I'll be keeping in touch with these people, as well as others.
I was a bit off-balance with the city officials that we met, but all that seemed to be required was formality; they didn't ask me about nanotech. But I felt right at home with the researchers and students. I don't know if that's because they are Westernized or because I'm used to working with Easterners from my former software career in California. But my take-away impression is that at least some of China's research is fully modern in tools, topics, and attitude.
The Foresight Institute's annual Senior Associates Gathering is a unique event. I (Mike Treder) have never experienced anything quite like it, and I've attended dozens of conferences over the last 25 years. What makes it special is the impressive collection of progress-oriented thinkers—including world-class scientists and engineers, educators, writers, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and social activists—all gathered in one place. The event is designed to be informal, with lots of open dialogue encouraged, which is refreshing. But the organizers did a great job of staying on schedule and keeping the sessions flowing smoothly from one into another. Kudos to Foresight President Christine Peterson and her talented staff!
There were numerous people there that I had the opportunity to meet in person for the first time: scientists like Ralph Merkle, Robert Freitas, and J. Storrs (Josh) Hall; Neil Jacobstein, Chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing; Luke Nosek, founder of PayPal; Brad Templeton, Chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and Steve Jurvetson, Managing Director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
I also renewed acquaintances with great minds like Ramez Naam, CEO of Apex NanoTechnologies; Eliezer Yudkowsky, Research Fellow at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence; Wrye Sententia, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics; and, of course, K. Eric Drexler, founder of the Foresight Institute.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover that CRN is quite well known and respected within the Foresight community. My opinion was often sought during group discussions and many references were made to the important work that CRN is doing.
Some of the talks and breakout sessions concerned technical advancements, but most were focused on the societal implications and policy issues associated with molecular manufacturing. I had the privilege of delivering the final plenary presentation, on the topic of "Challenges of Nanotechnology".
During my presentation, I mentioned a group in Russia that is building powerful instruments and promoting the development of molecular nanotechnology. Several people wanted to know where to find more information about this, so here is the page that describes their "Nanotechnological System".
Many attendees told me they enjoyed my speech, but not everyone was convinced that the challenges of nanotechnology would require the kind of international cooperative administration recommended by CRN. Naturally I did not expect complete agreement, and I'm pleased to have had the opportunity to present our concerns to such a large and potentially influential audience.
Mark Modzelewski, co-founder of the U.S. NanoBusiness Alliance, is now leaving it. During his stay there, he was a vociferous opponent of molecular manufacturing. He denied that a study of molecular manufacturing had been deliberately removed from the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act—while Howard Lovy was documenting that the NanoBusiness Alliance had indeed done so. And then, as we noted back in C-R-Newsletter #16, Modzelewski insulted Glenn Reynolds, a respected techno-blogger, for daring to write about molecular manufacturing.
Modzelewski will be going to the newly-formed Lux Research, a nanotech business advisory firm. We may hope that the NanoBusiness Alliance will now be more willing to discuss the possibilities and implications of molecular manufacturing (or at least be more civil and constructive in their disagreement), and that Modzelewski will do less damage to the discussion as one voice among many.
CRN has published a list of what we believe currently are the most essential topics for study in the field of responsible nanotechnology. It is a long list: thirty studies, each with several sub-questions. About half of the studies are technical, investigating the capabilities of various proposed kinds of molecular manufacturing. The other half investigate the policy implications of molecular manufacturing and its products.
CRN believes that these studies should be an urgent priority—not done sequentially, but in parallel. To demonstrate the urgency, we have supplied initial answers to each sub-question. The entire file of questions and answers is now available on our website. Mike showed the list to several people at the Foresight Gathering, and reports that they were impressed.
On May 1, Mike was interviewed by James Hughes of Changesurfer Radio. Among other things, they discussed CRN’s concerns about excessive media focus on “grey goo” and comparatively little on other, more imminent and more serious issues such as a nanotech arms race.
A year ago, Chris was interviewed for the same program.
CRN has appointed two Special Associates. Russell Brand is our Strategist on Social Response. Russell's work focuses on appropriate use of technologies in common and complex situations. He is also advising us on how to present our message most effectively.
Tom Cowper is our Special Representative on Governmental Affairs and Homeland Security. Tom is a 21-year law enforcement veteran; works on technologies for policing, public safety and homeland security applications; and writes and speaks about the implications of emerging technology on law enforcement, government, and society.
CRN is very pleased to recognize the ongoing and major contributions of Russell and Tom.
The C-R-Newsletter now has over 500 subscribers, but fewer than 100 of you have taken the next step and joined the C-R-Network. The Network is for people who are motivated to help us prepare for advanced nanotechnology, whether with money, contacts, research, or in any other way. Even if you don't think you have anything to contribute—please let us know that you'd like to help. Sign up here.
Entropy and thermodynamics are often cited as a reason why diamondoid mechanosynthesis can't work. Supposedly, the perfection of the designs violates a law of physics that says things always have to be imperfect and cannot be improved.
It has always been obvious to me why this argument was wrong. The argument would be true for a closed system, but nanomachines always have an energy source and a heat sink. With an external source of energy available for their use, they can certainly build near-perfect structures without violating thermodynamics. This is clear enough that I've always assumed that people invoking entropy were either too ignorant to be critics, or willfully blind.
It appears I was wrong. Not about the entropy, but about the people. Consider John A. N. (JAN) Lee. He's a professor of computer science at Virginia Tech, has been vice president of the Association for Computing Machinery, has written a book on computer history, etcetera. He's obviously intelligent and well-informed. And yet, he makes the same mistake about entropy--not in relation to nanotech, but in relation to Babbage, who designed the first modern computer in the early 1800's.
In Lee's online history of Babbage, he asserts, "the limitations of Newtonian physics might have prevented Babbage from completing any Analytical Engine." He points out that Newtonian mechanics has an assumption of reversibility, and it wasn't until decades later that the Second Law of Thermodynamics was discovered and entropy was formalized. Thus, Babbage was working with an incomplete understanding of physics.
Lee writes, "In Babbage's design for the Analytical Engine, the discrete functions of mill (in which 'all operations are performed') and store (in which all numbers are originally placed, and, once computed, are returned) rely on this supposition of reversibility." But, says Lee, "information cannot be shuttled between mill and store without leaking, like faulty sacks of flour. Babbage did not consider this, and it was perhaps his greatest obstacle to building the engine."
Translated into modern computer terms, Lee's statement reads, "Information cannot be shuttled between CPU and RAM without leaking, like faulty sacks of flour." The fact that my computer works as well as it does shows that there's something wrong with this argument.
In a modern computer, the signals are digital; each one is encoded as a voltage in a wire, above or below a certain threshold. Transistors act as switches, sensing the incoming voltage level and generating new voltage signals. Each transistor is designed to produce either high or low voltages. By the time the signal arrives at its destination, it has indeed "leaked" a little bit; it can't be exactly the same voltage. But it'll still be comfortably within the "high" or "low" range, and the next transistor will be able to detect the digital signal without error.
This does not violate thermodynamics, because a little energy must be spent to compensate for the uncertainty in the input signal. In today's designs, this is a small fraction of the total energy required by the computer. I'm not even sure that engineers have to take it into account in their calculations, though as computers shrink farther it will become important.
In Babbage's machine, information would move from place to place by one mechanism pushing on another. Now, it's true that entropy indicates a slightly degraded signal--meaning that no matter how precisely the machinery was made, the position of the mechanism must be slightly imprecise. But a fleck of dust in a bearing would degrade the signal a lot more. In other words, it didn't matter whether Babbage took entropy into account or even knew about it, as long as his design could tolerate flecks of dust.
Like a modern computer, Babbage's machine was designed to be digital. The rods and rotors would have distinct positions corresponding to encoded numbers. Mechanical devices such as detents would correct signals that were slightly out of position. In the process of correcting the system, a little bit of energy would be dissipated through friction. This friction would require external energy to overcome, thus preserving the Second Law of thermodynamics. But by including mechanisms that continually corrected the tiny errors in position caused by fundamental uncertainty (along with the much larger errors caused by dust and wear), Babbage's design would never lose the important, digitally coded information. And, as in modern computers, the entropy-related friction would have been vastly smaller than friction from other sources.
Was Babbage's design faulty because he didn't take entropy into account? No, it was not. Mechanical calculating machines already existed, and worked reliably. Babbage was an engineer; he used designs that worked. There was nothing very revolutionary in the mechanics of his design. He didn't have to know about atoms or quantum mechanics or entropy to know that one gear can push another gear, that there will be some slop in the action, that a detent can restore the signal, and that all this requires energy to overcome friction. Likewise, the fact that nanomachines cannot be 100% perfect 100% of the time is no more significant than the quantum-mechanical possibility that part of your brain will suddenly teleport itself elsewhere, killing you instantly.
Should Lee have known that entropy was not a significant factor in Babbage's designs, nor any kind of limitation in their effectiveness? I would have expected him to realize that any digital design with a power supply can beat entropy by continually correcting the information. After all, this is fundamental to the workings of electronic computers. But it seems Lee didn't extend this principle from electronic to mechanical computers.
The point of this essay is not to criticize Lee. There's no shame in a scientist being wrong. Rather, the point is that it's surprisingly easy for scientists to be wrong, even in their own field. If a computer scientist can be wrong about the effects of entropy on an unfamiliar type of computer, perhaps we shouldn't be too quick to blame chemists when they are likewise wrong about the effects of entropy on nanoscale machinery. If a computer scientist can misunderstand Babbage's design after almost two centuries, we shouldn't be too hard on scientists who misunderstand the relatively new field of molecular manufacturing.
But by the same token, we must realize that chemists and physicists talking about molecular manufacturing are even more unreliable than computer scientists talking about Babbage. Despite the fact that Lee knows about entropy and Babbage did not, Babbage's engineering was more reliable than Lee's science. How true it is that "A little learning is a dangerous thing!"
There are several constructive ways to address this problem. One is to continue working to educate scientists about how physics applies to nanoscale systems and molecular manufacturing. Another is to educate policymakers and the public about the limitations of scientific practice and the fundamental difference between science and engineering. CRN will continue to pursue both of these courses.
Slashdot.org is a large techie news
blog. CRN was featured on their front page today. Many of the 650 comments
the article show that readers are aware of the power and the problems
created by molecular manufacturing. Now we just have to get the news to nanotech
Mike and Chris are both very busy with CRN activities, as well as other pesky aspects of real life that keep intruding. Chris, for example, is in the process of moving this week to a new home in Miami. For his part, Mike spent four days last week in England at a Board of Directors retreat for another NGO that he works with. But no complaints; we both love our lives and our work.
Speaking of work, we’re both laboring mightily to prepare for important conference activities next month on behalf of CRN. As we’ve told you before, Chris will be jetting to China in mid-May to give a talk at the World High Technology Society's Life Spring Forum in Dalian. Following that conference, he will give talks in Nanjing on progress toward molecular manufacturing, and in Shanghai on advanced nanotechnology and human rights.
While Chris is in China, Mike will be in California for the Foresight Institute's Senior Associates Gathering, where he has been invited to be a featured speaker. Perhaps some of you will be there to meet him and hear his talk. Here is the abstract:
By the way, the Foresight Institute has extended a nice offer
to CRN supporters. They will give C-R-Newsletter readers a discount of $200 off
the standard fee to join Foresight and register for the Senior Associates
this page to register at the long-expired "Super Early" rate and put "CRN"
in the comments field.
Since our founding in December 2002, CRN has experienced
significant growth. People often tell us how impressed they are by all that
we’ve accomplished in a short time. It’s nice to hear such things, of course,
because sometimes when one is so close to the actual work, it’s hard to
appreciate how much progress is being made.
As most of you know, we started a weblog in January 2004
Responsible Nanotechnology. Response has been great. We’re averaging well
over 300 hits per day and we get three to four times as many posted comments as
we make blog entries. But everything can be improved, right?
One of the things that indicates CRN was founded at the right
time (not a moment too soon, and we hope not too late!) is the rapid development
we’re seeing in enabling technologies. From nanoscale lasers to dip-pen
lithography, and from nanoscale fasteners to nucleic acid building blocks, the
molecular manufacturing toolbox is filling up rapidly.
When scientists want an issue to go away, they are as
political as anyone else. They attack the credentials of the observer. They
change the subject. They build strawman attacks, and frequently even appear to
convince themselves. They form cliques. They tell their students not to even
read the claims, and certainly not to investigate them. Each of these tactics is
being used against molecular manufacturing.
Drexler presents theoretical applied science as a way of
studying things we can't build yet. In the last section, he ascribes to it a
very limited aim: "to describe lower bounds to the performance achievable with
physically possible classes of devices." And a limited role: "In an ideal world,
theoretical applied science would consume only a tiny fraction of the effort
devoted to pure theoretical science, to experimentation, or to engineering." But
here I think he's being too modest. Theoretical applied science is really the
only rigorous way for the products of science to escape back to the real world
by inspiring and instructing engineers.
Questions for Our Readers: 1) CRN Membership and Support; 2) Politics
Questions for Our Readers
Predictions of Rapid Nanotech
For more than a decade, Chris has been periodically estimating
the difficulty of developing molecular manufacturing. He's recently noticed a
pattern: like the cost of computers, his estimate of development cost has been
falling by half every 2-3 years. That means that if developing molecular
manufacturing would cost $1 billion today, by 2020 it could cost less than $10
Conference Report: Imaging and Imagining
Nanoscience and Engineering, USC
In May, Chris will be spending a week in China. He will give a talk at the World High Technology Society's Life Spring Forum in Dalian. Not only that, he is organizing a plenary session on nanotechnology. He has a great lineup of speakers, including both researchers and entrepreneurs. After the conference he will give talks in Nanjing on progress toward molecular manufacturing, and in Shanghai on advanced nanotechnology and human rights. This is an exciting opportunity for CRN!
Book report: America as Empire,
by Jim Garrison
Science and Technology: The Power of
Chris has been invited to the World High Technology Society's Life Spring Forum in Dalian, China. He will give a talk at the conference on the revolutionary nature of programmable general-purpose molecular manufacturing. Then he'll give talks in Nanjing on progress toward molecular manufacturing, and in Shanghai on advanced nanotechnology and human rights. This will take place in mid-May. Chris is extremely excited to be going to China for the first time, and to have a chance to spread CRN's message to the far side of the world.
While Chris is in China, Mike will be at the Foresight Institute's Senior Associates Gathering in California, where he has been invited to be a featured speaker. Foresight holds the SAG once a year to consider topics that are too far-future for standard conferences... mainly, issues related to molecular manufacturing.
In early March, Mike will present a paper at the University of South Carolina's Conference on Nanoscience & Engineering. The paper will be on the choices CRN has faced about how to refer to our focus: Molecular Nanotechnology? Advanced Nanotechnology? Just plain Nanotechnology? We've settled on Molecular Manufacturing, but the choice wasn't easy.
Last week, Chris presented a talk and a poster at the IEEE/Florida International University conference on Nanoscale Devices and System Integration. The poster was on progress toward molecular manufacturing (a warmup for one of the China talks), and the talk was on performance of precision NEMS, analyzing how much more powerful nanotech will get when we can build with diamond. Both were well received.
At the conference, Chris was repeatedly astonished by the amount of progress that's been made in dealing with the nanoscale. In many ways, it's more engineering than science now. There's still a lot of work to do, but the sense is that nanoscale phenomena are new and useful—but not mysterious. Lithographic techniques that were barely being researched a few years ago are now old hat. And the cutting-edge physics is now about making electrons dance: there are several different ways of making light squeeze along channels that are too small for it, by converting it to electron activity—and back.
A high percentage of people Chris talked with at the conference found nothing strange or impossible about the idea of mechanical chemistry and molecular manufacturing. Some were skeptical, but none of them could clearly articulate a defensible reason. Others said "Not enough information"—a perfectly reasonable position to take. But many said, "Sure, that makes sense." High-level nanotech policy spokesmen continue to claim that molecular manufacturing is impossible, but it looks like they are increasingly out of touch with many of the scientists in the trenches.
Based on the level of achievement, the speed of development, and the matter-of-fact approach to both molecular manufacturing and nanoscale engineering, Chris now believes that molecular manufacturing may be considerably closer than he thought. A targeted U.S. program that started today might finish in less than five years, if it was well managed and well funded. Of course, anyone who has been working on it already could finish sooner than that. We don't have much time left to prepare.
In January, Mike started a CRN blog. He posts interesting stories each day, and most posts spark lots of interesting discussion. The blog is already getting 380 hits per day, and has been pointed to from various other places.
Last month we mentioned Howard Lovy's Small Times story on the Nano Act. Short but sweet, it documents that leaders of the NanoBusiness Alliance lobbied Sen. John McCain to pull all studies of molecular manufacturing from the Act at the last minute.
Apparently Mark Modzelewski, co-founder of the NanoBusiness Alliance, didn't like the publicity. He wrote a piece for Small Times claiming that molecular manufacturing proponents were spinning theories about devious cabals. (Chris will have a nice response published in the next print issue of the magazine, explaining why near-term nanotech boosters ought to welcome studies of molecular manufacturing.)
Then things really heated up. Glenn Reynolds, author of the highly respected InstaPundit site, commented on the story... and Mark insulted him in multiple emails, including a screed about imaginary bugs under a wino's skin. As Dave Barry says, I am not making this up. Looks like the nano nay-sayers are getting desperate.
One of CRN's major goals is to improve the quality of discussion about nanotechnology. We have seen all too many news stories and publications confusing nanoparticles with grey goo, or claiming that molecular manufacturing is impossible for some bogus reason. If you see a story like that, please tell us about it! We will do our best to respond, either by writing a response, helping you write one, or working behind the scenes to educate the author responsible.
Another way you can help us: tell us what you want in the
newsletter and on the CRN website! We don't have time to do everything, but we
sure will try...
Nucleic Acid Engineering
The genes in your cells are made up of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA: a long, stringy chemical made by fastening together a bunch of small chemical bits like railroad cars in a freight train. The DNA in your cells is actually two of these strings, running side by side. Some of the small chemical bits (called nucleotides) like to stick to certain other bits on the opposite string. DNA has a rather boring structure, but the stickiness of the nucleotides can be used to make far more interesting shapes. In fact, there's a whole field of nanotechnology investigating this, and it may even lead to an early version of molecular manufacturing.
Take a bunch of large wooden beads, some string, some magnets, and some small patches of hook-and-loop fastener (called Velcro when the lawyers aren't watching). Divide the beads into four piles. In the first pile, attach a patch of hooks to each bead. In the second pile, attach a patch of loops. In the third pile, attach a magnet to each bead with the north end facing out. And in the fourth pile, attach a magnet with the south end exposed. Now string together with a random sequence of beads—for example,
1) Hook, Loop, South, Loop, North, North, Hook.
If you wanted to make another sequence stick to it, the best pattern would be:
2) Loop, Hook, North, Hook, South, South, Loop.
Any other sequence wouldn't stick as well: a pattern of:
3) North, North, North, South, North, Loop, South
would stick to either of the other strands in only two places.
Make a few dozen strings of each sequence. Now throw them all in a washing machine and turn it on. Wait a few minutes, and you should see that strings 1) and 2) are sticking together, while string 3) doesn't stick to anything. (No, I haven't tried this; but I suspect it would make a great science fair project!)
But we can do more than make the strings stick to each other: we can make them fold back on themselves. Make a string of:
N, N, N, L, L, L, L, H, H, H, H, S, S, S
and throw it in the washer on permanent press, and it should double over. With a more complex pattern, you could make a cross:
NNNN, LLLLHHHH, LNLNSHSH, SSLLNNHH, SSSS
The NNNN and SSSS join, and each sequence between the commas doubles over. You get the idea: you can make a lot of different things match up by selecting a sequence from just four letter choices. Accidental matches of one or two don't matter, because the agitation of the water will pull them apart again. But if enough of them line up, they'll usually stay stuck.
Just like the beads, there are four different kinds of nucleotides in the chain or strand of DNA. Instead of North, South, Hook, and Loop, the nucleotide chemicals are called Adenine, Thiamine, Guanine, and Cytosine, abbreviated A, T, G, and C. Like the beads, A will only stick to T, and G will only stick to C. (You may recognize these letters from the movie GATTACA.) We have machines that can make DNA strands in any desired sequence. If you tell the machine to make sequences of ACGATCTCGATC and TGCTAGAGCTAG, and then mix them together in water with a little salt, they will pair up. If you make one strand of ACGATCTCGATCGATCGAGATCGT—the first, plus the second backward—it will double over and stick to itself. And so on. (At the molecular scale, things naturally vibrate and bump into each other all the time; you don't need to throw them in a washing machine to mix them up.)
Chemists have created a huge menu of chemical tricks to play with DNA. They can make one batch of DNA, then make one end of it stick to plastic beads or surfaces. They can attach other molecules or nanoparticles to either end of a strand. They can cut a strand at the location of a certain sequence pattern. They can stir in other DNA sequences in any order they like, letting them attach to the strands. They can attach additional chemicals to each nucleotide, making the DNA chain stiffer and stronger.
A DNA strand that binds to another but has an end hanging loose can be peeled away by a matching strand. This is enough to build molecular tweezers that open and close. We can watch them work by attaching molecules to the ends that only fluoresce (glow under UV light) when they're close together.
Remember that DNA strands can bind to themselves as well as to each other. And you can make several strands with many different sticky sequence patches to make very complex shapes. Just a few months ago, a very clever team managed to build an octahedron out of only one long strand and five short ones. The whole thing is only 22 nanometers wide—about the distance your fingernails grow in half a minute.
So far, this article has been a review of fact. This next part is speculation. If we can build a pre-designed structure, and make it move as we want, we can—in theory, and with enough engineering work—build a molecular robot. The robot would not be very strong, or very fast, and certainly not very big. But it might be able to direct the fabrication of other, more complex devices—things too complex to be built by pure self-assembly. And there's one good thing about working with molecules: because they are so small, you can make trillions of them for the price of one. That means that whatever they do can be done by the trillions—perhaps even fast enough to be useful for manufacturing large products such as computer chips. The products would be repetitive, but even repetitive chips can be quite valuable for some applications. Individual control of adjacent robots would allow even more complex systems to be built. And with a molecular-scale DNA robot, it might be possible to guide the fabrication of smaller and stiffer structures, leading eventually to direct mechanical control of chemistry—the ultimate goal of molecular manufacturing.
This has barely scratched the surface of what's being done with DNA engineering. There's also RNA (ribonucleic acid) and PNA (peptide nucleic acid) engineering, and the use of RNA as an enzyme- or antibody-like molecular gripper. Not to mention the recent discovery of RNA interference which has medical and research uses: it can fool a cell into stopping the production of an unwanted protein, by making it think that that protein's genes came from a virus.
Nucleic acid engineering looks like a good possibility for building a primitive variety of nanorobotics. Such products would be significantly less strong than products built of diamondoid, but are still likely to be useful for a variety of applications. If this technology is developed before diamondoid nanotech, it may provide a gentler introduction to the power of molecular manufacturing.
If you have any comments or questions about this explanation of nucleic acid engineering, please email Chris Phoenix, CRN's Director of Research.
With this issue, we've decided to start something new: after CRN News, you'll find a brief article explaining a technical aspect of advanced nanotechnology. This month, we'll begin with how scientists "see" things smaller than a wavelength of light, with cutting edge sub-wavelength imaging techniques.
Here are some ways to overcome the diffraction limit:
If you have any comments or questions about this brief technical explanation, please email Chris Phoenix, CRN's Director of Research.
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