Thinking Small



Forty years ago, quantum theorist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman became the first individual to sight the gloaming before the dawn.  In a famous lecture titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, he examined the infant field of materials science.  With his well-known sense of humor, Feynman hypothesized that as scientists learned more about how to make transistors and other small-scale structures, we’d be able to make them smaller and smaller until – eventually – they would approach their natural limits, at the edges of quantum uncertainty, stopping only when the atoms themselves became too slippery, to unknowable, to be mechanically reliable.


Before molecular biology, such speculations seemed wild, and nearly unfounded.  But again and again Feynman proved himself an intellectual giant, standing on the shoulders of giants, and could see further than most anyone else.  The detailed study of the structures of the cell revealed that nature had engineered machinery from the insubstantial substance of a few atoms strung together; the search for a “vital force” only revealed a bewildering array of mechanisms – enzymes, ribosomes and other tiny structures – which demystified the cell even as it revealed the incredibly versatility of atomic-scale chemistry.


Feynman went on to postulate that – once the tidy language of atoms had been decoded – it would be possible to engineer molecules precisely, placing one atom against another to create the smallest possible artifacts.  What kinds of tools might we create with these ultra-miniaturized forms?  Well, Feynman mused, we might be able to create a molecular “doctor” which would be hundreds of times smaller than an individual cell.  It could be injected into a human body, and go to work, reading the health of cells, making repairs, and generally keeping the body in perfect health.


Science fiction, his peers pronounced.  Absolute fantasy tossed off by the master storyteller of physics.   During the heights of the Industrial Age, big carried an importance of its own – big science, big engineering projects, big dreams.  Even computers, in the 1950’s, consumed whole floors of buildings.  But even as Feynman made his address, engineers at Texas Instruments put the finishing touches on the first integrated circuits, and the world began to grow small.



Feynman laid his tiny seeds in the ground, and Marvin Minsky, the founding father of Artificial Intelligence, possessed a mind fertile enough for Feynman’s dreaming to take root.  Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, Minsky lead the world in future thinking – consulting with Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke on the cinematic reality of HAL 9000, directing a small squadron of graduate students into the emerging fields of machine intelligence, and always speaking broadly about the nascent possibilities of tiny technologies.


By the mid-70’s, Minsky’s word was taken as gospel around the halls of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, and the grand old man of computer science found a mind ripe to nurse the seed of Feynman’s ideas.  A graduate student named K. Eric Drexler came to Minsky seeking a sponsor for his master’s thesis.  Drexler, fascinated with these tiny devices, wanted to explore their possibility.  Minsky – who had never forgotten Feynman’s vision – immediately agreed.  Thank you very much, Drexler replied – and went on to produce a vision which would come to shape the world.


When I attended MIT – brief stay in the early 80’s – Drexler had just received his Masters Degree in computer science, and had, like some Pied Piper of Cambridgeport, lured a small coterie of students into his orbit.  Not yet called “hackers” (though they certainly practiced the arts of hacking, in the positive – and now nearly lost - sense of the word) they found in Drexler’s ideas a blueprint a future as programmable as they could imagine.  In salons at his flat, Drexler entertained younger minds with a set of ideas he christened nanotechnology.  Bring a bottle of wine, pull up a chair, and help design the future.


How could any red-blooded hacker resist such an opportunity?


I went to one of these salons d’idées, and by the end of the evening considered Drexler the prophet of the next age of Man – a time when nearly anything seemed possible: nanomachines – or, more commonly, nanites - which could repair cellular-level damage and guarantee a nearly eternal, healthy existence; kitchen appliances which, when fed garbage, could produce an endless supply of high-quality “meat”; and an inexhaustible supply of incredibly strong building materials made of diamond, grown in forms of any conceivable volume.  Most of all, Drexler promised a material world nearly entirely subservient to the whim of the human imagination, programmed according to need.


Like many others in Drexler’s orbit, it took me many years to absorb the full implications of nanotechnology.  During this time Drexler worked hard to both explain this revolution to the popular mind – his Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, with a forward by mentor Marvin Minsky, was published in 1986 – and he moved from Cambridge to Palo Alto, doing Doctoral work at Stanford University.  His thesis work – Nanosystems, published in 1992  – grounded the wild speculations of nanotechnology in the hard-and-fast sciences of mechanics and atomic chemistry.  A cookbook of atomic-scale machinery, with gears, rotors and motors, Nanosystems provided a blueprint – a codex atomicus – for the design of the nanomolecular universe.


Now Dr. Drexler set out to change the world.  On the backside of the twentieth century, Drexler sensed that the implications of his work would be as profound as the work itself, so – unlike Robert Oppenheimer, the Faust of our nuclear age – Drexler announced the bad with the good, detailing the dangers of molecular magic.  It’s important, in any discussion of nanotechnology, to bring these into full view.  We do know enough of the possibilities latent in nanotechnology to construct a simulation – an Einstein-style thought experiment – which helps to illuminate some of the more harrowing possibilities of a nanotech future.



Two of the most crucial – and, as yet, unbuilt – devices in nanotechnology are the nanocomputer and nanoassembler.   The nanocomputer, as its name implies, is a molecular machine capable of executing a string of instructions and producing a result.  In function, it differs little from today’s microprocessors, although it bears a curious resemblance to the antique, mechanical computers designed by Charles Babbage in the middle of the Victorian era, with rods and registers creating something like a grown-up adding machine – an adding machine a million times smaller and a billion times faster than any microprocessor yet designed.


Once the nanocomputer exists, it becomes possible to create a nanoassembler, a device which – constructed at the atomic level and working at the atomic level – can precisely arrange atoms into most any desired form.  In 1999, working at the atomic level requires bulky and expensive Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), which uses electric fields to “push” atoms into position.  But a nanoassembler can simply “pluck” atoms from a “bin” and, like some sort of post-industrial loom, knit them into position.  In every one of our cells, our ribosomes do something similar, copying DNA into RNA, and feeding this RNA into the ribosome – like so many instructions being fed into a computer – then gathering the correct amino acids to create the proteins which make up our physical nature.  The nanoassembler – which contains a nanocomputer at its core – does much the same thing, translating instructions into molecules.


The nanoassembler is the Holy Grail of nanotechnology; once a perfected nanoassembler is available, almost anything becomes possible – which is both the greatest hope and biggest fear of the nanotechnology community.  Sixty years ago, John Von Neumann – who, along with Alan Turing founded the field of computer science – surmised that it would someday be possible to create machines that could copy themselves, a sort of auto-duplication which could lead from a single instance to a whole society of perfect copies.  Although such a Von Neumann machine is relatively simple in theory, such a device has never been made – because it’s far easier, at the macromolecular scale, to build a copy of a machine than it is to get the machine to copy itself.  At the molecular level, this balance is reversed; it’s far easier to get a nanomachine to copy itself than it is to create another one from scratch.  This is an enormous boon – once you have a single nanoassembler you can make as many as you might need – but it also means that a nanoassembler is the perfect plague.  If – either intentionally or through accident – a nanoassembler were released into the environment, with only the instruction to be fruitful and multiply, the entire surface of the planet – plants, animals and even rocks - would be reduced to a “gray goo” of such nanites in little more than 72 hours.


This “gray goo problem”, well known in nanotechnology acts as a check against the unbounded optimism which permeates scientific developments in atomic-scale devices.  Drexler believes the gray goo problem mostly imaginary, but does admit the possibility of a “gray dust” scenario, in which replicating nanites “smother” the Earth in a blanket of sub-microscopic forms.  In either scenario, the outcome is much the same.  And here we encounter a technological danger unprecedented in history: If we had stupidly blown ourselves to kingdom come in a nuclear apocalypse, at least the cockroaches would have survived.  But in a gray goo scenario, nothing – not even the bacteria deep underneath the ground – would be untouched.  Everything would become one thing: a monoculture of nanites.



It’s not as though we could close the door on nanotechnology, pronouncing it “too dangerous” for peaceful uses, for there are two fundamental approaches to the field.  The molecular nanotechnologists study how to build machinery up from the atomic scale, while the molecular biologists study how to “strip down” the organelles of the cell into atomic-scale devices.  Given the immense commercial pressures of the biomedical industry, it seems unlikely that the molecular biologists will stop learning how we work, so eventually – likely sooner rather than later – we’ll know enough of how to construct both nanocomputers and nanoassemblers, one way or another.


Hence, Drexler’s first act was to create a scientific and educational foundation – The Foresight Institute – to act as both a clearing-house and think-tank for research into nanotechnology.  In its fourteen years, Foresight has grown to become a focal point for the community of nanotechnology researchers – and ethical discussions about the nature of the collective project have an important place in it.  Only with such a structure in place, Drexler argues, can we have any degree of safety in a coming age of nanotechnology.


The public debate on matters nanotechnological is practically non-existent.  Right now the field belongs to research scientists – and a growing community of amateurs.


In mid-October, The Foresight Institute held their annual conference at a mid-grade hotel in Santa Clara, Silicon Valley’s ground zero for the revolution in microelectronics and software.  According to the attendees, there was a new buzz in the air; recent developments in molecular-scale manufacturing have resulted in the invention of some of the very basic components Drexler described in Nanosystems – the same components which will be essential features of nanocomputers and nanoassemblers.  The pieces are coming together.


Last week I found myself flipping through the galley pages of Robert Freitas’ Nanomedicine, a book that was perhaps the most eagerly sought-after prize at this year’s Foresight conference.  (The fifty advance copies provided at the event found many eager buyers.)  More than anything before it, Nanomedicine attempts to articulate the promise of Feynman’s ultra-miniaturized “doctor”, and lays out a path of step-by-step technological hurdles which must be overcome on the way towards nanomedical devices.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Nanomedicine is the author himself.  Robert Freitas is neither a doctor nor a molecular physicist; while he holds a post at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing (IMM) – which Drexler founded as the R&D and grant arm of Foresight – he is really only an amateur, uncredentialed in the field he describes.  This would be an unrecoverable fault in other, more established fields of scientific discourse, but nanotechnology presently lives in the liminal gap between imagination and reality.  Much like the hackers of the “Homebrew Computer Club” in the 1970’s, there’s plenty of room for the activity of amateurs – because, in some sense, everyone working in the field is still an amateur.  The Homebrew Computer Club gave Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak a platform to share their work and sell the Apple I, gave Lee Felsenstein the opportunity to demonstrate the first portable computers, and legitimized the amateur in a field dominated by corporate “big-iron” interests.  Foresight, the IMM, and nanotechnology in general have such a feel – hackers  on the edge of another revolution.  For the next several years, amateurs will be essential to the field, the necessary mid-step into a professional discipline.



For now, nanotechnology is beneath the cultural radar; even the corporations sponsoring research into nanotechnology don’t quite know what to do with it.  Dr. Ralph Merkle, who, after Drexler, has done more than any other individual to advance the science of molecular engineering, had a post at Xerox PARC – but left it, just last month.  Xerox wanted Merkle to split his focus between nanotechnology and public-key cryptography, a field which Merkle helped to define.  But Merkle, unwilling to give his intellectual passion half-duty, left to become a Research Fellow for the Zyvex Corporation, the first of a new generation of nanotechnology startups.  Xerox has a long tradition of shooting itself in its technological foot – most of the innovations of GUI computing were pioneered there – so one has to wonder if Xerox hasn’t perhaps done it again, and locked itself out of the market for the semiconductor computer’s successor.


But the work goes on.  This Congress – which seems resistant to fund any R&D that doesn’t have immediate benefits for the military or medicine – doubled government funding for nanotechnology research.  Some of that lucre will be showered upon NASA’s Ames Research Center, in Mountain View, California, where a small team is working on the design of nanocomputers.  Why is NASA interested in nanotechnology?  Size, mostly.  Current computers – such as those found on the Mars Pathfinder – are large, power-hungry and prone to failure.  Using nanobots NASA could send a hundred million tiny eyes and ears to the Martian surface in a package weighing a few grams.  Who cares if half of them fail?  There’s still fifty million left!


The nanobot is still just a dream; to create one researchers will have to crack the problem of the nanocomputer – so that’s the focus of the research group.  It’s a big problem, and they don’t expect to solve it until around 2011 – but that was an estimate made back in 1997, a lifetime ago in nanotechnology.  Every day now, researchers are posting new breakthroughs – gleaned from materials science or molecular biology – propelling them on their way toward a future nearly unbelievable.


Forty years after Feynman, the promise of nanotechnology remains before us, potentially the most important technological development in human history.  It promises perfection – and apocalypse.  In the perfect worlds of fantasy science fiction, all want has been satisfied and all disease cured.  Without the inequities that produce politics or the sufferings that create melodrama, the human story rings hollow, as if our pains give birth to our drives.  It makes for bad storytelling: no room for heroes or noble acts, no sacrifice to create moral legends.  But the approach to such a perfect world seems fraught with pitfalls, the ascent into perfection allowing ample opportunity for the darker forces of our nature to present themselves in their full dimension.


If this were an entirely hypothetical question, we could hand it off to the ethicists and moralists, who could study the problem for a thousand years.  But in less than a thousand weeks, we will be confronting these questions collectively, and no less than the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.  Already Nightline spends a week examining the impact of bio-terrorism in the American city, and CIA analysts lie awake at night wondering who among our enemies – and our friends – has the capacity to wreak destruction on our very cells.  If the threat ended there, if we could simply inoculate ourselves against the terrors which our neighbors might infect us with, we could content ourselves in believing that the future has much the same form as the past, that we know the shapes of the things which go bump in the night.  But more and more it becomes clear that we are opening into a new day, and everything we know matters not at all.