The Basics of Nanotechnology By Gina Miller written in 2000
It was sometime around 1993, I was watching the PBS channel on television. I saw a movie that may have been Futurequest, although I haven't been able to locate the movie to verify that. After viewing this movie I was stricken in the head suddenly with a bolt of "nanofever". It described the process of nanotechnology, how it worked, the ability to place atoms where you want to build complex structures. With stunning computer graphics, it predicted the future. At home boxes the size of microwaves, manufacturing any material item that could fit inside, with a few touches of a button. It discussed the economics of such a science, would jobs be necessary, the end of starvation, nuclear pollution clean up etc. This movie had a repeat airing, and I viewed it again. I question everyone I ran into about this "nanotechnology". After time, I began picking up knowledge online and ordering books, beginning with Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation, and moving on from there. I could not let go of something I had realized could have such an astounding impact on society and life as we know it. I began creating a nano related web presence for myself, became a Foresight Senior Associate, and a member of some other relative groups, like the Extropians, and other general scientific affiliations, I in effect spidered my way into some good contacts. In fact right now I am in the middle of publishing my second issue of the Nanotechnology Newsletter, which will include papers by: Will Ware who designed 'NanoCAD', a molecular modeling and simulation program, Robert Freitas who wrote the newly available book, Nanomedicine, and an interview with George Skidemore who works at Zyvex. Zyvex is a private company ran by Jim Von Ehr with the goal of building the first assembler.
What is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on the nanoscale. A nanometer is a very small measure of length- it is one billionth of a meter, a length so small that only three or four atoms lined up in a row would be a nanometer. So, nanotechnology involves designing and building materials and devices where the basic structure of the material or device is specified on the scale of one or a few nanometers. Ultimately, nanotechnology will mean materials and devices in which every atom is assigned a place, and having every atom in the right place will be essential for the functioning of the device. Another way of thinking about the ultimate form of nanotechnology, is that it will be based upon molecular machinery - machines made by having every atom in a designed place and performing a designed function. These molecular machines will be capable of making other molecular machines and other products in which the atomic structure is precisely arranged to make the desired product. These molecular machines that will be able to assemble atoms into complex structures have been termed "assemblers." Such assemblers will be able to build just about anything that exists or can be designed, anything that is compatible with the basic laws of physics. This includes being able to make copies of themselves, so eventually we have an entire manufacturing economy based upon molecular manufacturing, where the capital base of the economy could double in minutes instead of years, thus creating immense wealth. The kinds of products that could be built will range from microscopic, very powerful computers to superstrong materials ten times as strong as steel, but much lighter, to food or other biological tissue.
All these products would be very inexpensive because the molecular machines that built them will basically take atoms from garbage or dirt, and energy from sunshine, and rearrange those atoms into useful products, just like trees and crops take dirt, water and sunshine and rearrange the atoms into wood and food. Right now the only molecular machines that exist are those inside living cells. Right now mother nature and evolution are the only true nanotechnologists. In effect it is nature itself that we would like to mimic. This is how biology and genetics can become relative to nanotechnology. As a matter of fact there are many disciplines that are constructive to the goal of nanotech, which is why there is no nano degree at this point in time. Too many department heads to merge together, in understanding and using the molecular machines that biology provides for us. There has been a lot of progress in understanding how molecules can be made to assemble themselves into complex structures. Many scientists are working in making such "nanostructures" and they say within the next few years we will have "molecular electronics" making very small computer circuits, and new kinds of sensors and other materials. Scientists have also learned to use special microscopes to not only see individual atoms, but to move atoms around and put them into precise patterns. The first scientist to suggest atoms could be moved to precise locations, was Richard Feynman at his famous 1959 talk at Caltech to the American Physical Society. In 1986 K. Eric Drexler (who is now chairman of the Foresight Institute) wrote Engines of Creation when he was a student at MIT. In this book he explained further on this idea and what it all would mean. At the time, there was some tense feedback from within the scientific field, but now, considering the progress being made with nanostructured materials and molecular electronics, it is a much more widely accepted theory.
In our homes nanotechnology could effect us in many ways. The superstrong materials and very cheap and powerful computers along with cheap manufacturing mean that our homes in a few decades from now will all be made from smart materials. Retractable walls, doors, paper thin televisions. Automatic cleaning floors, trash would also be automatically removed, assemblers could rearrange the atoms in garbage to recycle and produce clean water or food. Saftey control could be installed for example: if your area was hit by an earthquake, the smart, superstrong materials in your house would move to neutralize the effects of the quake or automatically repair any damage. The contents of the house could rearrange to suit your needs or your moods. Any consumer good you wanted could be manufactured by home molecular manufacturing systems about the size of a microwave. This saftey control mechanism could also be used with automobiles. Cars would feature utility fogs, (concept by Josh Hall) tiny machines suspended in the air, that would instantly form a cushion around each person to protect the occupants in case of an accident. Cars would be self repairing, essentially drive themselves, and create their own fuel. Some even speculate that the car's could fly, Jetson style! (see Josh Hall Foresight update #34) Nanomachines would guard our yards from damageing insects. Undersireable pests could be eaten by the nanomachines (have to be very careful with the programming here). Automatic trimmings and pooper scoopers could be features as well. My favorite earth applications are ones that cure environmental damage. We could put soil in it's most perfect state, therefore eliminating starvation in lands that have intolerant soil for growing food, and solve rainforest issues, revive extinct plants and animals and clean up pollution. The environment could be helped by nano applications via the ozone layer damage or nuclear pollution wastes. It turns out that one of the most useful atoms to use in building things with nanotechnology is carbon. Carbon is also part of carbon dioxide, which many think is a major contributor to green house warming. Nanomachines could be programmed to derive some of their materials by cleaning the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and clean out other polluting molecules just as easily. Also, since molecular manufacturing builds things by keeping track of each atom, there will be no pollution produced by molecular manufacturing systems.
The biotechnology applications of nanotech are immense. Microscopic machines the size of our own cells or smaller could travel around the body, collecting information about what is wrong and then doing whatever molecular surgery is necessary to fix the problem. Viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells could be precisely identified and removed, without disturbing healthy tissue. Damage from injuries or from normal aging could be completely healed by supplying the right molecules at the right place and time to tell the body which new cells are needed where, or molecular damage to cells could be repaired, molecule by molecule. Eventually people will be able to communicate with these machines in their bodies by thought, and not only be able to stay young and healthy, but to modify their bodies and augment their natural functions at will. Perhaps some people will replace some of their natural tissue with superstrong materials so that they could jump out of an airplane five miles up, land comfortably on their feet and walk away. Or swim underwater for half and hour using oxygen stored in artificial blood cells. Of course the immortality theory is somewhat controversial. Is it natural, is it intended? If this was to become a possibility, there are those who would not subscribe. I however, would not be one of them, imagine how much knowledge one could attain. Of course there would be some intersting senerios, perhaps you divorce, you could be stuck running into that person for eternity! This is one of the aims of cryonics, Alcor, the Cryonics Institute and others, as you know are freezing the deceased in hopes to reguvinate them in the future, when the cures for their fatal ailments are achieved. Nanotechnology is often the science that is hoped to do this. Currently, we hope freezing people will preserve the memories and information in their brains that makes each person a unique and conscious being. This is an issue, consciousness, what is it, how is it created, and can it be returned through the process of cryo? Freezing also creates massive damage in the cells that current technology cannot repair. Nanotechnology will make possible molecular level repair of each cell, including all of the damage that was done by the freezing. Nanotechnology cell repair machines could also repair whatever damage caused the death of the person in the first place. I'll get signed up for cryo next year, and if it's anything that brings me back, and restores me properly, in my opinion, it will be nanotechnology. Considering my age however, I am hoping this is not something that will need to be carried out, and that nanotechnology will be in full swing before my death is.
Nanotechnology could be used within our own minds. Nanocomputers could be placed in our bodies to augment our own brains. Nano-theorists have estimated that the entire contents of the Library of Congress could be stored in a nanocomputer the size of a human cell, and that another nanocomputer the size of a human cell could have the same raw computing power as the whole human brain. In the beginning such computers could interface with the person through computer screens that were part of their skin, or by projecting images on their eyelids. Eventually they might interface directly with the brain so you could communicate with these computers merely by thought. It would then be practical for any person to carry with them or to easily access all of human knowledge, and to think with the computing power of millions of present day human brains. Also for good or ill it would be possible to attain whatever mood you wanted instantly. Since we will understand the action of all the brain chemicals that effect mood, and all of the drugs that some people use to change moods, we will be able to command our nanomachines inside our bodies to produce whatever brain chemicals or drugs we want, whenever we want them. So it should be possible to switch to altered states of consciousness and then back again at will. This type of process could also be used in a sexual way, as I mentioned in Wired magazine (Jan. 2000 issue pg. 200) There seems to be some interest in my coining of the term nanorgasm. Nanobots could be projected into an area of thought process that stimulates, and multiply this effect exaggerating the end result. You may perhaps be able to download certain stimuli programs and upload them at will. Perhaps one could reconfigure these specific areas of our bodies and make it possible to have them layer into other aspects of the body that are not usually intertwined with sex. This might mean with a memory, with an idea or far away plot as well as physical senses (smell, audio etc). Networks could be set up for sexual exchange similar to UNIX. A person could sign up to offer shareware of sexual sorts, as a computer stores information, we too could store our experiences with artificial intelligence and redistribute! This way you could even upload into some one elses experience or an old one of your own. )
(To reach across the table now) Military applications that are considered are of course mainly warefare. Molecular manufacturing will make it possible to produce massive amounts of conventional weapons very quicky and cheaply. These would be similar to programmed germs or viruses that spread unseen. Thus armies of trillions upon trillions of microscopic machines could be programmed to very rapidly reduce any unprotected population, or specific individuals within that population, to dust. Replicating assemblers could duplicate weapons but better, and quickly. Predictions of the full impacts of nanotechnology are full ranging. Some people think that we could have crude assemblers within ten years. Some scientists don't think such assemblers will ever be built, although everyone agrees more limited forms of nanotechnology are coming soon. How quickly we move from crude assemblers to complex nanorobots and cell repair machines depends partly on how good we become at writing very complex software. Or how quickly we develop very intelligent (or even A.I.) computers that can do it for us. It is money, as in most cases that will keep research going and the more funding, the quicker the results. I live for the hope that nanotechnology will occur in my lifetime, and I will tell the young people of the future what a old fashioned, diseased and polluted world used to be like.
For more information visit my website Nanotechnology Industries and I recommend going to the Foresight webpages and the
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. Also, for the latest news in nanotechnology and other high tech news and to receive the Nanogirl News, subscribe to my email thread. Thank you.
Copyright Gina Miller 2000
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Additional - I am currently signed up for cryonic suspension.
- The second issue of the Nanotechnology Newsletter was released.
- Ginas Personal website
- Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org