Nanotechnology 1996

One of the first science-fiction movies I can remember seeing was Fantastic Voyage, the tale of a group of scientists in a submarine who were shrunk to microscopic size and injected into the body of an injured man. Their mission: to vaporize a life-threatening but inaccessible blood clot in his brain. Among other things, the movie featured Racquel Welch in a wetsuit.

Believe it or not, this particular science fictional vision might someday become possible–although the machines injected into people’s bloodstreams would not contain itsy-bitsy Racquel Welches. In fact, someday machines may be made so small that they could manipulate matter one atom at a time. Since they would operate on the “nanometre” level–a nanometre is one-billionth of a metre–they’ve been dubbed “nanotechnology.”

In a speech in December, 1959, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman pointed out that as far as he could see, there was nothing in the laws of physics that precluded humans manipulating individual atoms of matter just as they manipulate large objects.

Of course, knowing something is possible and doing it are entirely different matters, and little was done to pursue this idea until Dr. K. Eric Drexler outlined his concept of nanotechnology in 1977, when he was still just a student at MIT. His ideas were presented in a scientific journal in 1981 and in a book in 1986, and he taught the first university course in the subject at Stanford in 1988.

The Holy Grail of those pursuing nanotechnology is the “assembler,” a computer-controlled device which would use a submicroscopic robotic arm to literally pick up atoms and pop them into place to build molecules–including more assemblers. In other words, like a living cell, it would be self-replicating.

In Japan in particular, there is already a great deal of work being done on “micromachines.” Micromachines use motors that are thinner than a human hair and gears that are even smaller, but they’re still an order of magnitude or two larger than the sought-after assembler.

Nevertheless, micromachines may give us the future of Fantastic Voyage, in a way: a micromachine could be injected into a clogged blood vessel, for instance, and guided by a surgeon to clean it out. No incision necessary; nothing worse than an IV line.

A more promising approach to true nanotechnology, however, isn’t this “top-down” approach, but the “bottom-up” approach. Areas of research pertinent to nanotechnology from this direction include biotechnology and something called “biomemetic chemistry.” The point is that the cells of living creatures are already manipulating matter on an atomic level, turning food, water and air into skin, muscles, feathers, teeth and leaves. Perhaps we can learn to create artificial devices that can accomplish these same feats, though with different end products.

Even though the assembler doesn’t exist yet, the ability to move individual atoms of matter from place to place already does, in a crude fashion. In 1989, IBM researchers dragged 35 individual atoms of xenon around on a copper plate, using a modified type of scanning electron microscope, and spelled the word–what else?–IBM.

This led to a sudden, urgent need on the part of other researchers all over the world to do things like write their own name with atoms, spell out the word “peace” in sulfur molecules, and draw sketches of Albert Einstein in a medium of mixed ions. (Who says science can’t be fun?)

If all these branches of research do eventually give us an assembler, as Drexler believes, the impact on society would be immense. Manufacturing absolutely anything, from diamonds to houses to airplanes, would become incredibly cheap–as cheap as wood, hay and potatoes. Pollution could be eliminated: toxic waste is just so much raw material to an assembler. They could conceivably even reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and end global warming.

Nanotechnology could produce supercomputers the size of a human cell, could halt disease and aging, could produce food enough for everyone.

It could also be used to produce terrible weapons, or as a weapon itself…but then again, in a world of universal prosperity, maybe humans would find less to fight about.

Predictions as to when all this might be realized range from 15 to 50 years, which is another way of saying nobody knows when–or even if–it will ever happen.

But if it does, it will transform our lives as profoundly as the discovery of fire.

That’s at least as exciting as Racquel Welch in a wetsuit.

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