Nano-Pioneer Offers a "Roadmap"
Eric Drexler, the father of nanotechnology (although he might not call himself that) and a founder of the Foresight Institute, has just taken the stage to give "A Roadmap to Productive Nanosystems." (His abstract is here, and his homepage is here.)
Drexler is a quiet and measured man, who seems to think carefully through each sentence he utters before it leaves his mouth. The nanotech "roadmap" he's presenting may sound mundane, but it's a big deal: nobody before has clearly laid out the steps that could get us from where we are today (i.e., new molecules and materials) to a world where advanced nanotechnology is a reality (i.e., molecular manufacturing).
How important is advanced nanotechnology? "The promise of this is larger than the promise of the Apollo program, larger than the promise of controlled fusion," Drexler says.
UPDATE: Drexler's presentation is going to end with an animation (which I've agreed not to post in full, since it's still unfinished) illustrating the roadmap, taking us from where we are today in nano-research, to the day when we can produce objects big enough to see and use in everyday life.
UPDATE: In the end, the emphasis of Drexler's presentation wasn't on the roadmap (which he had to rush through), but rather on the animation -- which was a sort of sneak peek at what Drexler's vision for a desktop nanofactory might look like, inside and out. Here are a few shots from the video, in order from the smallest parts (the molecules themselves being placed precisely), to larger components, ultimately to a desktop nanofactory:
UPDATE: In answering the audience questions, Drexler mentions a "developing competence" in India and China in the fields needed for his vision of nanotechnology. The Orient, he says, is paying more attention to this stuff than the Occident.
Nano Flying Cars?
The next presenter -- he just finished, and I'm falling behind -- was J. Storrs Hall, who gave a very far-out talk about how nanotech might be used to build things like, say, flying cars. (Homepage here, abstract here.) Hall is actually known for far-out thinking; he was the guy who first dreamed up the notion of "utility fog" -- that is, a nanobot swarm that could "simulate the physical existence of almost any object."
The flying car Hall mentioned, by the way, would have "a hundred quadrillion parts" (that's 100,000,000,000,000,000 parts), and building it would require a database "that's thousands of millions of times larger than any in the world today." (If you're skeptical about whether that's the right way to go, I suspect you're not alone. Even if, as one expert has suggested to me, the problem of using nanotech to build a flying car wouldn't be as complex as Hall says, I can't help but think that using more conventional materials would be easier. Hey, it worked for Alberto Santos-Dumont!)
I'll try to get Hall on camera for an interview later. In the meantime, here are two slides from his presentation, side by side. The slide on the left shows what might be called a "natural molecular machine" -- it's an ATPase, a kind of enzyme in all our bodies -- and it's a complex jumble. The one on the right is a hypothetical artificial nanotech gear of some sort. The gear would be stiffer, and simpler, and wouldn't need water to work, thus it'd be much more efficient.
Diamonds and Nano
The present speaker is Robert Freitas (pronounced FRAY-tuss), who is with the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing. (His homepage is here, his abstract is here.) He is another one of the Big Names of the nanotechworld: he's the author of the Nanomedicine book series.
His presentation -- a full, and very rapid, and very intense half hour -- was about diamondoid mechanosynthesis. That is, using carbon and diamond molecules to build things. He laid out an incremental approach that would make it possible, and added, in his last few minutes, that each step in the process could be profitable. In fact, one early thing that might be done with the technology would be a stunt akin to the famous PR coup from IBM physicists in 1989 (published in 1990) when they spelled out their corporate logo using 35 individual atoms of xenon. Here's what Freitas jokingly suggests:
Seriously, though, the bottom line of Freitas's talk was to "demolish," as one expert tells me, the arguments about the precise placement of atoms put forward by Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, co-discoverer of buckyballs, who has been involved in a very public spat over the feasibility of molecular manufacturing.
Professor Ari Requicha of the USC Lab for Molecular Robotics is speaking now about "Nanoassembly and Nanorobots" (abstract and bio here). He thinks the field of nanorobotics will need a new name soon, since it's gotten a lot of bad press in recent years -- thanks, for instance, to Michael Crichton's novel Prey -- and thus might sound scary here in Washington. There's some truth to that: a few months ago, the website of the federal government's National Nanotechnology Initiative pooh-poohed nanorobots, essentially describing them as mythical monsters. So a new name for nanorobotics research might be needed someday soon -- but not today, says Professor Requicha.
UPDATE: Prof. Requicha later said, in passing, that if he were to suggest an improved name for "nanorobots," it would be "sensor/actuators." Yup -- sounds innocuous enough.
The sort of robots Prof. Requicha is working would have to work in swarms, and would be very, very stupid -- they would follow a few very simple rules. But from simple rules, complex things could be built. They'd also have to be low-energy, and would have to communicate with one another chemically (as opposed to big mechanical robots today, which might for instance navigate and communicate with radio or sonar or vision). Prof. Requicha's robots "don't know where they are, they don't know if they're coming or going, they don't have a boss."
When asked afterwards about the potential abuse of these robots -- specifically, turning nanorobots into weapons -- Prof. Requicha responded, "Any powerful technology can go either way -- it depends on what you want to do with it.... Why would you bother to go through such an elaborate procedure, to build nanorobots, when you could just throw anthrax [at your enemy]."
I'll try to get some video up later of Prof. Requicha's constructive swarms, but I can't guarantee that it'll show up clearly.
UPDATE: Click the picture below for some streaming Windows video of an animation of Prof. Requicha's nanorobots at work. My understanding of what's happening in the video is this: the little red dots you see all over the screen (not to be confused with the bright red dot from Prof. Requicha's laser pointer) are supposed to be nanorobots. They are each given a very simple set of coded instructions, but are not told where to go. They just move about randomly, unless they happen to bump into a particular position where one of their simple pre-programmed rules is activated, in which case they execute that rule. (These are rules like, "if you bump into such-and-such a nanobot on so-and-so side, you should glom onto it.") The end result is the creation of a desired structure. (There was another animation where the nanobots spelled out the initials of Prof. Requicha's lab.)
At least that's my rudimentary understanding of it. I've taken out the sound from the video, to reduce bandwidth problems, but here's what the professor is saying at this point: "They [the nanorobots] first build the boundaries, you'll notice, and then they fill it up.... We can build arbitrary two-dimensional shapes. Whether we can do it in 3D -- I think we probably can, but it will be more difficult."
Two more presentations before lunch at noon.
First, David Baker of the University of Washington spoke on protein structures (abstract here).
Onstage right now is William A. Goddard III of Caltech. He's a Big Name in nanotechnology research, and one of the co-chairs of the conference. His talk is wide-ranging, describing the recent successes and failures in efforts of developing useful and stable molecular systems -- things like switches and motors. (Abstract here, homepage here.)
This is as good a point as any to mention again that I'm listening to these presentations as a layman, and that most of the technical details are going way over my head. Anyone seeking more detail should contact the speakers, whose e-mail addresses can be found on the Foresight website. My own interest is more on the public policy side of things (which is why I'm speaking here on Sunday, when the emphasis is public policy). I get the impression, though, that partial understanding is not unusual at nanotech conferences. In fact, so much of advanced nanotechnology crosses between disciplines that it's very difficult even for experts, trained in specific scientific sub-fields, to get their arms around it.
P.S. - Dr. Goddard, it turns out, is an academic "grandson" of Marie Curie. Goddard's advisor was Pol Duwez, whose advisor was Emile Henriot, whose advisor was Marie Curie.
Nano Research: Help wanted
Two more presentations just zoomed by, as I was busy getting various aspects of the blog in order. The first was from Christian Schafmeister of the University of Pittsburgh (abstract here), and dealt with designing parts for molecular machines. At the end of his talk, he was asked whether enough money was coming his way, and he said, "The money isn't a problem. The people are a problem. I need good postdocs, and people to do this work."
He was followed by Amar Flood of UCLA (abstract here), who looks tremendously like actor Paul Bettany, at least from where I'm sitting. He spoke about designing molecules that can make rotary and linear movements. These would be important components of molecular machines, just as levers and wheels are important to normal machines in the macro world.
I'll try to get a few pictures up in a few minutes.
UPDATE: I grabbed Christian Schafmeister in the hallway and asked him to comment further on what he said about needing good minds. Here's a video in which he clarifies: he's talking about the difficulty of attracting people to cutting-edge work like his, especially if you're a professor who doesn't yet have a big name and a big lab. The video is streaming Windows media:
Not Your Daddy's DNA
The speaker onstage right now is Nadrian "Ned" Seeman of NYU's Department of Chemistry. His talk is called "DNA: Not Merely the Secret of Life." He described a number of very primitive molecule-sized devices that are based on one of the most useful molecules we know of -- DNA. These devices are considered, by some, to be the first primitive steps toward true molecular machines. Work in this area is progressing quickly, and aren't just happening on computer screens -- many of these molecules are being successfully synthesized.
I'll post a video of one such machine in a while, but first, here's a picture of a DNA-based structure:
He said, in answering one of the questions from the audience, that he'd like to see a molecular "knot" in his lifetime.
Professor Seeman's homepage is here:
An asbtract of his talk today can be found here:
UPDATE: I've now got some more video online. This is taken from Professor Seeman's presentation, and shows an animation of molecules that are moving in a predetermined direction. They are, essentially, "walking." This sort of simple control over molecules -- in this case, molecules based on DNA -- is a useful step toward being able to position molecules, the sort of precise placement that might lead to building larger and larger things. The "biped walker" video, which is an animation of something Professor Seeman's lab has actually done -- is in streaming Windows media:
UPDATE: On Day 3 of the conference, I was approached by William B. Sherman, a postdoc researcher who works with Professor Seeman at NYU. He suggested that I point out this ScienCentral article which includes a link to the full video of the biped walker, although you'll have to get a (free) registration to watch it.