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Sunday, November 1, 1992

Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution

The nanotechnology revolution could change the lives of our children as radically as the computer revolution has changed our own.

With the publication of Engines of Creation in 1986, K. Eric Drexler first introduced the concept of nanotechnology to the general public. Using microscopic machines that would construct things at the molecular level one atom at a time, Drexler wrote, it would be possible not only to build goods more efficiently than any existing manufacturing process, but also to solve many of the world’s current ills. Nanomachines in the bloodstream could track down and kill diseases from cancer to AIDS. Carbon fibers could be built as strong as diamonds and cost less than plastic. Computers several thousand times more powerful than today’s fastest super-computers could be built in a space smaller than a sugar cube. And all this could be accomplished with a technology that was cleaner, cheaper, and easier to handle than those currently in use.

It was a bold vision, and stirred much debate within the scientific community. Now, with Unbounding the Future, Drexler and his coauthors return to the topic to see how much closer we are to achieving nanotechnology, and what its implications are for the future. Though there are still many barriers to be overcome before science is able to create even the crudest molecular assemblers, for many the outlook has already changed from if to when.

The reason for this shift is the strides contemporary science has made toward constructing the first molecular assemblers. Additional research with the scanning-tunneling microscope has led to the ability to move single atoms with great precision, a fact most dramatically demonstrated in April of 1990 when two researchers from IBM spelled out the company’s initials on the atomic scale using 35 Xenon atoms. With these and other developments, it is a very real possibility that we could soon find ourselves in the midst of a second industrial revolution (with effects as far reaching as the first) within the decade.

The exact timescale for such a revolution is hard to predict because there are multiple paths by which the first nanomachines might be built. Developments in such diverse fields as the computer industry, genetic engineering, microminiaturization, physics, and chemistry have all been leading toward work at the atomic scale. It is still unclear exactly how the first molecular assemblers will be constructed, and a host of technological difficulties remain. But nothing about the project seems impossible, and the problems involved are probably no more daunting than the ones for sending a man to the moon were in 1959.

However, one huge advantage nanotechnology has over the moon race is that most of the diverse forces propelling its development are coming from the private sector, and several major companies and institutions are already taking nanotechnology quite seriously. The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has started a Nanotechnology Center in Tokyo, and Stanford University is already offering a course in the subject. Besides IBM, other Fortune 500 companies like Du Pont and AT&T are already investigating molecular assembly precursor technologies, and Autodesk, one of the nation’s leading software firms, is already working on programs to do computer-aided design at the molecular level.

Much of Unbounding the Future examines the various possibilities molecular assembly presents by means of quasi-fictionalized “scenarios,” all of which examine the question, “what will the nanotechnology revolution mean for the life of an average person living in the 21st century?” If even a fraction of what Drexler and company envision comes true, the short answer is “amazing things.”

For starters, industry gets a production tool faster, cheaper, cleaner, more efficient, and less labor intensive than anything now in existence. In one scenario, the authors envision a “mom and pop” nanotech factory where a wide variety of items can be produced on short notice from vats of prefabricated micro-materials using programmable assemblers. The authors see nanotechnology replacing not only conventional factories, but also the fossil fuels they run on, noting that “nanotechnology can make solar cells efficient, as cheap as newspaper, and as tough as asphalt—tough enough to use for resurfacing roads.”

Nanotechnology is also seen as the primary means to carry the evolution of computing power to its logical conclusion. With existing electronic methods rapidly approaching the limits of miniaturization, Autodesk founder John Walker notes that nanotechnology “can build devices one thousand times faster, more efficient, and cheaper than those we are currently using.”

With cheap nanocomputers, it would be easy and inexpensive to make many commonplace materials and objects “smart.” One of the scenarios the authors outline is that of “smart paint.” An average homeowner would be able to mark off a patch of wall with a special chemical pencil, then shovel intelligent nanomachines inside the lines. The nanomachines would then scurry along, covering the area until they encountered the marked boundaries, at which point they would communicate with each other to lie down and bond to the surface.

One of the authors’ biggest concerns is the environment, and there are comments on the ability of nanotechnology to clean up environmental damage throughout the book. While these concerns lead them to make some unwarranted assumptions (such as taking the much-hyped and as yet unproven “greenhouse effect” at face value), they are correct at pointing out that nanotechnology could clean up the environment without sacrificing economic growth. They call this concept “green wealth,” and it provides a marked and welcome contrast to the strong neo-Luddite strain of the mainstream environmental movement. Also, unlike many of their green fellow travelers, Drexler and company understand the power and necessity of the free market.

Of all the possible applications Drexler and company discuss, perhaps none fuels the imagination quite as much as the role nanotechnology could play in medicine. Noting that the body already uses such “natural molecular machines” as digestive enzymes and hemoglobin, the authors foresee nanomachines augmenting the body’s natural immunosystem, destroying harmful viruses and bacteria even more efficiently than the body’s own white blood cells. Other nanomachines could repair cellular damage, clean out blocked arteries, and even regrow new organs and limbs. At the far end of the technology’s limits, even a slowing or complete halt of the natural aging process seems possible. Even acne, that eternal teenage scourge, could be eliminated through a nanomachine “cream” that cleaned out individual pores.

Some of what Drexler and company envisage seems pretty far-fetched. It seems highly unlikely that custom, nanomachine-built underground railways will ever become common, much less replace the automobile. And other possibilities lie so far in the future that their mention here treads the border between speculation and fiction. And as with almost any work championing a previously unknown concept, Unbounding the Future is far better at outlining the vast possibilities of nanotechnology than at examining some of its equally daunting problems. While there are two chapters devoted to addressing these issues, both fall somewhat short.

In the first, “Limits and Downsides,” the authors make a good case for the long-term benefits of nanotechnology for almost everyone in the world. However, in doing so they gloss over many of the mid-term dislocations it will create. For example, what happens to developing nations when the West not only leaps ahead in industrial productivity, but no longer needs either the raw materials or the labor the Third World previously provided?

In “Safety, Accidents, and Abuse,” the authors ably demolish most of the doomsday scenarios associated with nanotechnology, but are less successful with addressing the possibilities of abuse. For example, the issue of privacy is only briefly touched on (imagine the surveillance potential of nano-bugs and cameras in the hands of a KGB). Although they do note that strict controls on research would only succeed in driving nanotechnology underground or to less regulated nations, they still place entirely too much confidence in the ability of international regulators to slow the spread of nanotechnological weapons. If Saddam Hussein’s sprawling nuclear weapons program could go largely undetected by the world community, the idea of preventing the spread of weapons that can be built in something far smaller than a high school science lab seems hopelessly naive.

Still, all these are minor flaws in a book that tries to map territories others have not even begun to explore. As the authors point out, nanotechnology offers us the possibility to trade old problems for new. If even a fraction of what Drexler and company envisage comes to pass, the nanotechnology revolution will change the lives of our children as radically as the computer revolution has changed our own, and as the industrial revolution changed our ancestors’ almost 200 years ago. 

Mr. Person is former editor of Citizens’ Agenda. His work has appeared in National Review, Reason, and other magazines.