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Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology

By rusty in News
Tue May 02, 2000 at 03:35:48 PM EST
Tags: Books (all tags)

After I got over the initial shock of seeing my freshman physics professor, Hans Christian Von Baeyer, quoted on the back cover, I found Ed Regis' Nano an engaging read, in the best tradition of popular science writing. Despite the excellent writing, however, it ultimately left me with more questions than it answered, and made me wonder just how plausible the dream of nanotech really is.

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Nano was published in 1995, and as such may be somewhat behind the current state-of-the-art in the field. Nevertheless, most of the predictions it makes have not yet come to pass, so I suspect that it brings us nearly to the present in the field of the very small, and serves as a very good introduction to it's subject matter for the newbie.

If the subtitle is to be believed, then the emerging science of nanotechnology is contained more or less solely in the person of K. Eric Drexler. The book focuses exclusively on Drexler's career, first as an MIT student obsessed with the dream of colonizing outer space, then later as an MIT grad student obsessed with the dream of colonizing inner space. Drexler's goal is to create the "assemblers" that are the source of all consumer goods in Neal Stephensen's Diamond Age. That is, a microwave-sized box that is capable of building any object you want from the bottom up, by pushing individual atoms into place. In theory, this would enable humanity to create any number of atomically perfect copies of literally any object we wanted.

So, the stakes are clearly huge. But can we do it? K. Eric Drexler thinks so, and Ed Regis agrees with him. There's no doubt that Drexler has demonstrated his grasp of the sciences involved. He had, by 1995, authored two popular accounts of the emerging field, Engines of Creation and Unbounding the Future, as well as the highly technical Nanosystems, adapted from his PhD thesis. He was also awarded the first doctoral degree ever in the field of molecular nanotechnology, also by MIT (through Marvin Minsky and the media lab). He has done his homework.

Nano, however, doesn't give us too much chance to evaluate Drexler's critics on their own merits. A couple times a chapter or so, Regis brings up what the critics had to say about whatever Drexler was doing at the time, and immediately shoots them down, often with a kind of disparaging, dismissive glee. After several hundred pages, I began to wish that Regis would actually present their arguments, rather than merely characterizing them for the purposes of mockery. The overall tenor of the argument is that when the stakes are this high, any criticism is small-minded nitpicking. Regis shares Drexler's dream, and remains resolutely unwilling to doubt throughout the book.

Nano is relatively light on the science itself, being a popular account for non-chemists, so I'm unable to come to any conclusions on whether Drexler's vision of molecular nanotech is actually possible. But what I found most interesting about the book was it's treatment of the "what if" scenario. What if we do accomplish this. What if, from a small stream of source atoms, we can assemble anything we need, practically for free (Drexler estimates that a new car would cost approximately $3.75 to produce and market). Undoubtedly, material abundance on this scale would change everything. Food would be more or less irrelevant, as would most other consumer goods. What would humanity do with itself if work was unnecessary? Or would work, in fact even be unnecessary?

There are no hard answers, because this is a deeply disruptive technology. As much as, or more so than, electricity, it is the kind of scientific advance that would literally change everything, and render us, pre-nano, incapable of predicting what our world would be like in the post-nano future. Many people try to say what it would be like, and they all eventually throw up their hands and finish with "I don't know." Even Stephensen, who attempts to answer this question in The Diamond Age, which basically takes Drexler's technology as it's premise, is hardly able to scratch the surface. Molecular nanotech would be the greatest power ever vested in humanity's care, by far, for good or for evil. Imagine the ecological effects of nano machines that produce more of themselves from any available atomic resource, unleashed in the Earth's biosphere. Drexler estimates that they would be capable of thoroughly trashing the planet, ending all life on Earth, and denuding the planet of all resources, in as little as ten days. Ten days.

So the dream of nano clearly has a potential downside as large as it's potential upside. Which will it be? Or will it even be at all? There are no answers yet. But this is a field worth watching, and Nano does a good job introducing it to the non-scientist.

Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology, by Ed Regis
Little, Brown & Co., 1995. 308 pp. and index
ISBN: 0-316-73852-2
available at Amazon.com and Fatbrain.


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Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology | 19 comments (19 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Keep up the good reviews, so that I... (none / 0) (#5)
by Camelot on Tue May 02, 2000 at 11:58:07 AM EST

Camelot voted 1 on this story.

Keep up the good reviews, so that I don't have to resort to reading those advertisements at that other site..

someone make me a nano britney spe... (none / 0) (#2)
by emjay on Tue May 02, 2000 at 12:08:10 PM EST

emjay voted 1 on this story.

someone make me a nano britney spears
We can't stop here, this is bat country!

britney spears is wet nanotech; so are you (4.00 / 1) (#15)
by sayke on Wed May 03, 2000 at 12:06:41 AM EST

we already have plenty of proof-of-concept (you and me) examples that show nanotech as quite being doable. basically, wet nanotech is what we are; dry nanotech is the diamond and buckyball stuff that i plan to be made out of in a few years ;) blatant plug: transhumanism (and its primary subset, extropianism) rules. the gist is that humanity will shortly be capable of making itself obsolete, and that this is not a bad thing, but in order to compete and survive, will will have to stop being mere humans and become something more. i dig. check out this transhumanism faq...
sayke, v2.3.1 /* i am the middle finger of the invisible hand */
[ Parent ]
Nano-technology, and technology in ... (none / 0) (#1)
by hattig on Tue May 02, 2000 at 01:07:24 PM EST

hattig voted 1 on this story.

Nano-technology, and technology in general (say, intelligent agents that could do work and thinking for us) is good in the short term, but bad in the long term for humanity. If humans don't have to work, then they won't, and they won't learn how to keep the systems operating, so in the (may distant) future, things will start to fail. Of course, an intellectual group of people could exist that oversee the operational aspect of everything, keep it updated etc, but their power over the rest of the people would be astounding!

Of course, this makes money and capitalism a thing of the past. Think of some kind of technological communist utopia, with an all-monitoring all-knowing government trying to keep the populace from getting too bored...

Or it could go the other way - everyone will have brain implants and be genetically modified to be more intelligent, beautiful and popular. Of course, initially this will mean that the richer you are, the better off you will be!

Re: Nano-technology, and technology in ... (none / 0) (#6)
by Anonymous Hero on Tue May 02, 2000 at 04:34:58 PM EST

There is an ST:TNG episode based on this theme. In summary, a highly sophisticated and advanced race set up a computer, "The Custodian", to completely provide for the population's needs. The planet was also cloaked. The problem was that the shielding was causing genetic disorders (evidently not detected by the designers), and that the population, which, by this time, had lost all skills and relied solely on the computer, was rendered infertile. When a species loses the ability to adapt, it *will* die eventually without intervention of some sort. (Of course, a few other thinks happened, which were less likely, such as the planet's population stealing children from the Enterprise, etc. etc.)

[ Parent ]
Got nanites?... (none / 0) (#3)
by fluffy grue on Tue May 02, 2000 at 02:09:06 PM EST

fluffy grue voted 1 on this story.

Got nanites?
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]

Well written review on a book that ... (none / 0) (#4)
by Neolith on Tue May 02, 2000 at 03:25:20 PM EST

Neolith voted 1 on this story.

Well written review on a book that is sure to be interesting to the core K5 audience.

Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (5.00 / 1) (#7)
by Alhazred on Tue May 02, 2000 at 04:58:26 PM EST

The funny thing is some of the comments here EXACTLY parrallel Theodore
Kazinski (AKA Unibomber)'s objections to technology in general... Dunno how
many people actually read what he wrote, but despite the popular media hype
about it, his "manifesto" was actually a brilliant and well written critique of
modern society's blindnesses about technology.

Now given that most readers here are technophiles that message might not go
over too well, but it was interesting anyway. Ray Kurzweil touched on these
issues in Age of Spiritual Machines too, though all in all I found his writing
superficial and got tired of his self promotional style real fast.

As for the physics and chemistry...

I can't see any major killer objections to the whole concept working, it
wouldn't seem to violate any laws of nature we know today (and I suspect in the
case of ordinary matter under earthly conditions we know the general rules
pretty well). On the other hand there is the issue of PRACTICALITY.

Despite Drexler's uncritical enthusiasm there are some serious doubts about
that. Take the car example. What actually determines the price of the car?
Well, the raw materials have to be mined, refined, and processed, then the
individual parts are assembled and tested, and finally combined to create the
final product. Then there are all the other activities involved, marketing,
design, sales, service, infrastructure (roads, gas stations, etc), insurance,
and probably more I'm not thinking of right this sec.

How are all those processes going to be affected by this sort of technology?
Hard to say. Certain things are not going to be changed. The quantity of energy
required to transport the iron ore, smelt it, and form it into the parts is
governed by the laws of thermodynamics. Drexler seems to be happy to pay little
attention to those. The question there is how much more (or less) EFFICIENT
would these assemblers be than the processes we use now? Would they be faster?
Would they produce higher quality product? How "picky" would the process be?
Sure it might be more energy efficient to nano-assemble a car, but if the
process requires a high-vacuum clean room environment and tons of very exacting
control and there's a 70% reject rate on the parts produced, then my guess is
its going to be less revolutionary than Drexler thinks.

Look at it this way, there are tons of technologies out there which look like
they might be great improvements on the way certain things are done now, but
considerations like the "investment principle" come into play. There are a lot
of car manufacturing plants out there already. Billions have been spent
perfecting the process. To perfect a totally new process will require at least
equivalent investment. In theory it might be worth it, but if no one
organization can justify the expenditures within its planning horizon (2 years
max for most companies) then the new methods will not displace the old ones. 

Drexler and the nano-tech guys certainly serve a usefull social purpose by
examining alternatives to present means, and as such their perhaps somewhat
nieve and uncritical assessments are usefull and necessary, but should be
viewed in proper context, explorations of possibilities. The revolution may
come, it may not. It may be nano-tech, it may not. Time will tell.

That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.
Ethics (none / 0) (#14)
by mattc on Tue May 02, 2000 at 08:35:48 PM EST

My biggest worry is that nanotech revolution could be led by unethical companies or countries. Imagine Sadam Hussein or China or some transnational corporation making major advances in nanotechnology. It would be just as dangerous as nuclear weapons.

[ Parent ]
Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#18)
by Dr.Dubious DDQ on Wed May 03, 2000 at 03:56:49 PM EST

In addition to all that, there's STILL a high cost of raw materials - perahps even higher. The atoms that are being pushed into place one-by-one have to come from somewhere. How much power will get wasted pushing that one atom of manganese into the just the right place next to those other atoms of iron to make a piece of steel? Finally, how long will the process take? Much longer, I suspect, than just assembling something from "standard" parts.

Furthermore, who's going to collect and refine to the almost-ridiculous purity necessary the pure elemental substances needed to be fed into the Magic Nanotech Machine?

Personally, I think one of the previous posters was right - we're far more likely to get close to this with biotechnological advances rather than 'mechanical' atom-by-atom processes.
(Incidentally, I suspect the reason "nanotech" gets people jumping up and down cheering and hyperventilating while "biotechnology" tends to get a less enthusiatic response is that "biotechnology" is real and practical (and therefore mundane) while a purely theoretical "sci-fi" notion like "nanotechnology" gets the imagination going.)
"Given the pace of technology, I propose we leave math to the machines and go play outside." -- Calvin
[ Parent ]
Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#8)
by FlinkDelDinky on Tue May 02, 2000 at 05:08:45 PM EST

My idea of a nanite is (in ascending order of sophistication):

  1. virus
  2. bacteria
  3. the modern cell

I just don't see all the magic of it. I think if it were possible nature would have found a way to exploit it (that didn't require concious thought). You know nature likes to be pretty stingy when it comes to things like energy, nanites would have to be pretty effecient to compete with living cells.

In fact, I think geneteically engineered microbes are more likely. Nanites sell more books and add a lot of flash & sparkle to ones carear. I think to make the kind of nanites the sci-fi crowd talks about you'd have to assume that the living cell is incredibly wastefull and inneffecient. I'm not knowlegable to say either way but I know what I'm betting on.

Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#9)
by rusty on Tue May 02, 2000 at 05:15:01 PM EST

Hrm. Read the book, if you have an interest in this. I think that you're right, sort of-- but really, this *is* the way cells and virii work. We're taking about the process being under voluntary human control, is by and large the only difference. Think about a cow: How do cows transform grass, water, and sunlight into steak? By trasforming it, on a molucular level-- rearranging molecules from the raw materials, and creating a different substance (meat). This is the sort of thing they're talking about.

Not the real rusty
[ Parent ]
Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#10)
by FlinkDelDinky on Tue May 02, 2000 at 06:07:43 PM EST

Except in sci-fi I'm always seeing nanites as machines. As for nanites killing off all the (non nanite) biomass of the planet in 10 days - big deal, germs could probably do it in one.

The more I think about nanites the more I associate it with new math. How come nobody makes grandious claims for genetic engineering? Well, they probably do but not the mass of doggrel that nano has achieved.

The funney thing is, GE is doing some pretty neat things. Microbes that eat oil from oil spills, microbes that seek out breast cancer cells, pest resistant food plant (I don't care for this as much though), and bunches more stuff. It still needs lots of work and research but they're still doing stuff now.

But for some reason nanites get all the press. Why doesn't Genetic Engineering get this attention since it's fundmentally similar?

I know why - It's because we're computer geeks. We're familiar with nanite jargon but not GE jargon. What we should do is find some way to translate GE jargon into computer geekees.

[ Parent ]

Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#11)
by Anonymous Hero on Tue May 02, 2000 at 07:46:11 PM EST

Except in sci-fi I'm always seeing nanites as machines.

Um, cells are machines. Seriously, it isn't really the same, because configurations can be built that are extremely unlikely to appear in nature, because the intermediate stages that would have to exist are so unfit to survive in the environment. This is analogous to other types of machinery: sure, horses are more efficient at traveling than cars, but cars have so many other advantages than horses that almost no one still uses horses for transportation. No form of life has ever evolved into something resembling automobiles, because they can't work with the materials required for such. In the same way, cells work with random, solution-based chemistry, and can't utilize mechanosynthesis.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that Regis was unable to present valid anti-nanotechnology arguments is that there apparently aren't any. That is, since the publication of Nanosystems, the first major book-length treatment of the subject, there have been no successful arguments made against the processes set forth therein. Further, there is now another book out which discusses this in a more accessible fashion (for the layman like myself): www.nanomedicine.com.

For treatments of this by people more competent to discuss it than I, see sci.nanotech.

Wolfkin. (who has been too lazy to create an account)

[ Parent ]

Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#16)
by CodeWright on Wed May 03, 2000 at 08:57:24 AM EST

For proof of nanotechnology, examine any living thing.

All living things are based on CHO (Carbon-Hydrogen-Oxygen) nanomolecular machinery, with a variety of trace elements for special purpose tasks (ie, magnesium and/or copper in plants, for photoelectric effects, iron in animals for oxygen binding)

The advantages of molecular nanotechnology as a science, as opposed to traditional genetic engineering, is that the principles learned from GE & recombinant DNA technology can be applied to "synthetic" contructs which are built using nanotech -- which means, that while the mechanical processes used would be fundamentally similar to cellular machinery, the nanobots could be built out of carbon lattice crystals (diamond), powered by thermoelectrics (a radioisotope held in a chlorophyll style energy recovery system), with rod-logic computers.

In other words, anything that has been developed over the last four billion years worth of evolution can now be combined with modern engineering principles to produce superior molecular machinery.

A: Because it destroys the flow of conversation.
Q: Why is top posting dumb? --clover_kicker

[ Parent ]
Offtopic: Does comment moderation work? (none / 0) (#12)
by mattc on Tue May 02, 2000 at 08:05:36 PM EST

I have my articles set to list comments "Highest Rated First" yet the comment rated 5.00 is at the bottom of the page. Anyone else having this problem? Maybe I just have it configured wrong.

Re: Offtopic: Does comment moderation work? (none / 0) (#13)
by mattc on Tue May 02, 2000 at 08:10:49 PM EST

Okay, it said "Highest Rated First" but I hadn't clicked Set. Oops!

[ Parent ]
Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#17)
by Alhazred on Wed May 03, 2000 at 09:37:18 AM EST

Yeah, thats a MAJOR consideration.

I look at it this way, our ability to change the world (for good or bad) is governed by physical laws, primarily thermodynamics. Technology has 2 effects in this equation. 1st it increases the energy available to us (power), first we get chemical energy from fire, then atomic energy, etc. Change is work, POWER x EFFICIENCY = "useful" work done. Technology also increases efficiency. Nuclear energy was an increase in power, nano-tech could be an increase in efficiency. In either case our constructive and destructive potential increases.

I think what people haven't really yet acknowledged is that this is THE primary effect of technology. That inevitably our destructive potential increases dramatically century after century. On the other hand the ability of society to resist damage does not increase, in fact our more complex society is more vulnerable than ever. Increasingly we walk a very thin line between more and more dangerous pitfalls. Extrapolating these trends to the future does not make me sleep well.
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.
Re: Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (none / 0) (#19)
by MadDreamer on Thu May 04, 2000 at 02:08:03 PM EST

The real danger in this is the real danger that is inherent in the humanistic philosophy that is so prevalent in the world today. If we find a way to make something bigger, faster, shinier, etc. we will do it. If we can make cars for three dollars and change, we will. If they break, we'll just take them apart and put them back together on a molecular level. Bang, new car.

I see this leading to immense malaise. If we can have anything, everything, and have it all right now, then why should we care about anything at all? Rarity is one of the biggest determinants of value. We'll have nothing to work for, we'll have no purpose in life. We'll have reached the inevitable goal of humanistic, self-centered living and realized that living for yourself is tantamount to living for nothing.

So this leads to the other side of the nanotech discussion. How will we keep interested? With nanotech of course. With this technology, we could rearrange our own brains at below the chemical level. We could literally make ourselves blissfully happy all the time. I know just about anyone reading that finds it disgusting. If not, email me, I want to know why!

So where is our society going? And can we save it in time? I doubt it.

Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology | 19 comments (19 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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