A: The Uncertainty Principle states that people who know
just a little physics are Uncertain about nanotechnology.
But it's not a difficult concept, really. Nanotechnology
is merely systems of molecular-scale machinery, like the
ones that evolved in life, but doing what we want. So
Picture the response of a teenager with a normal IQ:
"OK, I got it. Tiny machines. Like in nature.
Working together to do stuff. Maybe kill AIDS viruses, or
whatever. What's so hard to understand? It's, like,
Compared to the teenager, it's taken the scientific
community a lot longer to figure this one out. With hindsight, it's easy to see
why: The scientific community was intellectually
handicapped. Narrow specialization, an aversion to
engineering, a focus on government-approved research
areas, the need to spend lots of time writing grant
proposals - so many good reasons.
When Engines of Creation
was published, the intellectual sorting process got
started in earnest. Some read the book and "got
it"; many read only media coverage and remained -
relatively - clueless about nanotechnology. Standard
objections, such as the favorite What about the
Uncertainty Principle?, became popular.
Tearing their hair out, early nanotechnologists
explained, for the thousandth time, why the Uncertainty
Principle doesn't prevent nanotechnology. And pointed
out, for good measure, that the molecular machines in
nature are an existence proof that such machines can,
indeed, exist without violating known physical law.
It became increasingly clear that Engines of Creation
wasn't going to succeed at the education job by itself.
Therefore, in accord with a great American tradition, an
organization was formed. The Foresight Institute, which I
helped found and now direct, launched its publication work.
But Foresight, for some reason, chose to work in an
antique cellulose medium, relying on snail mail to get
the word out. Fortunately, the rather more foresighted
Josh Hall of Rutgers figured out a better way, and
started the sci.nanotech
discussion group on USENET. As an active moderator, Hall
has kept the discussion on track for years, a tough job,
given all the peculiar directions that nanotechnology
discussions tend to take, given half a chance.
Despite these efforts, there was a large portion of
the scientific community that just didn't get it.
Nature's existence proof wasn't convincing enough. They
needed equations, many equations and graphs and charts.
In short, they needed a textbook - not to read, but to
flip through and say: Wow, look at all that math. This
must be for real.
As a warm-up for writing such a book, Eric Drexler taught
the first college course in nanotechnology at Stanford.
Many of his students had to sit outside in the hall of
the overflowing classroom. The more resourceful ones
climbed in the windows. Almost all the students caught on
to the concept of nanotechnology quickly.
There were some early adopters other than the students:
It was Global Business
Network, and specifically Stewart Brand,
who urged Foresight to have the first nanotechnology
conference in 1989. When your clients have planning
horizons as long as GBN's do - Should we build that oil
refinery, or not? - you have to take the future
seriously. GBN does, often in the form of scenario
GBN's influence showed up in the second nanotechnology
book, Unbounding the Future.
It incorporates lots of scenarios - stories, basically -
that enable the reader to picture nanotechnology and its
applications. These vivid stories, created by Gayle
Pergamit, sketch how nanotechnology could be used to cure
disease and heal the environment. As outlines of what
nanotechnology will mean for humanity and the biosphere,
these brief scenarios are our most concrete images of how
nanotechnology will affect our daily lives.
Although research leading toward nanotechnology was
progressing, it was fragmented and uncoordinated.
Developing nanotechnology is fundamentally an engineering
project, not a natural science, and as such it requires a
cooperative effort. To begin this process, the Institute for Molecular
Manufacturing was founded in 1991. Its initial
project was funding the first textbook in the field, Nanosystems:
Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation,
which won the award for best computer-science book of the
From this, we can see that nanotechnology is actually a
subcategory of computer science. Further evidence is
provided by the source of the first doctorate awarded in
molecular nanotechnology: an interdisciplinary program
coordinated by the "computer-sciency" MIT Media Laboratory.
In fact, throughout the field's evolution from concept
onward, it has been those in the computer field who have
been quickest to understand and project applications of
nanotechnology. Like computers, nanotechnology will:
operate at the most fundamental level (here atoms
and molecules, instead of bits and bytes),
work very fast, because it works at a very small
have plummeting costs, as the technology is
applied to itself, and
eventually, be ubiquitous. Just as today's
computers are showing up in more and more
products, nanocomputers and nanodefined materials
will be able to improve just about any object we
use, including our own bodies.
This computer orientation shows up yet again in the
backgrounds of researchers who've plunged into
nanotechnology. Very early in was Ralph Merkle,
well-known in cryptography circles for his seminal work
in public key cryptography. Despite the timeliness of
that field, nanotechnology succeeded in luring Merkle
away. Now at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC),
which seems always to have its fingers in coming
technologies, Merkle collaborates with IMM's Drexler on computational
Where else would one expect to see R&D being done on
such an advanced technology? How about...Japan? Maybe a project
funded by MITI, another organization well-known for
having its fingers in new technologies? Maybe a great
big, well-funded, long-term project?
And sure enough, there it is: a US$200 million project
the National Institute for Advanced Interdisciplinary
Research. (Be cool: Pronounce it En-Air, not like
the hair-removal product.)
Looking east, over the other pond, we find less to get excited about. In England, France, and Switzerland, you'll hear the word nanotechnology, but usually the speaker means the old-style nanolithography, or other nonatomically-precise techniques. But there's hope, for instance, the British journal Nanotechnology is evolving in a more molecular direction, under steady pressure from one of their advisors, the highly active Ralph Merkle.
To find groups paying attention to molecular
nanotechnology today, just think about which ones have
long-term horizons and a healthy respect for technology.
U.S. Military. Nanotechnology briefings and talks
have been held at the Pentagon, at a
technology-games exercise, and for the Vice
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral
David Jeremiah. Now retired, Jeremiah is expected
to address this fall's nanotechnology
Environmental community. The first Senate testimony on nanotechnology was requested by then-Senator Al Gore for a hearing on sustainable technologies. And much earlier, one of the first nanotechnology essays showed up in the Whole Earth Review, well-known for looking ahead.
Pharmaceutical industry. Developing drugs takes
so long and is so expensive that you'd better be
looking ahead. The U.S. Pharmacopoeia - the group
that puts its abbreviation, USP, on your
prescription bottles - recently funded a study by
the Center for
Constitutional Issues in Technology about the
effect of nanotechnology on the future of
Space-development crowd. Remember the people who
wanted to build space colonies back in the 1970s?
They still want to, and they've figured out two
key points: NASA is not going to succeed at this
task, and nanotechnology will solve their cost
problems. Accordingly, the National Space Society
recently published a position
paper calling for the development and use of
nanotechnology for space development.
Legal community. The law sees technologies come,
and it sees them go. Meanwhile, the law evolves
to accommodate the strange new properties of
technologies. The first crack at figuring out how
nanotechnology fits into the law as we know it
today has been taken by Professor Glenn Reynolds
and Frederick Fiedler, MD, in their article in Southern California
Interdisciplinary Law Journal.
So the early days of nanotechnology, when the
responses varied all the way from huh? to nah, are over.
Now the more alert players are jumping on board.
The biggest jump - outside Japan - has been taken by Rice
University in Texas. A new president has joined forces
with chemist Richard Smalley to set up a nanotechnology program
that extends all the way to the undergrad level. While
Harvard, Stanford, and MIT sit on their potential
nanohands, Rice may steal the show - and the inevitable
Another nanoly-ambitious group has surfaced at the
University of Southern California, where the new
Molecular Robotics Lab is being led by Professor
Ari Requicha. Requicha is a classic early
nanotechnologist. Like Merkle, he's smart enough to be
able to change fields. He forced himself to learn about
nanotech by signing up to teach a class on it, using the
For chemists, the jump to nanotechnology isn't so large.
It's more a change of attitude: realizing that we can go
beyond building molecules to building molecular machines,
and then on to systems of those machines. Nobel
prizewinning chemist Roald
Hoffman signed onto the concept recently.
But for the last step in credibility, we turn to the U.S.
Science Advisor, Dr. Jack
Gibbons, whose call for nanotechnology R&D has
been loud and clear.
So the fun days, when nanotechnology was more a fad than
an engineering project, are over. We knew for sure when
it showed up on the "tired" list in Wired.
Fun's over - now the long, hard R&D slog begins.
But there's one last phase to go through before we're
done with nanotech as a fad. The venture capitalists have
yet to do their traditional stampede: fund everything in
sight labeled nanotech, experience a horrific
shakeout, and run away licking their wounds. Hint:
Start-ups with real market advantages may avoid using the
buzz prefix nano, to avoid being caught up in this
inevitable, painful process.
So who can you turn to for projections of what is to
come? Don't expect that reading science fiction will
help. As has been discussed in the science fiction
community for years, nanotech messes up stories - so many
things change that it's hard to write a story that people
today will identify with. Science fiction fans have gone
so far as to hold an "I Hate Nanotech" session
at their annual meeting. So, science fiction stories
almost inevitably cripple the nanotechnology they do use.
One approach is discussion on the Web. Foresight Institute is
working on a Web-enhancement project to add the advanced
hypertext features, such as backlinks, filtering, fine
grainedness, needed for critical discussion of topics
like this. When the features are ready, join in.
Or come to this fall's conference,
where everyone who's anyone in nanotech will be. If you
can't make it this year, check out the abstracts and
preprints as they're published on the Web.
But hey, it's better to be at the meeting. You have to be
there in person to win this year's Feynman
Prize in Nanotechnology, worth $10,000. Is there a
connection between your work and nanotechnology? It's
worth a shot.