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Foresight Update 7

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Stanford Hosts Nanotechnology Conference

by Ralph C. Merkle

The First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology, hosted by the Stanford Department of Computer Science and sponsored by the Foresight Institute and Global Business Network, was the first major conference to examine molecular systems engineering as a path to nanotechnology. Held on October 27-29 in the wake of the Bay Area earthquake, the conference in Palo Alto drew 150 invited participants from three continents and many disciplines.

The conference was designed as a small meeting for researchers working in the enabling sciences and technologies leading to nanotechnology, with the goal of showing them the state-of-the-art in relevant fields and encouraging new collaborative efforts crossing disciplinary lines. Conferees were encouraged to be technically critical of all ideas presented to avoid a problem common to new interdisciplinary fields: lack of discipline.

The Foresight Institute was especially pleased to have attendees from outside the U.S.: Japan, England, and Italy. Organizations represented at the meeting included major universities and companies, such as MIT, Caltech, University of Tokyo, IBM, and Bell Labs. Financial assistance for the meeting was donated by Du Pont, one of the companies most active in the enabling sciences.
The Saturday sessions featured scientists defining the state of the art in various enabling technologies leading to nanotechnology. By Saturday afternoon, participants had a good overview of where work stands in these fields: further along than conference chairman Eric Drexler predicted in Engines of Creation (1986), but still an unknown number of decades away from nanotechnology, which was defined as "thorough control of the structure of matter."

Building systems at the molecular level

Researchers in protein design, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, scanning probe microscopy, quantum electronics, computer science, micromachines, physics, molecular modeling, and molecular electronics were drawn together to discuss a common theme: understanding and building structures, devices, and systems on the scale of molecules.

The excitement was palpable. Michael D. Ward of Du Pont described the meeting as "one of the most stimulating" he has attended. Regarding nanotechnology he stated that "the drive to achieve that goal certainly promises to stimulate innovative research in molecular systems engineering." Peter Schwartz of the Global Business Network remarked: "This is likely to be a seminal event, seen from the turn of the century."

The meeting included a strong presence from Japan. Conference chairman Eric Drexler stated that "We need to embark upon an international collaboration to develop nanotechnology, but the U.S. is not yet ready to support its end of such a cooperative effort. Japan has identified what we call 'molecular systems engineering' as a national goal, and is commiting substantial multidisciplinary resources to the effort. The U.S. must join in or risk being left behind."


Components of molecular size could make desk-top computers of
the future more powerful than all computers in existence today
combined

Nanotechnology has been described as a key manufacturing technology of the 21st century, which will be able to manufacture almost any chemically stable structure at low cost. Such precise fabrication abilities could be used both to improve existing products and to build products that are impossible to manufacture with present technology. Based on estimates of parts count and power dissipation, components of molecular size could make desk-top computers of the future more powerful than all computers in existence today combined. Devices smaller than a red blood cell could be constructed to circulate through the body and remove fat deposits or destroy infectious organisms. These are potential long-term applications of nanotechnology, but the conference started with an examination of where we stand today in efforts to engineer molecular systems. Several venture capitalists were present to scout out near-term commercial applications of these efforts.

Molecular state-of-the-art

Michael Ward of Du Pont described the design of self-assembling systems by controlling the charge on individual molecules. If the pattern of electrostatic charge on individual molecules is properly designed, then it is possible to manipulate many properties of resulting molecular aggregates.

Federico Capasso, head of Quantum Phenomena and Device Research at AT&T Bell Labs, discussed current work on exploiting quantum effects in devices built with controlled energy band gap variations on a nanometer scale. Fabrication is currently a major limit in building and commercializing smaller devices.

Tracy Handel of Du Pont discussed the de novo design and construction of a protein by William F. DeGrado's group. This work provides a dramatic illustration that protein engineering is possible, and thus that objects of multi-nanometer scale can be designed and built to precise molecular specifications.

Jay Ponder, of the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, described systems for molecular modeling and for the computer-aided design of proteins. He reports that an algorithm developed in collaboration with Frederic Richards has been quite successful in generating sequences of hydrophobic amino acids which will successfully pack to form the core of a protein with a specified backbone geometry. Molecular modeling is of general importance in molecular systems engineering because the proposed structures are at present often expensive to synthesize and characterize; longer-term proposals (under examination for exploratory purposes) may involve structures that are entirely beyond today's synthetic capabilties. In either case, molecular modeling can help distinguish between workable and unworkable proposals.

Robert Birge, Director of the Center for Molecular Electronics at Syracuse University, reported on attempts to build a large optical memory with access times below 2 nanoseconds, using bacteriorhodopsin as a molecular switching element. They currently can achieve 20 nanosecond access times, the major limitation being the speed at which the optical beam can be positioned to "read" or "write" single bits.

A later talk by Hiroyuki Sasabe of Japan's Institute for Physical and Chemical Research reported on the current state of molecular engineering research in Japan. He described a broad range of interdisciplinary projects in "intelligent materials" and molecular electronics. Dr. Sasabe's talk and discussions with Japanese researchers indicated that Japan regards molecular systems engineering as a national priority, and is investing heavily.

Joseph Mallon, Co-president of Nova Sensor, described the wide ranging abilities of current micromachines. These devices, typically measured in tens of microns, are made primarily of silicon using semiconductor fabrication technology, but are mechanical in nature. Electrostatic motors, gears, levers, joints, sensors, turbines, pumps, and a wide variety of other mechanical devices have been made in this size range and shown to work.

Physics and computation

John Foster, manager of Molecular Studies for Manufacturing at IBM's Almaden Research Center, presented work with STM (scanning tunneling microscopy) technology, describing advances in both surface imaging and surface modifications. Achievements include pinning individual molecules to a surface.

Norman Margolus, of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science, explained the known theoretical limits to computation, perhaps more properly termed the lack of known limits. Quantum uncertainty, thermal noise, and other factors commonly thought to limit computation are, instead, merely constraints. By designing computers in an appropriate way (for example, by building reversible computers) these constraints can at least in principle be satisfied without loss of speed and without requiring any fixed energy dissipation per logic operation. Even with practical constraints, quantum computers seem possible in which gate operation energy costs are smaller than thermal vibrational energies, and gate speeds in the femtosecond range seem plausible.

Development pathway proposed

Eric Drexler presented recent work that clarifies technical issues in the design of an "assembler," a device capable of guiding the synthesis of virtually any specified chemically stable structure via positional control of chemical reaction sites. Both in his talk and in an accompanying inch-thick preliminary draft, he outlined the design of a sub-micron scale articulated mechanism capable of positioning its tip with a standard deviation in position of less than 0.04 nanometers, despite both thermal and quantum effects. He also presented design sketches for proto-assemblers: cruder devices that might be made in the next decade which could be used both to experiment with positional control of chemical reactions and to build more sophisticated devices. His proposal that STM and AFM (atomic force microscope) tips might be capped by engineered molecular structures, thus providing precise atomic control of the structure at the tip (something that is notably lacking at the present time), was met with particular interest. Such a device was seen as a first step on the path to nanotechnology, also termed molecular manufacturing.

Consequences considered

Several talks explored the future implications and policy issues raised by this new technology. This process was perhaps the other major achievement of the meeting: consideration of the consequences of a powerful new technology decades before development is completed.

Bill Joy, Vice President for R&D of Sun Microsystems, described the progress to be expected in computer hardware as nanotechnology is approached and finally achieved. To get across the power of these machines, he introduced a new unit of measure: the number of Vax-years per screen refresh (i.e. the amount of computing which could be done per screen 'flicker' on a computer). With nanotechnology this comes to millennia of Vax computer time per refresh. Even Bill Joy, known for his long-term outlook, admitted having trouble envisioning what to do with this level of computing power.

Lester Milbrath, Director of the Reseach Program in Environment and Society at the State University of New York at Buffalo, expressed his concern about possible abuses of the technology. Although it could be used to protect and restore the environment, he doubts both that it can be developed in time to head off the environmental problems now facing us, and doubts that we will be wise enough to use it properly. These concerns were addressed in additional talks devoted to public policy issues.

My own talk discussed techiques for controlling artificial self-replicating systems. While attractive from an economic point of view, such systems must be designed to avoid any opportunity for unchecked replication and mutation. While "Star Trek" has popularized the idea that "nanites" could rapidly evolve into intelligent social beings capable of negotiating for their own planet, this popular vision appears highly implausible. The simplest and most practical artificial self-replicating systems will have inflexible designs and special raw-material requirements, making them unlike anything able to survive in nature. Nonetheless, regulation of the design and use of such systems seems essential to ensure that dangerous new capabilities are not added by irresponsible or malicious parties.

Societal effects

Greg Fahy, a researcher with the American Red Cross, discussed the medical implications of progress toward nanotechnology. Aging is a consequence of molecular changes that take place within the body, including changes in genes and their expression. Experimenters have successfully slowed aging in experimental animals; if this work can be extended to humans it should result in increased decades of healthy life. Progress in molecular design on the path to nanotechnology is likely to continue and strengthen this trend, eventually allowing the retention of good health for a prolonged period.


Experimenters have successfully slowed aging in experimental animals

The conference closed with two presentations on the broader impacts of technological advance. Economist Gordon Tullock of the University of Arizona cited historical trends showing that, although scattered individuals and groups have been hurt economically by technological advances, the overall effects have been positive. Arthur Kantrowitz of Dartmouth--an Advisor to the Foresight Institute--argued for keeping research programs open rather than classified, suggesting that if classified programs must exist, they will benefit from parallel research programs which are open.

A conference proceedings volume is in progress, edited by James Lewis of Oncogen in Seattle. The Foresight Institute plans to make available audio and videotapes of the presentations; these will be announced in Update when available. In addition to the speakers, the meeting included demonstrations of hardware and software: a scanning tunneling microscope (Digital Instruments), graphics hardware (Silicon Graphics, Sun, and Stardent), and molecular modeling software (Biosym, Tripos, and Tektronix). Conference coverage in the press includes Science News (Nov 4) and expected writeups in Scientific American and The Economist.

While it is too early to tell the ultimate impact of this first international conference on nanotechnology, it has clearly raised the level of interest and focused greater attention on both the technology and its consequences. It may well prove to have been the seminal event in the coalescence of a new field and in the emergence of a new and powerful technology.

Dr. Merkle's interests range from neurophysiology to computer security; he also lectures on nanotechnology.


Foresight Update 7 - Table of Contents

 

Upcoming Events

Nanotechnology: Molecular Engineering and its Implications, January 30-31, MIT Room 66-110. Symposium sponsored by the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group. See writeup elsewhere in this issue.

World Economic Forum, Feb. 1-7, Davos, Switzerland. Annual meeting for corporate executives, to include a plenary-session panel on "Technological Turbulences" with FI's president, Eric Drexler; Nobel prizewinners James Watson and David Baltimore; the chair of MIT's chemistry department, Mark Wrighton; and the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Dr. Golberger. Drexler will present a separate briefing on nanotechnology. Contact: phone (41/22) 736 02 43; fax (41/22) 786 27 44.

Second Technology, Entertainment, and Design Communications Conference, Feb. 22-25, Monterey (Calif.) Conference Center. Speakers include Nicholas Negroponte (MIT Media Lab), John Sculley, Allan Kay, and Bill Atkinson (Apple), Ted Nelson (hypertext), and Jaron Lanier (virtual reality). $695. Contact 213-831-4225.

Nanotechnology, topic of Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science Distinguished Lecture, tentative date March 21, given by Eric Drexler.

Multimedia Expo, March 26-28, New York Hilton, NYC. Conference and exhibit of multimedia, hypermedia, and interactive technologies. Contact 212-226-4141.


Foresight Update 7 - Table of Contents

 

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If you are reading this online or are reading a friend's copy, consider joining the Foresight Institute to support our work. A donation of $25 or more will bring you a year's worth of Foresight Update and Foresight Background publications. The Update is a newsletter on advanced technologies, strongly focused on nanotechnology. The Background series is different: since each member starts with the current version of the first issue, new members receive the basic information they need without inflicting repetitive reading material on long-term members (or inflicting repetitive writing tasks on anyone). Consider giving a Foresight membership to your foresighted friends at holiday time.

Updated information on Foresight Institute membership programs


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From Foresight Update 7, originally published 15 December 1989.


Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 7 to html for this web page.



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