The idea of a nanotech-based matter compiler began in the U.S., and we do some relevant computer modeling studies, but the U.K is pulling ahead toward actually building one. Twenty to thirty lucky researchers will gather on January 8-12, 2007, to brainstorm how to do this, after which the U.K. government will spend about US$ 3 million on the best of the ideas discussed. We in the U.S. are green with envy. An excerpt from the announcement (noticed at CRN):
Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint? This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter – the creation, perhaps, of a “matter compiler” which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed. Even partial progress towards this goal would significantly open up the range of available functional materials, permitting meta-materials with interesting electronic, optoelectronic, optical and magnetic properties.
One route to this goal might be to take inspiration from 3-d rapid prototyping devices, and conceive of some kind of pick-and-place mechanism operating at the atomic or molecular level, perhaps based on scanning probe techniques. On the other hand, the field of DNA nanotechnology gives us examples of complex structures built by self-assembly, in which the program to guide the construction is implicit within the structure of the building blocks themselves. This problem, then, goes beyond surface chemistry and the physics of self-assembly to some fundamental questions in computer science.
The director of the activity, Richard Jones, says that interested researchers should apply if they are “scientists working in UK universities and research institutes, broadly speaking”. So the rest of us are out of luck, unless we can transfer there before the application deadline of noon on November 2. It’s worth a try.
The good news is, if the U.K. wins the race to a matter compiler, we in the U.S. won’t have to learn a completely new language. (We could start practicing now, e.g., say “let’s take the lift to my flat”, not “let’s take the elevator to my apartment”. It’s shorter, too.) Heck, we’ve always considered the U.K. to be our “cousins”; we can hope they feel the same way. What’s wrong with having royalty, anyway?
[UPDATE 2: The idea for this project was suggested by Philip Moriarty, who previously organized a debate at University of Nottingham, which is available in a PDF transcript and as streaming video at Google Video. Evidently the debate, which included David Forrest and Josh Hall, following Moriarty's earlier and ongoing collaboration with Robert Freitas, went well enough to encourage him to pursue the “building with atomic precision under computer control” concept.]