Just Do It
It’s the 20th anniversary of the first Foresight Conference this year. Over the intervening two decades, one of the most common questions of Foresight members and supporters has been, “What can I do to help with the development of nanotech?” Foresight has had many useful programs, and encouraged development in many ways (notably with the Feynman Prizes, in the spirit of the prizes Feynman himself offered for developments leading along his pathway). But we have never taken a hand in the direct development of nanotech per se.
I feel to some extent that this may have contributed to the lack of focus the field of nanotech has had in its course of development. But that can change. The Feynman Path initiative is a specific, concrete proposal — but more, it’s one that can be done in an open-source way, for at least the first, roadmap, phase. Anyone can contribute design ideas.
Moreover, anyone can begin to experiment with a macro KSRM model. Getting past that giggle factor and having a real, physical machine that people can watch as it copies itself could cause a sea change in attitudes and the orientation of research.
There’s absolutely no need to have just one model of a KSRM. I’ll be trying to build one myself, and blogging about the details, but this should be a community of free and open ideas. Many actual machines, variants of the original design, can be built, as the RepRap community shows.
There’s a fundamental similarity between a Feynman Path machine (FPm) and a RepRap, obviously, in their orientation to self-replication. This includes the fact that both schemes require a human to be actively involved in the replication process, in the FPm by teleoperation. But there are some fundamental differences:
- Attitude to cost: a RepRap is intended to be a means to cheap manufacturing, so it’s oriented to using the least expensive materials available. An FPm has much less concern about that: each successive machine in the series uses less than 2% the material of the previous one. It would be perfectly reasonable to design an FPm that had to carve all its parts out of solid diamond, once past the millimeter scale, for example. The goal is to understand principles, not supplant the economy (at least until the nanoscale is reached).
- Attitude to closure: RepRap assumes human assembly labor, but an FPm has to provide its own manipulating capabilities. RepRap allows exogenous parts that are widely available and inexpensive; an FPm allows parts that are available at all scales.
- Assembly time vs accuracy: As a consumer-goods production machine, RepRap has at least some concern for how long it takes to do its job. An FPm has much less concern about time, but much more about accuracy, since it has to improve its product’s tolerance over its own by a substantial factor.
Given that, however, there’s no reason that there shouldn’t be a free flow of ideas between the projects. RepRap took a long time getting off the ground, and so may the Feynman Path project — but if you want to help, in any capacity or form whatsoever, let me know!