A review by John Murray, first published in IIE Transactions, May 1993
In 1959, physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman described a vision of using machines to construct smaller machines which would in turn make even smaller machines, and so on down to the molecular level. He saw nothing conceptually wrong with the possibility of making substances by maneuvering individual atoms; however, at the time it seemed an unnecessary art, since chemical bulk-processing would undoubtedly be easier and cheaper. It was over fifteen years before some MIT researchers began re-examining Feynman's ideas and thinking about the ways they might be brought to fruition. Thus was the field called nanotechnology born.
Unbounding The Future describes nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing in lay terms, and paints some potential scenarios of what life might be like when this technology becomes feasible. One of the authors, K. Eric Drexler, has been the keeper of the nanotechnology vision since the early days at MIT, where he outlined its underlying technical ideas in his book Engines of Creation in 1986. Now, he has been joined by Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit in writing Unbounding The Future, where he attempts to spread the word to a more general audience.
The fundamental premise of the book is that engineering at the molecular level will provide thorough and inexpensive control over the basic structure of matter. Hence, for example, sheets of material just a few molecules thick could be made as hard as diamond. Or tiny machines the size of microbes could be constructed to break down toxic waste, kill pests, and attack viral diseases. Some programmed nanodevices might be injected into the human body and directed to herd skin cells into repairing wounds, while others could be painted onto a wall to form display units - a sort of video wallpaper. Skeptical ? A smart nanodevice might be several thousand nanometers (nm) across, whereas the bumps on stamping dies for compact disks are around 130 by 600nm (compared to 100,000nm for record grooves). So we're already working in nano- dimensions !
The authors of Unbounding The Future mention some current research which may eventually provide us with these and many other capabilities. They use the phrase 'exploratory engineering' to describe the process of designing nanodevices of various kinds and analyzing their practicality, despite the fact that we don't know how they might be constructed yet. Some sort of a confluence between biology, chemistry, atomic physics, and several other disciplines will probably get us there. Then we shall use advanced virtual reality systems to provide us with the means of doing molecular level design. Positional chemistry will ensure that molecules only link up as designed, and protein engineering will enable them to self- assmble into complex objects. Molecular robot arms meticulously place each atom to form mosaics of pure diamond, or steel, or silicon.
Nano-computation could be achieved by atomic-level rods and wheels linked in the same way as the brass components of Babbage's Analytical Engine. Programs might be stored as patterns in strings of loosely linked molecules, a concept drawn from pairing twentieth- century knowledge of DNA with the nineteenth-century design of the programmable Jacquard textile loom.
The assumed closing of the gap between present-day capabilities and the sophisticated systems of the future can be a little disconcerting. (This hand-waving characteristic of exploratory engineering became apparent in the first college course on the subject - one that Drexler presented in 1988 at Stanford University - in which this reviewer had the good fortune to participate). Limitations in tooling certainly shouldn't dissuade the inventive process; as the book points out, Leonardo da Vinci had similar problems with contemporary tool accuracy. However, one senses that the authors' citation of such an illustrious precedent may be something less than appropriate self- effacement.
But let us not be too harsh - Da Vinci was a supremely interdisciplinary individual, and that characteristic is worth a lot in exploratory engineering. Confronted with the design for some nanodevice, a mechanical engineer would likely exclaim "Machines so small ?" while a chemist, looking at the same design, might well ask "Molecules so large ?". When dealing with the ability to fly, biologists look more towards ornithology than aerospace engineering. As the book points out, chemists and physicists don't typically work in large groups, but the complexity of molecular-level design demands that they must. Kyoto University has already addressed this issue in establishing its Department of Molecular Engineering. So has Tokyo Institute of Technology. How many US colleges have taken similar steps?
Molecular manufacturing could slash the costs of making cars and other plant-intensive products. By mixing several syrupy fluids together under the control of predefined software, a mom-and-pop operation might turn out lightweight temporary dwellings, fully furnished and folded into suitcases, at the rate of four hundered per hour. Fast product development cycles, rapid prototyping and inexpensive testing becomes possible for fabricated goods and materials. This suggests that manufacturing may be more like present-day software engineering, where most of the work is in design and programming, since replicating the output is an almost trivial task.
The authors of Unbounding the Future are deeply concerned about the organizational and social issues related to nanotechnology. People, they say, will have a fundamental problem in grappling with the broadness of the possibilities which it offers. Benefits like housing, health, and transport will be easy to provide, but who will ensure that these are the nanotechnology applications of preference? How should we deal with the complexity of copyright and ownership issues ? It's bad enough right now in information-rich environments like biotechnology, and getting worse in the multimedia arena.
The book is disappointing in that it covers little about potential military uses of nanotechnology or its possibilities for terrorism. It also fails to address the (typically unforseen) systemic risks which are "designed into" many complex machines. Most of the potential future scenarios it presents are so squeaky-clean that the reader might be forgiven for assuming the authors are supreme optimists. Other readers might imagine that access to nanotechnology could be regulated and controlled by some form of supranational licencing agency. However, in one salient paragraph, the book dismisses the notion of optimism by suggesting - or rather insisting - that regulation cannot be the answer, but merely a stopgap measure.
During the breathing space such a stopgap might provide, the authors hope we will use nanotechnology to develop adequate protection systems and immune machines to eliminate the threat before time runs out. They warn that decisions on how to handle its capabilities should not be left until the last minute (whenever that may be), as was the case with the US space program immediately after Sputnik.
The fundamental message of last chapter is that people who see the value of nanotechnology will recognize the benefit of open public cooperative research, rather than closed classified investigations. The book culminates in a call to 'get involved'; I believe the first step for anyone concerned about future technology policies should be to respond to the call by reading the book.
Reviewer John Murray researches Human-Machine Systems in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.