Thursday, February 09, 2006


By Mike Treder
The Futurist

Mike Treder, CRN executive director, serves on the boards of directors of the Human Futures Institute and the World Transhumanist Association.

Jan. 5, 2004 -- The future shock of rapid change and technology run amok described by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 best seller has perhaps been less debilitating for most people than predicted, but even Toffler could not have envisioned the tidal wave of change that will hit us when nanofactories make the scene.

Imagine a world with billions of desktop-size, portable, nonpolluting, cheap machines that can manufacture almost anything-from clothing to furniture to electronics, and much more – in just a few hours. Today, such devices do not exist. But in the years ahead, this advanced form of nanotechnology could create the next Industrial Revolution – or the world's worst nightmare.

The technology described in this article is molecular nanotechnology (MNT). This is a big step beyond most of today's nanotech research, which deals with exploring and exploiting the properties of materials at the nanoscale. Industry has begun using the term nanotechnology to cover almost any technology significantly smaller than microtechnology, such as those involving nanoparticles or nanomaterials. This broad field will produce important and useful results, but their societal effects – both positive and negative – will be modest compared with later stages of the technology.

MNT, by contrast, is about constructing shapes, machines, and products at the atomic level – putting them together molecule by molecule. With parts only a few nanometers wide, it may become possible to build a supercomputer smaller than a grain of sand, a weapon smaller than a mosquito, or a self-contained nanofactory that sits on your kitchen counter.

"Picture an automated factory, full of conveyor belts, computers, and swinging robot arms," writes scientist and engineer K. Eric Drexler, who first brought nanotechnology to public attention with his 1986 book "Engines of Creation." "Now imagine something like that factory, but a million times smaller and working a million times faster, with parts and workpieces of molecular size."

Unlike any machine ever built, the nanofactory will be assembled from the bottom up, constructed of specifically designed and placed molecules. Drexler says, "Nanotechnology isn't primarily about miniaturizing machines, but about extending precise control of molecular structures to larger and larger scales. Nanotechnology is about making precise things big."

Virtually every previous technological improvement has been accomplished by making things smaller and more precise. But as the scales at which we work get smaller and smaller, we approach limits imposed by physics. The smallest unit of matter we can build with is the atom, or combinations of atoms known as molecules. The earthshaking insight of molecular nanotechnology is that, when we reach this scale, we can reverse direction and begin building up, making products by placing individual atoms and molecules exactly where we want them.

Ever since Richard Feynman enunciated MNT's basic concepts in 1959, and especially since Drexler began detailing its amazing possibilities in the 1980s, proposals for building products in various ways have been put forth. Some of these have been fanciful and many have been impractical. At this point, it appears that the idea of a nanofactory is the safest and most useful method of building general-purpose products by molecular manufacturing.

Inside a Nanofactory

The inner architecture of a nanofactory will be a stunning achievement, outside the realm of anything previously accomplished. Nanofactories will make use of a vast number of moving parts, each designed and precisely constructed to do a specific job. Some of these parts will be visible to the human eye. Most will be microscopic or even nanoscale, smaller than a human cell. An important feature of a nanofactory is that all of its parts will be fixed in place. This is significant because it greatly simplifies development of the device. Engineers won't have to figure out how to tell each little nanobot in a swarm where to go and how to get there, and none of the parts can get lost or go wild.

Perhaps the easiest way to envision the inner workings of a nanofactory is to picture a large city, with all the streets laid out on a grid. Imagine that in this city everyone works together to build gigantic products-ocean liners, for instance. To build something that big, you have to start with small parts and put them together.

In this imaginary city, all the workers stand along the streets and pass the parts along to each other. The smallest parts are assembled on the narrowest side streets, and then handed up to the end of the block. Other small parts from other side streets are joined together to make medium-sized parts, which are joined together to make large parts. At the end, the largest parts converge in one place, where they are joined together to make the finished product.

A nanofactory performs in this way, with multiple assembly lines operating simultaneously and steadily feeding into each other.

The first and hardest step in building a nanofactory is building an assembler, a tiny device that can combine individual molecules into useful shapes. An early plan for molecular manufacturing imagined lots of free-floating assemblers working together to build a single massive product, molecule by molecule. A more efficient approach is to fasten down the assemblers in orderly arrays of chemical fabricators, instruct each fabricator to create a tiny piece of the product, and then fasten the pieces together, passing them along to the next level within the nanofactory.

A human-scale nanofactory will consist of trillions of fabricators, and it could only be built by another nanofactory. But at the beginning, an assembler could build a very small nanofactory, with just a few fabricators. A smaller nanofactory could build a bigger one, and so on. According to the best estimates we have today, a fabricator could make its own mass in just a few hours. So a small nanofactory could make another one twice as big in just a few days-maybe less than a day. Do that about 60 times, and you have a tabletop model.

By the time the first working assembler is ready, the blueprint for a basic nanofactory may already be prepared. But until we have an assembler, we can't make a nanofactory.

Building an assembler is one of the ambitious research projects of Zyvex, a Texas firm that bills itself as "the first molecular nanotechnology company." Zyvex has gathered many leading minds in physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and computer programming to focus on the long-range goal of molecular assembler manufacturing technology. Along the way, the company has developed some of the world's most precise tools for manipulating and testing materials and structures at the nanoscale. Numerous other projects at research universities and in corporations around the world are contributing valuable knowledge to the field.

How far are we from having a working assembler? A 1999 media report on nanotech said, "Estimates vary. From five to 10 years, according to Zyvex, or from eight to 15 years, according to the research community."

And how long will it take from building a single assembler to having a fully functional nanofactory? The report continues, "After that, it could be decades before we'll be able to manufacture finished consumer goods." This reflects the common wisdom, but it's wrong. Very wrong.

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), a nonprofit think tank co-founded by this author, published a detailed study in summer 2003 of the work required to progress from a single assembler to a full-fledged nanofactory that can create a wide variety of low-cost products. The startling conclusion of this report is that the span of time could be measured in weeks-probably less than two months. And what will the first nanofactory build? Another one, and another one.

Each nanofactory will be able to duplicate itself in as little as a few hours, or perhaps a half a week at most. Even using the most conservative estimate, in a couple of months you could have a million nanofactories, and a few months after that, a billion. Less than a year after the first basic assembler is completed, every household in the world conceivably could have its own nanofactory.

Creativity Unleashed

Before a tidal wave strikes, another dramatic event – usually an earthquake or major landslide – must occur to trigger it. The first generation of products to come out of nanofactories-inexpensive but high quality clothing, furniture, electronics, household appliances, bicycles, tools, building supplies, and more-may be like that: a powerful landslide of change, but only a portent of the gigantic wave that is to follow.

Most of these early products will probably be similar to what are current at the time nanofactories begin production. Because they are built by MNT, with every atom precisely placed, they will be better in every way-stronger, lighter, cheaper – but they still will be built on existing models.

The world-changing shock wave will hit when we realize that we no longer need be restricted to existing models – not when a supercomputer smaller than a grain of sand can be integrated into any product, and not when people everywhere-young, old, male, female, technical, nontechnical, practical, artistic, and whimsical – will have the opportunity to be designers.

MNT product design will be eased by CAD (computer-aided design) programs so simple that a child can do it – and that's no exaggeration. New product prototypes can be created, tested, and refined in a matter of hours instead of months and without the expense of traditional production facilities. No special expertise is needed beyond the skill for using CAD programs – only imagination, curiosity, and the desire to create.

Within months, conceivably, even the most up-to-date appliances, machines, communication media, and other electronics will be outmoded. Imagine embedding "smart" gadgetry into everything you own or might want to have. Demand for these new products will be intense. The cost of manufacturing them may be almost negligible.

To maximize the latent innovation potential in nanofactory proliferation, and to help prevent illicit, unwise, or malicious product design and manufacture, CRN recommends that designers work (and play) with modular nanoblocks of various compositions and purposes to create a wide variety of products, from consumer goods and educational tools to building supplies and even new modes of transportation. When combined with automated verification of design safety and protection of intellectual property, this should open up huge new areas for originality and improvement while maintaining safety and commercial viability.

Working with nanoblocks, designers can create to their hearts' content. The combination of user-friendly CAD and rapid prototyping will result in a spectacular synergy, enabling unprecedented levels of innovation and development. Among the many remarkable benefits accruing to humanity from nanofactory proliferation will be this unleashing of millions of eager new minds, allowed for the first time to freely explore and express their brilliant creative energy.

It becomes impossible to predict what might be devised then. The smart components and easy design systems of the nanotech revolution will rewrite the rules.

Benefits and Dangers

This all adds up to change that is sudden and shocking and could be extremely disruptive.

On the plus side, MNT could solve many of the world's problems. Simple products like plumbing, water filters, and mosquito nets-made cheaply on the spot-would greatly reduce the spread of infectious diseases. The efficient, cheap construction of strong and lightweight structures, electrical equipment, and power storage devices will allow the use of solar thermal power as a primary and abundant energy source.

Many areas of the world could not support a twentieth-century manufacturing infrastructure, with its attendant costs, difficulties, and environmental impacts, but MNT should be self-contained and clean. A single packing crate or suitcase could contain all the equipment required for a village-scale industrial revolution.

Computers and display devices will become stunningly inexpensive and could be made widely available. Much social unrest can be traced directly to material poverty, ill health, and ignorance. Nanofactories could greatly reduce these problems.

On the other hand, all this sudden change-the equivalent of a century's development packed into a few years-has the potential to disrupt many aspects of society and politics.

When a consumer purchases a manufactured product today, he is paying for its design, raw materials, the labor and capital of manufacturing, transportation, storage, marketing, and sales. Additional money-usually a fairly low percentage-goes to the owners of each of these businesses, and eventually to the employed workers. If nanofactories can produce a wide variety of products when and where they are wanted, most of this additional effort will become superfluous. This raises many questions about the nature of a post-MNT economy: Who will own the technology for molecular manufacturing? Will it be heavily restricted, or widely available? Will products become cheaper? Will major corporations disappear? Will new monopolies arise? Will most people retire-or be unemployed? What will it do to the gap between rich and poor?

It seems clear that molecular manufacturing could severely disrupt the present economic structure, greatly reducing the value of many material and human resources, including much of our current infrastructure. Despite utopian postcapitalist hopes, it is unclear whether a workable replacement system could appear in time to prevent the human consequences of massive job displacement.

MNT manufacturing will allow the cheap creation of incredibly powerful devices and products. Stronger materials will allow the creation of much larger machines, capable of excavating or otherwise destroying large areas of the planet at a greatly accelerated pace. It is too early to tell whether there will be economic incentive to do this. However, given the large number of activities and purposes that would damage the environment if taken to extremes, and the ease of taking them to extremes with molecular manufacturing, it seems likely that this problem is worth worrying about.

Some forms of damage can result from an aggregate of individual actions, each almost harmless by itself. For example, the extreme compactness of nanomanufactured machinery may lead to the use of very small products, which can easily turn into nanolitter that will be hard to clean up and may cause health problems. Collection of solar energy on a sufficiently large scale-by corporations, municipalities, and individuals-could modify the planet's albedo and directly affect the environment. In addition, if we are not careful, the flexibility and compactness of molecular manufacturing may allow the creation of free-floating, foraging self-replicators-a "gray goo" that could do serious damage to the biosphere by replicating out of control.

Molecular manufacturing raises the possibility of horrifically effective weapons. As an example, the smallest insect is about 200 microns; this creates a plausible size estimate for a nanotech-built antipersonnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting toxin into unprotected humans. The human lethal dose of botulism toxin is about 100 nanograms, or about 1/100 the volume of the weapon. As many as 50 billion toxin-carrying devices-theoretically enough to kill every human on earth-could be packed into a single suitcase. Guns of all sizes would be far more powerful, and their bullets could be self-guided. Aerospace hardware would be far lighter and offer higher performance; built with minimal or no metal, such craft would be much harder to spot on radar.

The awesome power of MNT may cause two or more competing nations to enter into an unstable arms race. Increased uncertainty of the capabilities of an adversary, less time to respond to an attack, and better targeted destruction of the enemy's resources during an attack all make nanotech arms races less stable than a nuclear arms race. Also, unless nanotech is tightly controlled on an international level, the number of nanotech nations in the world could be much higher than the number of nuclear nations, increasing the chance of a regional conflict expanding globally.

Criminals and terrorists with stronger, more powerful, and more compact devices could do serious damage to society. Chemical and biological weapons could become much deadlier and easier to conceal. Many other types of terrifying devices are possible, including several varieties of remote assassination weapons that would be difficult to detect or avoid. If such devices were available from a black market or a home factory, it would be nearly impossible to detect them before they were used; a random search capable of spotting them would be a clear violation of current human rights standards in most civilized countries.

Surveillance devices could be made microscopically small, low-priced, and very numerous-leading to questions of pervasive invasions of privacy, from illicit selling of sexual or other images to ubiquitous covert government or industrial spying. Attempts to control all these risks may lead to abusive restrictions, or create a black market that would be very risky and almost impossible to stop, because small nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle and fully dangerous.

Searching for Solutions

If you knew that in one year's time you would be forced to walk a tightrope without a net hundreds of feet above a rocky canyon, how soon would you begin practicing? The analogy applies to nanofactory technology. Because we know it is possible-maybe even probable-that everything we've reviewed here could happen within a decade, how soon should we start to prepare?

A report issued by the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics in February 2003 calls for serious consideration of the ethical, environmental, economic, legal, and social implications of nanotechnology. Report co-author Peter Singer says, "Open public discussion of the benefits and risks of this new technology is urgently needed."

There's no doubt that such discussion is warranted and urgent. But beyond talking about ethics, immediate research into the need, design, and building of an effective global administration structure is crucial. Unwise regulation is a serious hazard. Simple solutions won't work.

"A patchwork of extremist solutions to the wide-ranging risks of advanced nanotechnology is a grave danger," says Chris Phoenix, research director for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. "All areas of society stand to be affected by molecular manufacturing, and unless comprehensive international plans are developed, the multiplicity of cures could be worse than the disease. The threat of harm would almost certainly be increased, while many extraordinary benefits could go unrealized."

We have much to gain, and much to lose. The advantages promised by MNT are real, and they could be ours soon. Living conditions worldwide could be dramatically improved, and human suffering greatly diminished. But everything comes at a cost. The price for safe introduction of the miracles of nanofactory technology is thorough, conscientious preparation.

Several organizations are stepping up to this challenge. For example:

* The Foresight Institute has drafted a set of molecular nanotechnology guidelines for researchers and developers. These are mostly aimed at restricting the development of MNT to responsible parties and preventing the production of free-ranging self-replicating nanobots.

* The Millennium Project of the American Council for the United Nations University is exploring various scenarios for safe and socially conscious implementation of molecular manufacturing and other emerging technologies. These scenarios depict the world in 2050, based on various policy choices we might make between now and then.

* The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is studying all the issues involved-political, economic, military, humanitarian, technological, and environmental-and developing well-grounded, complete, and workable proposals for effective administration and safe use of advanced nanotechnology. Current results of CRN's research lead to the conclusion that establishing a single international program to develop molecular manufacturing technology may be the safest course. The leading nations of the world would have to agree to join-or at least not to oppose-this effort, and a mechanism to detect and deter competing programs would have to be devised.

It will take all this and more. The brightest minds and clearest thinkers, the most energetic activists and committed organizers, the smartest scientists, most dedicated ethicists, and most creative social planners desperately will be needed.

Will it be easy to realize the benefits of nanofactory technology while averting the dangers? Of course it will not. Is it even possible? It had better be. Our future is very uncertain, and it's very near. Much nearer than we might have thought. Let's get started.


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