Our Civilization Will Drastically Change in the Next 30 Years


Building Machines from the Atoms Up
by Chet Raymo
Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

Source: The Boston Globe he_atoms_up+.shtml

July 25, 2000

The pop star physicist, Richard Feynman, had lots of clever ideas in his lifetime, including a few that won him a Nobel Prize, but what he might be best remembered for 100 years from now is something he tossed off almost in passing back in 1959.

All artifacts of human technology, from Stone Age choppers to automobiles, have been fashioned by taking a lump of preexisting amorphous matter and chipping, carving, bending, or bashing it into shape.

But there's another way, suggested Feynman, and that's starting from the bottom and assembling artifacts atom by atom. Back in 1959, it was hard to imagine how this might be done, but there is no physical law that would prevent it, he said.

Nowadays, Feynman's idea is all the rage. It's called nanotechnology (from the nanometer, a unit of measurement a billionth of a meter long). A recent story in US News & World Report hailed nanotechnology as the ''next industrial revolution.''

The magazine quotes Mihail Roco, a senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation: ''Because of nanotech, we will see more change in our civilization in the next 30 years than we did during all of the 20th century.''

That's quite a claim, and we'll have to wait and see if it happens. Granted, computer circuits continue to shrink, and gears and motors have been devised that could fit on the head of a pin, but these have mostly been created in the old-fashioned way, by etching a block of amorphous matter - usually silicon.

Which is not to say that atom-by-atom fabrication is all talk. Single atoms can be arranged on a flat surface with a device called a scanning tunneling microscope. And three-dimensional structures, such as computer circuits, can be built up by depositing successive layers of molecules that are only a single molecule thick.

So how long until we see the famously predicted ''utility fog,'' a mist of microscopically-small mechanical robots (nanobots), fabricated atom by atom, that can assemble themselves in their teeming numbers into anything from a comfy chair to a computer? How long until we inject nanobots into the bloodstream by hypodermic to seek out cancer cells and disassemble them atom by atom? How long until we send invisible clouds of nanobots into an enemy's territory to disassemble everything and everybody into a ''gray goo?'' Longer, I suspect, than the cheerleaders (or doom-mongers) of nanotech would have us believe.

But, of course, Feynman was right: There is no law of physics to keep it from happening. We know that incredibly sophisticated machines can be fabricated molecule-by-molecule on a microscopic scale. Nature does it every day.

As I write, a vast army of red spider mites is encamped outside my window - on the sill and window panes. They are taking advantage of the dry, bright weather to feast on the plants in the window box. At first glance, they appear to be specks of red ink, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence; but then you notice that the specks are moving. Under a magnifier they become gorgeous scarlet animals, with six articulated legs and waving antennae.

Where did these little fellows come from? Certainly, nature didn't carve them from an amorphous block of matter, the way we make arrowheads and computer chips. Nature assembled them atom by atom - eyes, mouth, belly, anus, genitals, heart, brain, nervous system - something like 10 quadrillion atoms in all, every one in its proper place.

Red spider mites are visible to the unaided eye, if only barely. The dust mites in my bed are too small to see without a microscope, but they are there by the tens of thousands (don't smirk, they are in your bed, too). Electron microscope photographs of dust mites show every bristle and hair. Quel monstre! These all-natural nanocreatures go about their business, eating the skin flakes that fall from our bodies, and there is almost nothing we can do about them.

Will nanoengineers create mite-sized R2D2s - microscopic mechanical robots that will go into our beds and do battle with dust mites? And then, having cleared our beds of dust mites, and skin flakes, too, march out onto the window sill to gang up on the spider mites and save the plants? That's what the nanogurus are telling us.

Don't hold your breath. Maybe in 100 years, but not 30.

Meanwhile, we will certainly see nanocreatures doing useful things by human design (we have them already). They won't be microscopic mechanical robots assembled atom by atom with technologies like the scanning tunneling microscope. Rather, they will be ordinary organisms, bacteria most likely, but maybe dust mites, too, that have been genetically engineered to make them do things we want them to do - like eat bad germs, clean up oil spills, or take up residence in someone else's bed.

What nature does, we also can do - by borrowing nature's DNA technology.

Chet Raymo is a professor of physics at Stonehill College and the author of several books on science.

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