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Nanotech Now editor Rocky Rawstern interviews CRN's Chris Phoenix about his recent paper Design of a Primitive Nanofactory.
"It seems likely that a nanofactory will be developed within the lifetimes of today's 50-somethings. Questions remain: when will it exist, how much will it cost, who will develop it first, and what are the social, economic, and political considerations that we must discuss and attempt to find answers to prior to it's deployment?"
Excerpt from CRN Research -- Bootstrapping a Nanofactory: From Fabricator to Finished Products
"A key area of study for CRN is the question of how quickly nanofactory technology will develop. To build a nanofactory, you need to start with a working fabricator , a nanoscale device that can combine individual molecules into useful shapes. A fabricator could build a very small nanofactory, which could build another one twice as big, and so on. Within a period of weeks, you have a tabletop model. Products made by a nanofactory will be assembled from nanoblocks, which will be fabricated within the nanofactory. The product that comes out of the nanofactory will be a mostly-solid block or brick that will unfold like a pop-up book or inflate like an air mattress. Computer aided design (CAD) programs will make it possible to create state-of-the-art products simply by specifying a pattern of predesigned nanoblocks. The question of when we will see a flood of nanotech products boils down to the question of how quickly the first fabricator can be designed and built."
Please tell our readers about the essence of your paper Design of a Primitive Nanofactory.
It describes how easy it will be to make practical use of molecular nanotechnology. The idea of MNT is to work at the nanometer level, building molecular shapes mechanically. But this only makes very small products. This paper shows how to integrate this technology into a manufacturing system that can make large and very useful products.
Why did you write the paper?
To show that MNT will be a really big deal, and could happen quite suddenly. A lot of people have said that MNT won't be a big deal, because it'll take us decades to learn how to build actual products, or because any MNT product will be too complex to design or too clumsy to work. I've shown that these people are probably wrong: that a fairly simple design can combine quadrillions of mechanochemical fabricators into a tabletop factory. And if you can do that, you can design and build lots of other cutting-edge products as well.
What's a mechanochemical fabricator?
A mechanochemical fabricator is a nanoscale machine that can do chemistry. It moves molecules around to make them react, to transfer pieces between them, and so it builds large and complicated molecules one simple step at a time. This is similar to what enzymes do, but with two major differences. First, it works in a vacuum, not under water, so it can do more extreme chemistry. And second, enzymes have their functionality built into the enzyme. A fabricator is a lot simpler, and the complexity--choosing what reaction to do--is supplied by computer control.
Is that like Eric Drexler's assembler?
A fabricator can be a lot simpler than an assembler. Eric Drexler suggested the assembler in 1986 in Engines of Creation: a small self-contained machine, including a computer. A fabricator doesn't need an on-board computer. And when lots of fabricators are combined in a nanofactory, you can have one computer for several thousand fabricators. By 1992, when Drexler published Nanosystems, he had developed the concept of the nanofactory. It's now pretty obvious that nanofactories are the way to go, with non-computerized fabricators being used to bootstrap them. This simplifies a lot of design issues.
That's what my paper covers. How to control lots of fabricators without using a computer for each one. How to connect lots of tiny products to build a larger and more useful one. How reliable it could be and how quickly it could work. So, very soon after we build the first mechanochemical fabricator, we'll be able to build a very advanced and generally useful manufacturing technology.
What does that mean for the development of this technology?
It means that a diamondoid mechanochemistry will be extremely valuable as soon as it's developed. It means that molecular manufacturing will become a general-purpose technology, like electricity or computers, almost overnight. The incentive for developing it looks much larger than people thought. It could be used to make a wide variety of cutting-edge products, very cheaply. And we have shown that a basic mechanochemical capability can be developed into a nanofactory very quickly. This will impact quite a lot of areas, including many sectors of the economy, and military capabilities.
Given the premise that a mechanochemical fabricator could be developed sooner rather than later, what are your main concerns?
The policy implications are enormous, and we have to deal with them in advance. MNT will be a huge military force multiplier, enough to shake up the geopolitical balance. And it will definitely disrupt or even replace several sectors of the economy. Of course, it will also create new opportunities. But the main thing to realize is that there won't be time for reactive policy-making. If in a few months you go from a basic technical achievement to a fully useful nanofactory-which can quickly turn into millions of nanofactories-there's no way policy can keep up unless it's been worked out ahead of time.
Given the extreme incentive to develop MNT, and the relative simplicity of the technology--just a few reactions and a few mechanisms--we have to expect that someone will do it almost as soon as it can be done. We'd better start studying the implications, because 'as soon as it can be done' could be within this decade, certainly by 2020. And so far there aren't many people studying it. This is a major concern.
In your vision, what are some of the likely immediate consumer products? And what - if any - products do you see being banned from the start?
The use of MNT in consumer products, and the number of ways it can be used, will be bigger than plastic. Almost immediately, MNT will be able to build cheaper and better products: less material will be required, and far more functionality can be built in to each product. And don't forget that fabrication will be totally automatic, saving labor costs. Just about anything made of plastic, or anything that requires a lot of labor to make, can be replaced. Today's products are fairly crude and clunky, and complex to build, so they'll be pretty easy to redesign for more efficient MNT construction. Everything from a wristwatch to a wastebasket to a washing machine could be done with MNT, and probably will be.
I suspect that what will be banned, or at least controlled, are small products. Anything smaller than a BB will be too easy to lose, or too easy to hide. If you have a wireless camera the size of a grain of sand, and you can make thousands of them for a few cents, then everyone can spy on everyone else; that could really disrupt society. And weapons could be made that small as well.
What control mechanisms do you imagine may be put in place to specify or limit end-user products?
For one thing, it's crucial to keep control of the means of production. Nanofactories will be very easy to smuggle, because if only one gets through, it can build as many as needed to feed a black market. So the most important thing is to build effective restrictions into every single general-purpose MNT manufacturing system. These restrictions would allow only approved designs, or types of designs, to be built. We have a paper on this topic, "Safe Utilization of Advanced Nanotechnology." If a restriction system is in place, there are several possible ways to evaluate products for safety and suitability. Obviously nothing like an unrestricted nanofactory would be OK to build. And you'd also want to make sure no one builds a nasty surprise into an innocent-looking product--and there are a lot of different kinds of nasty surprises that could be built with high-efficiency, high-strength, nanometer-scale construction.
Hypothetically, how long would it take a "Manhattan Project" -style program to realize a mechanochemical fabricator?
Hypothetically, the fabricator could probably be developed in four or five years, and the nanofactory in another three months or so. And we expect that before 2015, someone will actually have done it. If it started today, it would take world-class leadership to stay on track and pull all the pieces together, and billions of dollars to do the research. The theory of building MNT fabricators is still pretty embryonic, and a lot of different things would have to be tried. But by 2010, six years from now, things will have advanced quite a lot. Computers will be at least four times faster. Scanning probe microscopes will be much more capable. We may have optical microscopes that can directly see nanometer-scale parts; there's new theory that says subwavelength imaging should be possible. And a lot more theoretical work will have been done on mechanochemistry and nanoscale machinery. So I think a project starting in 2010 would be able to do it in three years for well under a billion dollars, and it would be pretty clear from the start how it was going to work. That's no Manhattan Project anymore; that's something that even corporations could fund.
What do you propose as ways that society might mitigate the potential downsides, and increase the chances for a positive outcome?
As I said, we need to start paying attention to this technology, so that we can design sensible policy. So far, we have only the broad outlines of what it can do and how to deal with it. We know that it will create several different categories of problems, which will need different kinds of solutions. We know that panicked or simplistic policy will be worse than useless. So the best way to increase the chances for a positive outcome is to be ready for the development of MNT, by studying the issues, creating good policy, and putting in place whatever structures will be needed to implement the policy. This is a substantial task; a group like CRN can only scratch the surface.
The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology™ (CRN) is a non-profit organization, formed to advance the safe use of molecular nanotechnology. CRN was founded by Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder in December 2002. The vision of CRN is a world in which nanotechnology is widely used for productive and beneficial purposes, and where malicious uses are limited by effective administration of the technology.
CRN is headquartered in New York, and is an affiliate of World Care®, an international, non-profit, 501(c)3 organization. For more information on CRN, visit www.CRNano.org.
Chris Phoenix, CRN’s Director of Research, is an inventor, entrepreneur, and published author in the fields of nanomedicine, nanomanufacturing, and administration of nanotechnology. He holds a Master’s Degree in computer science from Stanford University.
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