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Director of Research
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Building complex products atom by atom with advanced nanotechnology: if and when this is accomplished, the resulting applications could radically transform many areas of human endeavor. Products for transportation, recreation, communication, medical care, basic needs, military support, and environmental monitoring -- all may be profoundly affected even during the early stages of the coming nanotech "revolution."
August 27th, 2007
Early Products in the Nanotech Revolution
Building complex products atom by atom with advanced nanotechnology: if and when this is accomplished, the resulting applications could radically transform many areas of human endeavor.
Products are manufactured in our modern industrial society for a variety of purposes, including transportation, recreation, communication, medical care, basic needs, military support, and environmental monitoring, among others. In this column I'll consider products in each category in order to convey a sense of the extent to which the early stages of the nanotech "revolution" could be limited by practical design problems, and to explore how those impacts, while limited, may still be quite profound.
Molecular manufacturing (MM) will be able to build a wide variety of products -- but only if their designs can be specified. If we know what kind of product we want and only need to enter the design into a CAD program, then certain nanofactory-built products may be relatively easy to design Extremely dense functionality, strong materials, integrated computers and sensors, and inexpensive full-product rapid prototyping will combine to make product design easier.
(For more on CAD, see http://tinyurl.com/2b75p4)
However, there are several reasons why the design of other products may be difficult. Requirements for backward compatibility, advanced requirements, complex or poorly understood environments, regulations, and lack of imagination are only a few of the reasons why a broad range of nanofactory products will be difficult to get right. Some applications will be a lot easier than others. So, let's look at what can -- and what can't -- be expected in the early stages of the "next industrial revlution."
Transportation is simple in concept: merely move objects or people from one place to another place. Efficient and effective transportation is quite a bit more difficult. Any new transportation system needs to be safe, efficient, rapid, and compatible with a wide range of existing systems. If it travels on roads, it will need to comply with a massive pile of regulations. If it uses installed pathways (future versions of train tracks), space will have to be set aside for right-of-ways. If it flies, it will have to be extremely safe to reassure those using it and avoid protest from those underneath.
Despite these problems, MM could produce fairly rapid improvements in transportation. There would be nothing necessarily difficult about designing a nanofactory-built automobile that exceeded all existing standards. It would be very cheap to build, and fairly efficient to operate -- although air resistance would still require a lot of fuel. Existing airplanes also could be replaced by nanofactory-built versions, once they were demonstrated to be safe. In both cases, a great deal of weight could be saved, because the motors would be many orders of magnitude smaller and lighter, and the materials would be perhaps 100 times as strong. Low-friction skins and other advances would follow shortly.
Molecular manufacturing could revolutionize access to space. Today's rockets can barely get there; they spend a lot of energy just getting through the atmosphere, and are not as efficient as they could be. The most efficient rocket nozzle varies as atmospheric pressure decreases, but no one has built a variable-nozzle rocket. Far more efficient, of course, would be to use an airplane to climb above most of the atmosphere, as Burt Rutan did to win the X Prize. But this has never been an option for large rockets. Another problem is that the cost of building rockets is astronomical: they are basically hand-built, and they must use advanced technology to minimize weight. This has caused rocketry to advance very slowly. A single test of a new propulsion concept may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
When it becomes possible to build rockets with automated factories and materials ten times as strong and light as today's, rockets will become cheap enough to test by the dozen. Early advances could include disposable airplane components to reduce fuel requirements; far less weight required to keep a human alive in space; and far better instrumentation on test flights -- instrumentation built into the material itself -- making it easier and faster to determine the cause of failures. It seems likely that the cost of owning and operating a small orbital rocket might be no more than the cost of owning a light airplane today. Getting into space easily, cheaply, and efficiently will allow rapid development of new technologies like high-powered ion drives and solar sails. However, all this will rely on fairly advanced engineering -- not only for the advanced propulsion concepts, but also simply for the ability to move through the atmosphere quickly without burning up.
Recreation is typically an early beneficiary of inventiveness and new technology. Because many sports involve humans interacting directly with simple objects, advances in materials can lead to rapid improvements in products. Some of the earliest products of nanoscale technologies (non-MM nanotechnology) include tennis rackets and golf balls, and such things will quickly be replaced by nano-built versions. But there are other forms of recreation as well. Video games and television absorb a huge percentage of people's time. Better output devices and faster computers will quickly make it possible to provide users with a near-reality level of artificial visual and auditory stimulus. However, even this relatively simple application may be slowed by the need for interoperability: high-definition television has suffered substantial delays for this reason.
A third category of recreation is neurotechnology, usually in the form of drugs such as alcohol and cocaine. The ability to build devices smaller than cells implies the possibility of more direct forms of neurotechnology. However, safe and legal uses of this are likely to be quite slow to develop. Even illegal uses may be slowed by a lack of imagination and understanding of the brain and the mind. A more mundane problem is that early MM may be able to fabricate only a very limited set of molecules, which likely will not include neurotransmitters.
Medical care will be a key beneficiary of molecular manufacturing. Although the human body and brain are awesomely complex, MM will lead to rapid improvement in the treatment of many diseases, and before long will be able to treat almost every disease, including most or all causes of aging. The first aspect of medicine to benefit may be minimally invasive tests. These would carry little risk, especially if key results were verified by existing tests until the new technology were proved. Even with a conservative approach, inexpensive continuous screening for a thousand different biochemicals could give doctors early indications of disease. (Although early MM may not be able to build a wide range of chemicals, it will be able to build detectors for many of them.) Such monitoring also could reduce the consequences of diseases inadvertently caused by medical treatment by catching the problem earlier.
With full-spectrum continuous monitoring of the body's state of health, doctors would be able to be simultaneously more aggressive and safer in applying treatments. Individual, even experimental approaches could be applied to diseases. Being able to trace the chemical workings of a disease would also help in developing more efficient treatments for it. Of course, surgical tools could become far more delicate and precise; for example, a scalpel could be designed to monitor the type and state of tissue it was cutting through. Today, in advanced arthroscopic surgery, simple surgical tools are inserted through holes the size of a finger; a nano-built surgical robot with far more functionality could be built into a device the width of an acupuncture needle.
In the United States today, medical care is highly regulated, and useful treatments are often delayed by many years. Once the technology becomes available to perform continuous monitoring and safe experimental treatments, either this regulatory system will change, or the U.S. will fall hopelessly behind other countries. Medical technologies that will be hugely popular with individuals but may be opposed by some policy makers, including anti-aging, pro-pleasure, and reproductive technologies, will probably be developed and commercialized elsewhere.
Basic needs, in the sense of food, water, clothing, shelter, and so on, will be easy to provide with even minimal effort. All of these necessities, except food, can be supplied with simple equipment and structures that require little innovation to develop. Although directly manufacturing food will not be so simple, it will be easy to design and create greenhouses, tanks, and machinery for growing food with high efficiency and relatively little labor. The main limitation here is that without cleverness applied to background information, system development will be delayed by having to wait for many growing cycles. For this reason, systems that incubate separated cells (whether plant, animal, or algae) may be developed more quickly than systems that grow whole plants.
The environment already is being impacted as a byproduct of human activities, but molecular manufacturing will provide opportunities to affect it deliberately in positive ways. As with medicine, improving the environment will have to be done with careful respect for the complexity of its systems. However, also as with medicine, increased ability to monitor large areas or volumes of the environment in detail will allow the effects of interventions to be known far more quickly and reliably. This alone will help to reduce accidental damage. Existing damage that requires urgent remediation will in many cases be able to be corrected with far fewer side effects.
Perhaps the main benefit of molecular manufacturing for environmental cleanup is the sheer scale of manufacturing that will be possible when the supply of nanofactories is effectively unlimited. To deal with invasive species, for example, it may be sufficient to design a robot that physically collects and/or destroys the organisms. Once designed and tested, as many copies as required could be built, then deployed across the entire invaded range, allowed to work in parallel for a few days or weeks, and then collected. Such systems could be sized to their task, and contain monitoring apparatus to minimize unplanned impacts. Because robots would be lighter than humans and have better sensors, they could be designed to do significantly less damage and require far fewer resources than direct human intervention. However, robotic navigation software is not yet fully developed, and it will not be trivial even with million-times better computers. Furthermore, the mobility and power supply of small robots will be limited. Cleanup of chemical contamination in soil or groundwater also may be less amenable to this approach without significant disruption.
Advanced military technology may have an immense impact on our future. It seems clear that even a modest effort at developing nano-built weapon systems will create systems that will be able to totally overwhelm today's systems and soldiers. Even something as simple as multi-scale semi-automated aircraft could be utterly lethal to exposed soldiers and devastating to most equipment. With the ability to build as many weapons as desired, and with motors, sensors, and materials that far outclass biological equivalents, there would be no need to put soldiers on the battlefield at all. Any military operation that required humans to accompany its machines would quickly be overcome. Conventional aircraft could also be out-flown and destroyed with ease. In addition to offensive weapons, sensing and communications networks with millions if not billions of distributed components could be built and deployed. Software design for such things would be far from trivial, however.
It is less clear that a modest military development effort would be able to create an effective defense against today's high-tech attack systems. Nuclear explosives would have to be stopped before the explosion, and intercepting or destroying missiles in flight is not easy even with large quantities of excellent equipment. Hypersonic aircraft and battle lasers are only now being developed, and may be difficult to counter or to develop independently without expert physics knowledge and experience. However, even a near parity of technology level would give the side with molecular manufacturing a decisive edge in a non-nuclear exchange, because they could quickly build so many more weapons.
It is also uncertain what would happen in an arms race between opponents that both possessed molecular manufacturing. Weapons would be developed very rapidly up to a certain point. Beyond that, new classes of weapons would have to be invented. It is not yet known whether offensive weapons will in general be able to penetrate shields, especially if the weapons of both sides are unfamiliar to their opponents. If shields win, then development of defensive technologies may proceed rapidly until all sides feel secure. If offense wins, then a balance of terror may result. However, because sufficient information may allow any particular weapon system to be shielded against, there may be an incentive to continually develop new weapons.
This overview has focused on the earliest applications of molecular manufacturing. Later developments will benefit from previous experience, as well as from new software tools such as genetic algorithms and partially automated design. But even a cursory look at the things we can plan for today and the problems that will be most limiting early in the technology's history shows that molecular manufacturing will rapidly revolutionize many important areas of human endeavor.