Tim O'Reilly on Nanotechnology at the Foresight Gathering

by Tim O'Reilly

The weekend of April 27-28, I spoke at the Foresight Senior Associates Gathering in Palo Alto. Foresight focuses on nanotechnology and related topics, including advanced software and human life extension. Here's my recap of the talks I attended:

Conference Introduction

Christine Peterson, President of the Foresight Institute, introduced the gathering.

The thrust of her talk was captured in her closing lines:

"If you're trying to look ahead long term and it looks like science fiction, you might be wrong. But if you're trying to look ahead long term and it doesn't look like science fiction, you're definitely wrong."

Leading up to that point (which was hammered home by succeeding speakers), she made a number of interesting observations. I've captured the ones I found most interesting (this is not a complete summary of the talk):

  • The military is often the social group that does the best job of looking ahead long term. It's their job to forecast possible threats, and they are paying a lot of attention to nanotechnology. [However, she hasn't seen any confirmation of the rumors that they are trying to guide or shut down certain areas of research.]

  • VCs are starting to take notice. [And in fact, she had four VCs, including Steve Jurvetson, on a panel later in the day.]

    There are two components to nanotechnology: stuff and bits. Nanotechnology is ultimately about manufacturing "stuff," but manufacturing at this level involves software, and controlling nano stuff will also require a lot of bits. So nanotechnology and next-generation software go hand in hand.

  • The laws of physics allow us to predict technical advances up to limits allowed by nature. But laws of economics and human nature impose other limits, making it difficult to provide any precise time estimates.

  • The goal of nanotechnology is direct control down to the molecular level. This is a long term project. But now the term is being used not just for true atomic-level manipulation, and in the VC world, we're seeing it used for a shorter term view of "machines smaller than micro technology" -- some people call this nanoscale bulk technology. [In the next talk, Ralph Merkle called this second class of technologies "nanoscale science and engineering."] This is a change from the way long-term nanotech advocates have been using the term, but Peterson's advice to the audience was to "get over it," since terminology drift is what happens as ideas are embraced by new audiences.

  • Nanotech involves a paradigm shift; acceptance has a generational component. Like an iceberg, acceptance is below the surface of academia and industry. But as younger people rise to the top of organizations, we'll see this come into the open.

  • Nanotech looks like chemistry; it takes millions of dollars to set up ... but for machine intelligence (advanced software) -- the control side -- money and visibility levels decrease every year.

  • People overestimate what will be done in two years, underestimate what will be done in ten years. Medium-term predictions are the hardest. This will take a while. So try to have fun.

Ralph Merkle: Recent Achievements in Nanotechnology

Before going into his list of recent achievements, Ralph gave a few introductory remarks:

  • There are three trends in manufacturing: greater flexibility, greater precision, and lower cost. Nanotechnology is about advances in all three.

  • Two fundamental ideas of nanotech are:

    • Positional assembly. Experimentally, we can pick up and move molecules -- but this is still noteworthy, rather than routine.

    • Self-replication. Systems that make copies of themselves. We know this is possible because biological systems do this. Biological systems also show us how small structures differentiate themselves into subsystems of various kinds, and can ultimately make very big structures.

    Ralph's "noteworthy rather than routine" comment was a key to his talk. Right now, we're talking fairly tremendous achievements, but nanotech won't really be on the map until these achievements are a matter of course.

  • If nanotech achieves its goals, manufacturing costs will be unbelievably low by today's standards. Today, agricultural products are about $1/kg. In future, almost any product will be $1/kg.

Ralph went on from there to discuss what he thought were some significant recent achievements. Note that he didn't supply all of the URLs linked to here. I've Googled for what I think are the appropriate links, but I may not always be right.

  • Manipulation and bond formation of iodobenzene by STM (Scanning Tunneling Microscopy). This research has demonstrated that direct molecular manipulation and bond formation is feasible, but it's still hard; we need to reach state where this is routine and possible with lots of molecules.

  • DNA Sequencing with Nanopores. If you can make a very small and very precise hole, you can solve a whole class of problem, of which gene sequencing is only one example.

  • Modification of Virus shells. When it comes to nanotechnology, viruses are way ahead of us. Recent research piggybacks on this fact by modifying virus shells rather than building complex molecules from scratch. For example, in one experiement, the CowPea Mosaic Virus was modified to incorporate gold into its shell, perhaps one day enabling a new methodology for mineral extraction. [Ralph didn't mention it, but there was another news item on this front the other day. Scientists have used genetically-engineered viruses to pick up zinc sulfide molecules, with potential application in building semiconductors.]

  • DNA Motors. Ned Seeman has demonstrated that you can shift DNA from single- to double-stranded by introducing complementary strands, with the result being the development of "sliding struts" -- a three-phase motor. There is also some older work by Montemagno at UCLA -- interfacing biological motors to silicon systems.

  • Nanotube inverter. An IBM team led by Phaedon Avouris created an inverter -- a basic computer device -- by draping a bucky tube over a prepared surface to make a type of nanoscale transistor.

  • NRAM from Carbon Nanotubes. Startup Nantero is working on building what they call NRAM out of carbon nanotubesn -- "NRAM will be considerably faster and denser than DRAM, have substantially lower power consumption than DRAM or flash, be as portable as flash memory, and be highly resistant to environmental forces (heat, cold, magnetism)."

  • IBM's Millipede. Merkle commented that "While electronics is interesting, it isn't really quite what we're talking about. We want manufacturing." IBM Zurich's Millipede, which uses an array of STM microscopes, gives the first inkling that we are building a core of molecular manufacturing capabilities.

Merkle went on from there to discuss what we need to do. We have to start with the goal, then work backwards to what we need to achieve it, much like retrosynthetic analysis in chemistry. He gave the illustration of something he called a respirocyte -- a compressed oxygen molecule -- that could theoretically be injected in quantity into the bloodstream and that would then provide oxygen for an hour. This is a thing of value that we "could do" once we have the basic tech. We need more examples like this to inspire research on "how to" capabilities.

In particular, we need systems designs for molecular manufacturing. Here are two systems architectures currently being explored:

  • Exponential assembly (work done at Merkle's company, Zyvex). It's not self-replicating, but does work for large numbers of devices on a surface: first you pick up one, then you pick up two, then you pick up four, and so on.

  • Convergent assembly. You take parts that are small, put them into successively bigger parts. 30 doublings takes you from one nanometer to one meter.

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But this is just the tip of the iceberg. We need more molecular manufacturing systems designs. The problem is that development times are more than 10 years, most companies' planning horizons are less than 10 years, and research funding is not focused on systems.

Merkle closed with an admonitory story: Babbage had designed a stored program computer back in 1842; computers were not reinvented until a century later. That delay was not fundamental or necessary. You can get long delays if you don't pursue a technology aggressively. Nanomolecular manufacturing is possible, but will we have the will to pursue it?

During the Q&A, someone (from HP, if I recall), asked if getting to computers didn't depend on vacuum tubes. Merkle replied that Babbage's mechanical design wasn't adopted because it was too slow, and human labor was cheaper. But he missed a technology that was available that could have made a faster computer, even then. Someone might have realized it didn't have to be mechanical, could have been done with relays. There were some other designs within the design space that could have been explored. Technology can describe possibilities, but it can't force people to choose them.

(Frederick Turner,who was sitting next to me, quietly pointed out another "missed opportunity" even longer ago. Hero of Alexandria first invented a steam engine almost 2000 years before the technology was widely adopted.)

Another question: Where will products first appear? Answer: Computers will be the first product that people will focus on. People already understand, accept the idea of big advances there. We should also look to materials science - strong, light materials (buckytubes specifically) - and medical applications.

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