Magazine article The Futurist

A Radical Future for Nanotechnology

Magazine article The Futurist

A Radical Future for Nanotechnology

Article excerpt

The father of the concept of "nanotechnology" shows how the goals of atomically precise manufacturing got sidetracked and where its future really is. With technologies enabling us to make things with lower costs and less resource consumption, we could all live in a radically abundant world.

In 1986, with the publication of my book Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (Anchor), I introduced the world to a concept I had first described a few years before. This concept of nanotechnology has two key features: (1) manufacturing using machinery based on nanoscale devices and (2) products built with atomic precision. These features are closely linked, because atomically precise manufacturing relies on nanoscale devices and will also provide a way to build them.

Nanoscale parts and atomic precision together enable atomically precise manufacturing (APM), and this technology will open the door to extraordinary improvements in the cost, range, and performance of products. The range extends beyond the whole of modern physical technology, spanning ultra-light structures for aircraft, billion-core laptops, etc.

At the time, I had no idea that nanotechnology would become an object of such fascination and speculation. At the outset, "nanotechnology" was simply a name I had chosen to label the concept of an APM-based technology, a name that occurred to me between the first and second drafts of Engines of Creation.

Without the promise of APM-level technologies, nanotechnology in the broader sense would have progressed less quickly and very likely under a range of more traditional names. There would have been no abrupt takeoff of press coverage, no public fascination with a nanoscale robot mythology, and no reason for nanotechnology to infiltrate popular culture through books, movies, and computer games. Nanoscale particles and the like would never have been mistaken for a technology that could upend the world.

Soon after the publication of Engines of Creation, feature articles and coverage in the popular press reached millions of readers within a few months. Science-fiction novels took up the theme in the years that followed, further exciting the public's imagination. During this time, "nanotechnology" in the public mind grew into a vision of a futuristic technology based on tiny machines, loosely derived from my initial conception of high-throughput, atomically precise manufacturing.

More than a decade ago, in support of a vision of atomically precise fabrication, President Clinton announced a plan for the world's first national nanotechnology program. But soon after the program was funded, its leaders in Washington redefined "nanotechnology" solely in terms of scale, eliminating all mention of atomic precision. To qualify as a nanotechnology, it was merely necessary that structures have features with "dimensions of roughly one to one hundred nanometers." AP nanotechnologies often satisfy this size criterion, but so do transistors on silicon chips and particles of ultrafine powder. This revised concept of nanotechnology had little in common with atomically precise manufacturing using machinery based on nanoscale devices.

The 1990s saw increasingly widespread confusion between near-term and long-term technologies, and this confusion suggested a close relationship, a narrow gap, or a short path from present technologies to prospects that had rightly been regarded as decades in the future. Nanotechnology, it seemed, had already arrived. The confusion, however, served to channel money to researchers who then had little incentive to explain the difference between nanoparticles and nanomachines. The incongruity led to tensions.

Imagine the position of researchers specializing in making, studying, and applying the properties of very small particles. In the years before 1986, their studies had little cachet, yet in the early 1990s the world increasingly found their research exciting--provided they called it nanotechnology. …

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