Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 6 Jun 03 10:25
I share Cynthia's question about space materials, but let me put it in more general terms. The physics of nanotech is exciting in itself. I don't know if it's a spinoff from the microprocessor/magnetic storage/other-hi-tech sector or whether fundamental research directly underlies it, but just as learning the genetic code is revolutionizing medicine, learning the nanoscopic code of metals and ceramics and catalysts promises to revolutionize what we can do with materials in general.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Fri 6 Jun 03 12:14
It has the potential to be as much of a revolution in physics as the theory of relativity was, if I understand this right. The question that has been on my mind a lot recently is *time scale*, especially how it relatees to industry. With modern technology, we're used to things that keep happening smaller and *faster*. Build things in a week, a day, an hour, minutes. And then, expect them to wear out in a week, a month, a year. But biological assemblers are *slow*, probably because they are so many huge orders of magnitude more complex. How many weeks does it take a frog to regrow a bone? It takes cancer months or years to grow inside the body. A molecularly engineered cure for cancer might take the same time frame. Or perhaps not even be a *cure*, just some sort of balancer that keeps the cancer growth in check. (and I know we're piling up questions, Bill!)
Bruce Koball (bkoball) Fri 6 Jun 03 13:23
and here's another question for the pile, Bill... where, in your view, does nanotechnology begin? That is, how and where do you draw the line between existing technologies like microchip manufacturing and micromachining, using photolithographic techniques, and what you see as "nanotechnology." The current International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors describes a path from the current leading/bleeding edge 120nm and 90nm technology nodes down to to nodes at 65nm, 45nm, 32nm and 22nm, using extensions of existing photomask techniques. Yes, these are still essentially bulk processes, but they are producing component features of nanometer dimensions; indeed, the thickness of gate oxides may be measured in atoms. And some of the biologically-inspired composite "nanotech" materials you mention above are essentailly bulk processes. So, how are you defining "nanotechnology?"
Erin (jonl) Sat 7 Jun 03 13:31
Email from Erin: Hello again, a review of Nanocosm can be found here: http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0583.html Mister Atkins, a very important point is raised by this review, it appears that you rely on alot of personal ad hominem style attacks against Eric Drexler rather than truly being able to refute his claims about molecular assembler theory. In addition, the claims of Dr. Richard Smalley have been answered here: http://www.imm.org/SciAmDebate2/ Overall I tend to think that both you and Drexler are correct, in that Drexler's Nanosystems style nanoelectromechanical robotics are very possible and in some form will be built, and, your favored cellular automata nano systems could also be developed. I was intrigued at the discussions you had regarding nanocomposite ceramics, this would finally allow us to have knife-quality ceramic blades for cutlery that are very resistant to chipping and shattering, at least as good as metal! Sincerly Erin
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sat 7 Jun 03 17:53
Cynthia: Nanotech could do this, yes. Using silicon (not as a semiconductor, but as an element able to support super-smooth molded surfaces) nanotech could easily give us, with today's technology, a Shuttle tile system so smooth that the craft could slip through the atmosphere generating almost no heat. Unfortunatley, this would be as ounterproductive as any brake system that generated no heat. Generating heat is a brake system's raison d'etre - that is, a brake system exists to covert kinetic energy into thermal energy, which can then be radiated away into the surrounding medium. Having super-slippery Shuttle tiles would be like pouring oil on your car's disk brakes: less heat would be generated, and your vehicle would by that amount be less slowed. The tiles make the Shuttle its own brake, converting its immense kinetic energy (c.18,000 mph, c.Mach 25) into heat. This reduces the Shuttle's velocity to the point where it can land.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sat 7 Jun 03 18:04
Erin: I dispute that all objections to the Drexlerian nanoassembler have been answered. If this were the case, we would already have seen the invention. But we have not. Therefore not all objections have been answered. As memory serves, the formal logical procedure is called Modus tolens: if A then B; Not B; therefore not A. One could multiply arguments ad infinitum, but the essence of any debate is this: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. In the present instance, two of these three elements have already been made. Thesis (Drexler): The nanoassembler is both possible and inevitable. Antithesis (Smalley, Atkinson et al.): Balls: prove it! So. The only synthesis, i.e. the only allowable counter-argument to all this, is for Drexler and his supporters to actually produce a nanoassembler. The day, nay the hour, this is done, and the nanoassembler is shown operating in microsecond-interval AFM images, then (and only then) will I admit the Drexlerian view has triumphed. Unless and until this occurs, I and my fellow skeptics must be permitted our skepticism. Mr Drexler and his followers do not need to convince me, or the U.S. Supreme Court, or any other audience. They need to convince Mother Nature. And she is a far tougher judge than I. Put up or shut up, is her motto. And in this I concur.
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Sat 7 Jun 03 18:24
While the nanoassembler is still in question the Drexler nanomechical computer does have predecessors going back 150 years. Most recently, the Thinkertoy computer, now in a Boston museum, serves as the basis for mechanical logic computing at the nanoscale level. Also, I would be cautious about the logic that concludes with "we would already have seen the invention." One might find that the government has classified such information since it could be quite revolutionary. I'm not saying it has, but you're dealing with a bunch of smart people who like to have lifetime jobs before they enter the chosen frozen phase. In the land of the blind the one-eyed jack is king.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 07:58
Airman: Oddly enough, I've recently heard a conspiracy theory about Drexlerianism from the opposite point of view. Say, for instance, that the US Government wanted other countries to go off on a wild goose-chase, leaving the productive nanotech to the USA. What better way to lead 'em all astray than with that will-o'-the-wisp, the molecular assembler..? Silly, of course. As a high-tech CEO once said to me, Why invent conspiracies when it's far simpler to attribute things to oversight, arrogance, or stupidity? So it's about as likely that the CIA has perfected the M-A and is sitting on it, as it is that General Motors once bought up the patent to the 300-mpg carburettor only to suppress it.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 08:08
Erin: Further to your comment of yesterday...Sorry I didn't get back to you for so long, it was my 17th anniversary on the 7th and I was proving my commitment to the marriage by assembling our new barbecue. Three hours it took me, sweating out impossible directions supplied by a technician who couldn't write and an artist who hadn't discovered perspective. Why, I kept wondering, do BBQs come as bags of parts? We wouldn't put up with cars, fridges or computers packaged and shipped like this, and then dumped on our doorsteps with bad assembly manuals. Odd. Puts me in mind of the greatest BBQ I ever attended, at the world's longest oyster bar in Port Canaveral, in 1982; but that's another story... Yes, I probably am being too hard on Mr Drexler. But part of the book's intent, perhaps its main intent, is to establish in the mind of the average citizen what nanotech really is; what it may reasonably be expected to become; and what is (today at least, and maybe forever) science fiction. As recently as a few months ago, and possibly still, nanotechnology to most people meant Star-Trekkian notions. I wanted to bring 'em to Earth, fast. One day, despite all the grumblings of us grumpy skeptics, the molecular assembler may appear. Anything's possible, I suppose; as Arthur C. Clarke says, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But here: now: or soon: no. Real-world nanotech is far more interesting, and also far more bankable.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 08:24
Betsy: interesting question about time scale! I'd thought about time scale of technological innovation and implementation, not in terms of how fast the new inventions might work. But yes - why not adjust our medical interventions toward the body's rhythms, most of which are slower? Not only does cancer (usually, thankk God) take a long time to grow; in fact everyone is constantly getting the disease. That's why parts of our genome encode for natural anti-cancer drugs such as TNF, referred to above. Usually there's an equilibrium that sees newly appearing neoplastic cells identified, attacked and destroyed. One method of this is for the body to switch on a suicide circuit in the cancer cell, ordering it to commit seppuku. Bio-nano could fit into such longer-scale processes very neatly. Of course, to do so we'll have to learn more about how the body works, rather than just trying to rush in with a bagful of miracle chemicals.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 08:33
Bruce: The definition of nanotechnology now coming to be generally accepted is that it extends from an upper limit of 90-100 nm (the point at which the confined electron starts behaving more like a wave than like a particle) and a lower limit of 0.1 nm, or 100 picometers, or 1 angstrom. Molecular beam epitaxy, or mask photolithography / etching using ultra-short wavelengths (e.g. produced from synchrotron light sources)today routinely develops features c.80 nm in size and lower, as you note. One could say we first crashed into the nanocosm via the microcosm -- rapelling lower down into the well, so to speak. Some of the most successful of the new nanotech firms now springing up recognize and use this approach, which one of them (Micralyne) calls "two steps to the nanocosm."
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 08:35
Erin: A further note. Yes, ceramic knifeblades may soon appear. Another possibility is a blade made from super-small, super-regular crystals of a metal such as nickel, which scientists at Integran Technologies have persuaded to self-assemble using what Dr George Sawatzky calls forced-crystal techniques. Integran metals are free of the usual cracks, voids, inclusions and dislocations that limit metals' strength. Thus these materials amazingly tough, strong, and shatter-resistant. The never-sharpen knife you buy in 2006 might well be made from such a material.
Betsy Schwartz (betsys) Sun 8 Jun 03 09:02
IF I understand this correctly, the thinkertoy computer doesn't act as proof of concept for the nanocomputer, because the laws of physics work differently at the atomic scale. Things are *sticky* at that level. Another question, which appears in Nanocosm in the form of a lecture from one of IBM's principle think-tank scientists, Thomas Theis, is whether nano-computers will be digital, binary, 2-dimentional. Today's 3-D chipps are essentially 2-dimensional, also, made of layers of 2-dimensional circuit boards strapped together, in turn made of digital on/off logic circuits. But biological computers are analog and multidimentional; the neurons in a brain connect to many other neurons in non-linear ways. And we are capable of making extremely quick decisions on matters that a computer needs thousands of rules to spell out; we can recognize a familiar face in a fraction of a second, or tell a male face from a female face most of the time. At any rate, we are very very far from the nanomachine. As far as I know, researchers have moved individual atoms (taking weeks to do so)but have built no ground-up structures. We're learning how to build crystals, or layers of similarly behaving atoms, but not gears or rotors.
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Sun 8 Jun 03 14:42
Who needs a 300 hp carb when the money is in building a 40 mpg car? One only needs to read a good biochemistry book to recognize that all sorts of forces some into play at the nanotechnology level. At least 9 just from biochemistry alone. In addition, there are quantum effects that will need to be taken into account as well as revision of the current electon model which serves well at the molecular bond level but not necessarily in the free electron or ion modes. The difficulty that I have is that nanotechnology promises an awful lot, but when you sit down to do a project assuming the technology even exists outside the laboratory, all sorts of intermediate steps crop up that may not have made it out of the lab let alone off the drawing board and in some cases barely out of a stream of conscious of some brilliantly lucid individual. I prefer the drunk. There was an analog chip designer, Widlar, who could not design when sober. Eventually, his startup company moved him to Mexico where he continued to design in semilucid states 3-D power structures for the analog market. The drunk is also willing to be rather blunt in most cases about what is and what isn't a good design saving time. The sober person is usually jockeying for position on the corporate ladder instead of marching to a different drummer. However, to make money the preference is for a sober CPA who will tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear. Let the numbers speak... and the numbers from nanotechnology don't say much. More of the same stuff - sharper this, faster this, but no real breakthrough technology that will affect everyone. Just more improvements to the stuff we have already done and junk we already have.
The best of all possible acid trips (tinymonster) Sun 8 Jun 03 15:00
Widlar, the Drunken Master. heh
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 8 Jun 03 17:33
I have no idea whether future computers will be constructed using analog or quantum or 3D techniques. But I'd be willing to bet that the ones with the most market share will be x86 compatible.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 21:42
Betsy: Sitting in the audience when Tom Theis gave that lecture in San Jose was riveting. He used no notes or slides, and he obviously hadn't memorized a text, so this was from the soul: a cri de coeur. And for'ard tho' he couldna see, he guessed an' feared. It was evident to him that the old way, viz. the original von Neumann paradigm, was about to hit a wall, or had hit one already. Digital, linear, magnetic storage: all these IBM staples were up against it. So the Thinkertoy, which Drexler praises in such tomes as Nanosystems (1992), won't cut it. This is even assuming that stiction, quantum effects, and other bizarre aspects of the nanocosm even permit such an apparatus to exist and function. The thinkertoy ain't the future: it's the distant past. You may as well scratch equations in the sand with a pointed stick. Tom was practically gritting his teeth when he said that a complex, self-assembling, behavior-displaying organism like a paramecium could be completely specified in a volume smaller than a pinprick. It's routine for nature, but so far beyond our best shot now that we hardly know where to find the ballpark. So that's the way we have to go. Interestingly, nanoscale gears and rotors do exist...in natural systems! The rotaxanes (motors) and catenanes (interlocking rings) provide a template for the biomimetically minded. But these simple machines will not, I think, be the model for computation, let alone for the fabulously greater task of constructing a nanoassembler.
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 21:43
Brian: What a wry, accurate observation. "The world is too much with us; getting and spending..."
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Sun 8 Jun 03 21:56
Airman & Tinymonster: Apologies if this entry is duplicated; system seems to have eaten it, but it may crop up again. Gist of it: The early days of any new technology are full of outrageous acts by experts who know they can't be sacked because their knowledge is irreplaceable. In a secret base in WWII in Britain, one such team was working on a top-secret radar project. Winston Churchill himself decided to drop in on them unannounced to check their progress; he knew he'd be recognized. As he walked into a lab one of the radar workers said: "Hey fats! Get the f__k out'a here, we got a deadline." And yes, they recognized him.
Where's the Flying Car (airman) Sun 8 Jun 03 22:10
LOL. In a way, Drexler is that necessary evil. If you get rid of him, nanotechnology might not be a cohesive effort. Think of him as a cheerleader instead of an irreplaceable engineer. How irreplaceable is a cheerleader? I dunno but George W. was also a cheerleader and still might be.
FROM ERINCSS: (tnf) Mon 9 Jun 03 09:09
Thius is from an off-WELL reader, erincss: Thanks for the reply to some of the points I raised Bill. I tend to agree that a general-purpose molecular nano fabrication system, able to build any three dimensional structure according to software control and basic atomic/molecular inputs, will definitely be far more difficult than nearer term nanotechnology systems. Some questions I have for you, though. According to the interesting sections of your book dealing with "nanocatalysts", do you believe that simpler forms of molecular-level machines, say limited to producing large three dimensional solid parts made from one or a few types of elements (ie like diamond/fullerene structures), would be developed in the near term? It would be a strange twist of events if by the time a true Drexler-type assembler system was developed, we had learned enough about quantum entanglement, to use it as a means of fabrication (perhaps that could lead to the Picocosm you hinted at? ;)) Again I am very interested in Cellular Automata as a means to build systems able to manipulate molecular matter. What are some of the stumbling blocks and the developments in CA that need to be achieved before the nano ca devices you mentioned of in Nanocosm, could come to be? I am attracted to both the benefits and the dangers of the diamondoid ca devices that could simply be told to "transform all bonds to C-C covalents", and turn it loose on a vat of carbon material. The science fiction book "Bloom" my Will McCarthy (author of The Collapsium) deals with CA nanosystems "going wild". Those forced-alloy crystal metals would certainly make excellent blade materials, armor materials and more! That gets me thinking of a "duranium metal alloy" type of thing. Take care
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Mon 9 Jun 03 10:09
Hi, Erin! For "duranium", see my response #62. This will be a near-term innovation: 2-4 years, I would think, for commercial availability. Concerning your first para, the answer's definitely yes. Neil Branda and other nanochemists (if the term isn't a redundancy) are already hot on the trail of reaction-specific nanocatalysts - synthetic single molecules that switch one, and only one, chemical reaction on or off at command. These are what I call dumbots, for dumb (single-minded) robots. As for quantum effects offering a means to that mythical, omni-catalytic nano-assembler beloved of KED and other sci-fi writers: I can't say why not. The whole point of doing original research into the nanocosm is that we have no idea a priori what wild animals we're going to find in that jungle. The head of a large R&D agency I knew, used to say that any lab work that knew what it was going to uncover in advance didn't merit the name of research. I presented CA systems, and adduced my belief that they might let us do things on the nanoscale, based solely on some elementary mathematical concepts. In fact if I have any regrets about that chapter it's that I kept the exegesis too simple, and didn't introduce some of the wonderful patterns and possibilities of multidimensional CA systems. The CA is a solution, perhaps THE solution, both to problems we have and to other problems we have yet to bark our shins on. How these various CA systems might be applied, I cannot detail. Perhaps Dr Wolfram could offer some suggestions.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Mon 9 Jun 03 10:38
Re: visionaries, maybe the kind of "vision" that's truly useful depends on what stage the field is in. A hand-waving visionary can get a lot of people thinking about an otherwise neglected field in the early stages, and realism doesn't matter so much when so little is known. But once some significant work is done and we really start to understand how things work, wild speculation is a bug, not a feature.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Mon 9 Jun 03 12:24
Thanks for the answer to my question about the Space Shuttle, Bill. But now you have me curious about this: > Puts me in mind of the greatest BBQ I ever attended, at the > world's longest oyster bar in Port Canaveral, in 1982; but that's > another story... I know this might be a tangent, but hey, you got me wondering about oysters and Port Canaveral. What IS the story behind that? I know you used to cover the Space program as a journalist of some kind, so what's the juice behind your tempting little teaser?
William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson (wiatkinson) Mon 9 Jun 03 16:02
Brian: Absolutely. Molecular manufacturing has gone from the feature stage to the bug stage in about the last eighteen months. Time for reality to take over now.
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