TCS Daily

The Coming Atomic Age

By Howard Lovy - December 2, 2004 12:00 AM

A kind of nanotech network-in-exile -- left out in the cold when it comes to government or venture capital funding -- is making plans to fight back in the war for the public's hearts and minds.

This group of nanotech's early visionaries, led by Eric Drexler and the Foresight Institute think tank he founded, have been pushed to the margins of mainstream nanotech thought as commercial interests remake nanotech in their own image. So Drexler, whose seminal 1986 book, "Engines of Creation" first launched nanotech into mainstream public imagination, is fighting back with some new images of his own.

Unveiled recently before a group of true believers in bottom-up molecular assembly (as opposed to products such as stain-free pants and carbon nanotube tennis rackets being sold as "nanotechnology"), the partly finished "Productive Nanosystems: From Molecules to Superproducts" is meant, in part, to show that all this talk of futuristic-sounding molecular manufacturing is capable of producing a real product, too -- someday.

The product: "A billion-processor laptop computer," Drexler says, built atom by atom on a contraption that looks, at least in the animation, a bit like your average office copy machine.

Really, you just plug the thing into a wall socket (yes, the answer to the "out-of-control self-replicating nanobot gray goo" fear is to simply unplug the darn thing; sorry, Michael Crichton), and then something that resembles a nanoscale version of an automobile assembly line clanks out your product.

Tool tips grab individual atoms, conveyor belts with palettes and work pieces move the product down the line as more and more atoms are attached. And none of it so much as commits even the slightest misdemeanor against the laws of physics, say the producers.

"You'll see it begin to change the culture," Drexler announced in Washington, D.C. "We'll be using it in talks. It will be a tremendous tool for getting a picture of where this path that we're embarking on can end up."

Drexler envisions its use in documentaries, as a teaching aid for any one of the nanotech education programs sprouting up in high schools, colleges and universities all over the world. And, yes, for Drexler, this is not only about education and image; it's personal, and it's about his legacy. Bottom-up molecular manufacturing of the type envisioned by Drexler is not the work that's being funded by the federal government now. The U.S. government's nanotech initiative, and the nanotech bill signed by the president late last year, is very much about launching startups, products and creating jobs -- focusing on near-term applications.

But Drexler is hoping that the "nanotechnology" that gets the public excited or frightened, that truly represents a vast change in the way we will live and interact with our environment is atom-by-atom construction of material.

But this short animation is not only about reviving Drexler's image and the Foresight Institute's search for relevancy within a nanotech "industry" that has bypassed the group. For John Burch, the Texas-based animator who worked with Drexler to get every pixel perfect, it's also personal.

About 10 years ago, Burch could only watch helplessly as his mother entered a hospital for bypass surgery and end up with a blood clot lodged in her brain, making her a "fragment of herself."

"To me, medical technology at this point is a very primitive technology because they were unable to monitor that she had a problem until she was destroyed."

Burch, who runs Lizard Fire Studios in Austin, Texas, says he fully expects his animation to be ridiculed by those who believe that he's merely producing a fanciful cartoon. That's OK, he says. Throw potshots at it. But while the argument rages over what is not possible, somebody had to "put this stake in the ground" and make the first move toward creating "a clear image of what we think is possible."

Burch, 57, also reflects the ultimate appeal of this and other technologies that promise to lengthen human life, with aging baby boomers screaming for an end to this horrible thing called aging. Self-indulgent in almost every other phase of life, the boomers cannot be expected to go gently into that good night.

"I want to make this thing happen," Burch says. "Everybody I know has medical problems that could be fixed or improved through technology based on this machine. There's too much pain in this world to just sit here and watch it."

Where would he like to see it shown? "I think most anyplace where it's not ridiculed will be a good place."

One such place is in the classroom of Ralph Merkle, a long-time Drexler collaborator who is now a distinguished professor of computing at Georgia Tech. Merkle will use the animation in a "Computational Nanotechnology" class scheduled for spring 2005. Merkle says the images will describe "one of the many possible MNT (molecular nanotechnology) architectures."

And one business CEO is banking on its success in the educational arena. Mark Sims, who launched the Michigan-based molecular modeling company Nanorex in April, sees the project as "just the beginning of a whole series of animations that really break it down. You can base a whole college course on this animation." That's why he gave $10,000 of his money to the Foresight Institute in order to finish the product. Accompanying the film will be an early version of his nano CAD product Nanoengineer-1.

Sims is one of a few wealthy individuals who are stepping in to fund nanotech companies and concepts that seem too risky for government and VC largesse. Is he going to make money out of selling software that models devices that cannot yet be built?

"Oh, I think we're really early," Sims says. "I'm not kidding myself by thinking there's a viable business model here that's sustainable. This is truly a love and a passion of what I'm doing and it will hopefully accelerate the coming of the molecular nanotechnology era."

At the very least, Sims accelerated completion of a cool cartoon, which should take another six weeks of intense work.

Howard Lovy is a Michigan-based writer who specializes in the business, politics, science and culture of nanotechnology. More of his work can be found on Howard Lovy's NanoBot


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