Contest #3: The Next Big Thing

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By Matt McKenzie

Most of us got our first, and perhaps only, impression of nanotechnology from the 1960s sci-fi classic Fantastic Voyage, watching Raquel Welch cruise some guy's circulatory system equipped with a tiny submarine, a tight jump suit, and a bunch of co-stars whose names I forgot 20 years ago.

Today, nanotech isn't science fiction; it's a growing industry involved in everything from pharmaceuticals to fashion. Scientists and engineers are now able to handle materials at a molecular level, manipulate them, and turn them into trousers that won't require washing until the year 2800. (You, however, should continue bathing — please.)

Are molecular assemblers too dangerous to build or too beneficial not to build?
Yet this is child's play compared to what's coming: nanomachines, devices built out of individual atoms that perform specific tasks. Some of them are familiar-looking (gears, pincers); others, such as the molecular assembler pictured here, are completely new.

Such machines could someday turn a mountain of dirt into enough food to feed everyone on the planet, forever and in abundance. They could repair injuries at the cellular level, and cure any illness. They could, as author Arthur C. Clarke speculated, produce such abundance that money becomes pointless.

They could also reduce every living thing on the planet to dust within a few days.

Physicist and Manhattan Project alumnus Richard Feynman laid out his famous nanotech vision in a 1959 Caltech talk, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" — a document that history may place alongside Darwin's The Origin Of Species or even Newton's Principia. Yet Feynman's ideas remained unexplored for nearly 30 years, until researcher K. Eric Drexler took up the cause, coining the term "nanotechnology" in his 1986 work Engines of Creation. Drexler's theories on how and why to build nanomachines were, to put it mildly, controversial; many scientists insisted they were about as plausible in our lifetimes as death rays and teleporters.

As it turns out, "many scientists" were full of baloney. In April, 1997, Nature reported that Australian researchers had built the first working nanomachine, a self-assembled biosensor capable of mimicking the human cell wall in pharmaceutical research. Last year, a team of scientists at UCLA and the University of Bologna, Italy, built a "nano-actuator," two mechanically interlocked components a whopping 2.5 nanometers high that move a platform up and down a molecular tripod. And last month, a research team at the University of California at Berkeley announced a prototype nano-oscillator — a key to creating onboard power sources for nanomachines — that fits inside a box 200 nanometers (that's two ten-thousandths of a millimeter) square.

Machines capable of rearranging things one atom at a time could cause problems if they decide to rearrange, say, you instead of a pile of dirt.

Private researchers are less inclined to discuss their work, but you can bet they're making similar strides toward nano-robots, nano-factories — and, one assumes, nano-slackers hanging around the nano-water cooler. Today, you'll find organizations such as IBM, Xerox, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard getting into the nano-act, and while I admit I'm being ambitious in calling nanomachines the Next Big Thing, you can find credible estimates that the first working nanomachine will flex its micro-muscles as early as 2010 and no later than 2020.

Now, what was that about turning you into dust? One of the main controversies in nanomachine research today concerns self-replication: giving molecular machines the ability to replicate themselves, indefinitely and in infinite quantities. Self-replication could enable all kinds of neat things — feeding the world, for example — at a marginal production cost of zero. However, invisible, infinitely replicating machines capable of rearranging things one atom at a time could also cause problems — such as what might happen if the replication codes get mangled, and these "assemblers" decide to rearrange, say, you instead of a pile of dirt.

Anyway, we have time to weigh our options: self-replication is a much more difficult challenge than simply building the things.

And build them we will. Nanomachines — things science treated as a joke less than 20 years ago — are marching their invisible little butts off the drawing board and into the world's laboratories, factories, and ultimately its living rooms and underwear drawers. At this rate, I wouldn't bet against that death ray and teleporter before long, either.

Matt McKenzie is Editor of Linux Pipeline.

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