It's a Small, Small World

"Nanotechnology" promises endless abundance courtesy of molecule-manipulating robots. Is that nuts? And do we want it?

On June 26, 1992, at exactly 9:30 in the morning, K. Eric Drexler arrives unaccompanied at room 53 of the Russell Senate Office Building. Drexler's got a briefcase in one arm and a white cardboard box in the other. In the box are 50 copies of his prepared statement, a nine-page document headed, "Testimony of Dr. K. Eric Drexler on Molecular Nanotechnology before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space." Drexler has been called to Washington, where he's come at his own expense, from San Francisco, to tell the country's leaders about his fabulous intellectual creation, his trailblazing new idea, one that, if successfully developed, would stand civilization on its head.

His scheme is to manufacture objects from the molecules up. You'd make things by ma nipulating individual atoms and molecules, working with them one at a time, positioning them precisely, lining them up one by one, repeatedly, until enough of them accumulated to form a large-scale, usable entitysuch as a car or spaceship, for example. All this would be done automatically, effortlessly, without human hands or labor, by a fleet of tiny, invisible robots. These robots, when they were developed, would do all the world's work: People could sit back and enjoy themselves, drinking their mint juleps in peace and quiet.

This was called "nanotechnology." The robots were called "assemblers." Drexler was called "crazy." Or at least that was how some people regarded him the first time they heard about this radical new scheme of his.

But Al Gore, the subcommittee chairman and the man who within the next few days would be announced as Bill Clinton's running mate, was a big fan of nanotechnology. At any rate he seemed to be au courant with the subject.

"What you're talking about when you use the phrase molecular nanotechnology, is really a brand new approach to fabrication, to manufacturing," Gore said to his witness. "The way we make things now, we take some substance in bulk and then whittle down the bulk to the size of the component we need, and then put different components together, and make something. What you're describing with the phrase molecular nanotechnology is a completely different approach which rests on the principle that your first building block is the molecule itself. And you're saying that we have all of the basic research breakthroughs that we need to build things one molecule at a timeall we need is the applications of the research necessary to really do it. And you're saying that the advantages of taking a molecular approach are really quite startling."

Really quite startling. That was the truth.

Nanotechnology, Drexler had explained in articles and books, could achieve all manner of wonders. The properties of a given object, after all, were a function of the arrangements of its atoms and molecules. It followed from this that if you could control those arrangements you could control every physical attribute of that object: You'd have effectively "complete control of the structure of matter," as Drexler had often put it.

Complete control of the structure of matter meant complete control of human biology, and that in turn meant the eradication of disease and aging. Disease, basically, was a molecular phenomenon, a matter of various crucial molecules being out of place. Sickle-cell anemia, for example, was a result of a single specific amino acid being erroneously located in the structure of hemoglobin: Where a molecule of glutamic acid should be, a molecule of valine appeared in stead. One displaced amino acid and the person could not process oxygen normally. But that could be fixed if you could put the relevant molecules back where they belonged. Aging, like wise, was a case of molecular loss and misplacement, a condition that could be "cured" by putting the right molecules in the right places. With fleets of tiny programmed robots streaming through your body and blood, all kinds of cellular repairs would be possible.

Another thing nanotechnology meant was the elimination of poverty. Drexler's invisible robots would manufacture so many material goods so cheaply that people could have every physical thing they wanted.

A third thing it meant was the abolition of hunger. With nanotechnology you could synthe size food at home, in a box, from the cheapest possible ingredients. You could turn dirt into steak if you wanted to.

That was an idea Drexler came up with in his college days, at MIT in the late 1970s. Once you had the ability to deal with atoms on an individual basis, you could invent this black boxa "meat machine"that would physically transform common materials into fresh beef. The ma chine might be about the size and shape of a microwave oven, and it would work the way a microwave oven did, too, more or less. You'd open the door, shovel in a quantity of grass clip pings or tree leaves or old bicycle tires or whatever, and then you'd close the door, fiddle with the controls, and sit back to await results. Two hours later, out would roll a wad of fresh beef.

Well, it sounded incredible. But when you thought about it, so did the fact that cattle made beef. What materials did they have to work with, after all, but grass, air, water, and sunlight? Not one of these things looked remotely like steak. Cattle made beef by placing the required mol ecules into the necessary configurations; Drexler's meat machine would do the same thing.

The meat machine would be a mechanical cow, a factory at the level of atoms. This was to be understood quite literally: Molecules would be stacked on tiny pallets which would move about on tiny tracks. There would be molecular conveyor belts and rollers, vacuum pumps and sorting mills, gears and sprockets and springs and ball bearings. And there would be fleets of molecular manipulator armsthe "assemblers." An assembler would physically grab onto a molecule, taking it from the pallet or conveyor belt or wherever, bring it to the piece of meat under construction, and mechanically force the molecule into position. Billions of such assem blers working in parallel, each of them cycling back and forth millions of times per second, could synthesize chunks of beef that were absolutely indistinguishable from a cow's.

And if Drexler's assemblers could arrange the right molecules the right ways, then they could build not just meat but practically anything. Nanotechnology would be the universal building engine, the molecular cornucopia.

When people were told about nanotechnology and all its magical wonders the first thing they wanted to know was: When will it happen? How many thousands of years will it take? Which, at the Senate hearing, was what Gore asked Drexler.

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