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 manipulating 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 entity–such 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 time–all 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 instead. 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, likewise, 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 synthesize 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 box–a "meat machine"–that would physically transform common materials into fresh beef. The machine 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 clippings 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 molecules 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 arms–the "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 assemblers 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.

Drexler hated to make predictions about human beings and how long it would take them to accomplish a given thing. Nevertheless, since he was always asked the When will it happen? question he had worked out an answer, and after some hemming and hawing, he gave it: "I commonly answer that 15 years would not be surprising for major, large-scale applications."

Fifteen years. If this was to be believed, a rather strange situation was now occurring in the halls of Congress. A scientist was calmly informing the authorities that in the time it took for a newborn babe to reach adolescence, the country would be on the verge of the biggest and most sudden change in its history: Physical labor, assembly lines, paychecks would be things of the past; disease and aging would be gone and forgotten; poverty and hunger would be wiped out. And all of it would happen in 15 years!

But not a word of it ever got out to the press. This was puzzling.

Or maybe it wasn't. "We only cover things that actually happen," said a Time editor, "not things that are just supposed to happen." In fact, maybe his whole scheme was nuts after all. Scientists, some of them, had some rather bad things to say about Eric Drexler.

Calvin Quate, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, said: "I don't think he should be taken seriously. He's too far out."

Nanotechnology itself came off no better.

"It's this basic hand-waving stuff that anyone can do," said Kurt Mislow, a Princeton University chemist. "It's like science fiction, and it turns me off in a major kind of way."

It was science fiction, so the argument went, because atoms couldn't be manipulated as if they were bricks. You couldn't pin them down or hold them in place, much less maneuver them around like marbles as Mr. Nano wanted to do. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, the pillar of modern physics, put paid to that idea.

Plus, molecules were always jostling and bouncing and twitching around; they were always in constant motion. How could you build a mechanical device out of parts that never stood still?

And if by some miracle both those difficulties could be escaped and avoided, then radiation or friction or some other atomic complication would attack your little nano-mechanism and mangle it beyond belief. So much for Drexler's nano dreams.

The skeptics had a bit of explaining to do, however, when the name of Richard Feynman cropped up, as it invariably did. Even Al Gore knew about Feynman.

He said, "The best evidence that the research breakthroughs and the conceptual breakthroughs have long since occurred is that Dr. Richard Feynman made a speech 33 years ago in which he essentially outlined the whole field, and even researchers at the cutting edge today were sort of surprised when they went back and read the speech, and found out that the basic concept had been available for a long time."

Drexler never liked to hear this, that Feynman had more or less said it all, way back in the Dark Ages of 33 years ago. He said, "Feynman did indeed point in these directions, in a talk in December of 1959, and that has been an inspiration to many people."

The important point, however, was that Feynman had claimed that working with atoms was entirely feasible. "The principles of physics, as far as I can see," he'd said, "do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done." But if Feynman, the Nobel Prize­-winning physicist–the number-two genius, some said, after Einstein–if Feynman had said that way back in 1959, then why were the skeptics complaining, years later, that nanotechnology was "science fiction"?

The skeptics had a further bit of explaining to do when in 1989, exactly 30 years after Feynman predicted it, individual atoms were in fact pinned down, moved, and bodily manipulated despite all the obstacles. This feat was performed at the IBM Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, California, when experimenters dragged 35 individual atoms of xenon around on a surface until they spelled out the letters IBM.

Suddenly there was a burst of atomic-level creativity in laboratories all over the United States, Germany, and Japan, as hands-on researchers experienced an urgent experimental need to do things like write their names out in atoms, spell the word Peace in sulfur molecules, and draw sketches of Albert Einstein in a medium of mixed ions, all of which were accomplished within the next few months.

This was primitive stuff, admittedly, compared to what Eric Drexler was talking about. Still, it was clear that things were beginning to happen down there in the atomic depths. And it was clear that Feynman, at least, had been right all along.

In November of 1993, Rice University announced a "nanotechnology initiative." The idea was to put up a new building on the campus in Houston and populate it with nano-inclined experts from various fields and departments. Here researchers would create the founding works of the new realm: the molecules, the structures, the nanomachines of the future. The prime force behind the initiative was one Richard E. Smalley, that rarest of all birds in academic circles, a confessed admirer of Eric Drexler.

"I'm a fan of his," he said. "And in fact in my endeavors to explain to people what I thought the future was, particularly the board of governors here at Rice, I have given them copies of some of Eric's books."

That future, in Smalley's view, included nanotechnology in a fundamental way.

"Science and technology on the nanometer scale is very likely to be one of the most important technologies of the 21st century. It may even be the most important. Why should we be teaching students to become scientists and engineers in the old technology? They should be part of the future."

Smalley himself hoped to be part of the future. In 1985, he and some colleagues had placed a small bit of graphite inside a laser vaporization apparatus and discovered that they'd created a strange new form of carbon.

Carbon was known to occur naturally in the form of "network solids" such as graphite and diamond. In both of those forms, each carbon atom was connected to four others, and each of those to four more, and so on, in large spread-out networks. In graphite, these networks ran in flat sheets, the layers of which slid across each other easily. In diamond, by contrast, the atoms were ordered in rigid three-dimensional cubes, the arrangement that gave diamond its hardness. For years it was thought that this was the only way in which carbon came: in long-drawn-out continuous systems.

But when Smalley and cohorts zapped some graphite in their super-duper laser beam gadget, they got a bunch of microscopic carbon marbles instead, a hitherto unknown form of the element. Sixty separate carbon atoms had somehow gotten together and joined up to compose a discrete and self-contained molecule, a tiny hollow sphere. Further examination revealed that the sphere had a soccer-ball-like shape, consisting of 32 faces: 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. Smalley and crew named the molecule "buckminsterfullerene" ("buckyball," for short), after the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, which they closely resembled.

For several reasons, the buckyball (chemical designation: C60) caused a mania among working chemists. For one thing, the molecule had an undeniable aesthetic appeal: "It is literally the roundest of round molecules," said Smalley, "the most symmetric molecule possible in three-dimensional Euclidean space."

Second, buckyballs gave rise to some extremely unusual electrical behavior. Depending on how C60 was mixed together ("doped") with other substances, it could function as an insulator, a conductor, a semiconductor, or a superconductor. By any measure, that was a lot of ways for one and the same molecule to operate.

Third, because it was a hollow, open structure, C60 allowed other atoms to be trapped, or "caged," inside it. Accordingly, chemists now placed atoms of various elements–potassium, cesium, and even uranium–inside buckyballs, and gleefully spoke of "shrink-wrapping an atom."

The buckyball was a grand new toy in the chemists' playpen, one on which they lavished untold amounts of "research," generating some 1,400 scientific papers about it and related fullerenes in the space of a few years. "We're like kids who have just discovered Tinkertoys," said Donald Huffman of the University of Arizona.

Rick Smalley, however, wanted his "babies" to do real work. He was much excited, then, by the addition of the buckytube (a single-walled carbon pipe, also called a "nanotube") to the ranks of fullerenes. Buckytubes were anticipated to have all sorts of fantastic nameless applications, but Smalley himself actually came up with one: the "nanofinger," a long slender rod with which to move atoms. Put two such rods together, like tweezers, and you'd have yourself an atomic "hand."

"A great milestone would be to get two nanofingers together so you can pick something up," he said. "So far the image you get of the [scanning tunneling microscope, the device used to manipulate atoms to spell IBM] and these local-probe things is that you've got a finger and you're moving it around on a table and moving it up and down. In fact a better analogy is your elbow, something that's not long and skinny but is big and fat.

"I think that a buckytube being the probe of an STM would be a help, probably even qualitatively a help, but the big breakthrough will be to get two of them so you can oppose them, like Chinese chopsticks. It's like the development of the opposing thumb, to pick things up. We have no way right now of picking something up by holding it between two things. The opposing thumb would be a major advance."

Conceivably, it would take us one step closer to the Great Nano Future as envisioned by Eric Drexler.

Drexler had worked out an entire argument, a proof, that the nanotech revolution could hardly be avoided. Premise one was the "multiple pathways" point, the observation that there were many distinct alternative routes, all of them leading toward the fabled assemblers.

There was, for example, the protein-engineering pathway, where you'd construct an amino acid sequence that would fold up into the shape of a molecular machine, or at least into the shape of a lesser component. Or, there were now a bunch of probes with which you could position atoms exactly where you wanted them, to gain the same result. And finally there was the self-assembly route, where you'd design molecules to have such shapes and bonding sites that they'd fit together precisely, lock-and-key fashion, to produce a functional device.

Premise two was that there were rewards and payoffs at every step of the way, along each of the various routes. And you could reap those rewards quite aside from the goal of creating a molecular manufacturing technology. You didn't have to be a believer in the greater Drexlerian vision.

And then finally, when those various techniques and pathways had been refined to the point where the goal of molecular manufacturing was actually within reach, nanotechnology would appear as a huge and attainable boon; this was premise three. The lure of it all would be too powerful to resist.

In fact, each of Drexler's "multiple pathways" was soon marked off with a row of new nano-milestones. Researchers had, for example, come up with ways of incorporating "unnatural" amino acids into proteins. The proteins of all living things were combinations of naturally occurring amino acids, but there were only 20 different naturally occurring amino acids whereas some 60 or more were chemically possible. Soon enough, scientists had figured out ways of getting the cells to produce "unnatural" amino acids, substances they were never meant to build.

It was wonderful news to nano fans, who saw a whole new range of possibilities opening up in front of them.

But if nature's amino acids were entirely dispensable, then why not the proteins themselves? Maybe you could have a protein substitute, a mock protein, an alternate material that you could engineer and fool with to your heart's content.

Now, any calm and skeptical reader might have seen this as yet another case of "science fiction" gussied up as science, but a few years after Drexler had predicted it, even that rather far-fetched item had actually been invented. In 1993 researchers at the University of California, Berkeley created an analog polypeptide (a substitute protein, essentially), called an oligocarbamate. This new substance had a molecular backbone and side chains just like conventional proteins did, but it was made out of slightly different materials, ones which had the added attraction of being both stiff and highly controllable. In short order, the inventors had developed a "library" of some 256 oligocarbamate structures.

So now there were these substitute proteins to work with. A whole new pathway!

And then, suddenly, there was the "artificial atom."

This was so bizarre an invention that neither Drexler himself nor, very probably, anyone else, had ever even remotely anticipated it. How could there be an artificial atom? But Raymond Ashoori, a physicist at AT&T Bell Labs, had created one–an atom whose electron count was controllable by its human maker, from zero to 60.

The "atom" in question was actually an empty space within a gallium arsenide crystal to which electrons could be moved one at a time by the application of a light magnetic pulse. In the case of an ordinary, garden-variety atom, electrons were held in place by the nucleus, whose positive charge attracted and bound the negatively charged electrons. In an "artificial atom," by contrast, electrons were held, instead, by an externally imposed magnetic field. But the final effect was much the same: a bunch of electrons whizzing around in a small space.

Best of all, you could use this artificial-atom generator–this "toy box," as Ashoori called it–to design your own atoms. "We can make atoms of any size," he said. Horst Stormer, Ashoori's co-worker at AT&T, added: "You can make any kind of artificial atom–long, thin atoms and big, round atoms."

The amazing conclusion, of course, was that maybe you could link some of those newly created atoms together, thereby creating your own artificial molecule. And then maybe you could join those artificial molecules together to produce–why not?–an artificial solid.

Was this not the blunt future already staring us smack in the face? Here were two staid and serious corporate physicists–practical men, laboratory types–here they were talking about "real" versus "artificial" atoms, the bright new amusements they'd made in their little "toy box."

Compared to which nanotechnology was not all that outlandish a prospect. Nanotechnology, after all, only used nature's atoms, normal atoms, the tiny marbles that during these latter 20th-century days had been individually touched, pushed around, lifted and lowered, played with, bottled up, treated as pets, and given their own names. All nanotechnology wanted to do was to take those same objects and organize them into working machines.

Was that so crazy?

Nanotechnology would give you, as Eric Drexler had said, "effectively complete control of the structure of matter"–or as Rick Smalley had put it, "as much control as you're going to get." But was such control worth having?

Drexler pretty much took it for granted that having complete control of the structure of matter was a fine thing, that reaching "the limits of the possible" was a blessing. When Drexler considered the subject of "consequences," he tended to think in terms of physical risks, the threat of which had kept him mum about nanotechnology for three or four years after he'd first gotten the idea. Later he spent inordinate amounts of time trying to come up with strategies for avoiding the evil that people could do with an army of nano helpers at their disposal.

The fact remained, though, that the physical risks of nanotechnology might not be the worst ones. Far more serious might be those that were social and psychological. Far more frightening, definitely more paralyzing to the imagination, than the sight of nanotechnology going wrong was the prospect of its going right, of its control over matter being all too complete.

Could people handle the largesse of it all? The abundance, the bounty–the boredom?

"It's going to be a very depressing state of affairs. Because obviously people get very depressed unless they can do things for which they feel challenged," said Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago psychologist and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Happiness, he said, arose not from mindless leisure activities but from confronting and surmounting challenges. Presented with no obstacles, the mind was left with nothing to engage it, and wandered off into boredom, anxiety, or worse. "That's usually what happens to people who retire, for instance."

"We'd have to find some new forms of expression and achievement," he said. "Otherwise people would just curl up and wither away."

Or otherwise they'd make trouble.

"In a sense it's already happened," said Garrett Hardin, the evolutionary biologist. "Look, we have 10 million unemployed; the only thing that keeps us from going crazy is the fact that we have television to divert these people. If we didn't have television I think we'd be in a great deal of trouble. We idle people and then we're surprised when they cause trouble, as in the Los Angeles riots."

But what if, after nanotechnology, the masses were supplied with all the material necessities of life?

"Most of the people involved in the Los Angeles riots had all the necessities of life," he said. "They've got the necessities, what they don't have is an interest in life. We deprive them of work. Basically I think activity–I won't say 'work,'–activity is the primary requirement for human existence."

Then was too much affluence a bad thing?

"Too much affluence is not a worry I've had in the contemporary world," said Peter D. Kramer, psychiatrist and author of Listening to Prozac. "The burden of poverty and need is so great that it just seems like such a long way to a society in which there are no have-nots."

Well, but wouldn't the average person go crazy, after nanotechnology, with nothing to do amid all the abundance?

"I can't imagine that," said Kramer. "There are many productive rich people. I would like to see, in my own life, the effect of enormous affluence on my productivity. It's a risk I'd be willing to take."

And even if life after nanotechnology was equivalent to being retired, retirement was not necessarily the bad deal it was often cracked up to be, said Kramer. "There are some people who are very contented in retirement–other than for the problem of aging. The problem is not enough healthy retirement."

Still, there was something unnerving, something unwholesome about the prospect of turning the world's work over to a bunch of invisible machines. Lazing around in the sunshine, after all, was sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. If you were to live like that–even just temporarily, as an experiment–the odds were that something big was bound to go wrong, sooner or later.

There was an ethic behind that feeling, of course, the so-called Protestant work ethic, the notion that honest drudgery was right and proper, that toil was the morally fitting condition of humankind. But what was the relevance of the work ethic in an age when physical labor was no longer required? In the generation following the nano revolution, perhaps nobody would give a moment's thought to the ancient and outmoded "work ethic."

Unless, of course, the work ethic was a fixed part of human nature.

"People even work at their leisure!" said cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson. "There's a basic human desire to feel you're achieving something, whether you're keeping golf scores or doing your gardening."

All of which led to the question of how, after nanotechnology, the basic human need to do work, to create value, to achieve, would be satisfied. Were we going to pawn off elbow grease to the nanomachines–only to be rewarded by making ourselves miserable? Would the irony be that work was really the good stuff of life, something that existence would be pointless without?

Plausible as that was, there were yet a few problems with it. For one thing, the idea that people would be suicidal over no longer having to work for a living, well, that was a bit strained on the face of it. Wouldn't they be at least slightly relieved? After all, if they wanted to keep on working for a living, there was nothing in nanotechnology to stop them.

And plenty of "ordinary" jobs would still be around for people to do, even in the nano age: There'd be cops, reporters, lawyers, restaurant chefs, waiters, judges, senators, writers, marriage counselors, mathematicians. Nanomachines, talented as they were, weren't going to be masters of every specialty.

Then, too, the notion of what counted as "work" would be redefined, as it often had in the past.

"When housework was mechanized, standards rose," said Bateson. "Our ancestors didn't change the sheets twice a week, more like twice a year, probably."

And, she added, "The identical activity can be turned into work or into leisure by being packaged differently." Gardening, for example, is essentially the same activity as farming–but in one case it is "recreation," and in the other, "work." Nanotechnology would allow you to choose what was work, instead of having brute nature foist that work upon you.

Beyond that was the fact that even after nanotechnology was perfected, even after it had become widespread and freely available, not everyone would take equal advantage of it.

Not everyone was going to want to get their food from a "meat machine" or to live in a mock-wood, nanomachined house. When absolutely every last person in the neighborhood could produce their own Hope diamond how much more stylish it would be to wear, instead, a piece of handmade wrought iron. Often enough it was the surpassingly primitive–the native, the simple, the basic and plain–that was the sign of genuine taste and refinement, as in the case of the suburban American fireplace, which, in the late 20th century, was the ultimate piece of home furnishing. It was a basic error, apparently, to think that all would be nano in the Nano Age.

As to how it would in fact work out, in detail, that was something that nobody could know until it actually happened. In the end, the case could be made that what nanotechnology meant for the human species–whether it was a godsend or a moral disaster–was not an issue that could be decided in advance. Indeed, it might not be decidable even afterwards.

Since when were social questions ever "decided" in any true sense anyway? After all, they weren't like scientific questions where you could immediately run to nature, or to experiment, or to computer simulation, for verification or disproof of a given answer.

And even within science itself there were exceptions to the rule. In mathematics, for example, some questions were said to be "formally undecidable," which meant that they were not susceptible of resolution by any known or imaginable method. There was also a separate class of problems to which there were in fact answers, only the answers were unknowable in advance on account of the inherent complexity of the situation–the weather on a given day 50 years from now, for example. Such problems were said to be "computationally irreducible" or "intractable." There was no way of calculating the answer that was faster than just waiting around for the actual outcome.

Maybe the ultimate meaning of nanotechnology was not knowable in advance. You couldn't predict it; you simply had to let it happen. You had to make it work, you had to make it turn out for the best, rather than decide, beforehand, that it was going to be heaven on earth or hell on wheels.

Ralph Merkle, Drexler's right-hand man when it came to molecular simulations, had a saying about this. When he traveled around giving lectures and spreading the nano dream, he'd always finish up the same way, with the same bright quotation which seemed to ccapture the right spirit in words. He'd project it up there on the screen, his final thought, his closing message: "The best way to predicct the future is to create it."

Ed Regis is the author of Who Got Einstein's Office? and Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. This article is adapted from his recently published book Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (Little, Brown). This is the second article in a multi-author series on science and society.