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Nanotechnology and the Law of Accelerating Returns


"We're accelerating the rate of progress. In fact, we're doubling the rate of progress every decade," declared Raymond Kurzweil in his keynote speech at the Foresight Institute's 8th Molecular Nanotechnology Conference held in the Washington D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, last weekend. "We are now entering the knee of the exponential growth curve of progress. Therefore we will see what would be at linear rates 100 years of progress in the next 20 to 25 years." Kurzweil is a computer guru who made a pile of money when he founded a leading company in speech recognition technology. He is also author of The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and, most recently, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (1999).

His predictions of superfast progress received a sympathetic hearing at this gathering of around 400 nanotechnologists. That's hardly surprising of course: That's exactly what they are working to achieve. Nanotechnology seeks to make things—food, buildings, you name it—at the molecular level. As Ed Regis explained it to Reason readers back in 1995, "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." "Progress in the 21st century will be 1,000 times greater than in the 20th in terms of technical change," said Kurzweil. Technology, he added, is getting more and more intimate and by the end of the 21st century there will not be a clear distinction between human and machine.

As evidence of accelerating progress, Kurzweil pointed to the recent success in sequencing the human genome. "Fifteen years ago it was a fringe project and some said it would take 10,000 years to finish it. But we went from a cost of $10 to analyze each DNA base pair to something on the order of a penny per base pair in 10 years," he said. Kurzweil also looked at trends in computing, claiming that $1,000 today will buy you computing power that compares to that found in insect and mouse brains. By 2020, that same amount of money will buy computing power comparable to a human brain and by 2050, it will purchanse computing power equal to all human brains. "The 21st century will not lack for computing power," Kurzweil declared.

He is equally upbeat about progress in increasing human longevity. According to Kurzweil, we are adding 120 days to human life expectancy every year now. "Within 10 years, revolutions in genomics, proteomics, therapeutic cloning, and tissue engineering will be adding more than one year every year to human life expectancy," he predicted. "If you can hang in there a few more years, you will actually get to see how dramatic the 21st century will be."

Kurzweil says computing will disappear by the end of this decade. . Images will be written directly on people's retinas from eyeglasses and contacts. We will have wireless access to high bandwidth all the time. Computing will be integreated into our clothing: no more palmtops and laptops, and going to a Web site will mean to going to a shared virtual reality environment. Around 2030, we should be able to flood our brains with nanobots that can be turned off and on and which would function as "experience beamers" allowing us to experience the full range of other people's sensory experiences and if we find ordinary experience too boring, we will have access to archives where more interesting experiences are stored.

Nanobots will also expand human intelligence by factors of thousands or millions. By 2030, nonbiological thinking will be trillions of times more powerful than biological thinking.

To be sure, not everyone is looking forward –or brightly—to this future. Not long ago, Kurzweil sketched his vision for the 21st century over drinks in a Lake Tahoe bar for Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy. How did Joy respond? By writing his infamous article in Wired magazine that humanity must "relinquish" genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics because they are too dangerous. At the nanontech confab, Kurzweil dismissed Joy's call for technological stagnation as "totalitarian." "Relinquishment is utterly infeasible because technological progress is not one thing. It is the result of the activities of thousands of researchers and companies which can't be controlled," explained Kurzweil.

After Kurzweil's heady prognostications, the conference got down to the business of exploring the very technical details of how to fulfill his vision of the future. These conferences are sponsored by the Silicon Valley-based Foresight Institute, which was established to promote the concept of nanotechnology as propounded by nanotech godfather Eric Drexler in his groundbreaking 1986 book, Engines of Creation. Enormous progress has been in made in miniaturizing technology, especially computing power. As impressive as that's been, it pales in comparison to nanotechnologists' dreams of building devices on a scale of molecules or atoms which are billionth of meter (a nanometer) or less in size.

The technical presentations at the conference outlined many recent achievements, but they also highlighted the fact that there is a lot more work to be done before nanoscale devices will be routinely built and deployed. Manipulating atoms and molecules remains very difficult. Another thing the conference made clear is that biological nanotechnolgy and electronic nanotechnology are melding into one another. Biology really is molecular nanotechnology based largely on chemistry. Klaus Schulten, from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, gave a lecture on the "Theory and Modeling of Biological Nanodevices" which looked at using photosynthesis as a way to power nanomachines. The University of Washington's Henry Hess talked about "Powering Molecular Shuttles Through an Artificial Light Harvesting System" in which he showed "movies" of how he and his colleagues have gotten biological motors called kinesin to move tubulin strands with cargoes substantial distances across teflon surfaces using UV light as a energy source.

Electronic nanotechnology traces its intellectual lineage to computers and information theory and offers advantages over nanotechnology that emulates biological systems because it makes more use of electrical charges and magnetic fields than do most biological systems. However, even in molecular electronics, biological molecules may be useful. Mark Ratner from Northwestern University described his work using DNA molecules as "nano wires." He pointed out that DNA is easy to make and that it can be especially designed so that it can easily transmit electrical charges.

James Tour of Rice University talked about "Constructing a Computer from Molecular Components" in which his lab is creating "nanocells" that are densely populated with 1,800 molecular switches. He claimed that his nanocells can contain far more switches than silicon chips can. He expects that a prototype nanocell computer will be operating in about 4 years.

Others dealt with topics like the uses for carbon nanotubes, developing non-natural amino acids to use as structural elements and in sensors, computer programs used to design nano gears and motors, and the creation of molecular scale sensors to detect chemical and biological warfare agents.

"In 1994 a review article was published that questioned whether this field even existed," said Mark Ratner. Those days are clearly past, according to Klaus Schulten, who told the audience, "I want to impress on you that we've made great progress." No doubt. But the fact is that very few practical nanodevices have made it out of the labs yet. Still, given an inkling of what the future may hold, I suffer not from Future Shock, but Future Lust.