The Flawed Origins of Nanotechnology

You all know all there is to know about nanotechnology. You have seen it in action, as a green mist that dissolved Paris, as tiny cubes that form freaky spider things that do battle with humans and big-headed aliens alike, as a devouring force sent to cleanse us by Keanu Reeves.

You have read about it, too. Michael Crichton’s Prey shows nanotechnology doing what the dinosaurs did in Jurassic Park – running amok, killing people and showing far greater intelligence than might be accurate.

Nanotechnology abounds in fiction, the scientific buzzword of the month, the lazy writer’s excuse to use magic without resorting to using magic. Where radiation once was the uncontrollable force of scientifically semi-justified literary convenience, microscopic machinery now takes its place. A 21st Century Godzilla would only be appreciable under a microscope.

Virtually all nanotechnology in fiction comes in the same flavour, and that flavour is bullshit. I have yet to see a popular movie incorporate the science in a way that is possible, let alone plausible. But within the sheer nonsense, there are two main types: helpful and grey goo. Helpful nanotechnology consists of self-replicating nanites that patrol the human bloodstream, curing cancer, clearing blocked arteries and giving you superpowers. I cite the modern remake of the Bionic Woman series. I cite Jake 2.0. I wish I could cite a show worth watching.

The other side is grey goo theory, aka the Star Trek Scenario. Put simply it is this – someone somehow creates a microscopic machine which is capable of ripping apart matter and use the components to assemble a new version of itself. These nanites then spread and multiply without limit, causing unimaginable destruction and reducing the world to formless, sloppy matter; hence the name, grey goo theory.

Fascinating, that the only mention of nanotechnology in fiction seems to be self-replicating nanites. I would feel more comfortable in saying that the only applications computers have in modern society is to check on what the weather is like than to say that self-replicating nanites are all there is to nanotechnology. At least checking the weather has shown to be possible.

Grey goo theory is the bane of scientific research in the field. It is starting to become something of a public relations issue, with more and more of the public becoming concerned over a grey goo catastrophe, while fewer and fewer experts believe it is even possible. The debate is like a small-scale version of Evolution versus Creationism, or the risk of vaccinations – the overwhelming majority of the scientific community holds one opinion, while the rest of society argues it out.

Where it gets interesting is when you examine the origins of the theory, and the term, grey goo theory. Especially when you also look into possibly the first use of the term “nanotechnology” and the first in-depth analysis of the potentials of the science. They are both one and the same – K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation, published in 1986. Within this text Drexler outlined a potential new technology, one involving self-replicating, microscopic machines that are capable of assembling and destroying devices atom by atom. He argued that finite resources could be solved by this approach to assembly, but that there would always be the risk of a glitch, a nanite that would destroy matter without distinction and assembled only perfect copies of itself, an exponentially increasing plague onto the world.

When people discuss grey goo scenarios they are referring directly to this work, whether they realise it or not. It is frustrating to deal with these people – to deconstruct and invalidate every single argument and fear they bring up could take a lifetime. If they are not open minded about the issue, no amount of time is enough. But a counter argument to grey goo theory can be created out of a single sentence, reforged from an old joke:

The 1980’s called, they want their doomsday speculations back.

Grey goo theory is nonsense, born from the speculations of a visionary who just couldn’t quite see all the pieces of the puzzle. In his work Drexler correctly predicts the value and importance of nanotechnology, but makes several mistakes. Mistakes which, looking back with hindsight, are obvious, but at the time were indistinguishable from a clear vision of the future.

Self-replicating, microscopic machines exist – they are called bacteria. But bacteria are enormous compared to the scale Drexler envisaged. A bacterium as a whole is not nanotechnology. Processes that occur within the cell could be called that, but they aren’t self-replicating. A self-replicating nanite is well beyond our technology and even beyond what is theoretically possible at the moment. And the reason for this is even more fundamental.

Drexler imagined the ability to manipulate matter one atom at a time. He was basing this on the talk given by the physicist Richard Feynman in 1959 titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, where he discussed how the manipulation of individual atoms would open up new avenues in materials science and synthetic chemistry. And in this, he was absolutely correct. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1986 to the invention of a device which allows the user to govern solid matter by moving about single atoms with precision. But this technique is slow, involves high energy, special conditions and a machine far too large to fit into the back of a car, let alone a microscopic machine.

But even if the paradigm shift came tomorrow that allowed us to create self-replicating nanites, the simple truth of the matter is that we simply don’t need to. Science, being ever practical, shelved the idea of building an atomic scale von Neumann machine decades ago and moved onto other areas, areas Drexler did not foresee. As bizarre as it is for a scientist to say, but this is the truth of the fabled self-replicating nanite:

If we are ever smart enough to build a self-replicating nanite capable of assembly and disassembly on the atomic scale, we will be smart enough that we wont need to build one.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the heart of the matter. Captivated by the future Drexler painted but discouraged by the means he proposed, scientists everywhere set out to find new ways of inventing the future. Engines of Creation tells the story of physicists moving atoms, whereas the present tells us of physicists carving grooves in metals using electron beams, of biologists cultivating bacteria to assemble desired proteins, of chemists shuffling the functional groups of long chained molecules around, of materials scientists growing nanoscale crystals by cooling liquids by thousands of degrees per second, a million techniques to shape the world on the smallest scale possible. This is how we manipulate matter on scales too small to see, too small to fully comprehend. This is how we assemble devices whose sizes can only be described using millionths of a millimetre.

There is more to nanotechnology than nanoassembly. Drexler’s vision of the future, epic as it is, did not encompass all of what we can do with the sciences he described. Stain-proof clothing, windows that double as solar panels and transparent sunscreens are all easily achieved in the modern world, yet none of these require devices constructed by moving atoms around. The world has changed since 1986. Even Drexler knows this – I actually remember the day, Wednesday, June 9th, 2004, when Drexler publicly admitted that the grey goo scenario is unlikely. He recognised that the molecular assembly he had described was becoming a reality without the need for nanites, an observation repeated many times before and since.

Grey goo enthusiasts, take note – the man who became famous for proposing the scenario, the only one on the planet with a vested interest in the theory being widely believed, has admitted he was wrong. But that is the mindset of a scientist for you – propose a new, exotic theory before the next guy does, then work as hard as you can to prove yourself wrong (again, before the next guy does).

But as long as the theory is valid in public opinion, research will be hurt. Nanoscale device assembly, even nanotechnology as a whole, carries the stigma of pending global catastrophe. Even if grey goo theory were possible, a ban on self-assembling nanites would eliminate the risk (a ban which Mother Nature and Father Physics are likely to enforce just through sheer impossibility). Time spent debating the impossible is a distraction from investigating legitimate concerns surrounding the science, of which there are many.

Ignorance in scientists is a source of motivation, but ignorance in the public at large can be a liability to research. So the next time someone worries that the colloids in their makeup are going to dissolve the planet, tell them this from me:

Tuesday, June 8th, 2004 called, they want their unfounded concerns back.


Good article, I just have one question

You all know all there is to know about nanotechnology. You have seen it in action, as a green mist that dissolved Paris, as tiny cubes that form freaky spider things that do battle with humans and big-headed aliens alike
Is that a Stargate reference?

Also, I hope they continue to make better nanotech clothing. The shirt I have is one of my favorite and never,ever stains.

Quote Originally posted by TFR You SOB View post
Is that a Stargate reference?
It sure is. Replicators are a good example of nanotechnology = magic, but the show is good enough to get away with it in my eyes.

That first episode with the Replicators where T'ealc and O'Neill are going nuts with the auto-shotguns in the gate room on Thor's ship, pure weapons-grade awesome.

Funnily enough, I've just watched those 2 episodes on the SG box-set, last night. Actually, T'ealc, the big, daft Jaffa, tried zapping them with his taser, which was totally ineffective - so much for alien technology against a Replicator!

As to the subject of the OP, I was wondering what are the realistic applications of this technology?

Quote Originally posted by ivan astikov View post
As to the subject of the OP, I was wondering what are the realistic applications of this technology?
Fair question, one that would require a whole other article to answer. But, in very broad terms, you can expect applications from nanotechnology to show up in everything from agriculture to manufacturing to medicine. Because nanotechnology is so cross-disciplinary over a number of fundamental sciences, it is hard to pin down any specific expectations. Again, I liken it to computers - they are powerful tools that revolutionise every aspect of society.

I have a few more articles in the pipeline, so you'll have to wait a while before I delve into specifics. But I figured a good place to start was addressing the biggest misconception there is regarding nanotechnology, while establishing what probably can't be done. With this as a foundation, it is possible to address what can be done.

How close are we to the solar windows and such tech being ready for production?

Quote Originally posted by What Exit? View post
How close are we to the solar windows and such tech being ready for production?
They can be made, but they are neither efficient nor cheap. The thing is, such a product doesn't attract a lot of investment money, so I suspect the breakthrough will either come from unrelated research or from the academic sector. In other words, probably not soon.

But solar windows are a neat concept. Normal windows allow visible light in, but reflect the higher energy UV. If that UV were to be harnessed instead of reflected...

I found this article on solar windows. It seems that they concentrate the light to the edges of the window and only have traditional solar cells located there.

Is this typical of all solar windows?

I work in the organic (plastic) solar cell field and can confirm that they are currently neither cheap or efficient. Additionally any coating on glass that absorbed photons would affect the amount of light that passed through the window either by decreasing the intensity over a part of the spectrum or by tinting the light. Many photoconductive polymers also are coloured which would again affect the quality of any light passing through the material, and this is without the presence of any nanostructures which would be required to construct a working solar cell.

Quote Originally posted by Walker in Eternity View post
I found this article on solar windows. It seems that they concentrate the light to the edges of the window and only have traditional solar cells located there.

Is this typical of all solar windows?
I first heard about solar windows in the form of some supramolecular structures sandwhiched between glass planes. This tinted the glass, but meant the light was falling on it evenly. But looking at that link, reflecting the light internally and moving it towards the edges is a great way to reduce the amount of materials required. Doing away with the supramolecular chemistry would be good, though - it is only useful from a "hey, look at what I can do!" perspective. Synthesis isn't easy.

I just wanted to chime in to say I found the article fascinating and also to point out a typo, Crichton is the author's name.