ENGINES of CREATION | Afterword
February 21, 2001
- K. Eric Drexler
IN THE FIELDS I have described, the pace of events is swift. Within the last month or so, a number of developments have occurred or come to my attention:
Several groups are now working on protein design, and the newly founded Center for Advanced Research in Biotechnology plans to support such efforts. A group at the National Bureau of Standards has combined two molecular-simulation techniques in a way crucial to designing assemblers. Advances have also been made in the use of computers to plan molecular synthesis.
The drive toward molecular electronics continues. Forrest Carter’s group at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory has experimental work under way, and The Economist reports that “Japan’s government recently helped establish a $30 million fund to pursue research in molecular electronics.”
Other advances may help us deal more intelligently with the onrushing assembler breakthrough. At Dartmouth College, Arthur Kantrowitz has completed two experimental fact-forum procedures that examined the technology of proposed ballistic missile defense systems. Meanwhile, at Brown University, the Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship is developing a “scholar’s workstation with hypertext capabilities – a prototype of systems intended for use in universities everywhere.
Advances in technology will continue, as will advances in the means for guiding it. With luck and effort, we may manage to make the right choices in time.
K. ERIC DREXLER June 1985
WHAT WOULD I correct in Engines now, after several years of discussion, criticism, and technological progress? The first dozen pages would report recent advances in technology, but the conclusion would remain the same: we are moving toward assemblers, toward an era of molecular manufacturing giving thorough and inexpensive control of the structure of matter. There would be no changes in the central theses.
To summarize some indicators of technological progress: Engines speculates about when we might reach the milestone of designing a protein molecule from scratch, but this was actually accomplished in 1988 by William F. DeGrado of Du Pont and his colleagues. In 1987, a Nobel prize was shared by Donald J. Cram of UCLA, Jean-Marie Lehn of the Université Louis Pasteur, and Charles Pedersen of Du Pont for developing synthetic molecules with proteinlike capabilities. At IBM, John Foster’s group has observed and modified individual molecules using the technology of the scanning tunneling microscope; this (or the related atomic force microscope) may within a few years provide a positioning mechanism for a crude protoassembler. Computer-based tools for designing and modeling molecules have improved rapidly. In short, advances toward nanotechnology through molecular systems engineering have been more rapid than “Engines” might suggest.
The idea of nanotechnology has spread far and wide, both through Engines itself (with 1990 editions in Japan and Britain) and through other publications. A recent summary appears in the 1990 Britannica yearbook, Science and the Future. I have been invited to speak at most of the top technical universities and many of the top corporate research laboratories in the United States. At Stanford, when I taught the first university course on nanotechnology, the room and hallway were packed on the first day, and the last entering student climbed through a window, Interest has been strong and growing.
What has been the reaction of the technical community – of those best placed to find and label erroneous ideas? From where I stand (e.g., in front of questioning technial audiences) the central theses of this book look solid; they have withstood criticism. This is not to say that everyone accepts them, merely that every reason suggested for rejecting them has turned out to be faulty. (My apologies to hidden critics with substantive points – please step out and speak up!) A variety of technical papers (on mechanical nanocomputers, molecular gears and bearings, etc.) are available and a technical book is on the way. After a series of local meetings, the Foresight Institute sponsored the first major conference on nanotechnology in October 1989 (covered in the November 4 Science News); a proceedings volume is in preparation.
At the conference, it became clear that Japan has for several years been treating molecular systems engineering as a basis for twenty-first century technology. If the rest of the world wishes to see cooperative development of nanotechnology, it had best wake up and start doing its part.
Certain scenarios and proposals in the last third of Engines could bear rephrasing, but at least one problem is presented misleadingly. Page 173 speaks of the necessity of avoiding runaway accidents with replicating assemblers; today I would emphasize that there is little incentive to build a replicator even resembling one that can survive in nature. Consider cars: to work, they require gasoline, oil, brake fluid, and so forth. No mere accident could enable a car to forage in the wild and refuel from tree sap: this would demand engineering genius and hard work. It would be likewise with simple replicators designed to work in vats of assembler fluid, making nonreplicating products for use ouside. Replicators build in accord with simple regulations would be unlike anything that could run wild. The problem – and it is enormous – is not one of accidents, but of abuse.
Some have mistakenly imagined that my aim is to promote nanotechnology; it is, instead, to promote understanding of nanotechnology and its consequences, which is another matter entirely. Nonetheless, I am now persuaded that the sooner we start serious development efforts, the longer we will have for serious public debate. Why? Because serious debate will start with those serious efforts, and the sooner we start, the poorer our technology base will be. An early start will thus mean slower progress and hence more time to consider the consequences.
If you wish to keep up with developments in these areas, and with efforts to understand and influence them, please contact:
The Foresight Institute
Engines of Creation attempts to survey the world toward which technology is taking us, and in the years since the first publication, technology has advanced a long way toward that world.
The first chapter shows how protein engineering, by making molecular machines much as living cells do, could provide a path to more advanced systems, but it is cautious about the time required to solve the most basic problems. Two years after publication, William DeGrado at DuPont reported the first solid success in de novo protein design. There is now a journal titled Protein Engineering, and a growing stream of results. What is more, additional paths to the same goal have emerged, based on different molecules and methods. The 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Cram, Pedersen, and Lehn for their work in building large molecular structures from self-assembling parts. The 1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology was awarded to Nadrian Seeman of New York University for the design and synthesis of DNA structures joined to form a cubical framework. Chemists have started to speak of doing “nanochemistry.” In recent years, molecular self-assembly has emerged as a field in its own right.
In its notes section, Engines mentions the possibility that mechanical systems – probe microscopes able to move sharp tips over surfaces with atomic precision – might be used to position molecular tools. Since then, Donald Eigler at IBM demonstrated the ability to move atoms in a vivid and memorable fashion, spelling “IBM” on a surface using 35 precisely arranged xenon atoms. Atom manipulation, too, has taken off as a research field.
Perhaps the clearest indicator is linguistic. When Engines was published, the word “nanotechnology” was almost unknown. It has since become a buzzword in science, engineering, futurology, and fiction. Both in our laboratory capabilities and in our expections, we are on our way.
There is even hope that we might learn to handle our technologies better, this time around. The “Network of Knowledge” chapter describes how a hypertext publishing medium could speed the evolution of knowledge, and perhaps of wisdom. The World Wide Web is a major step in this direction, and software developers are working to add the remaining necessary abilities to move it far beyond mere publication, to support discussion, criticism, deliberation, and consensus-building.
For more information:
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