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Tiny Technology for a Tiny Town

By Sally Morem
During the history of civilization, farming and manufacturing consisted of
the art of arranging a very large number of atoms in meaningful, useful
patterns. If we arrange carbon atoms loosely, we create charcoal. If we
arrange them tightly in a three-dimensional grid, we create a diamond. If we
arrange the silicon atoms found in sand (and add a few other trace elements),
we can make computer chips. If we rearrange the atoms in dirt, water and
air, we can make potatoes.

These methods are comparatively crude at the molecular level. Casting,
planting, grinding, boring, milling, harvesting, and welding lop off atoms in
great thundering statistical herds. It’s like trying to make things out of
LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on you hands. Yes, you can push the
LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can’t really snap
them together precisely the way you’d like.

Even under such limitations, humans have made great technological
advances in the last two hundred years. Each generation of machinists and
farmers have built upon their predecessors’ ability to manipulate smaller and
smaller amounts of matter precisely and to duplicate what they’ve created.
Miniaturization, precision, and replication. These are the keys to
technological progress in constructing anything—anything at all.

These keys have led us to the development of microtechnology in the past
thirty years, which allow us to handle tiny artifacts a thousandth of a meter
long. Microtechnology produces useful microparticles such as
“encapsulated water” (rub some white powder and wet your hands), polymer
and pigment coatings that paint very smoothly, and tiny beads used in
cosmetics or spray-on foods. They are now leading us down into the realm
of the very tiny—into the world of cells and molecules. Miniaturization,
precision, and replication are beginning to enable us to construct tools as
tiny as ten-billionths of that which had been considered mere science fiction:
nanotechnology.

Rushford, with a population of about 1,500, nestled in the hills of the west
side of Houston County in extreme southeastern Minnesota, may become the
center of our state’s rapidly emerging 21st century technological revolution.
Nanotechnology takes its name from the root word “nano,” meaning “one-
billionth.” Nanoparticles would be one thousand times smaller than the
equivalent number of microparticles.

“A tube of nanometer-sized particles would look something like tiny black
dirt or perhaps dust,” says Willie Hendrickson, formerly the manager of
3M’s corporate research group on particle processes. Nanoparticles are so
small; they change the structure of materials at the molecular of atomic
level. Ultimately as the nanotechnology revolution matures, instead of
conventional machining processes, nanotechnology would “grow” products
from the inside out, building up the shapes desired molecule by molecule.

Electrical engineer Kevin Klungvedt is convinced nanotechnology is the
wave of the future. He recently founded the Rushford Institute of
Nanotechnology in order to spur development of such manufacturing
companies in the area. It will supply equipment and other types of support
for companies interested in nanotechnology, acting as a sort of business
incubator.

Hendrickson’s Aveka Corporation is now planning to take Klungvedt up on
the offer by establishing a nanoparticle plant in the city’s industrial park. He
will use first-generation nanotechnology—using nanoparticles to grind
pharmaceuticals, inks for printers, metal oxides for abrasives, and zinc
oxides for sunscreen products, capturing some of the products in very tiny
capsules to assure uniformity or to allow easy absorption into the skin. He
will also use a laser process to create carbon-based products, including
synthetic diamonds and high-strength carbon nanotubes to be embedded in
lightweight, but very strong aeronautical products.

But, as I said, this is merely the first generation of nanotech products. Eric
Drexler, the first scientist to envision the development of nanotechnology,
and author of Engines of Creation, the book in which he laid out a very
detailed version of his vision for the general public in 1986, is convinced
that the development of nanotechnology will lead to nothing short of a new
industrial revolution with the potential for even more far-reaching societal
changes than the original in the past three centuries. In short, the 21st
century will see a dramatic increase in the rate of technological development
in America and around the world.
I read the book in the late 1980s. What convinced me was Drexler’s
comparison of nanotechnology to biology. Organisms manipulate molecules
taken from their environment in order to preserve and replicate themselves.
They also replicate the instructions on how the replicate themselves. This is
precisely what the mature form of nanotechnology would do. Humans in the
past have mimicked and improved upon “natural technologies”—the
aerodynamics of birds, the sharp claws of tigers, the protective covering of
fur, and the sleekness of sharks—for their own survival. This means that we
would soon be able to do what the best inventors did when they created
airplanes, knives, clothing, and submarines. With nanotechnology, we
would be able to do what biology does—only better.

Think of tiny machines, the first of which may be made out of protein
molecules, and later out of tougher material. Drexler’s microscopic
machines, with millions of their fellows, are programmed to build things—
anything—by manipulating individual molecules, and perhaps even
individual atoms. Drexler calls them assemblers. Catch his vivid
description of how they cooperate in vastly complex configurations in the
“growing” of a futuristic rocket engine in a large, transparent vat. It’s well
worth the price of the book.

The activity of these assemblers is directed by tiny, but powerful, computers
called nanocomputers. Drexler then describes how, after much serious R &
D work with assemblers, powerful replicators will be developed. These,
again with the cooperation of large numbers, are able to break down any
object to its constituent molecules and atoms, record their respective
positions while doing so, and then reproduce the object, making absolutely
identical copies, down to the scratches and smudge marks on the original—if
desired. Or, if you like, in mint condition. Replicators can also make copies
of themselves—and therein lies the true power of this technology—a growth
factor roughly equivalent in concept to that of compound interest, but much,
much faster. The first replicators would be horrendously expensive. The
next and the next and the next would be dirt cheap—literally. Think of the
implications of Star Trek-type replicators in every kitchen and garage!

Let’s push our analysis of the impact of nanotechnology, especially the
replicators, on human society even further. Most of the work done in
agricultural, industrial and service-oriented economies involve making
copies—copies of plants and animals, consumer products, and reports. Any
technology that can replicate things more quickly and cheaply than existing
technology, not to mention far more precisely and consistently than human
effort—and is itself replicable—is bound to have a profound impact on
economic systems, all of which had been based up to this time on the
allocation of scarce energy, natural resources, machines, and labor.

Nanotechnology makes everything a resource and makes products literally
dirt cheap. The ultimate recycling system. Your garbage would no longer
be garbage. It would become valuable raw materials for your
nanotechnology vats. Don’t throw it away!

I predict that when nanotechnology reaches maturity—and it will become so
in some for or other almost certainly sometime during this century—no
existing economic system will survive in its present condition—including
the American economy.

Individuals and families will be able to own their own production facilities
and may, if they choose, return to subsistence living—but on a much grander
scale than our pioneer ancestors could have imagined. Say good-bye to
fishing, farming, mining, manufacturing, and almost all existing information
businesses. As nanotechnology takes over more and more of the production
of goods, starting with the easiest and moving toward the most complex,
work itself will either disappear or become so completely redefined it
essentially becomes something wholly new.

So, what will we do with all our free time? What does the 800-pound gorilla
do? Whatever he wants. We’ll do fun stuff, in whatever way each of us
defines that term. Imagine a society so individualistic and wealthy it makes
present-day America seem positively medieval by comparison!

Governments will find most of their duties and obligations subsumed by
strong, independent individuals and families. Say good-bye to welfare,
Social Security, health care (as the nanos are put to work preserving our
health and youth on a cellular level), formal education (I predict that home
schooling will become ubiquitous), and government subsidies of all kinds.
Most regulatory agencies, too, will become obsolete. What about the bread
and butter of government contract work—the construction and maintenance
of transportation and communications systems? At some point during the
nanotechnology revolution, that activity too would be subsumed by the
assemblers. The only things left in the realm of government would be police
work and national defense, remaining as a result of the nasty little quirks of
human nature.

Nanotechnology may enable us to achieve what no political movement is
capable of giving us—a truly wealthy and free society for Rushford…
Minnesota…America…the world.