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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 “onebillionth.” 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.
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