The nano spin 

The visionaries think it's the next stage to human evolution. And they've sold politicians on it. Can nanotechnology possibly deliver on the hype?

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But all these developments were still years away when Richard Feynman, one of the physicists behind the atomic bomb, gave a speech in 1959 that challenged scientists to think small.

In an amazingly prescient address, Feynman described nanotechnology without naming it: the idea that whole libraries' worth of information could be stored on a computer disk, that computers would one day become tiny, that devices could be constructed on the molecular level that could cure disease, that minerals and objects might be built from the atom up.

At the time, computers still used vacuum tubes and took up whole warehouses. By 1986, though, scientific advances inspired Drexler, an MIT-educated scientist, to publish Engines of Creation, an immensely readable book that gave wide voice to the potential benefits and dangers of nanotechnology.

Drexler paints a rosy picture: "It should be no great trick, for example, to make everything from dishes to carpets self-cleaning, and household air permanently fresh. For properly designed nanomachines, dirt would be food. ... Advanced technologies will make possible a whole world of products that make modern conveniences seem inconvenient and dangerous. Why shouldn't objects be light, flexible, durable and cooperative? Why shouldn't walls look like whatever we want, and transmit only the sounds we want to hear? And why should buildings and cars ever crush or roast their occupants? For those who wish, the environment of daily life can resemble some of the wilder descriptions found in science fiction."

In the years since, despite skeptical scientists who claim the laws of physics make Drexler's dreams an impossibility, his beliefs haven't wavered. To Drexler, even death seems surmountable. Last September in Scientific American magazine, he posited that one of nanotechnology's medical applications would be the "eventual ability to repair and revive those few pioneers now in suspended animation (currently regarded as legally deceased)."

Drexler has hosted conferences, published papers and lobbied Congress. He founded the Foresight Group, a group devoted to "guiding emerging technologies to improve the human condition."

Indeed, believers say nano will mean not a revolution in science, but an evolution of mankind. With nanodevices building whatever we need from the ground up, famine will end. So will environmental degradation. So will the need for money, or jobs. The technology will be that cheap.

"What makes nanotech different than nuclear power and computer science and all the other waves of stuff in the past is that [nano] was a revolution that's always had an intellectual agenda," says Paul Saffo, a director of the Institute for the Future, a long-term forecasting firm in California. "Among the original nanotech people, there was a very strong extropian culture. Extropians believe in a technologically enabled, unbounded future. There's a subtext of Ayn Rand-ism, of having all their wishes come true."

Essential to making some of the more outrageous dreams possible -- at least the ones that'll allow you to quit your day job and take up professional hammocking -- is the development of an "assembler." If, say, you want to make a steak without killing a cow, you'll need trillions of assemblers -- atom-sized devices that will build copies of themselves, and will in turn convert raw materials -- grass, water, the stuff cows eat -- into meat.

Scientists argue whether an assembler is even possible, given the laws of nature. Right now, the current nano research uses existing materials, such as metals and molecules.

Nano experiments have resulted in stronger steels that weigh less than conventional metals. Last month, IBM announced that it fashioned a transistor out of carbon nanotubes. Transistors, the switches used in computers to control the flow of electrons, now are made of silicon. But IBM says the one it constructed from nanotubes -- a cylinder of carbon atoms that is extremely flexible and strong -- is faster than the silicon-based transistors.

Still, Drexler waits for the day when a scientist will build an artificial assembler -- a tiny robot that will pluck atoms from a pile and build something we can see. His group, Foresight, is even offering a $250,000 prize, named after Feynman, to the first person who can build a 100 nanometer robot arm, which would be a crucial first step in creating the first assembler.

"If you can win that prize, you're close to being done with the whole job," says Christine Peterson, president of Foresight. "This was deliberately set up to be difficult."



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