By Gina "Nanogirl" Miller 2000 all rights reserved.
As reported to Max Block 'Columbia University Graduate school of Journalism for a 30 minute radio documentary on cryonics and nanotechnology. Aired on NPR radio Feb. 9th 2000
My name is Gina Miller otherwise known as "Nanogirl" I own Nanotechnology Industries and am the nano correspondent for the Extropy Institute news at Transhumanist Times.com. I was originally interested in the arts but in 1993 I was watching the PBS channel on television and I saw a show called FutureQuest narrated by Jeff Goldblum. It talked about nanotechnology and how it could one day place atoms in precise positions to build complex structures, with what was at the time cutting edge computer graphics. It predicted the future; at home boxes the size of microwaves, manufacturing any material item that could fit inside of it with a few touches of a button. It talked about the economy, the end of starvation and pollution clean up. The movie had a repeat airing and I watched it again. I questioned everyone I ran into about "nanotechnology" but no one knew anything about it. After time, I began picking up knowledge online and ordering books, beginning with Eric Drexler's “Engines of Creation” and moving on from there.
I couldn’t let go of something I realized could have such an astounding impact on society and life as we know it. I began creating a nano related web presence for myself, became a Foresight Institute Senior Associate and a member of other related groups, such as the Extropians and other general scientific affiliations, I in effect spidered my way into some good contacts. In fact right now I am in the middle of publishing my second issue of the “Nanotechnology Newsletter” which will include papers by: Will Ware who designed ‘Nanocad', a molecular modeling and simulation program, Robert Freitas who wrote the newly available book “Nanomedicine”, and an interview with George Skidemore who works at Zyvex. Zyvex is a private company founded by Jim Von Ehr with the goal of building the first assembler.
What is nanotechnology? Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on the nanoscale. A nanometer is a very small measure of length - it is one billionth of a meter, a length so small that only three or four atoms lined up in a row would be a nanometer. So, nanotechnology involves designing and building materials and devices where the basic structure of the material or device is specified on the scale of one or a few nanometers. Ultimately nanotechnology will mean materials and devices in which every atom is assigned a place, and having every atom in the right place will be essential for the functioning of the device.
Another way of thinking about the ultimate form of nanotechnology, is that it will be based on molecular machinery - machines made by having every atom in a designed place and performing a designed function. These molecular machines will be capable of making other molecular machines and other products in which the atomic structure is precisely arranged to make the desired product. These molecular machines that will be able to assemble atoms into complex structures have been termed "assemblers." Such assemblers will be able to build just about anything that exists or can be designed, anything that is compatible with the basic laws of physics. This includes being able to make copies of themselves, so eventually we have an entire manufacturing economy based upon molecular manufacturing, since atoms are everywhere around us and freely available this will create products for all of us, not just the elite.
The kinds of products that could be built will range from very powerful microscopic computers to super strong materials ten times as strong as steel but much lighter, to food and biological repairs to our bodies. All these products would be very inexpensive because the molecular machines that built them will basically take atoms from garbage or dirt, and energy from sunshine and rearrange those atoms into useful products, just like trees and crops take dirt, air, water and sunshine and rearrange the atoms into wood and food.
Right now the only molecular machines that exist are those inside living cells. Right now mother nature and evolution are the only true nanotechnologists. We can learn a lot from nature about how to build nanotech, we may even be able to hijack parts of nature to get there. This is why biology and genetics are routes to nanotech but there are many routes and many disciplines involved: engineering, physics, computation, chemistry, material science, mathematics, etc. which is why there isn’t a nano degree available at this time. There are too many departments to merge together that at the time are not bridged.
There has been a lot of progress in understanding how molecules can be made to assemble themselves into complex structures. Many scientists are working on making "nanostructures" and they say within the next few years we will have "molecular electronics" making very small computer circuits and new kinds of sensors and other materials. Scientists have also learned to use special microscopes to not only see individual atoms, but to move atoms around and put them into precise patterns. The first scientist to suggest atoms could be moved to precise locations was Richard Feynman during his famous 1959 talk at Caltech to the American Physical Society. In 1986 K. Eric Drexler who is now chairman of the Foresight Institute, wrote the seminal book “Engines of Creation” when he was a student at MIT which laid out the theoretical foundation and future of nanotechnology. At the time there was a lot of negative reaction because the ideas were so far out but considering the progress being made with nanostructured materials and molecular electronics, it is a much more widely accepted theory, at least in the near term applications.
The super strong materials and very cheap and powerful computers along with cheap manufacturing mean that in the future our homes could be made from smart materials. Retractable walls and doors, paper thin televisions, automatic cleaning floors and trash automatically removed, assemblers could rearrange the atoms in our garbage to recycle and produce clean water or food. Safety controls could be installed for example: if your area was hit by an earthquake, the smart, super strong materials in your house could move to neutralize the effects of the quake or automatically repair any damage. The contents of the house could rearrange to suit your needs or your moods. Any consumer good you wanted could be manufactured by at home molecular manufacturing systems about the size of a microwave.
Safety control mechanisms could also be used with automobiles. Cars would feature utility fogs, a concept by Josh Hall, invisible tiny machines suspended in the air, that would instantly form a cushion around each person to protect the occupants in case of an accident. Cars would be self repairing, essentially drive themselves and create their own fuel. Some even speculate that car's could fly, Jetson style! See Josh Hall Foresight update #34.
Nanomachines would guard our yards from damaging insects. Undesirable pests could be eaten by the nanomachines. Automatic trimmings and pooper scoopers could be features as well. My favorite earth applications are ones that cure environmental damage. We could put soil in it's most perfect state, therefore eliminating starvation in lands that have intolerant soil for growing food, and solve rainforest issues, revive extinct plants, animals, and clean up pollution. The ozone layer damage and nuclear pollution could be repaired by nanotech. It turns out that one of the most useful atoms for building nanotech is carbon. Carbon is also part of carbon dioxide, which many think is a major contributor to green house warming. Nanomachines could be programmed to derive some of their materials by cleaning the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and cleaning out other polluting molecules just as easily. Also, since molecular manufacturing builds things atom by atom, there will be no pollution produced by molecular manufacturing systems.
The future biotechnology applications of nanotech are incredible. Microscopic machines the size of our own cells or smaller could travel around the body collecting information about what is wrong and then doing whatever molecular surgery is necessary to fix the problem. Viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells could be precisely identified and removed without disturbing healthy tissue. Damage from injuries or from normal aging could be completely healed atom by atom.
People have signed up to be cryonically suspended after they die at Alcor and the Cryonics Institute with the hope of being revived in the future using an advanced technology that could repair damage and restore them back to good health. Nanotechnology as it is fully imagined could one day be a tool for repairing the disease or aging that caused death. Nanotechnology could also repair the damage that was created by the freezing process. If nanotechnology happens within their lifetime they won’t need to be cryonically suspended because nanotechnology could be continuously repairing the body, therefore avoiding illnesses and maybe even death.
Nanotechnology could be used within our own minds. It’s been estimated that the entire contents of the Library of Congress could be stored in a nanocomputer the size of a human cell and that a nanocomputer the size of a human cell could have the same raw computing power as the whole human brain. Perhaps in the beginning such computers could interface with a person through computer screens that were part of their skin or by projecting images onto the cornea of their eyes. Eventually they might interface directly with the brain so you could communicate with these computers just by thought. You could download information from others, share, exchange and expand knowledge.
This sort of process could also be used in erotic way, as I mentioned in Wired magazine (Jan. 2000). I coined the term “nanorgasm” in which nanobots could be projected into an area of thought process that stimulates, and multiplies this effect exaggerating the end result. You may perhaps be able to download certain stimuli programs and upload them at will. Perhaps one could reconfigure these specific areas of our bodies and make it possible to have them layer into other aspects of the body that are not usually intertwined with sex. This might be a memory, idea or far away plot as well as physical senses (smell, audio etc). Networks could be set up for sexual exchange similar to UNIX. A person could sign up to offer sexual shareware, as a computer stores information, we too could store our experiences and share them. You could even upload into some one else's experience or an old one of your own.
When can we predict full blown nanotechnology? Some think that we could have crude assemblers within ten years, some scientists don't think assemblers will ever be built, but everyone agrees more limited forms of nanotechnology are coming soon. How quickly we move from crude assemblers to complex nanorobots and cell repair machines depends on how much research is done, which of course depends on funding. The more funding, the quicker the results.
I hope it happens within my lifetime and I will be able to tell generations to come about how wonderful the world is compared to that old fashion, polluted and diseased world that I live in today.
Copyright Gina Miller