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The present state of nanotechnology

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Previous: history of nanotechnology

III. The Present State of Nanotechnology

Previously, we've investigated the history of nanotechnology. Now, let's look at the present state (2008). The principal teachers appear to be Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle.

a. Eric Drexler 

Drexler wiki

Eric Drexler

In an article "The Incredible Shrinking Man" (Wired Magazine, Issue 12.10, October 2004) we read: "Kim Eric Drexler was born on April 25, 1955, in Oakland, California, to a mother who was a mathematician and a father who was a speech pathologist". This family background makes him similar Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of WWW (both of his parents were mathematicians). "A bookish boy, he was lost in the company of his peers. 'Eric was always something of a social outcast', says his childhood friend Dave Anderson. 'He was your classic nerd taken to the extreme'." It is such "nerds", and not the "proletariat", that constitute a modern revolutionary class.

1. Solar sailing

It seems Drexler's interest in nanotechnology originated from his interest in "solar sailing" and space colonization (and not, as Bobrobsky thinks, from his interest in Artificial Intelligence). A Wikipedia article on Drexler says:

"Drexler participated in NASA summer studies on space colonies in 1975 and 1976. He fabricated metal films a few tens of nanometers thick on a wax support to demonstrate the potentials of high performance solar sails. He was active in space politics, helping the L5 Society defeat the Moon Treaty in 1980"


L4 and L5 points

What is "L5 Society"? Again, Wikipedia:

"The L5 Society was founded in 1975 by Carolyn and Keith Henson to promote the space colony ideas of Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill. The name comes from the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points proposed as locations for the huge rotating space habitats that Dr. O'Neill envisioned. L4 and L5 are points of stable gravitational equilibrium located just inside the Moon's orbit at equal distances from both the Earth and the Moon. An object placed in orbit around L5 (or L4) will remain there indefinitely without having to expend fuel to keep its position". 

"The Moon Treaty" was an attempt to introduce international jurisdiction to the settlement of the moon.

What is "solar sailing"? Again, Wikipedia:

"Solar sails (also called light sails or photon sails, especially when they use light sources other than the Sun) are a proposed form of spacecraft propulsion using large membrane mirrors...The concept was first proposed by German astronomer Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century."

According to Eric Drexler, "after a year's acceleration, a lightsail can reach a speed of one hundred kilometers per second, leaving today's swiftest rockets in the dust".

In the present, solar sails are used as auxiliary sources of movement in some space satellites, e.g. "EADS Astrium built Eurostar E3000 geostationary communications satellites use solar sail panels attached to their solar cell arrays to off-load transverse angular momentum, thereby saving fuel". In the beginning stages of development, a new source of energy always played auxiliary role, while the main role was played by an old and proven motor. For example, sails only gradually replaced oars, while steam only gradually replaced the sails.

Solar sail material

NASA engineer Les Johnson views interstellar sail material. Near him, we can see a model of a solar sailing ship.

It is clear that solar sails need to have a large area, and hence be constructed of a very light and yet very strong material. Wikipedia writes: "The highest thrust-to-mass designs known (2007) were theoretical designs developed by Eric Drexler.[10] He designed a sail using reflective panels of thin aluminum film (30 to 100 nanometres thick)... He made and handled samples of the film in the laboratory, but the material is too delicate to survive folding, launch, and deployment, hence the design relied on space-based production of the film panels... Sails in this class would offer accelerations an order of magnitude higher than designs based on deployable plastic films".

Another development: "There has been some theoretical speculation about using molecular manufacturing techniques to create advanced, strong, hyper-light sail material, based on nanotube mesh weaves, where the weave "spaces" are less than ½ the wavelength of light impinging on the sail. While such materials have as-of-yet only been produced in laboratory conditions, and the means for manufacturing such material on an industrial scale are not yet available, such materials could weigh less than 0.1 g/m²[14] making them lighter than any current sail material by a factor of at least 30. For comparison, 5 micrometre thick Mylar sail material weighs 7 g/m², aluminized Kapton films weighs up to 12 g/m²,[15] and Energy Science Laboratories' new carbon fiber material weighs in at 3g/m².[13]"

This explains the origin and one aim of nanotechnology. It is technology for solar sailing. The range of such sailing will be the planets of our solar system plus the nearest stars, as the speeds of which the solar sails are capable approach the speed of light.

Recent advances in solar sailing include:

1) On August 92004 Japanese ISAS successfully deployed two prototype solar sails from a sounding rocket. A clover type sail was deployed at 122 km altitude and a fan type sail was deployed at 169 km altitude. Both sails used 7.5 micrometer thick film.



2) A joint private project between Planetary Society, Cosmos Studios and Russian Academy of Science launched Cosmos 1 on June 212005, from a submarine in the Barents Sea, but the Volna rocket failed, and the spacecraft failed to reach orbit.

3) A 15-meter-diameter solar sail (SSP, solar sail sub payload, soraseiru sabupeiro-do) was launched together with ASTRO-F on a M-Vrocket on February 212006, and made it to orbit. It deployed from the stage, but opened incompletely.[11]

2. Suppression of advanced technology by the U.S.

In the article "The Incredible Shrinking Man" we read:

"At the Department of Energy's NanoSummit, held in June (2004) in Washington, DC, energy secretary Spencer Abraham gave the opening speech before an array of scientists from universities, industry, and national labs. Former chief arms control negotiator Paul Robinson spoke at a luncheon. The closing address was delivered by Richard Smalley, the Rice University chemist who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for discovering Buckminsterfullerene, a soccer ball-shaped carbon molecule, and its permutations, known as fullerenes... There was only one person missing: Eric Drexler, the undisputed godfather of nanotechnology, the man who coined the term".

Why was Eric Drexler missing?

"On December 1 (2003), the technical journal Chemical and Engineering News published a series of letters between Drexler and Smalley in which the Nobelist made his position clear: Molecular assembly is impossible. "Chemistry of the complexity, richness, and precision needed to come anywhere close to making a molecular assembler - let alone a self-replicating assembler - cannot be done simply by mushing two molecular objects together," Smalley wrote.

Nanotech Act 2003

Nanotech Act signed, 2003, Prof. Smalley 3rd from left.

The second blow to Drexler came only two days later, when President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, allocating $3.7 billion for molecular-scale R&D.  In the months leading up to the signing, the bill had promised to catapult Drexler's agenda to the forefront of the nation's scientific priorities. But in the end, no money was earmarked for molecular manufacturing. Instead, the funds were largely allocated to projects using variations on conventional chemistry to develop novel materials". Incidentally, Smalley made a lot of money from this direction of research: "Carbon Nanotechnologies, of which Smalley is chair of the board, bills itself as "the preeminent world producer of Buckytubes," better known as nanotubes." 

Later, we will observe similar tendency in Russia. Instead of development of nanotechnology, money is allocated to routine chemical and physical projects which fatten up certain strata of bureaucracy and its  camarilla. Here, it is necessary to redefine what we mean by "nanotechnology". On the one hand, there is "structural nanotechnology", and on the other, there is "molecular nanotechnology". Chris Phoenix, a Director of Research at Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, in a 2005 interview an interview, explained:

"Structural nanotech is what's being done today in the labs. Working with all sorts of big chemicals and small pieces of stuff, learning how to make it and what it's good for. You can get clear sunscreen particles, glowing dots that don't fade, faster and more exotic electronics, and all sorts of other useful stuff that can be built into products.

Molecular nanotechnology, or MNT, is not about creating technologies to be built into products--it's about creating the whole product by molecular manufacturing, a few atoms at a time. Some of the products will be quite small, of course. A MNT-built computer could fit inside a bacterium. But some of the most useful products will be a lot larger."

In simple terms: if you're given a constructor with a lot of atoms, picking up a bunch of atoms at a time is "structural nanotechnology", or conventional chemistry re-named "nanotechnology". Manipulating individual atoms using a pre-determined design, is "molecular nanotechnology", or MNT.

Drexler's response to the path nanotechnology is taking in the U.S.: "In a competitive world suppression of research in molecular nanotechnology is the equivalent of unilateral disarmament." This will lead to "the destruction of the United States as a world power."

Let's notice, by the way, that in early 21st century the U.S. government has suppressed a number of other leading-edge projects, such as a space plane and research into cloning. For example, on March 2, 2001, we read on Yahoo!



"NASA (news - web sites) has terminated its experimental X-33 space plane project that had been envisioned as a lower-cost successor to the aging space shuttle fleet for missions into orbit, space agency officials have announced. The X-33 program was given the ax after five years of development that never even reached the point of a test flight. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said it spent $912 million on the project... X-33 designer Lockheed Martin Corp. spent $357 million, NASA said. NASA also said the X-34, another, smaller suborbital test vehicle, was being killed" (for more information on X-33, see Lockheed Martin X-33 - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia).

The capitalist system pushes men like Drexler aside: "Never a rich man, Drexler is barely solvent. He recently moved from his three-bedroom ranch house in Silicon Valley into a modest apartment". 

3. "Engines of Creation"

The most significant book of Drexler's is his 1986 "The Engines of Creation". Preface is written by Marvin Minsky, a honorary professor of science at MIT. He writes:

"nanotechnology could have more effect on our material existence than those last two great inventions in that domain - the replacement of sticks and stones by metals and cements and the harnessing of electricity".

And so, we are standing at the dawn of a new technological revolution. Can it be doubted that similarly to the previous technological revolutions, this change will lead to a new social revolution?

Drexler proposes to build molecular machines. An example of such a machine is a ribosome controlled by the DNA. Drexler writes:

"Molecules will be assembled like the components of an erector set"

Zoob pieces

A constructor "Zoob pieces"

This points to us what toys are good for modern children. These must be various constructors that help children to build complex machines using smaller pieces. Recently a company named "Infinitoy" came to the world market with "Zoob pieces". The pieces very much resemble atoms and molecules and the way they snap together. Some examples of projects that can be built from these pieces are DNA and various molecular gears that can be seen on site of Nanorex, a company currently (2008) employing Eric Drexler.

Drexler lets us know what is the revolutionary force of 21st century:

"Science and technology intertwine. Engineers use knowledge produced by scientists; scientists use tools produced by engineers"That’s where the future is: scientists and engineers, i.e. people with theoretical and applied knowledge. The theory that proletariat

Nanorex sample

Samples of gears from Nanorex

is a revolutionary class must be transferred to a historical museum.

Nanotechnology proposes to make machines that will take a common dirt, break it down into constituent molecules and atoms, and then assemble these into the products that we need. This process will be totally completely automated. The result will be cornucopia of products that are necessary condition for a communist society:

"Assemblers will be able to make virtually anything from common materials without labor, replacing smoking factories with systems as clean as forests. They will transform technology and the economy at their roots, opening a new world of possibilities. They will indeed be engines of abundance"

Nanotechnology is the technology of communist society. Any person in the modern day and age who says s/he is a communist but is not interested in modern science and technology is a bullshit artist. 

Let's notice that history of technology is repeating itself. For example, Drexler writes about the history of computers:

"the idea of building ordinary computers once was shocking. By the mid 1800s, though, Charles Babbage had built mechanical calculators and part of a programmable mechanical computer; however, he ran into difficulties of finance and construction. One Dr. Young helped not at all: he argued that it would be cheaper to invest the money and use the interest to pay human calculators. Nor did the British Astronomer Royal, Sir George Airy - an entry in his diary states that "On September 15th Mr. Goulburn ... asked my opinion on the utility of Babbage's calculating machine... I replied, entering fully into the matter, and giving my opinion that it was worthless."

Compare this with the debate between Drexler and Robert Smalley. In "The Incredible Shrinking Man" we read:

"In the September 2001 issue of Scientific American, Richard Smalley first presented his view that molecular assembly couldn't possibly work. A nanoassembler, he argued, would need a multitude of fingers to control all the atoms involved in a reaction - too many to fit in the minute space available. "There's not that much room" at the bottom, Smalley quipped, taking a potshot at the heretofore inviolable Feynman".

Nanorex logo made DNA
Let me remind you that Feynman said: "The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom." For example, in the photo  we see the logo of Nanorex designed with the help of molecules of DNA.

4. Impact of nanotechnology on capitalism

The following, from "Engines of Creation", explains why nanotechnology is rejected by capitalism:

"Labor. Replicating assemblers will require no labor to build, once the first exists. What use are human hands in running an assembler[the size of which is measured in nanometers]? Further, with robotic devices of various sizes to assemble parts into larger systems, the entire manufacturing process from assembling molecules to assembling skyscrapers could be free of labor costs".

The "labor free" era. But that also means era without surplus value, as this last is created by human labor. Hence, the era of nanotechnology means automation of production taken to an extreme, and that means an impossibility of production of capital (the ratio of "variable" capital to "fixed" tends to zero, see "Capital" of Marx, volume III.)

"Capital. Assembler-based systems, if properly programmed, will themselves be productive capital. Together with larger robotic machines, they will be able to build virtually anything, including copies of themselves. Since this self-replicating capital will be able to double many times per day, only demand and available resources will limit its quantity. Capital as such need cost virtually nothing."

"Capital" that costs nothing is no capital. Capital is capital only inasmuch as it represents "value", i.e. embodied human labor.

"Common elements like hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, aluminum, and silicon seem best for constructing the bulk of most structures, vehicles, computers, clothes and so forth: they are light and form strong bonds. Because dirt and air contain these elements in abundance, raw materials can be dirt cheap"

Raw material will be dirt cheap. No human labor goes into construction (or synthesis) of new products. Instead of “managers” and bureaucrats – programmers who program the nanomachines to do specific tasks.

5. NanoEngineer

Drexler is currently working for a company called "Nanorex". Robert Freitas, in an interview with Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, explains:

"Nanorex is creating an incredibly cool piece of software called NanoEngineer that allows the user to quickly and easily design molecular machine systems of up to perhaps 100,000 atoms in size, then perform various computational simulations on the system such as energy minimization (geometry optimization) or a quantitative analysis of applied forces and torques.  It’s a CAD system for molecules, with a special competence in the area of diamondoid structures.  Once this software is released, users anywhere in the world will be able to begin creating designs for relatively complex nanomachine components.  We’d expect the library of designed machine systems to rapidly expand from the current 1-2 dozen items (including mostly just a few bearings, gears, and joints) into the hundreds or thousands in just a few years.  The existence of this expanded library of nanoparts will then make it easier to begin thinking about designs for more complex systems that may be built from thousands or more of these parts, containing millions or even billions of atoms.  It’s a big step along the molecular machine design and development pathway".

6. Method of knowing

In February 2007, Drexler published “Advice to aspiring nanotechnologists”. This "Advice"offers methodology of studying interdisciplinary fields.

First thesis: "one can and should ... master some areas and know a lot about the others".

The same thesis in more detail:

"It makes sense to think in terms of three levels of knowledge about a field:

  1. Knowing what a field is about—knowing what sorts of physical systems and phenomena it deals with, and what sorts of questions it asks and answers.
  2. Knowing the content of a field in a qualitative sense—having a good feel for what sorts of phenomena can be important in what circumstances, and knowing when you need answers from work in that field.
  3. Knowing how to get those answers yourself, based on personal mastery of enough of the field's subject matter."

Second thesis: "self-education". For example, Drexler says: “courses can help, but they tend to give a narrow kind of knowledge”. This is especially true in humanities: for a revolutionary,  they give practically no knowledge. They offer almost no chance for creativity. Drexler's advice: skim a wide range of books on the new books shelf of a science library, on a regular basis, and (to) do likewise with a wide range of technical journals.” However, simple reading of wide range of literature is not enough. It only provides a raw material for thinking. Ideas should be sharpened in the process of criticism and self-criticism. “Learn to present ideas in discussions, papers, and talks, and listen to the responses, especially from people who know relevant fields”.

However, if one is an independent researcher, it is difficult to find people who will criticize your work. It is possible that electronic conferences on given subject can help.

Most important for a theoretician is self-discipline and self-criticism: 

"Theoretical work, in contrast, must be disciplined by knowledge of experimental results and natural law; this discipline doesn't impose itself, it must be sought out and largely self-applied... Seek out weaknesses in ideas, and build only on ideas that pass rigorous tests, or you may see the foundations of your thinking later crumble and dump a year's (or a decade's) work into the trash. Beware of those who have neither experimental results nor a theoretician's voluntary discipline; expect them to spout great streams of plausible nonsense, unconstrained by reality"

So, Drexler's methodology is:

1) approaching a subject from various fields of knowledge;

2) learning to differentiate which fields of knowledge are more important than others, and obtaining more knowledge in the important fields;

3) rely on self-education, rather than on standard learning (school and college);

4) independent pursuit of ideas should be supplemented by feedback and criticism from others; one should participate in one or several of the existing forums on a subject.

5) It is necessary to develop a system for criticizing oneself. One's ideas should be constantly matched with experimental results and theoretical ideas of others.

Next: Ralph Merkle

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