The author’s interest in nanotechnology stems from the sheer gravity of the
claims made by those researching and developing this technology; in essence
that the capacity to manipulate and program matter with atomic precision
will witness a sweeping technological revolution, that could make the
industrial revolution seem almost inconsequential in comparison. Molecular
miniaturization, materials, and manufacturing of all kinds. It could
technology, transforming the economic, ecological, and cultural foundation
of our lives.
As well as the fact that computer technology is at the heart of the
development of nanotechnology, there is a very high relevance to the
benefits that this field will give to computer technology. Molecular
manufacturing could greatly expand the limits of computer technology and
its possibilities. with micron-scale computer CPU’s being produced that are
efficient enough to let miniaturized desktop systems contain literally
millions of processors. “Physics todayusesenormousmachinesto
investigate situations that exist for less than 10?? second.” (Woodcock &
Davis 1991 p.16) Clearly, this scenario would change unimaginably with the
advent of this technology as materials over 100 times stronger than those
in normal use today would be engineered enabling huge reductions in the
bulk of products. The impact this could have on virtually all areas of
digital cultures would be vast.
“In either case, though, if these ideas as products are not commercially
viable, they become no more important than the preSocratics, relics of
yesteryear for the amusement of idle scholars”(Sassower 1995 p.112) This
quote points to the need for this technology to prove itself as relevant
from a capitalist perspective and the concept of ‘supercomputers’ clearly
Every manufacturing process currently employed can be simply viewed as a
method for arranging atoms, and their properties depend on how those atoms
are arranged. Most of these methods arrange atoms in a very crude manner
and even the most advanced commercial microchips produced today can be
considered grossly irregular at the atomic scale.
However, technology is fast becoming molecularly precise. Advances in
physics, molecular biology, and computer science are focusing on the
ability to control the structure and function of matter with molecular
precision. Nanotechnology, otherwise known as molecular engineering, is the
ability to build structures to complex, atomic specifications and refers to
technology that features nanometer scale ranging from fine particles to
thin coatings to large molecules. The concept of nanotechnology was
conceived by a man named Eric Drexler. In his book “Engines of Creation”,
released in 1986, he defined nanotechnology as “Technology based on the
manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build structures to
researchers are currently working towards the creationofmachines
potentially as small as DNA.
The basic concept of nanotechnology is simple. Whereas chemists combine
molecules in solution, allowing them to wander and collide at random,
leading to unwanted reactions, nanomachines will instead move, split,
combine and position molecules in specific locations in a pre-determined
sequence. By doing so, the manner in which the molecules react will be
controlled, and complex structures can be built with atomically precise
The molecular engineering community is currently proposing the ideal that
molecular nanotechnology will produce clean energy and materials to replace
older technologies, and clean up the toxic mess left by them. This can be
achieved by incorporating self-regulating systems in the form of “self-
regulating assembly” into nanotechnology from the start. This means that
molecular assemblers would have limited replication rates through these
built in controls. For example, “nanobacteria” are organisms less than a
micron wide which already has a very slow replication rate. They have a
“limiting” factor that prevents them from turning everything into grey goo
despite them being such a common part of the environment.
Development principles of the research community work on the grounds that
artificial replicators must be incapable of replication in a natural,
uncontrolled environment and evolution within the context of a self-
replicating manufacturing system is discouraged. Molecular nanotechnology
designs should limit proliferation specifically and any replicating systems
should provide traceability. Specific design guidelines state that any self-
replicating device having sufficient onboard information to describe its
own manufacture should encrypt it in a way that any replication error will
produce a blueprint that is randomized.
Generally, there are two ways available to produce nanomaterials. The top-
down way is by starting with a bulk material and breaking it into smaller
pieces using energy (mechanical, chemical etc.) Thisminiaturisation
approach basically makes relatively imprecise structures smaller. The
opposite, bottom-up approach makes precise chemical structures larger
synthesising the material from atomic or molecular species via chemical
reactions, allowing for the precursor particles to grow in size. Both the
top-down and the bottom-up approaches can be done in gas, solid states or
supercritical fluids, liquid or in vacuum.
Manufacturers are interested in the ability to control particle size and
shape, size distribution, degree of particle agglomeration and particle
composition. Bottom-up nanotechnology is the least developed area of
nanotechnology and is struggling with the combination it requires of
nanoscale precision with volume demand.
Nanotechnology aims to deliver unparalleled advances, but all of these
benefits will require extremely sophisticated programming of the nano-
machines themselves. Investigations into properties of complex systems and
emergent behaviour have helped researchers understand how a number of small
systems can be combined to form a large system with qualitatively different
behaviour. Other areas of study (including chaos theory,artificial
intelligence and studies into complex self-organising systems) also show
that systems which have many, ratherthanfewcomponentsbecome
qualitatively different. Such systems have emergent properties of the
entire system that are not those of the individual components. Certain
classes of useful emergent properties may well be easy to control. Many
organisms, for example have emergent hierarchical branching structures
including nervous systems, arteries and lungs. Such emergent structures
prove to be particularly simple to program because ultimately they have “a
place for every atom, and every atom in its place.” Having no moving parts,
such materials are likely to be much less vulnerable to failures and in
many cases would simply degrade gradually. Additionally, unwanted emergent
properties would be less likely. This process where materials become less
vulnerable to failures and where unwanted emergent properties would be
phased out can be seen as a metaphor of evolution. However, “though chaotic
systems may be stable at the abstract level…they are highly unstable at
the level we experience them directly” (Wooley 1992 p.88) Perhaps many of
these theories would prove to exhibit totally different results in practice
rather than in theory.
Many researchers advocate an evolutionary model of technological changes,
looking at human technology as the continuation of natural evolution. The
emergence of molecular manufacturing could be looked at as cosmic order
born from chaos then gradually evolving towards organization followed by
self-replication. Evolutionary principles are supposed to determine what
paths are possible and what the limits of technological achievements are.
Used as a metaphor for evolution, therefore, nanotechnology could evolve
into spiritual machines and god-like intelligence.
For the many active promoters of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology is
the means whereas artificial intelligence istheend.Fromthis
perspective, the human race has developed computer technology as part of
the evolution of life to overcome the limitations of our human brain. Very
simply, human technologies are the continuation of biological evolution.
Similarly, cybernetics, which is intrinsically linked with nanotechnology,
could also be viewed as part of the continuation of biological evolution.
Defined as “the science of control and communication in the animal and the
machine”, cybernetics is not an exact science and is often used to include
automatic control systems of considerable complexity, for example our own
In the not too distant future, the world could witness large portions of
mankind being electronically augmented with cybernetics, or at least
benefiting hugely from advances in medicinethroughnanotechnology.
“Primatology and cybernetics are linked in other ways as well. Primates and
cyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings and
narrative constructions.” (Gray 1995 p.322) Conceivably, medical nanobots
will repair and help out our natural biology, perusing our bloodstreams,
entering cells for repair and maintenance, correcting any damage at the
molecular level. Foreign, unwanted organisms will be attacked and all waste
removed, keeping fat-levels and metabolism in perfect working order. The
evolution of his technology could see mankind’s molecules, organs, tissue
systems and overall body design be re-engineered through nanotechnology,
leading to greater functionality, new capabilities and enhanced senses?
This presents the possibility that one day human beings will never suffer
any physical imperfection and never grow old or get sick…in essence
However, “Foucault takes from postmodernism the concepts of fragmentation
and multiplicity, the linguistically created subject, and the challenge to
causality. As a poststructuralist,Foucaultattacksstructuralism’s
“scientific pretensions”-the quests for foundation, truth, objectivity,
certainty and systems.” (Eve, Horsfall ; Lee 1997 p.4) Clearly, from this
perspective, these claims would need examining further to establish their
degree of validity in the real world. Here, Foucault can be seen to take
issue with thosethatconsiderobjectsofknowledgeasreal.
Indeed, presently we are quite far away from achieving this ideal of a nano-
technological utopia for mankind and human development. Most laboratory
researchers are advancingwithshorter-termgoalsthanmolecular
manufacturing. Cleaner, more efficient chemical process and molecular
frameworks useful in medical therapies are viewed as being achievable
practical applications for this technology in the near future. Other views
differ greatly on this subject “Organisms are not random assemblages of
working parts, the results of trial and error tinkering by natural
selection. They reflect a deep pattern of ordered relationships.” (Goodwin
1994 p.98) However, the history of science shows that research often has
unintended consequences. A natural consequence of improvements in these
areas could be the development of a technology foundation that would be
used to produce the machines neededformoreadvancedmolecular
As such, we are very close to witnessing the first applications of any
practical value in this field. Ralph Merkle, a researcher at Xeroxs Palo
Alto Research Center, who is one of the leading researchers in the field,
feels that within 20 years given the right funding, nanotechnology will be
making its first public appearance.
The implications of success are the prospect that nanotechnology could
potentially change everything. Once in place mankind and the planet it
inhabits would never be the same. However, the enormous opportunities that
these technological advances could result in, would also bringthe
potential for disastrous abuse. “The possibility of instant destruction is
superseding strategies of deterrence. We’re now going into a new phase…it
could lead us to apocalypse (absolute destruction)” (Virilio 1997 p.53) The
resulting military capabilities and their potential misuse need much
consideration. “The only functional component of intelligence agencies is
the one that will be replaced by machines” (De Landa 1991 p.203)
Clearly, the decisions made in the next two decades in this sphere of
research, could have massive impact of the future of humanity.
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