The author’s interest in nanotechnology stems from the sheer gravity of theclaims made by those researching and developing this technology; in essencethat the capacity to manipulate and program matter with atomic precisionwill witness a sweeping technological revolution, that could make theindustrial revolution seem almost inconsequential in comparison. Molecularnanotechnologycouldpotentiallydelivertremendousadvancesinminiaturization, materials, and manufacturing of all kinds. It couldcompletely remodelengineering,chemistry,medicine,andcomputertechnology, transforming the economic, ecological, and cultural foundationof our lives. As well as the fact that computer technology is at the heart of thedevelopment of nanotechnology, there is a very high relevance to thebenefits that this field will give to computer technology.
Molecularmanufacturing could greatly expand the limits of computer technology andits possibilities. with micron-scale computer CPU’s being produced that areefficient enough to let miniaturized desktop systems contain literallymillions of processors. “Physics todayusesenormousmachinestoinvestigate situations that exist for less than 10?’second. ” (Woodcock &Davis 1991 p. 16) Clearly, this scenario would change unimaginably with theadvent of this technology as materials over 100 times stronger than thosein normal use today would be engineered enabling huge reductions in thebulk of products.
The impact this could have on virtually all areas ofdigital cultures would be vast. “In either case, though, if these ideas as products are not commerciallyviable, they become no more important than the preSocratics, relics ofyesteryear for the amusement of idle scholars”(Sassower 1995 p. 112) Thisquote points to the need for this technology to prove itself as relevantfrom a capitalist perspective and the concept of ‘supercomputers’ clearlywould. Every manufacturing process currently employed can be simply viewed as amethod for arranging atoms, and their properties depend on how those atomsare arranged. Most of these methods arrange atoms in a very crude mannerand even the most advanced commercial microchips produced today can beconsidered grossly irregular at the atomic scale. However, technology is fast becoming molecularly precise.
Advances inphysics, molecular biology, and computer science are focusing on theability to control the structure and function of matter with molecularprecision. Nanotechnology, otherwise known as molecular engineering, is theability to build structures to complex, atomic specifications and refers totechnology that features nanometer scale ranging from fine particles tothin coatings to large molecules. The concept of nanotechnology wasconceived by a man named Eric Drexler. In his book “Engines of Creation”,released in 1986, he defined nanotechnology as “Technology based on themanipulation of individual atoms and molecules to build structures tocomplexatomicspecifications”(Drexler1986,p.
288). Laboratoryresearchers are currently working towards the creationofmachinespotentially as small as DNA. The basic concept of nanotechnology is simple. Whereas chemists combinemolecules 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-determinedsequence. By doing so, the manner in which the molecules react will becontrolled, and complex structures can be built with atomically precisebuilding blocks. The molecular engineering community is currently proposing the ideal thatmolecular nanotechnology will produce clean energy and materials to replaceolder technologies, and clean up the toxic mess left by them.
This can beachieved by incorporating self-regulating systems in the form of “self-regulating assembly” into nanotechnology from the start. This means thatmolecular assemblers would have limited replication rates through thesebuilt in controls. For example, “nanobacteria” are organisms less than amicron wide which already has a very slow replication rate. They have a”limiting” factor that prevents them from turning everything into grey goodespite them being such a common part of the environment. Development principles of the research community work on the grounds thatartificial 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 nanotechnologydesigns should limit proliferation specifically and any replicating systemsshould provide traceability.
Specific design guidelines state that any self-replicating device having sufficient onboard information to describe itsown manufacture should encrypt it in a way that any replication error willproduce 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 smallerpieces using energy (mechanical, chemical etc. ) Thisminiaturisationapproach basically makes relatively imprecise structures smaller.
Theopposite, bottom-up approach makes precise chemical structures largersynthesising the material from atomic or molecular species via chemicalreactions, allowing for the precursor particles to grow in size. Both thetop-down and the bottom-up approaches can be done in gas, solid states orsupercritical fluids, liquid or in vacuum. Manufacturers are interested in the ability to control particle size andshape, size distribution, degree of particle agglomeration and particlecomposition. Bottom-up nanotechnology is the least developed area ofnanotechnology and is struggling with the combination it requires ofnanoscale precision with volume demand.
Nanotechnology aims to deliver unparalleled advances, but all of thesebenefits will require extremely sophisticated programming of the nano-machines themselves. Investigations into properties of complex systems andemergent behaviour have helped researchers understand how a number of smallsystems can be combined to form a large system with qualitatively differentbehaviour. Other areas of study (including chaos theory,artificialintelligence and studies into complex self-organising systems) also showthat systems which have many, ratherthanfewcomponentsbecomequalitatively different. Such systems have emergent properties of theentire system that are not those of the individual components.
Certainclasses of useful emergent properties may well be easy to control. Manyorganisms, for example have emergent hierarchical branching structuresincluding nervous systems, arteries and lungs. Such emergent structuresprove to be particularly simple to program because ultimately they have “aplace 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 inmany cases would simply degrade gradually. Additionally, unwanted emergentproperties would be less likely.
This process where materials become lessvulnerable to failures and where unwanted emergent properties would bephased out can be seen as a metaphor of evolution. However, “though chaoticsystems may be stable at the abstract level. . . they are highly unstable atthe level we experience them directly” (Wooley 1992 p. 88) Perhaps many ofthese theories would prove to exhibit totally different results in practicerather than in theory.
Many researchers advocate an evolutionary model of technological changes,looking at human technology as the continuation of natural evolution. Theemergence of molecular manufacturing could be looked at as cosmic orderborn from chaos then gradually evolving towards organization followed byself-replication. Evolutionary principles are supposed to determine whatpaths are possible and what the limits of technological achievements are. Used as a metaphor for evolution, therefore, nanotechnology could evolveinto spiritual machines and god-like intelligence.
For the many active promoters of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology isthe means whereas artificial intelligence istheend. Fromthisperspective, the human race has developed computer technology as part ofthe evolution of life to overcome the limitations of our human brain. Verysimply, 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 themachine”, cybernetics is not an exact science and is often used to includeautomatic control systems of considerable complexity, for example our ownnervous system.
In the not too distant future, the world could witness large portions ofmankind being electronically augmented with cybernetics, or at leastbenefiting hugely from advances in medicinethroughnanotechnology. “Primatology and cybernetics are linked in other ways as well. Primates andcyborgs are simultaneously entities and metaphors, living beings andnarrative constructions. ” (Gray 1995 p. 322) Conceivably, medical nanobotswill repair and help out our natural biology, perusing our bloodstreams,entering cells for repair and maintenance, correcting any damage at themolecular level.
Foreign, unwanted organisms will be attacked and all wasteremoved, keeping fat-levels and metabolism in perfect working order. Theevolution of his technology could see mankind’s molecules, organs, tissuesystems 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 sufferany physical imperfection and never grow old or get sick. . .
in essenceimmortality. However, “Foucault takes from postmodernism the concepts of fragmentationand multiplicity, the linguistically created subject, and the challenge tocausality. As a poststructuralist,Foucaultattacksstructuralism’s”scientific pretensions”-the quests for foundation, truth, objectivity,certainty and systems. ” (Eve, Horsfall ; Lee 1997 p.
4) Clearly, from thisperspective, these claims would need examining further to establish theirdegree of validity in the real world. Here, Foucault can be seen to takeissue with thosethatconsiderobjectsofknowledgeasreal. Indeed, presently we are quite far away from achieving this ideal of a nano-technological utopia for mankind and human development. Most laboratoryresearchers are advancingwithshorter-termgoalsthanmolecularmanufacturing. Cleaner, more efficient chemical process and molecularframeworks useful in medical therapies are viewed as being achievablepractical applications for this technology in the near future. Other viewsdiffer greatly on this subject “Organisms are not random assemblages ofworking parts, the results of trial and error tinkering by naturalselection.
They reflect a deep pattern of ordered relationships. ” (Goodwin1994 p. 98) However, the history of science shows that research often hasunintended consequences. A natural consequence of improvements in theseareas could be the development of a technology foundation that would beused to produce the machines neededformoreadvancedmolecularmanufacturing systems. As such, we are very close to witnessing the first applications of anypractical value in this field.
Ralph Merkle, a researcher at Xeroxs PaloAlto Research Center, who is one of the leading researchers in the field,feels that within 20 years given the right funding, nanotechnology will bemaking its first public appearance. The implications of success are the prospect that nanotechnology couldpotentially change everything. Once in place mankind and the planet itinhabits would never be the same. However, the enormous opportunities thatthese technological advances could result in, would also bringthepotential for disastrous abuse.
“The possibility of instant destruction issuperseding strategies of deterrence. We’re now going into a new phase. . .
itcould lead us to apocalypse (absolute destruction)” (Virilio 1997 p. 53) Theresulting military capabilities and their potential misuse need muchconsideration. “The only functional component of intelligence agencies isthe one that will be replaced by machines” (De Landa 1991 p. 203)Clearly, the decisions made in the next two decades in this sphere ofresearch, could have massive impact of the future of humanity. BibliographyAdams J. (1998) The Next World War.
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