Singularity University – Day Three – Ralph Merkle On Nanotechnology – Part 2 of 2
As Ralph Merkle explained to us in Part One, Nanotechnology provides us with tools for manufacturing molecular structures that work much in the same way as an automobile assembly line.
The molecular precision of these nanofactories will enable us to pick and choose molecular "parts" and manipulate them at the molecular level to create large scale products, such as laptop computers and clothing, which could all be "printed" out of a machine containing the proper starting material, after it received a piece of information technology with the instructions (via email or some other communication protocol).
These nanofactories are capable of manufacturing everything from medical nanorobots, such as respirocytes or microbivores, to material components, such as building materials or technical gadgets. It turns out that this assembly-line model, where bigger objects are built using smaller parts, is a working example of the concept of "convergent assembly."
Ralph thinks that it would be more useful to use the term "nanofactory" as the poster child for Nanotechnology, rather than the current trend of focusing on its self-replicating characteristics, which can often sound scary to the untrained ear.
He provided several examples of useful scientific technologies whose acceptance was stalled initially based on negatively-associated keywords that were used in their title. For instance, the word "nuclear" was orginally used as the first word of what is now known only as "MRI" (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). This technology was rebranded accordingly as only "MRI" after the medical community realized that the word "nuclear" was discouraging patients from having the technology used on them.
Another benefit of using the factory metaphor that most people are already both familiar and comfortable with it, and already have a solid grasp on the "assembly-line" concept and how it’s been used as far back as they can remember to create everything from toys to automobiles — effectively anything that is made of smaller, interlocking, and often moving parts. He feels that this familiar assembly-line metaphor will be a very useful learning tool, as we gradually begin to explain the benefits of nanotechnology to the rest of the world.
Ralph went on to explain another very important fundamental Nanotechnology concept, that of positional assembly, where high position scanning probe microscopes are used to position molecules and manipulate them in specific ways. He showed us some examples of how scientists have been able to manipulate molecules to perform precision novel feats with huge implications.
The first took place almost 20 years ago, in April of 1990, when IBM Almaden spelled out the letters "IBM" using Xenon on Nickel.
(Here’s some background from the NY Times article from April 1990.)
A more recent example was in June of 2004, when NIST made a 40 nanometer-wide version of its logo with cobalt atoms on a copper surface.
A student asked "how long will it be until we have Star Trek type replicators?"
Ralph said "it will be a few decades — possibly 20 or 30 years. And they’ll probably be slower — several minutes to make a laptop."