Last week, Chris and I attended the "Imaging and Imagining Nanoscience & Engineering" conference put on by the University of South Carolina. It was a gathering of over 100 researchers and analysts from around the world.
Much of the conference was devoted to philosophical and epistemic discussions of what nanotechnology means and what we can learn from attempts to describe or make images of activity at the nanoscale. Only a small number of sessions dealt with scientific discoveries or technical updates, and not many touched on societal implications. As such, most of the sessions were not directly related to CRN’s work, although the presentations usually were interesting.
The keynote speech was given by Eric Drexler, who is sometimes described as the father of nanotechnology. Drexler's proposals and designs for molecular manufacturing inspired 'nanotechnology' as a unified field. However, Drexler appears to be frustrated with where the field is going. He accused several scientists by name of misrepresenting his work, and accused the NNI of stifling research toward molecular manufacturing. He even announced that his invitation to speak at the conference had been personally opposed by Mihail Roco, the head of the NNI. Drexler's talk was a mix of nanotech theory, political accusations, and exhortation to work harder on developing his designs.
By contrast, a talk by James Von Ehr, CEO of Zyvex, focused on specific future projects. Von Ehr reported that his company has a ten-year plan to build a molecular assembler, that is, a machine system capable of atomically precise manufacturing at the nanoscale. Of course, as he admitted, they had an earlier, even more ambitious plan that they’ve had to revise. But he said they learned a lot from that experience, and seems confident that this current effort has a good chance of success. The new Zyvex approach will combine top-down work in nanolithography with bottom-up designs in scanning probe depositional chemistry. CRN will be observing their R & D work with great interest.
The paper we presented, titled "Accurately Describing a Technology That Does Not Yet Exist", reviewed the process that CRN has followed in adopting terminology. We described a precise new definition of molecular manufacturing devised by Chris Phoenix, and noted that: "Although no technology today qualifies as molecular manufacturing, each of the specified requirements is implemented in some currently existing technology, and at least three technologies are developing rapidly toward a convergence of all five requirements. We now have a definitional framework with which to judge these and other new approaches that may be developed." Following our presentation, we had fruitful conversations with several people about this definition and about the rate at which exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing actually may be achieved.
Every time Chris and I meet with nanotech researchers, it seems we come away amazed at how much real progress is being made. Of course, this only adds to our sense of urgency for open and productive discussion about the ethical, legal, and social implications of nanotechnology, and appropriate policy initiatives.