This week I'm attending the ASME's 3rd Nano Training Bootcamp in Washington, DC. I came to learn about the state of the art in nanoscale technologies. There are about twenty technical talks, but only two of them were presented today. The day started with Mihail Roco's plenary address -- Roco is one of the U.S. government's most influential nanotech administrators, and his talk shed some light on the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)'s position with respect to molecular manufacturing; more on that below. Two talks on scanning probe microscopy and electron microscopy filled out the morning.
We spent the whole afternoon getting a close look at nanotech tools and techniques. We got to see semiconductors being made, and scanning probe and scanning electron microscopes being used, accompanied by detailed explanations. We also got to stir together chemicals to make gold nanoparticles and multilevel monolayers. There was only time for each person to do two-thirds of the events, and the chemical exercise was rather crowded and a bit chaotic, but I had fun with it anyway.
Back to the morning... It's amazing how many different things you can learn by poking small pointy objects at a surface or shooting electrons into it. And I was impressed at how sophisticated the tools have gotten... it's now possible to build a 3D model of a volume, showing the locations of various atom types at near-atomic resolution by shooting tight electron beams through it. There's an interesting bit of history here: In the same "Plenty of room at the bottom" talk by Feynman in 1959 that is often credited with being the first call for molecular manufacturing, Feynman issued another challenge: improve electron microscopes by getting rid of lens aberrations. This is finally being accomplished.
I wrote down a great quote from one of the presenters that shows how different the nanoscale can be: "At the sub-micron scale, watching paint dry is one of the most fascinating things I've ever seen." I just wish I'd written down who said it!
For me, perhaps the most intriguing part of the day was Roco's speech and a brief conversation I had with him afterward. Naturally, he spent a lot of the talk on commercial and short-term issues: comparing the U.S. nanotech efforts to the rest of the world, discussing how nanotech is already being used in a wide variety of industries, and surveying existing U.S. nano research, education, and implications programs.
But Roco also said a few words about where nanotech is going, and -- unlike a year or two ago -- there seemed to be an embryonic recognition that it's reasonable to talk about things like integrated systems of molecular nanosystems and even robots, put together by guided assembly rather than pure self-assembly. (There are several statements along these lines in his abstract, such as "Designing new atomic and molecular assemblies, active nanoscale devices, and directed and multiscale selfassembling are expected to increase in importance," and several more in his slides.) The NNI has in the past been actively hostile to concepts such as advanced nano-robotics; for example, last year their website stated that nanobots were dangerous science-fictional creatures. It will be interesting to see whether the new talk about active nanosystems and guided assembly signals a new openness to nanomachine-based mechanosynthetic manufacturing.
But there were also a couple of less promising clues to Roco's position. In response to an audience question, he complained about certain unnamed groups that went to the media with science-fiction stories of bloodstream-swimming nanobots. And near the beginning of the talk, he said that nanotech had moved beyond the point where models without lab results could be considered nanotech. This would seem to lock in an incremental approach to development, defining projection of future capabilities as being beyond the scope of NNI consideration. I asked him about this later -- specifically, how could the NNI address longer-term implications if they could not consider longer-term predictions of technical capabilities? He said that the implications work could look 20 years ahead, to such issues as military and nano-bio, but I didn't get a clear sense of how future tech capability models could be evaluated. Peer review was mentioned, and something about needing parameters not just principles. Of course there are already lots of parameters established for molecular manufacturing. It's still possible for someone to argue that not every step has been supplied in detail, so maybe it won't work... but that makes it too easy to exclude possibilities such as molecular manufacturing from consideration rather than evaluating them, which is not a good way to do risk analysis.