Dr. Jack Gibbons is the Director of the White
House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which coordinates science
and technology policy throughout government. The following is an excerpt
of his address to the National Conference on Manufacturing Needs of US Industry,
held at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Nanoscience has become an engineering practice. Based on recent theoretical
and experimental advances in nanoscience and nanotechnology, precise atomic
and molecular control in the synthesis of solid state three-dimensional
nano-structures is now possible. The volume of such structures is about
a billionth that of structures on the micron scale.
The next step is the emergence of nanotechnology. The stage is being set,
I believe, for actual manufacture of a wide variety and range of custom-made
products based on the ability to manipulate individual atoms and molecules
during the manufacturing process. The ability to synthesize devices such
as molecular wires, resistors, diodes, and photosynthesis elements to be
inserted in nanoscale machines is now emerging from fundamental nanoscience.
Already the use of optical materials assembled at the molecular level has
revolutionized response time, energy losses, and transport efficiency in
Next, molecular manufacturing for mass production of miniature switches
or valves or motors or accelerometers, all at affordable prices, is a genuine
possibility in the not so distant future. This new technology could fuel
a powerful economic engine providing new sources of jobs and wealth and
Further fundamental understanding of basic physical phenomena at the quantum
level will be needed to understand and reach these kinds of technological
opportunities. Some of the areas in which knowledge must be deepened are
superlattices and multiquantum wells, localization effects of electron and
light waves, flux patterns and their pinning, and dynamics in superconductors,
as well as further quantum mechanical analysis of nanostructured systems.
This basic scientific understanding will find a very broad range of technological
applications, from energy storage and generation, to magnetic storage and
recording, to supercomputers.
To an ex-physicist like me, these prospects for scientific exploration are
exhilarating, and our new understanding of a complex symbiotic relation
between science and technology -- rather than a simple hand-off -- makes
the prospects still even more exciting. But my post-physics years of starting
with new high technology companies beyond physics and then doing policy
work at the Office of Technology Assessment, and my present deep immersion
in policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, remind
me that the reduction of leading-edge technologies to practice is a process
which, as you so full well know, can be risky and arduous. It's a long,
long way from invention to profitable production.
Cooperative efforts by government and industry to advance technology can
help fill that gap. One of this Administration's top priorities is to form
closer working partnerships with industry, as well as with universities,
state and local governments, and workers, to strengthen America's industrial
competitiveness and create jobs.
Special thanks to Dr. Arlen Andrews of Sandia who lent us the videotape
from which this excerpt was taken.
Dr. Roald Hoffmann
has made numerous
contributions in the field of chemistry, most notably in geometrical
structure and reactivity of molecules. His contributions have earned him
numerous honors, including the 1981 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He is currently
a professor of chemistry at Cornell University, focusing in the area of
applied theoretical chemistry. He is also on the technical advisory board
of Molecular Manufacturing Enterprises, Inc.
(MMEI). Here he gives his initial and expanded reactions to the goal of
The first reaction is "I'm glad you guys (that includes women, of course)
found a new name for chemistry. Now you have the incentive to learn
what you didn't want to learn in college." Chemists have been practicing
nanotechnology, structure and reactivity and properties, for two centuries,
and for 50 years by design.
What is exciting about modern nanotechnology is (a) the marriage of chemical
synthetic talent with a direction provided by "device-driven"
ingenuity coming from engineering, and (b) a certain kind of courage
provided by those incentives, to make arrays of atoms and molecules that
ordinary, no, extraordinary chemists just wouldn't have thought of trying.
Now they're pushed to do so.
And of course they will. They can do anything. Nanotechnology is the way
of ingeniously controlling the building of small and large structures, with
intricate properties; it is the way of the future, a way of precise, controlled
building, with, incidentally, environmental benignness built in by design.
Our thanks to Steve Vetter, president of MMEI and a Senior Associate
Colleague of both IMM and Foresight, for obtaining this statement.
Phase 1 Educational Objectives: Let's Declare a Milestone by K. Eric Drexler
I've been told that a new idea is declared to be impossible
until the day it is declared to be obvious. Many Foresight members have
heard the response "impossible" as we've explained nanotechnology.
But, within the last six months, I've had an increasing sense that the world
has changed, that nanotechnology has become (almost) obvious in the circles
where we've spent so much effort over the years. To see how much has changed,
it may help to spend some time remembering how things had been.
The bad old days
Once upon a time, hardly anyone had even heard the term nanotechnology.
In 1986, counting both technical and popular pieces, there had been perhaps
a dozen articles on the subject, and only one book, Engines
of Creation. Since I had coined the term only a few years before,
the scarcity of articles should not be too surprising.
In those days, people hearing of nanotechnology often regarded it as being
centuries away or impossible. Quantum effects were the most popular objection
and aroused a widespread suspicion that manipulating individual atoms and
molecules might simply be forbidden by the laws of physics. Although the
STM had been invented, and its possible use in nanotechnology had been mentioned
briefly in Engines of Creation, in 1986 it had not yet
been used to arrange individual atoms into corporate logos.
Another reason given for placing nanotechnology in the distant-or-impossible
category was a belief in the great difficulty of protein engineering. When
Foresight began, engineering new protein molecules had only recently become
an articulated objective of the scientific community, and many were still
saying that it would prove to be enormously difficult-- that we couldn't
understand how proteins fold, and that this was a prerequisite for engineering
and might take generations to learn. My 1981 paper in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, the first journal article written
on nanotechnology, had relied on the engineering of protein molecules as
an argument for the feasibility of developing molecular machine systems
and molecular nanotechnology, but it also pointed out that we needn't understand
the folding of natural proteins in order to engineer artificial
proteins. Protein engineering was also the primary route outlined in Engines
of Creation, which suggested that success might not take quite as long
as some thought. And indeed, by 1988, Dr. William F. DeGrado of DuPont had
announced the engineering
of a small protein, and there has been steady progress since.
Adding to the overall confusion about the subject, hardly anyone understood
the difference between molecular nanotechnology and micromachines, and there
was widespread confusion between top-down nanoscale technologies, such as
nanolithography, and the bottom-up approach of atomically precise nanotechnology.
In other words, you couldn't even talk about nanotechnology without sinking
into a mire of basic confusions about what physics permits, what molecules
can do, and what the subject is about in the first place. In the late 1980s,
as the broader meanings of nanotechnology came into common use, Foresight
introduced the term "molecular manufacturing" to refer more precisely
to molecule-by-molecule fabrication using molecular machine systems.
The multidisciplinary nature of the subject multiplied the difficulty of
holding a discussion. Usually, the computer scientists didn't understand
the physics; the physicists didn't understand the chemistry; the chemists
didn't understand the mechanical engineering; and the mechanical engineers
had never thought about molecules. Each specialist group could say that
the area that they understood was sound, but the rest of it was a mystery
shrouded in the jargon of another discipline. Chemists had the added burden
of a deep understanding of molecules moving in solution that just didn't
apply (without careful reexamination) to molecules moved by molecular machinery.
It was difficult enough to discuss even the basic principles of nanotechnology,
but discussing the idea that nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing
are an important part of our future, presenting historic opportunities and
dangers, was essentially impossible. From the beginning, the discussion
would get bogged down in the questions, "What are we talking about--is
this biotechnology, microtechnology, or chemistry, or something silly? Why
should I take it seriously? If it's so important, why haven't I heard of
it a dozen times before?"
Today there are many people who still haven't heard of it, but there are
also many who have heard of it dozens of times, and are ready to take it
The Foresight difference
It is clear that the Foresight community has had a major influence.
In its initial phase, Foresight Institute set out to establish the credibility
of the concept of advanced nanotechnology, and to educate the science and
science policy communities about both the technology and its implications.
Our concern has been not only with the development of nanotechnology, but
with its development in a way that improves our chances of a good outcome.
Hence, there has been more to Foresight's message than merely that STMs
will be able to manipulate atoms, that protein molecules can be designed,
and that extensions of such technologies will someday be useful for making
better computers. We set out to link emerging research developments to an
understanding of longer-term consequences, to a realization that nanotechnology
will be much more than just business as usual.
To accomplish this goal, Foresight members and leadership have used a variety
of techniques: publishing in scientific journals, lecturing at leading research
institutions and at scientific meetings, building accurate computational
models of nanodevices, organizing discussion groups, sponsoring our own
technical and general conferences, publishing the Foresight Update
newsletter with its research and funding news, working with the media to
improve the accuracy of their coverage, writing books and other education
materials, publishing on the Internet, even testifying before a Senate subcommittee.
Throughout this effort, success has taken longer because we have insisted
that the message is not simply scientific and technological: from the beginning
we have discussed the economic and social effects of the applications of
nanotechnology, both positive and negative. This can make researchers a
bit nervous: to working researchers concerned with current funding, this
strategy seems both to promise too much in the way of benefits, and to plant
in people's minds the distressing idea that there could be negative, even
dangerous, uses of this new technology. It is far more comfortable for today's
researchers if these large-scale effects are not discussed until much later.
So it's taken a bit longer for nanotechnology to be accepted as a research
goal that it otherwise would. However, as acceptance emerges, it will include
an understanding that a technology this powerful must be prepared for in
The acceptance process is now moving rapidly. Just over the past few months,
many examples of progress have been piling up. Some we've published in past
Updates; some are in this issue; some we haven't yet had space to
publish at all. Let me list a few of them here in highly condensed form:
The many Japanese nanotechnology projects, especially NAIR. MITI is
now attempting to double its budget for the Angstrom Technology Partnership.
Australia's Cooperative Research Centre for Molecular Engineering
and proposed Nanotechnology Facility.
Switzerland's new five-year, 15 million Swiss franc nanosciences program.
NATO's Advanced Research Workshop on the Ultimate Limits of Fabrication
and Measurement--at which I served as a keynote speaker--and its writeup
in Nature using our terminology (top-down, bottom-up, and sentences
such as "Somehow, industrial manufacturing and synthetic chemistry
will merge on the nanometre scale; this is the idea behind self-assembly").
Many other meetings (see the list
in this issue) are now focusing on both the proximal probe and self-assembly
paths to nanotechnology. The goals stated for many of these meetings are
similar to the ones we set for our first meeting in 1989.
Multiple journals that, using varied terminology, are vying for position
as the leading journal in molecular nanotechnology research.
And finally we're seeing more happening in the U.S.:
These last two are more significant than they may seem at first glance.
One doesn't become Editor in Chief of JACS or US Science Advisor
without some ability to read the attitude of the scientific community on
technical issues. Support from people in these positions mean that the the
concept of nanotechnology has passed into the realm of solid credibility.
What these and other bits of evidence add up to is this: molecular nanotechology
is fast becoming a research goal for the research and development establishment.
It's been a long haul, but from the terminology used and the development
pathways being discussed, it's clear that the Foresight community has had
a major influence in this process of defining both the goal and its anticipated
The mark of our success is the growing acceptance of the fundamental idea
that the future of technology will involve construction at the nanometer
scale, and the sense that it's reasonable to expect that this will include
machines that can build other things, as in molecular manufacturing. Foresight
was founded, however, to focus on the question: What then? How can we best
approach the transition to these technologies? What capabilities and policies
must we have in place to handle them well? Over the next year, you'll be
reading more in these pages on how Foresight will approach these complex
and important questions.
Again, as in the past, our focus will be on areas that seem to almost everyone
to be premature--because that's where the leverage is. I ask you to continue
your participation with Foresight as we move into this new phase of action.
K. Eric Drexler is Chairman of the Foresight Institute and a research
fellow of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing.