GNR part 3: The Infinitesimally Small World of Nanotechnology
As a fellow believer of the acceleration of technology and fan of esteemed futurist Ray Kurzweil, I will be writing a 4-part series on his predictions on GNR (Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics) and how they stand today. This is part 3 of 4, enjoy!
Humans have grown quite comfortable with the physical world around us, the macro world we can see with our own eyes. In the past century, scientists began to leave their comfort zone to voyage into the micro world, the molecular world unseen to us. Now, the time has come for us to be pilgrims of the nanoworld, to colonize the micro. This colonization will be propagated by the nanotechnological revolution.
“Nanotechnology has the potential to enhance human performance, to bring sustainable development for materials, water, energy, and food, to protect against unknown bacteria and viruses, and even to diminishing the reasons for breaking the peace [by creating universal abundance]” — National Science Foundation (NSF) Nanotechnology Report
The nanotechnological revolution will allow us to manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic scale. In the outer edge of materials science, this is the point where our childish imagination can begin to flourish. With nanotechnology, we can redesign or rebuild our bodies and brains to go far beyond the limits of our biology.
Nanoscale, 1 to 100 nanometers, can be visualized as:
- The ratio of the Earth to a child’s marble is like the ratio of a meter to a nanometer.
- A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
- A red blood cell is about 7,000–8,000 nanometers in diameter.
- A strand of DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter.
The idea of science & engineering of technology created at the nanoscale predates our time by 50+ years.
The Birth of Nanotechnology
In 1959, American physicist Richard Feynman introduced the concept that physics does not rule out the control of individual atoms. That technology and engineering at the atomic scale are possible. In his lecture, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, he states:
“There is nothing that I can see in the physical laws that say [that] computer elements cannot be made enormously smaller than they are now…The problems of chemistry and biology can be greatly helped if our ability to see what we are doing, and to do things on an atomic level, is ultimately developed, a development that cannot be avoided.”
15 years before the term nanotechnology was coined by Japanese professor Norio Taniguchi, Feynman was describing a process in which scientists would be able to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. 1981 marked the beginning of modern nanotech innovation. Swiss physicists Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer invented the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) that could “see” individual atoms. From there on, in parallel with the law of accelerating returns, the nanotechnological revolution would bring us the capability of manipulating our own biology.
Biotech & Nanotech Converge, NanoBiotechnology
The biotech revolution transcends the nanotech revolution by 10 years, but as the two revolutions grow they converge into the field of nanobiotechnology. In the genetic revolution, we learned how cleverly designed our biology is but is still suboptimal.
For instance, the speed at which it takes for our brain to communicate with the rest of our body could be greatly improved. Our brain sends electrical signals through our body with neurons connected by synapses at about 156–270 mph. A computer sends electrical signals with wires which is about 10 million times faster. Convergence between red blood cells and nanobots would be thousands of times more efficient. Instead of expecting our own biological system to improve itself through lengthy evolution, we need to incorporate nanobiotech solutions to do that ourselves.
Nanobiotechnology is the way nanotechnology can be used to create devices to study & interact with biological systems. This kind of technology is no longer hyperbole. The convergence of nanotechnology and biotechnology is working for us as we speak:
- Gold Nanoparticles: Most used nanomaterial in diagnostics for bio-imaging, drug delivery, toxic gas detection, biosensors, etc. A couple of months ago (December 10, 2020), researchers identified that synthesized gold nanoparticles in the shape of a sphere can destroy bacterial cell walls.
- Quantum Dots (QD): QDs are man-made nanoscale crystals with unique optical properties. They can allow someone to investigate real-time dynamic events in living cells, making them great for tracking, labeling, or identifying specific biomolecules. Nanotech startup, SafeStamp has a mission of saving the 1 million people who die each year from counterfeit drugs by using QDs. With QDs they can build nanotech indicators that emit a blue light when purchases are counterfeit.
- Nanochips: Nanoscale integrated circuits that can program individual genes. Imagine brain implants that can turn off the reproduction of genes that cause Alzheimer’s or cancer. Also, nanochips could reprogram optic nerves that make people visually impaired.
- Microfluidics (or lab-on-a-chip technology): Fluids at the nanometer scale channeled through various polymer materials. Recently (February 2, 2021), the University of Bristol developed a new microfluidics technology that paves the way for cheaper & quicker medical diagnostic tools used to discover diseases.
- Nano-bio-sensors: Portable detectors of chemical and biological agents such as antibodies, pathogens, etc. These nanomaterials have detected SARS-CoV, the viruses that cause COVID-19.
All these advancements are great for enhancing our biology, but this is just the beginning. There is a lot more to nanotechnology than refining what is already there.
Molecular Nanotechnology: The Next Industrial Revolution
“In thinking about nanotechnology today, what’s most important is understanding where it leads, what nanotechnology will look like after we reach the assembler breakthrough.” — Kim Eric Drexler
Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT) commonly know as Molecular Manufacturing introduces the idea of molecular assembler. The method that swarms of coordinated nanoscale robots could work together to assemble anything. Proposed by American engineer Eric Drexler in 1986, that one day DNA could make computers. His dissertation on MNT would lay out the roadmap of nanotechnology for years to come. He believed if machines can make smaller machines, then they can manufacture similar machines at a molecular level. And that those nanoscaled machines could assemble in too any object.
We’ve already seen Dexler’s theory in play, in Sci-Fi with Iron Man’s nanotech suit from Avengers: Infinity War.
And science is often science fiction.
A study carried out by global aerospace & defense company, General Dynamics in 2004, demonstrated self-manufactured nanoscale machines are possible. Their computer simulations showed that DNA molecular-sized robots were capable of reproducing themselves.
Today, organizations such as Foresight Institute are developing the idea of molecular manufacturing. In fact, Foresight built out a roadmap to guide researchers working towards molecular manufacturing. Their long-term goal is to build a working nanofactory through mechanosynthesis. Mechanosynthesis can build molecular assemblers by using tiny manipulation to position nano-sized objects.
Estimates on how long before major breakthroughs take place with molecular manufacturing vary. At the beginning of the 21st-century Co-Founder of Nanofactory Collaboration, Ralph C. Merkle believed that we are 30 years away from nanotech dramatically changing our lives, which other experts agree. The British Ministry of Defense says nanotech won’t hit its stride any earlier than 20 or 30 years from now. Ray Kurzweil, predicted that nanotech will be feasible in manufacturing by 2049.
The U.S. government projected that the global nanotechnology market would exceed $1 trillion by 2015, but that was a very inaccurate projection since it has yet to crack $100 billion today. I believe those projections were about a decade off, but regardless MNT is coming. As marvelous as this sounds, there is a dark side to nanotech advancements that we need to prepare for.
Nano-Duality, Welcome to Singularity
“[Nanotechnology] create levels of intelligence that may be our protector, maybe our competitor, or may simply regard us as pets. Or it may change our definition of what it is to be a human being.” — Congressman, Brad Sherman
Whenever scientists and engineers talk about the nanotechnological revolution, they talk about it in 2 ways. A nanotech duality, that shows uncertainty in what is to come, the Singularity. Some believe nanotechnology will remake our world for the better. Others believe it could be our demise. Either way, experts understand that there are great implications of what this technology could do. Contingency plans to mitigate the risk are necessary.
Thus, institutions like the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology were born. Their mission is to:
- Raise awareness of the benefits, dangers, and possibilities of advanced nanotechnology.
- Expedite examination of the environmental, humanitarian, economic, military, political, social, medical, and ethical implications of molecular manufacturing.
- Assist in the creation and implementation of wise comprehensive plans for responsible use of nanotechnology worldwide.
Preparing for the nanotechnological revolution takes more than just reports. Even articles (like mine) aren’t enough. Extensive education on the potential devastation nanotechnology can cause is absolutely necessary. Yet, the regulations that scare support for nanotech are being restrained by the robotic presence to mature its growth. This is where the 3rd technological revolution comes into play.
Find out in part 4 of the GNR series, where we will demystify Robotics w/ Smart AI. The most significant revolution of all, when machines will be able to match human intelligence.
Enjoyed reading part 3 of my GNR series? Catch up on part 1 & 2 before part 4, the AI-infused Robotic Revolution.
Intro to GNR(Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics)
Hey, thanks for reading! I’m Andrew, a young entrepreneur and deep tech enthusiast.
I understand that innovation is growing exponentially, but I am worried it takes too long for organizations to accept frontier technology. I aim to demystify the complexity of cutting-edge technologies for the average non-technical person. That is why I encourage entrepreneurship while exhibiting my excitement for the acceleration of technology, in hopes that you may feel empowered to engage with the future.
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