Congratulations to Ned Seeman, who is sharing the $1 million Kavli Prize in nanoscience with IBM's Don Eigler, who was behind the team that made the IBM logo in atoms. Seeman was awarded the prize for the discovery of structural DNA nanotechnology, in 1979 according to the Kavli website. Seeman has given presentations on DNA nanotechnology at the Foresight Institute conferences and at last year's Singularity Summit, and recently made a major breakthrough in nanotechnology with a nanoscale assembly line.
I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Seeman at a Center for Responsible Nanotechnology conference in Tuscon in 2007. He was skeptical about the idea of achieving molecular manufacturing within the next couple decades.
Will macroscale molecular manufacturing be achieved by a structural DNA route, the "Tattoo Needle" architecture, the foldamer route, the Waldo route, the diamondoid route, or something else? That is the question all the cool kids are asking.
New Paper: Optimal Tooltip Trajectories in a Hydrogen Abstraction Tool Recharge Reaction Sequence for Positionally Controlled Diamond Mechanosynthesis
Denis Tarasov, Natalia Akberova, Ekaterina Izotova, Diana Alisheva, Maksim Astafiev, Robert A. Freitas Jr., â€œOptimal Tooltip Trajectories in a Hydrogen Abstraction Tool Recharge Reaction Sequence for Positionally Controlled Diamond Mechanosynthesis,â€ J. Comput. Theor. Nanosci. 7(February 2010):325-353 [29 pages]
It is our first published paper with our Russian collaborators and is now available online. This paper represents the first extensive DMS (Diamond Mechno-Synthesis) tooltip trajectory analysis, examining a wide range of viable multiple degrees-of-freedom tooltip motions in 3D space that could be employed to recharge the hydrogen abstraction tool, a key reaction set in DMS.
The use of precisely applied mechanical forces to induce site-specific chemical transformations is called positional mechanosynthesis, and diamond is an important early target for achieving mechanosynthesis experimentally. A key step in diamond mechanosynthesis (DMS) employs an ethynyl-based hydrogen abstraction tool (HAbst) for the site-specific mechanical dehydrogenation of H-passivated diamond surfaces, creating an isolated radical site that can accept adatoms via radical-radical coupling in a subsequent positionally controlled reaction step. The abstraction tool, once used (HAbstH), must be recharged by removing the abstracted hydrogen atom from the tooltip, before the tool can be used again. This paper presents the first theoretical study of DMS tool-workpiece operating envelopes and optimal tooltip trajectories for any positionally controlled reaction sequence â€“ and more specifically, one that may be used to recharge a spent hydrogen abstraction tool â€“ during scanning-probe based ultrahigh-vacuum diamond mechanosynthesis. Trajectories were analyzed using Density Functional Theory (DFT) in PC-GAMESS at the B3LYP/6-311G(d,p) // B3LYP/3-21G(2d,p) level of theory. The results of this study help to define equipment and tooltip motion requirements that may be needed to execute the proposed reaction sequence experimentally and provide support for early developmental targets as part of a comprehensive near-term DMS implementation program.
So, what does it mean? Well, in the Freitas-Merkle mechanosynthetic tooltip design, there are three primary tasks for three primary tools -- 1) abstracting (removing) hydrogen from a carbon surface (carbon surfaces tend to have a monoatomic layer of hydrogen), 2) placing a carbon dimer (C=C) on a hydrogen-free carbon surface, then 3) putting down a hydrogen to cover up the surface and prevent it from spontaneously rearranging itself or otherwise engaging in unwanted reactions. This paper zooms in on a specific part of tool #1, the "recharge sequence" portion, where the abstraction tool gets rid of the hydrogen it just grabbed from a surface and gets ready to grab again.
What Does a Buckyball Undergoing Unimolecular Disassociation by Use of Extremely High Levels of Vibrational Excitation Look Like?
How about a C60/C240 collision at 300eV?
H/t Machine Phase.
Over at IEET, Jamais Cascio and Mike Treder essentially argue that the future will be slow/boring, or rather, seem slow and boring because people will get used to advances as quickly as they occur. I heartily disagree. There are at least three probable events which could make the future seem traumatic, broken, out-of-control, and not slow by anyone's standards. These three events include 1) a Third World War or atmospheric EMP detonation event, 2) an MNT revolution with accompanying arms races, and 3) superintelligence. In response to Jamais' post, I commented:
I disagree. I don't think that Jamais understands how abrupt an MNT revolution could be once the first nanofactory is built, or how abrupt a hard takeoff could be once a human-equivalent artificial intelligence is created.
Read Nanosystems, then "Design of a Primitive Nanofactory", and look where nanotechnology is today.
For AI, you can do simple math that shows once an AI can earn enough money to pay for its own upkeep and then some, it would quickly gain the ability to take over most of the world economy.
Have Giulio or Jamais read "Design of a Primitive Nanofactory" or Nanosystems?
Knowledge of where we are today in nanotechnology, plus Nanosystems, plus "Design of a Primitive Nanofactory", equals scary.
Where we are today: basic molecular assembly lines
The most important breakthrough: a reprogrammable universal assembler
Shortly thereafter: a basic nanofactory
Shortly thereafter: every nation with nanofactory technology magnifies its manufacturing potential by a factor of hundreds or more.
Chris Phoenix gets it. Jurgen Altmann gets it. Mark Gubrud gets it. Thomas Vandermolen gets it. Eric Drexler seems to have gotten it a long time ago. Michio Kaku, Annalee Newitz, and many others have called molecular nanotechnology "the next Industrial Revolution".
When will others get it? Here's a quote from the CRN page on the dangers of molecular nanotechnology:
Molecular manufacturing raises the possibility of horrifically effective weapons. As an example, the smallest insect is about 200 microns; this creates a plausible size estimate for a nanotech-built antipersonnel weapon capable of seeking and injecting toxin into unprotected humans. The human lethal dose of botulism toxin is about 100 nanograms, or about 1/100 the volume of the weapon. As many as 50 billion toxin-carrying devices--theoretically enough to kill every human on earth--could be packed into a single suitcase. Guns of all sizes would be far more powerful, and their bullets could be self-guided. Aerospace hardware would be far lighter and higher performance; built with minimal or no metal, it would be much harder to spot on radar. Embedded computers would allow remote activation of any weapon, and more compact power handling would allow greatly improved robotics. These ideas barely scratch the surface of what's possible.
Will weapons like these in the hands of every backwater terrorist and militia lead to a future that is "slow" or "boring? It could lead to a future where numerous major cities become essentially uninhabitable.
Here's a potentially illuminating quote:
"Revolutions are cruel precisely because they move too fast for those whom they strike."
io9 has coverage of Nadrian Seeman's latest work in nanotechnology: the first nanoscale assembly line! This is big news. If you were at Singularity Summit 2009 back in October and listening very carefully, you might have heard Seeman mention this device seven months in advance of its formal announcement! Now that's foresight.
The full Nature article describing the device is here.
Here's an interesting news item from Eurekalert:
A new national survey on public attitudes toward medical applications and physical enhancements that rely on nanotechnology shows that support for the technology increases when the public is informed of the technology's risks as well as its benefits â€“ at least among those people who have heard of nanotechnology. The survey, which was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University and Arizona State University (ASU), also found that discussing risks decreased support among those people who had never previously heard of nanotechnology â€“ but not by much.
"The survey suggests that researchers, industries and policymakers should not be afraid to display the risks as well as the benefits of nanotechnology," says Dr. Michael Cobb, an associate professor of political science at NC State who conducted the survey. "We found that when people know something about nanotechnologies for human enhancement, they are more supportive of it when they are presented with balanced information about its risks and benefits."
The survey was conducted by Cobb in collaboration with Drs. Clark Miller and Sean Hays of ASU, and was funded by the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU.
However, talking about risks did not boost support among all segments of the population. Those who had never heard of nanotechnology prior to the survey were slightly less supportive when told of its potential risks.
In addition to asking participants how much they supported the use of nanotechnology for human enhancements, they were also asked how beneficial and risky they thought these technologies would be, whether they were worried about not getting access to them, and who should pay for them â€“ health insurance companies or individuals paying out-of-pocket. The potential enhancements addressed in the survey run the gamut from advanced cancer treatments to bionic limbs designed to impart greater physical strength.
If you are someone who writes or speaks on the topic of nanotechnology, this means that you shouldn't be afraid to discuss the risks. In fact, mentioning the risks should be part of your default spiel. Engines of Creation was not afraid to discuss some of the risks. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, when it was more active, had a crucial role in making the risks of nanotechnology more widely known, but the vast majority of contemporary organizations and publications that discuss nanotechnology shy away from the immense risks.
I've previously written at length about the dangers of advanced nanotechnology, and frequently recommend the book Military Nanotechnology as a guide to some of these risks. Essential essays or pages include "Molecular Nanotechnology and the World System" by Tom McCarthy, "Nanotechnology and International Security" by Mark Gubrud, "Military, Arms Control, and Security Aspects of Nanotechnology" by Altmann and Gubrud, CRN's dangers page, and my page enumerating additional dangers.
Next time you're in the audience at a talk or see a blog post extolling the benefits of nanotechnology (especially molecular nanotechnology), consider making a comment that you'd like to see more thought on the risks. I believe that some of the purveyors of molecular nanotechnology are actively avoiding discussing its grave potential risks.
From Machine Phase. This is a movie of the atomistic bearing described by Eric Drexler in Nanosystems. Remember to read Drexler's article or watch this video to understand, "the rotation-induced speed of the shaft surface is substantially lower than the (apparent) vibrational speeds of the atoms". The thermal vibrations in the bearing actually take place much faster than the shaft motion. What you see in the video is only maybe 1/1000 of the actual thermal vibration motions. Because these sorts of videos have a limited frame rate, we get a "strobe light effect" where we only selectively see the vibration. If the video were portraying the thermal vibration on a timescale where you could actually see each part of the action, then the actual shaft surface would be moving at a glacial pace. The upshot of all of that is that the friction and heating in this device would not be nearly as high as it appears at a casual glance.
In another post, Tom Moore points out new software by Miron Cuperman which partially automates the process of using csv data from NanoEngineer-1 to render animations in Blender.
Diamond Trees (Tropostats): A Molecular Manufacturing Based System for Compositional Atmospheric Homeostasis
Robert Freitas has a new idea for a product that could be built using molecular manufacturing -- diamond trees designed to sequester carbon dioxide. The concept is fleshed out in technical detail at a paper now available at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing website. Let's bring up that abstract!
The future technology of molecular manufacturing will enable long-term sequestration of atmospheric carbon in solid diamond products, along with sequestration of lesser masses of numerous air pollutants, yielding pristine air worldwide ~30 years after implementation. A global population of 143 x 109 20-kg â€œdiamond treesâ€ or tropostats, generating 28.6 TW of thermally non-polluting solar power and covering ~0.1% of the planetary surface, can create and actively maintain compositional atmospheric homeostasis as a key step toward achieving comprehensive human control of Earthâ€™s climate.
On the topic of MNT, I also wonder what it will take for the skeptics to become convinced that the technology is plausible. Positional atomic placement has already been demonstrated, including at room temperature. Will complex rotating 3D nanosystems convince them? I doubt those are far off.
The mass of the alpha-particle is ~7000 times greater than that of an electron, so the velocity and hence the range of a-particles in matter is considerably less than for beta-particles of equal energy. Consequently the optimum radionuclide for medical nanorobots is predominantly an alpha emitter.
Among all gamma-free alpha-only emitters with t1/2 > 106 sec, the highest volumetric power density is available using Gd148 (gadolinium) which a-decays directly to Sm144 (samarium), a stable rare-earth isotope. A solid sphere of pure Gd148 (~7900 kg/m3) of radius r = 95 microns surrounded by a 5-micron thick platinum shield (total device radius R = 100 microns) and a thin polished silver coating of emissivity er = 0.02 suspended in vacuo would initially maintain a constant temperature T2 (far from a surface held at T1 = 310 K)
75-year half-life, initially generating 17 microwatts of thermal power which can be converted to 8 microwatts of mechanical power by a Stirling engine operating at ~50% efficiency. (Smaller spheres of Gd148 run cooler.) While probably too large for most individual nanorobot designs, such spheres could be an ideal long-term energy source for a swallowable or implantable "power pill" (Chapter 26) or dedicated energy organ (Section 6.4.4). A ~0.2 kg block of pure Gd148 (~1 inch3) initially yields ~120 watts, sufficient in theory to meet the complete basal power needs of an entire human body for ~1 century (given suitable nucleochemical energy conversion and load buffering mechanisms, and a sufficiently well-divided structure).
The last part is the punchline, of course. Freitas acknowledges future design challenges such as energy conversion, load buffering, and division of structure. If these challenges are overcome, a large block of Gd148 (or simply gadolinite ready to be processed into pure gadolinium) could supply nutrition to millions of people for millennia. Gadolinium has a half-life of 75 years, so you'd need double as much for each 75-year period you wish to avoiding refueling for, but storing gadolinium in its stable gadolinite form seems avoid this problem. Unfortunately, gadolinite is fairly rare and gadolinium itself is only found in the Earth's crust at a 6.2 ppm level. By comparison, the abundance of gold in the Earth's crust is only 0.0011 ppm. According to this page, annual production of gadolinium is 200 tons.
Just to throw some numbers out there, if one cubic inch is enough per person per century, a million people would require a million cubic inches. That can fit in a cube 9 x 9 x 9 ft large. According to Freitas' numbers, this would weigh about 200,000 kg, or 200 metric tonnes, which is on par with today's annual production. If demand for gadolinium grew, it seems plausible that its cost would fall greatly -- after all, gold is about 6,000 times rarer and our annual production is 2,800 tons. Feeding ten billion people with gadolinium, if that were possible, would require about 2,000,000 metric tonnes for the first century. At an extraction rate of 200,000 metric tonnes per year, it could be done in a decade. This would require increasing current production by a factor of 1,000. According to this book, gadolinite can contain 40% rare earth oxides, 5% of which consists of gadolinium itself. That means that gadolinium makes up about 2% of the total. (Wrong: see comments.) Processing ten million metric tonnes of the ore annually would yield the required amount. For comparison, we extract 1.2 billion tons of iron from the Earth's crust annually.
Update: all of the above is wrong for one reason or another, as pointed out in the comments, but at least I had fun. I was confusing chemical stability with nuclear stability and made the mistake that I thought gadolinium-148 would be nuclear-stable in its gadolinite form, which is wrong. The atomic number of gadolinium is 64 meaning that gadolinium-148 contains 20 extra neutrons above neutron-proton parity. It seems to me that we'd eventually have to find a less safe and cheaper isotope to make this work on a large level if it's suitable in practice and we ever want to.
I recently wrote to Rob Freitas about his radioisotope-powered food nanorobot idea that, if it works, could allow people to eat at severely reduced levels for as long as a century or more. As far as I can tell, food would still be needed due to cell loss from shedding skin cells and the like, but this would likely be relatively little. As Roko pointed out, the gadolinium-powered nanobots could reconstitute ATP from waste products like urea. The gadolinium would just provide the energy for running the chemical reactions needed to produce fresh ATP.
Here is the email I wrote to Rob Freitas:
Hi Robert, I saw an idea of yours posted at the World Future Society, and blogged it. Me and my readers weren't clear on some of the details, and a few google searches turned up nothing. All of us would appreciate if you would weigh in on the thread and answer our burning questions.
Thanks, and I'm always impressed by all the ideas you come up with.
Here is the response (posted with permission):
The 148Gd power source proposal was described in NMI (1999) at http://www.nanomedicine.com/NMI/184.108.40.206.htm. The semiconductor shell structure crudely illustrated in Fig. 6.7 is intended to be an atomically precise structure. The radioactive 148Gd is kept permanently encapsulated while inside the body. The minimum radius for this powerplant is on the order of ~11 microns, so it is clearly intended for fixed-site multi-nodal (not bloodborne) use.
I haven't yet published any detailed scaling studies specifically describing dietary-related nanorobotic systems. These proposals now exist only in rough form in my long (across 2 decades!) accumulated notes for Chapter 26 in Vol. III of my Nanomedicine book series. I hope to find time to publish NMIII sometime in this decade.
I read the page that Freitas linked. Here's one of the core specs:
A (1 micron)3 cube of Gd148 produces ~5 a-particles/sec, yielding an output current of ~1 picoampere at ~3 volts (e.g., ~3 pW).
Interesting! The page also points out that the cost of Gd148 must be brought down significantly before it becomes a feasible power source, because in 1998 it cost about a dollar per two cubic microns(!) This is expensive stuff. The number of nanobots that might be used would need to be on the order of a hundred trillion (not a billion, as I wrote previously), each with a cubic micron-sized power core, though 11 microns across due to shielding. Given the 1998 cost of Gd148, a full system would cost about $50 trillion for the fuel alone! Near the top of the page it says, "Selection of an optimum radioactive fuel is guided primarily by safety criteria".
An interesting idea, and food for nanotechnological thought.
WFS Update: Robert Freitas on How Nuclear-Powered Nanobots Will Allow Us to Forgo Eating a Square Meal for a Century
Wow, this surprised me. This is the sort of thing that I would write off as nonsense on first glance if it weren't from Robert Freitas, who is legendary for the rigor of his calculations. Here's the bit, from a World Future Society update:
The Issue: Hunger
The number of people on the brink of starvation will likely reach 1.02 billion -- or one-sixth of the global population-- in 2009, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In the United States, 36.2 million adults and children struggled with hunger at some point during 2007.
The Future: The earth's population is projected to increase by 2.5 billion people in the next four decades, most of these people will be born in the countries that are least able to grow food. Research indicates that these trends could be offset by improved global education among the world's developing populations. Population declines sharply in countries where almost all women can read and where GDP is high. As many as 2/3 of the earth's inhabitants will live in water-stressed area by 2030 and decreasing water supplies will have a direct effect on hunger. Nearly 200 million Africans are facing serious water shortages. That number will climb to 230 million by 2025, according to the United Nations Environment Program. Finding fresh water in Africa is often a huge task, requiring people (mostly women and children) to trek miles to public wells. While the average human requires only about 4 liters of drinking water a day, as much as 5,000 liters of water is needed to produce a person's daily food requirements.
1. The Food Pill. In the future, we may see a type of pill for replacing food, but experts say it likely would not be a simple compound of chemicals. A pill-sized food replacement system would have to be extremely complex because of the sheer difficulty of the task it was being asked to perform, more complex than any simple chemical reaction could be. The most viable solution, according to many futurists, would be a nanorobot food replacement system.
Dr. Robert Freitas, author of the Nanomedicine series and senior research fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing spoke with FUTURIST magazine senior editor Patrick Tucker about it.
In his books and various writings, Freitas has described several potential food replacement technologies that are somewhat pill-like. The key difference, however, is that instead of containing drug compounds, the capsules would contain thousands of microscopic robots called nanorobots. These would be in the range of a billionth of a meter in size so they could easily fit into a large capsule, though a capsule would not necessarily be the best way to administer them to the body. Also, while these microscopic entities would be called "robots," they would not necessarily be composed of metal or possess circuitry. They would be robotic in that they would be programmed to carry out complex and specific functions in three-dimensional space.
One food replacement Dr. Freitas has described is nuclear powered nanorobots. Here's how these would work: the only reason people eat is to replace the energy they expend walking around, breathing, living life, etc. Like all creatures, we take energy stored in plant or animal matter. Freitas points out that the isotope gadolinium-148 could provide much of the fuel the body needs. But a person can't just eat a radioactive chemical and hope to be healthy, instead he or she would ingest the gadolinium in the form of nanorobots. The gadolinium-powered robots would make sure that the person's body was absorbing the energy safely and consistently. Freitas says the person might still have to take some vitamin or protein supplements but because gadolinium has a half life of 75 years, the person might be able to go for a century or longer without a square meal.
For people who really like eating but don't like what a food-indulgent lifestyle does to their body, Freitas has two other nanobot solutions.
â€œNutribotsâ€ floating through the bloodstream would allow people to eat virtually anything, a big fatty steak for instance, and experience very limited weight or cholesterol gain. The nutribots would take the fat, excess iron, and anything else that the eater in question did not want absorbed into his or her body and hold onto it. The body would pass the nurtibots, and the excess fat, normally out of the body in the restroom.
A nanobot Dr. Freitas calls a "lipovore" would act like a microscopic cosmetic surgeon, sucking fat cells out of your body and giving off heat, which the body could convert to energy to eat a bit less.
Where can you read more about Robert Freitas' ideas? In the January-February 2010 issue of THE FUTURIST magazine, Freitas lays out his ideas for improving human health through nanotechnology.
Yes, there are many other technologies that could help out better with hunger right now. The most important are the three initiatives singled out by Giving What We Can as being high-leverage intervention points: schistosomiasis control, stopping tuberculosis, and the regular delivery of micronutrient packages. Another is the iodization of salt. How can these stop hunger? Well, the diseases and ill health caused by the absence of these measures is so great that alleviating them will increase the total amount of time that people have available to engage in farming, which in the short term will alleviate hunger more effectively than any direct measure. Delivering food in the form of aid fosters dependence.
Anyway, the summary of Freitas' food bot ideas above seems very limited. I'm sure that Freitas has worked out the design in greater detail. For instance, are the nanobots he is talking about is powered through a radioisotope rather than a nuclear fission plant, and the text doesn't make that clear enough, in my opinion. I wonder -- how is it that gadolinium can be broken down into all the nutrients the body needs? Wouldn't a large amount be required, because fueling the chemical reactions of the body requires bulk and mass no matter how you slice it? I am seeing a lot of technical questions and holes in the idea, as it is brusquely presented above. I will email Freitas and ask him to point us to the proper writings.
2009 saw a lot of mainstreaming of "transhumanist" ideas, foci, and emphases. As I recently pointed out, Foreign Policy magazine gave this phenomenon a nod by including two transhumanists on their list of 100 global thinkers.
I am particularly interested in any possible mainstreaming of AGI and Friendly AI ideas, for obvious reasons. These ideas are not mainstreaming as fast as "wow-tech" like life-extension or cybernetics, so watching for it is even more challenging and interesting. That's why this ad on the ScienceBlogs network caught my eye:
It links to Collective Imagination, a relatively new blog on the ScienceBlogs network with an about page that doesn't mention AI at all. But, click the ad and you go to their front page, which currently is all about AI. On November 19th, their head blogger, Greg Laden, bought into the IBM "cat brain" deliberately deceptive news item, but then did a double-take a week later. What is interesting about his double-take is that he takes the time to point out some ignorant phrasing by IEEE Spectrum blogger Sally Adee in her coverage of the controversy. She said "There are as many theories of mind as there are researchers working on it, and in some cases there is a real grudge match between the theorists." Greg Laden commented:
I would like to point out that the term "Theory of Mind" is used incorrectly in the above quote. To me, this misuse of the term indicates a degree in pop psychology, as one might be exposed to the phrase but not know what it is, as has apparently happened here.
This is a little embarrassing. It would be like a psychologist writing about computer programming and noting that a "hash table" is a good place to put your chopped up corned beef.
It is embarrassing. Kudos to Greg for catching that. Watch out for those Igon Values.
Another, unrelated place where I read about IEEE in the last few days concerned an IEEE blogger having trouble understanding why the molecular nanotechnology community laughs in derision at the word "nanotechnology" being applied to stain-resistant pants. Josh Hall explained why. The same blogger, Dexter Johnson, also recently relayed that the American Chemical Society "touts nanobots as nanotechnology's big impact" in a new promotional video, which is another way of saying that they've been won over by the arguments for the feasibility of MNT. He writes:
The video is fascinating because it manages to move from nanobots and nanofactories to discussions of nanomaterials and buckyballs so seamlessly you would almost think there was no distinction between the two.
From what I gather this Bytesize Science is supposed to be targeting the future chemists of the world by making science fun. I am not sure that incomprehensible goop is really the way to do it, but Iâ€™ve never tried to teach children about nanotechnology.
In the post about nanopants, he writes:
I will not argue here (or likely anywhere else) about the feasibility of nanofactories in the visions of the MNT community.
Why not? Maybe because the idea of nanofactories is sometimes considered unscientific?