The Proceedings of the 1989 NanoCon Northwest regional
nanotechnology conference, with K. Eric Drexler as Guest of Honor.
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NANOCON PROCEEDINGS page 11
Appendix A: A View of NanoCon by Dr. John Cramer
John Cramer has written a summary of NanoCon for his Alternate
View column in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, which, with his permission,
is reproduced below.
The Alternate View: Report on Nanocon 1
Nanocon 1: The First Northwest Conference on Nanotechnology was held
at the University Plaza Hotel in Seattle, Washington, on February 17-19,
1989. The conference was sponsored by the Seattle Nanotechnology Study Group
and the Student Nanotechnology Study Group of the University of Washington.
This AV column is a report on the conference.
by John G. Cramer
Those of you who read the article "Nanotechnology" by Chris Peterson
and K. Eric Drexler that was published in the Dec-87 Analog
will be familiar with the term nanotechnology. It was coined by Drexler
in his book Engines
of Creation (EOC) and refers to the nanometer, a distance
of 10-9 meters or roughly the diameter of an atom. Nanotechnology
is the technical capability, not yet fully realized, which will make possible
the structuring of matter with precise control at the nanometer scale, atom-by-atom
or molecule-by-molecule, to form a specified pattern. Nanotechnology is
the general ability to build large or small structures to complex atomic
specifications. Notice that nanotechnology refers to the technique and
ability, not the size or scale of the product. Nano-technologic constructions
may not necessarily be small.
Nanotechnology differs in important ways from the microtechnology
(10-6 meter scale) presently used by the electronics industry
to produce integrated circuit chips. The tools that assemble nanomachines
can themselves be tiny assemblies of atoms. If even one general-purpose
assembly nanomachine or assembler is available, it can be used to
rapidly construct more identical assemblers in a geometric progression.
It can rapidly mobilize as many assemblers as are needed to construct even
very large structures from the available materials. Nanotechnology in effect
can reduce all construction and manufacturing to a matter of software, of
designing the command set that specifies the desired atomic structure and
the steps required for its fabrication and assembly.
But the most striking aspect of nanotechnology lies in its biological implications.
The cells of our bodies are, in essence, nanostructures. They even contain
a specialized form of assembler, a nanomachine called a ribosome,
which can and does assemble any protein from the command-steps encoded in
linear RNA molecules. One implication of nanotechnology is that the biological
functions of human cells can be directly controlled, repaired, and in some
cases improved. Complex nanomachines that fit easily within our cells can
take over their management and repair. The coming mastery of nanotechnology
offers the promise of cures for cancer, hemophilia, diabetes, and other
genetic disorders, the promise of the absolute elimination of all the parasitic,
bacterial, and virus diseases that afflict humanity, the promise of the
reversal of aging and extension of the human life span, the promise of the
enhancement of human strength, endurance, sensory sensitivity, and even
intelligence. And it also poses awesome threats and dangers arising from
the many possible misuses of these new capabilities.
As a technological revolution, nanotechnology is perhaps unique in human
history in one important way. Its arrival, its impact, and its problems
have been anticipated, largely through the work of Drexler, well before
the actual technology is at hand. This did not happen with the industrial
revolution, the nuclear age, the space age, or the computer revolution.
A foreseen major revolution is unprecedented. There are several evident
technological paths that will lead to nanotechnology, but it will be many
years, perhaps many decades, before the full impact of these promises and
problems will be upon us. We have time to consider, to steer development,
to devise solutions to the problems. That is the point of this conference.
The Nanotechnology Conference opened with a banquet featuring a keynote
address by Drexler. He described the state of nanotechnology as a developing
field of inquiry and research, with emphasis on new developments, directions,
and challenges. He pointed out that in 1988 a significant milestone predicted
in EOC was achieved: the first useful protein with no equivalent in nature
had been successfully synthesized in the laboratory. The age of engineered
protein construction has arrived.
The conference participants were an interesting mix of academics, students,
scientists, engineers, biologists, programmers, space advocates, and writers
of both fiction and non-fiction. Some of the most original views expressed
the conference came from the attending science fiction writers. Perhaps
this should not come as a surprise, for SF writers as a group have devoted
much time to studying the implications of possible future technologies.
Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, Vonda McIntyre, Mark Stiegler, and I participated
in the programming, and other SF writers in attendance contributed to the
lively and far ranging discussions.
The Saturday program began with a talk by Eric Drexler on rod-logic computation.
The capabilities of nano-scale computers that use electric currents are
difficult to assess, because their properties are not well specified and
their operation will necessarily lie in the domain where quantum mechanical
interference phenomena are important, even dominant. Therefore, as a way
of getting some realistic estimate of how much computing capability might
be packed into a nano-scale computing device, Drexler has gone all the way
back to the 19th century and the rod-and-cam computing devices designed
by Charles Babbage, substituting stiff carbyne carbon-chain rods for Babbage's
brass shafts and molecule lumps for Babbage's machined brass cams. A computer
constructed in this way is in-principle possible and might even be mechanically
robust. It offers the advantage that it can be readily analyzed for speed,
capacity, power consumption, etc. It turns out that nanoscale rod-and-cam
technology could be used to make a remarkably powerful computer. Drexler
demonstrates that it is feasible, in the sense of not violating any physical
laws, for a Cray-II class computer of this construction to be fitted into
a small fraction of the volume of a cell, with plenty of space left over
for nano-manipulators controlled by the nanocomputer and its software.
Profs. Nadrian Seeman of the City University of New York and Bruce Robinson
of the University of Washington described their work on nucleic acid structural
engineering which, as a currently available nanotechnology, represented
a technical high point of the conference. They discussed the construction
of rigid mechanical nanoscale structures that are made from DNA chains.
Readers will recall that in cells DNA is not a structural material but a
sort of reference library of protein designs, from which RNA transcriptions
are made and sent to ribosomes for protein production.
But Seeman and Robinson explained that as structural material DNA offers
several very interesting advantages: the chains are relatively rigid, can
be made in the laboratory to designer specifications using solid-phase synthesis
techniques, and will link, lock-and-key fashion, only to complementary sequence
of bases of another DNA chain. They have produced several carefully designed
DNA sequences that link to form three- and four-way junctions with "sticky"
ends. These then become the units of a sort of "tinkertoy" construction
set, from which complex two and three dimensional structures can be assembled
with DNA rods and junctions. The uses for such DNA scaffolding in nanotechnology
is not yet clear, but one possible application, as Robinson pointed out,
might be for the conductors and switching junctions of current-mode nanoscale
computers and memory devices. Another use might be to provide a relatively
rigid and predictable framework upon which a true nanomachine might be fabricated.
The Saturday afternoon discussion focused on hypertext publishing. Hypertext
(See Marc Stiegler's article in the Jan-89 Analog) is the ultimate generalization
of the printed reference book, a large computer network with very large
information storage and correlation capacity used for information searching,
cross-referencing, discussion, criticism, and publication of new results.
This concept is not nanotechnology, but in EOC Drexler suggested that hypertext
publishing might uniquely keep pace with the rapid technological progress
of nanotechnology and address the problems inherent in it. Speakers, including
Drexler, Mark Stiegler of the Xanadu Corporation and L. Roberts of the Boeing
Company, discussed the general concept of hypertext and its recent commercial
implementations. These new systems, particularly the one being developed
by Xanadu, may soon provide a reasonable approximation to the hypertext
publishing system envisioned by Drexler in EOC.
Sunday morning was devoted to a panel discussion on the social issues of
nanotechnology. The discussion was very broad in its scope. Gregory Benford
made a particularly interesting point during this panel. He suggested that
some "precursor" social effects of nanotechnology are already
here and should soon become more evident and important. When a large fraction
of the population believes that nanotechnology is coming and will
soon be a technological reality, they will, even before the technology is
available, begin to act on the assumption that it will be developed.
This will have social consequences.
Benford illustrated his point with the cryonics movement, the several
organizations that on the death of a subscribing member undertake to cryogenically
preserve his or her head or entire body, making it possible for some future
technologically advanced society to make the necessary repairs and restore
the "sleeper" to life. A few years ago this kind of resurrection
seemed to be a very remote possibility. But with the advent of nanotechnology
it seems much less a long shot. Benford predicted that with rising public
awareness of progress toward true nanotechnology there will be a large growth
in the cryonics movement. (Benford, incidentally, is now planning an SF
novel dealing with this subject.)
In the discussions of social issues during the panel, a certain pattern
emerged. The discussion would tightly focus on a particular impact or line
of development (the impact of human life extension on present retirement
programs, for example) while implicitly assuming that the rest of the social
universe was somehow frozen, unchanging. Drexler made an important point,
cautioning that the approach of changing one thing while holding everything
else unmodified, as is often done by engineers in analyzing complex electrical
or mechanical systems, can lead to seriously wrong social conclusions. He
pointed out that in a real society a large number of things will be changing
at the same time. Predictions which ignore societal changes on a broad front
may be unduly alarming (e.g., predicting bankruptcy of retirement pools)
and probably incorrect. More realistic assessment of the social problems
arising from change require a broader approach, where many social factors
must evolve and adjust together. Someone commented here that what we really
need for analyzing the impact of nanotechnology is Asimov's psychohistory.
The Sunday afternoon panel discussion, which I moderated, was an interactive
workshop on paths to nanotechnology. We started by describing the various
technological paths which lead from where we are to the realization of nanotechnology,
and the ways in which each of these paths is presently blocked. The focus
of the discussion shifted to the biological path, using the protein-producing
machinery in cells to produce new nanomachine designs that can lead to a
generalized assembler. This line of development is presently blocked by
our inability to fully understand the operation of the ribosome or to predict
how a protein with a particular sequence of amino acids will fold itself
as it is created and becomes biologically active.
Prediction of protein folding is presently blocked by the difficulty of
the computations. This led to discussion of the state of supercomputers
and of radical new computer architectures such as neural-network circuits,
and how these might lead to solution of the folding problem. The intrinsic
instability of neural nets was mentioned. There was also discussion of the
general problem of biological complexity: are we humans really smart enough
to master all the complexities of natural biological organisms, their structure,
and their operation?
Those at the conference were optimistic, for there is presently steady progress
toward resolving theses complexities. Many of the conference attendees and
many more workers not attending the conference will continue to bang away
at the countless stumbling blocks between us and true nanotechnology. In
the years and decades that will be needed to go from here to there, those
of us who write hard science fiction will try to anticipate some of the
triumphs and some of the problems that will inevitably arise as this newest
of technologies moves from the sidelines to the center of the stage that
is the world.
Nanocon 1: Proceedings are available by sending a check for $15 to
Nanocon 1 Proceedings, P.O. Box 40176, Bellevue, WA 98004
[Editor's note: This on-line version is meant to replace the out-of-print
Nanotechnology: K. Eric Drexler, Engines
of Creation, Anchor Press/Doubleday, New York, (1987); Chris
Peterson and K. Eric Drexler, "Nanotechnology", Analog, Jan-88.
Rod-Logic Computers: K. Eric Drexler, "Rod logic & thermal
noise in the mechanical nanocomputer", Proc. of the 3rd Symp. on
Molecular Electronic Devices, Forrest Carter, ed., Elsevier Science
Pub. B.V. (North Holland, Amsterdam, 1988).
DNA Structures: B. H. Robinson and N. C. Seeman, "Design of
a biochip: a self-assembling molecular-scale memory device", Protein
Engineering 1, 295-300 (1987).
Hypertext: Marc Stiegler, "Hypermedia and the Singularity",
Appendix B: An Additional Perspective
on NanoCon by Dr. Jim Lewis
I would like to take an editor's prerogative to emphasize what I consider
to be additional major points made, by various individuals, during NANOCON.
- The development path toward the first generation of assemblers is
beginning to take shape, and that path is the "folded polymer"
approach. A key to this path is the growing ability to combine protein design
with chemistry, particularly the chemistry of non-biological compounds,
to produce polymers designed to have predictable folding properties. Such
an approach was first advocated by Drexler
in 1981. Critical associated capabilities will include improved molecular
modeling systems, better understanding of supra-molecular associations and
self-assembly, and novel approaches to studying catalysis. An important
molecular technology where progress is not yet evident is the ability to
build with strong, covalent bonds instead of the weak, non-covalent interactions
that mostly control folding.
- A major focus of further conferences should be continuing reviews
of the progress in the enabling technologies and basic science leading toward
nanotechnolgy. A broader coverage of these different fields might emphasize
points for synergism, such as the suggested use of STM technology to precisely
position a folded-polymer molecular tool.
- As forcefully argued by both Drexler and Benford, discussions of near-term
policy implications and social effects of nanotechnology should focus on
the transition to a defensively stable world, a world in which nanotechnology
can not be abused for conquest, terrorism, or tyranny, and in which pluralism
and liberty are protected. Discussions of exotic long term consequences
should remain the province of science fiction because interjecting such
ideas into policy discussions scares people and distracts attention from
the critical questions that need immediate attention.
- These last two points may represent more my own interpretation and
less of a consensus than the first two. Those of us who took an early (that
is, in spring of 1986, when Engines
of Creation was published) and intense interest in nanotechnology
should perhaps ponder our own roles in the effort to develop the technology
and guide its use. Most of the ~80 people attending NANOCON (certainly including
myself) are probably more in the "schemers and dreamers" rather
than the "movers and shakers" category. As the advent of nanotechnology
approaches, it will probably be the latter group, rather than the former,
that will be in a position to deal effectively or not with the opportunities
and dangers presented by that progress. Having been an early enthusiast
or prophet does not necessarily imply having any influence when the real
- The "schemers and dreamers" may, however, influence the
"movers and shakers" by making clear how current technological
developments are heading toward nanotechnology, and why this fact has great
implications for the present. This task is an extension of the effort begun
by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation, and is probably best
handled by use of a hypertext publishing system to develop, criticize, and
test these arguments. Although no such system is yet available, the news
Stiegler brought from Xanadu indicates that a very reasonable approximation
to such a system may be less than a year away. Hypertext publishing will
certainly be available long before advanced molecular technology. Several
of us who have been involved with NANOCON and the Seattle Nanotechnology
Study Group have been working on a base of information for such a hypermedia
conversation, the PATH project [Prototype Advanced Technology Hypertext].
Next year we expect to offer a HyperCard-based system to serve as a basis
for further development of a hypermedia treatment of nanotechnology.
Jim Lewis, May 13, 1989
[Editor's postscript: Unfortunately neither Xanadu nor PATH lived
up to the optimistic predictions of early 1989. On the other hand, the World
Wide Web arrived, providing an international network with some of the characteristics
of hypertext, just a few years after NanoCon.
--Jim Lewis, June 29, 1996.]
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