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Nanotechnology The Next Revolution
Interview with Chris Phoenix
Chris Phoenix, Director of Research for the Center
for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), is an inventor, entrepreneur,
and published author in the fields of nanomedicine, nanomanufacturing,
and administration of nanotechnology. He holds a Master's Degree
in computer science from Stanford University.
When did you first hear of nanotechnology and why did you
decide to work in this field?
I first heard of it in Eric Drexler's CS404 class, "Nanotechnology
and Exploratory Engineering," at Stanford University in 1988.
I followed it and read about it for years, becoming a Senior Associate
of the Foresight Institute and attending several conferences. I
also began writing about it on the sci.nanotech newsgroup. Gradually
I got more involved, co-authoring a major nanomedical article with
Robert Freitas, and getting other articles and a book chapter published.
I started working on it full-time when I co-founded the Center for
Responsible Nanotechnology. This grew out of an email conversation,
in which I sent Mike Treder [Executive Director of CRN] a writeup
I had done on how easy it might be to bootstrap a basic molecular
nanotechnology capability, and he wrote back saying more or less,
"We're not ready for this! We've got to do something!"
Within a month, we had established CRN. So you could say I had been
working up to it for years, but you could also say that I finally,
suddenly, realized that some things needed to be done to help us
(worldwide) get ready.
What is your definition of nanotechnology?
There are two definitions, and they do not have much to do with
each other. One is the definition the National Science Foundation
(NSF) and National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) are using: basically,
anything interesting that happens at the nanometer scale. If you
make a new nanoparticle that glows a precise frequency, or stick
together several large molecules to make a designer chemotherapy
drug, that is nanotech in that sense. This covers materials like
thin films and buckytube-reinforced composites, and components like
sensor elements, and it's starting to be integrated into products.
"Nanoscale technology" is a good label to distinguish
this from the second kind.
The second definition, which was actually the original one, applies
to molecular nanotechnology (MNT), and it describes a manufacturing
method: the ability to fabricate a wide variety of complex parts
with molecular precision. This requires either a massive chemical
design effort, or a programmable manipulative chemistry system,
which I think is likely to be developed first. Either way, once
you can make various complex parts, you can combine them into nanoscale
machines--nanosystems--and then combine those machines into manufacturing
systems and products--potentially, human-scale products--with zillions
of nanosystems integrated. This to me is the more interesting kind
of nanotech, since even a basic fabrication capability will let
us build products the way a computer lets you write programs: you
can do almost anything within the limits of the system.
Can you give a listing of today's applications that already
NSF-style nanoscale technology is appearing in a wide variety of
products and incipient products. Tennis rackets and car parts are
now being made with buckytubes. Single-molecule sensors are being
developed. There are new ways of attaching molecules to each other
and to larger things like cloth fibers; you may have heard of NanoCare
pants from Eddie Bauer. And the NSF was very clever with their definition:
they made the upper bound, 100 nanometers, just slightly less than
semiconductor manufacturers could achieve at the time. So now all
the semiconductor companies are doing nanotech.
MNT-style nanotech is still only in the lab. It is being used in
a few areas for "pure research" investigations of molecules
and processes. But I think that should count as an application.
Do you think that in the future we will have the kind of
nanotechnology Drexler and Feynman have predicted (personal home
assembler fabrication factories capable of producing anything we
can imagine, etc.)? If so, when do you think that will happen?
I have to be a little careful here, because we do not know if the
"anything we can imagine" style of MNT will really work
in practice. Especially at room temperature, it is hard to work
with molecules that are too floppy or too small. But the MNT field
has matured in the past decade, starting with Drexler's Nanosystems.
Instead of talking about making anything you want, it's now about
how much you can do with stiff molecules - carbon lattice - basically
diamond and its cousins. I call this limited MNT, or LMNT. It turns
out that there is a whole lot you can do with LMNT, including computers,
materials, and motors that are orders of magnitude ahead of today's
best, and nanoscale robots that can build diamondoid parts complex
enough to duplicate themselves on command. There is basically no
doubt that this is possible; no one has come up with a serious criticism
of the LMNT proposals.
So yes, I think that the home-factory thing is correct. It will
not be able to produce food, at least in the early versions, but
it will be able to produce greenhouses to grow the food, as well
as duplicating just about every manufactured product I can think
of cheaper, better, and cleaner.
When it happens is really a matter of policy, not technology. A
lot of people would like to believe that this is impossible, so
they let themselves be convinced by very wrong arguments. Like Smalley's
"fat fingers" and "sticky fingers," which are
strawmen - he is not even talking about published MNT proposals,
because there are no fingers in those proposals. So it could be
delayed by a decade or more while people slowly realize that MNT
is just another way of doing chemistry, and there is nothing wrong
with the theory.
If it were started today, I think a well-funded program in any of
several nations could have MNT in less than a decade. It might take
a few billion dollars to do it quickly, but that is peanuts compared
to the economic benefits, and the economic benefits look small in
comparison with the humanitarian and environmental possibilities--and
also the geopolitical implications. I think we are at the point
where with a bit of study, we could decide whether to spend 100
billion and get it in five years, or 10 billion and get it in ten
years. And I think if we knew what we were doing, we would spend
the 100 billion.
One thing that people need to realize about MNT is how quickly the
final stages of development can go. Once we have a basic programmable
fabricator making diamondoid in programmable shapes, we will be
able to build just about any machine we can design. One of the first
things to do will be to integrate many fabricators into a larger
factory system that will build larger products. This turns out to
be surprisingly easy to do, even for quadrillions of fabricators
in a desktop factory making human-scale products. I have written
a peer-reviewed paper covering the various aspects of nanofactory
design, including power and cooling, reliability, physical layout,
signals and processing, and joining nanoblocks into products. It
is linked from http://CRNano.org/bootstrap.htm.
So if I am right that we can go from basic fabricator to integrated
nanofactory in a few months, MNT becomes far more valuable and far
more disruptive, and we will have less time to adjust to it.
Of course, it is always possible that some country will develop
it while others are still thinking it is impossible. Any country
that was not working on it at all - and I am thinking here of the
USA and Europe - would probably become a second-rate power. I really
doubt that we would be able to catch up, because taking full advantage
of MNT does not just involve the nanofactory technology; there is
also the software and training to design products. So any country
that has not even been studying MNT will be the 21st century buggy
whip manufacturers. See question 10 for an even more pessimistic
Should governments try to regulate the development of nanotechnology?
If yes, how? Do you think it is able to do so?
Eventually, it will be very important to regulate the use of MNT
manufacturing. Imagine if a computer virus could actually make people
sick. Or if instead of having to smuggle bad stuff, people could
just download a program and make it at home. But without a lot of
preparation, stopping this kind of thing is going to be as hard
as stopping MP3 sharing. And part of that preparation involves giving
people access to most of the technology, to reduce the impetus for
a black market.
With enough care, I think government can regulate the development
to some degree. But governmental regulation alone won't be enough.
The government has a certain approach to problems, and some problems
need a different approach. If bureaucracy is too much of a pain,
people will find ways around it. I expand on this a bit in question
We have published a paper called "Safe Utilization of Advanced
Nanotechnology" that goes into regulation of nanotech in more
detail. By the time you read this, we will have more papers published
on the topic. Check out our web site at http://CRNano.org
for our latest work.
Do you think that there is enough funding for nanotechnology
research in the US, compared to the European Union or Asian countries?
There may be enough money, but it is not being spent right. MNT
is basically not being funded at all in the US. The nanoscale technology
that is being funded is great stuff, but the fact that "nanotech"
means two things is distracting everyone from the fact that the
NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) is only funding one of
The reason the US is not funding MNT is the widespread but completely
unfounded belief that it is impossible or science-fictional. As
I said, many people want to believe this, so someone says "thermal
noise" or "fat fingers" and everyone nods knowingly
and sleeps well. But there is no calculation whatsoever behind any
of these criticisms. All the calculation--all of it!--says that
MNT should work. Everyone, not just the US, has to start paying
attention to that. There are three reasons, and they are all important:
the good it can do, the harm it can do, and the possibility that
someone unfriendly will do it first.
Will the development of nanotechnology have any effects
on developing countries and if so, which effects?
For MNT, that depends entirely on whether they are allowed to use
it (or find a way to use it even if it is not allowed). I could
imagine that the Powers That Be will declare MNT is too dangerous,
or it is patented, or simply that we can not afford the possibility
of foreign economic competition. All of these have been used, with
varying degrees of justification, to deny technology to developing
countries. If this happens with MNT, its effects may be delayed
by years or even decades, and that would be a tragedy. One of the
main problems in developing countries is lack of infrastructure,
and MNT is quite simply an industrial revolution in a suitcase.
It is "appropriate technology" for almost any setting:
take simple carbon-based chemicals and build whatever products are
useful, including duplicate nanofactories as needed. Water filters
and plumbing, housing, greenhouses, networked computers, medical
diagnostic and treatment equipment, solar power systems... there
is almost no limit to the amount of good a nanofactory could do
in an impoverished country, or the number of lives it could save.
For nanoscale technologies, the answer is more mixed. Since it does
not manufacture products but just materials, it still requires a
high-tech infrastructure to take advantage of the new inventions.
Some of this will trickle down, of course. But this will be mixed
in with much bigger economic issues. MNT, by contrast, will be the
biggest economic issue. And it is inherently decentralized, which
I have to think is good for countries that can not fully participate
in today's integrated globalized capitalist high-tech economy.
Will the environment suffer or profit from nanotechnology?
High tech is generally cleaner than low tech, but we use more of
it. Petroleum is cleaner than coal, which is cleaner than dried
animal dungbut we burn petroleum by the megaton. Nanotech
of all kinds will make our technologies more efficient, meaning
that we will need less but we will want more.
MNT just takes this to another level. If you can manufacture stuff
with zero waste, and what you build requires 1% as much material,
and the material does not have to be mined or drilled for, and the
products are cheap enough to shingle your house with solar panels
and build greenhouses to replace open-air agriculture that wastes
water and land... then yes, MNT could be very good for the environment.
On the other hand, it could also let us all commute in supersonic
automated personal airplanes. We could all live 500 miles away from
where we work. Imagine the suburban sprawl, the sonic booms, the
sheer power used; and that is just one fairly straightforward application
of basic diamondoid materials. So more than ever, it will be our
choice whether to preserve the environment or trample it.
One thing MNT can do that is worth mentioning is make spaceflight
cheap enough to put the entire mass of humanity in space. If we
really wanted to, we could clear off this planet completely, which
would certainly minimize human impact on the environment. This is
one extreme. On the other extreme, MNT would enable planetary-scale
engineering projects. Even if we did not destroy the environment
with them, we would meddle - and the earth would become, not a nature
reserve, but a managed park. Some people will be OK with that idea
and some will hate it.
Do you see any practical and/or ethical concerns in using
nanotechnology in medicine (e.g. implanting machines in humans /
physiological immortality through cell repair and augmentation)?
My biggest concern is that nanotech will not be used enough. More
than fifty million people die each year, and most of them aren't
ready to, and it's a tragedy for their loved ones. Not to mention
the human potential that literally rots each time someone dies.
I have no problem with life extension as an option for anyone who
wants it. I cannot imagine a personal ethical problem big enough
to justify forbidding someone else from saving their life medically.
Socially and ecologically, it is a little harder to say that everyone
should stay alive as long as they want. But you have to consider
that a person contributes more to the future population by having
one extra child than by staying alive forever, because that one
child will also have children. And high tech is correlated with
low birth rate. And if we ever do overpopulate, we can always make
a rule like anyone who uses life extension has to move into space.
As far as ethical concerns from specific medical practices, I think
we will have to work those out as they arise. Medical ethics are
very touchy and depend heavily on the surrounding society, and I
do not think anyone can make any universal pronouncements.
What do you think will be the military benefits of nanotechnology?
Will there be a new arms race with nano-weapons? Who would be the
Again, I have to give two different answers, one for nanoscale technology,
and the other for molecular nanotechnology. Nanoscale technology
will be integrated into systems, providing smaller and more efficient
sensors, stronger materials, and generally making weapons slowly
MNT will be truly disruptive. It will provide both a rapid-prototyping
system that can make complete products in a matter of hours, and
a portable manufacturing system that will allow any design to be
built faster than it could be shipped from a warehouse. The same
unit would do both, so there would be no retooling to scale up production,
and the prototypes would be extremely cheap. So new weapons could
be designed extremely fast; you could build an airplane in the morning,
test-fly it in the afternoon, pull an all-nighter fixing the problems,
and build the improved model tomorrow. Once the design was done,
thousands or millions could be built in a day. And the incredible
compactness of nanoscale parts in a human-scale product will let
you build almost anything you can design. In military terms, MNT
will be an incredible force multiplier, probably enough to implement
a full-scale ballistic missile shield pretty quickly.
It would be very difficult for each side to know what the other
side had. It would be hard to be confident of retaining a temporary
advantage. So I think this would be unstable, and an arms race would
quickly turn into a shooting war - with incredibly advanced weapons.
The opponents could be any two countries that did not trust each
other and had an MNT capability; it could be almost anyone.
One alternative to an unstable arms race is a preemptive strike
by whoever achieves MNT first, to knock the others back far enough
that they cannot develop MNT at all. But this implies that that
strategy should be preempted by whoever has enough nukes and discovers
an MNT program elsewhere about to succeed. And the current policy
of denial in the USA and Europe could mean that Western nations
are not even in the running to develop MNTbut they do have
a lot of nukes. So my biggest concern about MNT is that it will
lead straight into an oppressive and destructive worldwide power
What should governments do to prevent a misuse of nanotechnology
in the above mentioned fields?
The implication of my answer to question 10, about the arms race,
is that national governments trying to protect themselves will end
up abusing the technology, using it to oppress or fight the whole
rest of the world as they try to keep themselves safe. There is
a theory that says nuclear weapons were a stabilizing force once
we got enough of them to make war unthinkable, but MNT is less stable
than nukes on several counts. It is hard to detect and verify; it
will rapidly get easier to develop and use; and the effects of MNT
weapons can be far more selective than nukes.
So I think that somehow we need to have an international administration
of MNT that allows countries to feel safe from attack. It would
not have to be a world government; it could be something like the
International Atomic Energy Agency, only with more power to inspect
and enforce MNT-related policies. Note that this is something that
national governments cannot do individually; they have to take a
step back and allow the creation of an entity without national loyalties,
and allow that entity to inspect their labs and whatever else is
needed to short-circuit the arms race. I think it should be technically
possible for industrial and even military secrets to be maintained
in such a system. But I do not know if it is politically possible.
If we manage to avoid massive military conflict, then civilian use
of MNT will have to be managed, not just by government, but by several
different styles of organization. Governments cannot develop commerce
in detail; the Soviet Union tried that, and it does not work. And
neither government nor commerce can really handle the free copying
of information, as in the Open Source software movement, because
that is inherently unregulated. The most they can do is try to control
it, and that only works a little bit. So there are at least three
different styles of dealing with high tech like computers or MNT.
You can regulate it for security; that's government. You can trade
resources; that is commercial. And you can maximize the benefit
of stuff that is too cheap to meter, like Open Source does. Take
away any of these, and the system will either stagnate or run wild.
Please specify (if not mentioned above), what are the greatest
benefits resulting from nanotechnology? the greatest dangers?
I mentioned some of this, but I should summarize. Nanoscale technology
does not have any really stunning benefits or dangers. It is mostly
just extensions of existing technologies. There may be a medical
breakthrough here and a toxic chemical there, but we can handle
these with the structure we have now.
Molecular nanotechnology will be disruptively powerful, on both
the positive and the negative side. I like to ask questions like:
when all our jobs disappear, will we be retired - or unemployed?
MNT benefits include cleaner manufacturing and more ecological living,
including workable solar energy; greatly improved health; rapid
development of manufacturing and information infrastructure in impoverished
areas; cheap and clean access to space; information access for even
the poorest people; and all the social benefits that go along with
I should mention gray goo, since it is in the media a lot. I do
not see gray goo as a pressing danger for several reasons. First,
it would be very hard to design and inherently inefficient: it will
not happen by accident, since no useful product or manufacturing
system would include anything like the accumulation of functionality
needed for free-range self-replication. Second, it is not even a
good weapon - even harder to target than biological weapons, and
far less efficient than non-replicating destructive weapons. Eventually,
we do have to worry about it, since eventually the technology could
be easy enough that a hobbyist, nihilist, or terrorist might develop
it. But even in that case, there is some good news. It turns out
that an exponentially replicating goo can be wiped out by a constant
population of hunter bots; when I get some time I will write up
a paper on the math, but basically it rests on the fact that the
time to find the next goo-bot is much longer than the time to kill
it, and is inversely proportional to the population.
Other MNT dangers include economic disruption from cheap products
or artificially inflated prices; criminal or terrorist use; social
disruption from new products or even lifestyles; and collective
environmental damage from powerful products used irresponsibly.
In addition, bad policy can lead to abusive restrictions, or to
a black market - which would increase several of the other risks.
Attempts at relinquishing the technology would definitely count
as bad policy.
We have several pages of discussion about benefits and risks of
MNT on our web site, http://CRNano.org.
Nikos Nikolidakis, Free University Berlin, 2003 Fall