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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 use nanotechnology?

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 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 answer.

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 11.

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 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 them.

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 dung—but 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 opponents?

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 more effective.

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 MNT—but 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 grab.

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 these.

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,

Nikos Nikolidakis, Free University Berlin, 2003 Fall intern