This section looks into some of the research being
done in nanotechnology. It focuses on Zyvex,
which is a molecular nanotechnology company. They explain what they
do on this page. This site happens to be an excellent resource as
well, with many useful links, like the one to Engines Of Creation,
an online book by K. Eric Drexler (1986), and MIT's Technology Review,
a magazine that discusses nanotechnology.
To summarize what you will find on that fairly technical
site: with the ability to manipulate individual atoms, you can manufacture
just about anything. As the site says, by manipulating water, air,
and dirt atoms, you can make potatoes.
Figuring out how to do this, of course, is not trivial.
It requires new technologies. One of these, self-replication,
which allows the manufactured object to multiply - creating more of
itself. For macro-scale manufacturing, this is not so critical - manufacturing
a thousand widgets is not more difficult than manufacturing ten. But
nanotechnology, which requires precise manufacturing of millions
and millions of microscopic devices, relies on self-replication to
work. Each device would make a copy of itself, with the same function.
Self-replication is not a new idea. Consider this quote
from the Zyvex
Fortunately, we are surrounded and inspired by products
that are marvelously complex and yet very inexpensive. Potatoes, for
example, are made by intricate molecular machines involving tens of
thousands of genes, proteins, and other molecular components; yet
the result costs so little that we think nothing of mashing this biological
wonder and eating it.
It's easy to see why potatoes and other agricultural
products are so cheap: put a potato in a little moist dirt, provide
it with some air and sunlight, and we get more potatoes. In short,
potatoes are self replicating.
In biology, self-replication is simply reproduction
in lower life forms, such as bacteria. Therefore, researchers are looking
to biology for examples of practical self-replication. Software self-replication
also exists - in the form of a computer virus, or worm. Many of these
programs affect a specific computer, and then use the information in
that computer (like a database of e-mail addresses) to spread to other
computers. The high level of interconnectivity of the Internet makes
this a real problem. Nevertheless, this technology as well may be used
by nanotech researchers for inspiration.
In conclusion, nanotechnology is a developing field
that is rapidly moving forward. The implications can be scary, but
they can also be tremendously beneficial. Whatever the case may be,
nanotechnology will certainly change the way we look at the world