Thus far, the rise of the Internet has been the biggest technological driver of change that has occurred in my lifetime. Though the transition seemed gradual, almost everything has been touched by the Internet in some way. Communication, entertainment, and even shopping have changed completely. There was a time not that long ago when you couldn’t instantly find an answer to pretty well any question. Today, we act as if the world of information at our fingertips has always been there. But it wasn’t.
So, I think it’s difficult to overestimate the impact that the Internet has had on people’s lives, even if its incremental creep and our hedonic adjustments made it harder to notice. But even so, I think the Internet likely won’t be the biggest technological driver of change in my lifetime. I think that title will go to nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology is about engineering systems work on an extremely small scale, even at the level of molecules and atoms. You’ve probably read stories where the main character gets shrunk to a microscopic size and then starts mucking around with molecules or is injected into a human body. Well, that’s what nanotechnology is about, except without the shrinking.
If you can build tiny machines, then potentially you can design systems on a molecular scale to do amazing things, such as molecules designed for specific applications. For instance, you could create a molecule that is super light but has a high tensile strength, enabling you to create buildings and airplanes that are not possible to build today. You can build substances that convert light into energy, creating more efficient solar panels.
Think about how computers developed. We started with extremely simple electronics, basic “AND”, “OR”, and “NOT” gates. An AND gate has two inputs and one output. If both input are triggered, the output is triggered. Otherwise, if one or no inputs are triggered, the output is not triggered. Similarly, an OR gate will be triggered if either one of its inputs are triggered.
This seems very basic, and not that useful, but from these simple mechanics, you can start to develop machines that can do things like add numbers and perform logical operations.
But who wants to deal with all those AND and OR gates all the time? It’s so messy. So the designers of these machines added a level of abstraction, so that instead of programming gates, programmers could just say “add 4 and 3”. The machine itself would convert “add 4 and 3” to the AND and OR gate operations to calculate the answer. The additional level of abstraction made it much easier and faster to tell the machine what to do.
Then on top of that level of abstraction, they added another, and another, and another. Until finally we ended up with a very high-level language where a programmer could simply say, “open a window at the top right corner of my screen”. It seems complicated, but it’s all just multiple levels of abstraction on top of these really basic gates.
Applying the model to nanotechnology
So what happens when you apply this model to nanotechnology? Well, you start out by looking for your equivalent of AND and OR gates, the basic tools on which everything else rests.
This is where we are now. Research scientists and engineers are trying to work out many of the core tools to manipulate small particles. Ideally, they’ll end up with a toolkit enabling them to easily design and build small machines. For instance, we’ll want a tool for joining two molecules together and another tool to identify a particular molecular pattern.
Once they’ve got a broad enough toolset, they’ll add a level of abstraction to things, to make it easier and faster to perform the common nanotechnology tasks. And then they’ll add another on top of that, and so on.
Soon, they’ll have enough abstraction to easily “program” molecules to complete a particularly task. For instance, suppose that you have a tool that can find a particular sequence within DNA another that can splice a sequence out, and another to add in a new sequence. Then, you can write a program that combines these tools to create a particle that edits DNA to get rid of the bits responsible for hereditary diseases.
The most exciting idea is that with enough abstraction, they should be able to make tiny programmable factories to allow you to create any molecule or series of molecules that you desire.
It could be just like 3D printing, but on a molecular level. If video piracy causes consternation now, just imagine how unhappy the pharmaceutical companies will be when the pill they are trying to charge $1000 daily for can be easily printed in your molecular factory for a nickel.
Real applications today
Today, we’re pretty early in revolution. One of the few nanotechnologies you’ve actually been exposed to is anti-stain fabrics in clothing. Several layers of positively and negatively charged particles on the surface of the fabric repel many other substances, making them much more resistant to stains.
Some sunscreens now use nanotechnology. They are transparent, easier to spread, and more effective than traditional sunscreens.
Carbon nanotubes are the strongest and stiffest substance yet created because of the high number of bonds between carbon atoms. Thus, they are already used in relatively down-to-earth applications like baseball bats, tennis rackets, and golf clubs. But there is speculation that they could also be used in more imaginative ways, like building a space elevator (literally an elevator to space–a long carbon nanotube rope to space that an elevator goes up and down.)
The longer term
Over the long term, nanotechnology has the potential to enable massive biological enhancements. Perhaps nanomachines can be created that seek out and destroy a particular type of cancer cell in your body. A single injection could cure cancer. In general, since so many medical problems can be narrowed down to “find bad stuff in the body and remove it” or “find broken stuff in the body and mend it”, nanotechnology should have a huge impact on medicine.
But the potential goes beyond medical needs. ATP is the main source of energy for your muscles. It’s depleted when you exercise and regenerated by oxygen delivered by your red blood cells. Perhaps you can use nanomachines to make the delivery of oxygen more efficient. Or even directly manufacture ATP for your muscles. You could exercise without becoming tired. Or if you want to go all the way, just skip the biological muscles, and replace them with more efficient muscles designed out of some nano material.
The bottom line
Of course, I’ve just touched the surface of the potential of nanotechnology. I think in the end, nanotechnology will allow us to create almost anything imaginable within the bounds of physics. Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age novel explores some of the uses of this technology, and is well worth reading.