DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 17-November-1999

New World

Molecule computing

JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


n the next decade, possibly within the next five years, we will finally enter the realm of the real computer revolution. Scientists at Yale and Rice Universities, as well as scientists working at Hewlett-Packard laboratories, have announced substantive breakthroughs in the development of digital "switches" and "wires" that operate at the molecular level.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this breakthrough. What we've seen all along has been little better than stone tools in comparison to what appears to be just around the corner. The computing world is about to step into the realm of Nanotechnology.

In 1986, a young physicist named K. Eric Drexler published a book called The Engines of Creation. In it, he discussed the concept of a new technological process called "molecular nanotechnology." The term was novel, although the idea had existed on the edges of physics and chemistry since the early 1970's. But what Drexler suggested was nothing short of revolutionary: in the future, everything would be constructed molecule by molecule, allowing for extraordinary precision and efficiency, and creating a new industry of molecular machines to do everything from clean up the environment to fight disease.

What's more, that future was potentially within the lifetimes of many of the readers.

What makes nanotechnology distinct is that it looks at industrial engineering from what is essentially a biological perspective. Rather than taking a hunk of metal and cutting away parts to turn it into a cog wheel (for example), a nanotechnological approach would "grow" that gear by building it molecule by molecule.

If this sounds ludicrous, consider that this is how all living things are made, from the smallest bacteria to the largest redwood tree: molecule by molecule, controlled by the biological "computer" called DNA.

In a similar fashion, the computing systems under development would not be constructed at multi-billion dollar fabrication facilities (the way modern computer chips are built), but instead grown in vats, self-assembled using sophisticated biochemistry.

Such chemical processes are far less expensive and far easier to handle than current methods of chip manufacture, and the resulting nanochips would be cheaper and potentially more reliable than silicon.

Furthermore, there would be far less waste. A significant percentage of microprocessors are declared "dead" right off the assembly line, due to failures of the silicon processing; the biochemical methods of constructing nanochips, conversely, would be far more "fault-tolerant", and able to internally route around non-functional components.

If this nanotech method of building computers lives up to its promise, systems far more powerful than anything seen today -- and far smaller -- could be produced as easily as a roll of camera film.

This would be a fundamental reshaping of the world, for it would allow -- it would demand -- that molecular computers be embedded in everything.

All materials would become "smart" materials. The walls of your home, your appliances, even your clothing could easily and inexpensively be made with molecular computers built right in. These in turn could talk to embedded sensors, control the shape of the material, even allow them to function as multimedia devices. Devices for internal medicine would allow monitoring and analysis of your physical condition from within the body itself.

What's just as revolutionary is the realization that the process of constructing complex information tools at the molecular level is not limited to computers. Using biochemistry to build sophisticated devices is a technique that has very broad applications. Everything that we can touch in the world is made up of molecules. There will come a point where it will cheaper and easier to grow physical products bit by bit rather than build them from the "top down".

Nanotechnology is to the physical world what the Internet is to information. It is a tool for self-organization, a means to the development of novel combinations, a method of building sophisticated large structures from the bottom up. Biochemistry is a broadly-understood, straightforward realm of engineering. Molecular nanotechnology has the potential to be fertile ground for "garage" start-ups, much as with the Internet economy today.

This broad similarity between today's Internet economy and the near-future nanotech economy should give one pause. In the Internet economy, the abundance of information means that much of it is free, and companies that try to charge for information find that their profit margins are squeezed, and that they have to constantly produce novel and unique information "goods" in order to stay profitable.

In some countries, inflation has given way to deflation, as competitive pressure drives down the prices of information-based goods. One result of this is a high turnover and "churn" in the workplace, where information workers are hired and let go with startling speed.

What happens when the same pressures start to hit the world of physical manufacturing? What happens when all you need to build something is a talented biochem programmer and a vat of raw chemicals? Or -- further down the line -- a talented biochem program and a machine to pull carbon directly from the atmosphere? What does it mean to the world if goods could be manufactured and distributed as easily as information is today?

What does it mean for global economies? What does it mean for your job?

Most of us alive today will know the answers to these questions. Sooner than we think. Sooner, in fact, than we may be ready for.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 17-November-1999

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley