Friday, September 11, 2009

Trope-ing the light fantastic (nanotech & replicators, part I)

Nanotech a trope? Say it ain't so!

In fact, I'm not saying that. Nanotech is quite real, an up-and-coming revolution in how we will build most everything. Last year I said that in a lot more detail in two science articles, "Follow the Nanobrick Road" in Analog and "The Old Gray Goo, It Aint't What It Used to Be" in the The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Both articles resulted from my attendance at a 2007 conference, Productive Nanosystems: Launching the Technology Roadmap. I was at the conference merely as a journalist (and multitasking by gathering research for a future book). If you want to know much more, here's a link to the 200-page overview pdf.

The interesting attendees were nanotech luminaries across government, academia, and industry. They were there to publically release their vision of where nanotech is going -- or perhaps more precisely, where they are taking it. One highly visible organizer and speaker was K. Eric Drexler, whose 1986 science popularization The Engines of Creation brought nanotech into the popular culture. (The 1987 paperback edition still does respectable business on Amazon.)

We already have materials with nanotech aspects, even if sometimes used in comparatively trivial applications like sunscreens (exploiting really tiny particles of zinc oxide) and golf clubs (made lighter and more flexible by the use of carbon nanotubes in the shaft's composite material). The steady march of Moore's Law means electronics will be nanoscaled any day now. And over the next few decades, expect to see commercial nanotech steadily progressing from nanomaterials to:
  • nanocomponents (like motors, pumps, and bearings), to
  • functional nanosystems (combinations of nanocomponents), to
  • atomically precise productive nanosystems (nanoscale systems able to produce other nanoscale systems), to
  • (not my term -- it's way too clunky) scaled, atomically precise, productive nanosystem array systems (swarms of nanoscale manufacturing devices that cooperate to build macroscale objects).
And here is where we segue from tech to trope. Stay tuned for our next exciting installment ...

(And that neat image? It's a simulated nanogear, each dot being an atom, from the online gallery of Nanorex.)


Catreona said...

I read the Analog article, of course. Thing is, nanotech has become a trope, and even something of an overused, tired trope in a remarkably short time. For a while there you couldn't pick up Analog or Asimov's without reading at least one story that involved nanobots, bot swarms, and the like. That fad seems to have passed, for now, and the current hot trope seems to be AI/sentient houses.

Hmmm... Nanotech and RFID's are a natural pairing. And even the most cursory thought of the consequences of such a pairing is extremely scary. To use your example: RFID's could be introduced into that bottle of sun screen and the person who uses it could then be minutely traced. Also cosmetics, for those who use such things. And why not toothpaste? Your dentist could keep tabs on how often you really do brush your teeth and perhaps monitor whether you're developing cavities. RFID's in toilet paper and Kleenex could help your GP monitor your health... It would be so easy to make the case that nanotech partnered with RFID's are beneficial that the combo could become eubicquitous(sp?) before we realized just exactly how all pervasive and how dangerous it was.

*scratches head* I wonder what the political consequences would be? A sufficiently skilled writer (not me) could get a complex, sophisticated and very scary novel out of these ideas. Pity you're so busy...

Edward M. Lerner said...

Happily, I don't think nanites lend themselves to radio-based comm. Radio waves are a LOT bigger than nanometers.

Catreona said...

Humph. Of course they are. Sorry.

But, you know, there are microwave communications, aren't there? I'm sure a sufficiently determined, diabolical intelligence could find a way. Bad guys always seem to find a way...

Edward M. Lerner said...

Microwaves are too long for nanotech. The magic formula is:

speed of light = frequency * wavelength

Microwaves are centimeters long. That's why the holes in the mesh of your oven door don't let out microwaves.

For a 100 nm wavelength, the corresponding frequency is about 300 terahertz. We're talking X-rays.

I think you're safe. It'd be quite the trick to justify bathing the populace in X-rays to spy on them.

Catreona said...

LOL Yes, probably safe. I doubt if even Lex Luthor could find a way around that difficulty.

Thanks for the Physics lesson, Ed. I'm pretty good on conceptualization, not so good on anything involving actual numbers.