Soapbox Post

I received an e-mail invitation from Chris Peterson at the Foresight Institute in early April to attend the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Nanotechnology and Microtechnology conference that month in Mesa, Arizona. The generous offer was too sweet to pass up: attend the conference, write a blog, and my registration fees would be waived. I jumped at the chance. 


Here I offer my reflections on some of the highlights of the presentation by Dr. J. Storrs Hall of the Foresight Institute, entitled "Feynman's Pathway to Nanomanufacturing," and the panel discussion that followed, “How Do We Get There from Here?”  Discussions such as these are crucial opportunities to reflect on – and potentially shape – emerging technologies whose destinies are often left to be determined by “market forces.”  Keep in mind that the conference attendees were mostly nanomanufacturing engineers who work and think at the forefront - and beyond - of emerging nanoscience and technology.   


Dr. Hall began with an intriguing argument: Feynman's top-down approach to reaching the nano scale in manufacturing, achieved through a step-down method of replicating and miniaturizing an entire, fully-equipped machine shop in 1:4 scale over and over would yield countless benefits to science, engineering, and manufacturing at each step. 


These microscopic, tele-manipulated master-slave “Waldos” (named after Heinlein's 1942 story Waldo) would get nanotechnology back on track by focusing on machines and manufacturing, since most of our current emphasis is on science at the nano scale.  Feynman's top-down approach to nanoscale manufacturing is missing from the Foresight Institute's roadmap, according to Hall, “for political reasons.” This raises a fundamental point: science and technology cannot develop independent of the political and social spheres, which pose as many challenges as the technology.  Many would argue that social and technological processes are inseparable and treating them otherwise borders on folly.  I commend Dr. Hall for offering his argument.  It soon became clear that the panelists who joined him after his presentation disagreed.


Technoscientific development is difficult to direct and nearly impossible to predict.  Because of this - not in spite of it – panel discussions like "How Do We Get There From Here?" are crucial: they allow us to speculate, imagine, and contest claims and predictions about emerging technologies.  However, planning and debating are only part of the picture.  As Dr. Hall aptly noted it's not dispassionate calculations but “serendipity: the way science always works.”


On the panel, Tihamer Toth-Fejel (from General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems) countered Hall by arguing that no funding exists for the incremental steps proposed by Feynman and the knowledge or potential products and processes gained from each stage would not be sufficient to finance the next step down.  He took the decidedly “engineer” approach to problem-solving as the driving factor toward the nano scale and argued that we should try to accomplish the goal of nanoscale manufacturing by traversing the shortest distance between top-down and bottom-up.  He argued that we must be able to demonstrate to investors that we can accomplish an 18-month payoff if we are to have any hope of funding this adventure.  Joining the debate, David Keenan (Small Technology Consulting, who had, earlier that morning, given an overview of recent or imminent market breakthroughs in nanotechnology in his presentation) made a cogent argument for the need to restructure our current pedagogical approaches toward educating future engineers if we are to tackle the “hurdles, bottlenecks, and next generation of cross-disciplinary challenges” around nano.  This tack is especially salient if we are to shape the way we think about approaching engineering at the nano scale. 


One provocative statement by Dr. Hall during his earlier talk was, “If we would have taken Feynman's advice back then, we'd have nanobots today.”  This is akin to stating that, in my humble view, had we followed Feynman's advice we'd have the contents of the Library of Congress written on the back of a postage stamp.  Both might be possible but statements like this perplex me: On the one hand they are moot and on the other, meaningless without a line of additional follow-up questions.  Yes, we are capable of nanowriting but in 2010, with networked digital computing and e-readers, who among us would opt for an electron microscope and Feynman's postage stamp library?  The problem is we are aiming at a moving target in a changing landscape. 


That said, it can be valuable (if not necessary) to imagine alternatives and create space for multiple possibilities as we create new devices, processes, and knowledge.  In this light, we could ask "If we had followed Feynman's advice and accomplished his 'step-down' scaling, how might we be better and/or worse off than we are today?"   Let's discuss.


Note: The views and opinions expressed above are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University, Arizona State University, or the National Science Foundation.  The author would like to thank Chris Peterson and the Foresight Institute for providing him access to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers Nanomanufacturing conference at no cost.



About the Author:  Dave Conz is an assistant research professor at CSPO and a lecturer in ASU’s School of Letters and Sciences.
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