Des Forges Interviews Sander Olson
Why have you chosen molecular nanotechnology
as your career?
Molecular nanotechnology has the potential
to transform almost everyone's life. Molecular nanotechnology
encompasses a series of disparate technologies which are starting
to converge. This process will continue and accelerate during
the coming decade, providing myriad opportunities for individuals
from all walks of life.
What's your involvement with nanotechnology at the moment?
I am involved in a company called NanoApex
(www.NanoApex.com) that is focused on the burgeoning field
of molecular nanotechnology. I have also written a number
of articles on the computer and semiconductor industries,
which are pushing "top-down" approaches to nanotechnology.
What nanotechnology news has got you really excited?
Why was it so exciting?
I am particularly intrigued by the
concept of molecular self-assembly. Scientists and researchers
have succeeded in producing simple, uniform structures through
molecular self-assembly, and theses techniques appear to be
scalable. Molecular self-assembly, which is extensively used
by all life forms, might be used to create high-density memory
chips, sophisticated sensors, or novel materials. The critical
question is whether complex molecular assembly approaches
can be cost-effectively combined with conventional manufacturing
techniques to create superior products.
What nanoproducts interest you? Is there any nanoproduct you
think will be on the market in the next year or two that will
have real impact on the world?
I do not believe that any commercial
product incorporating any legitimate nanotechnology - functioning
complex nanoscale components such as wires, motors, switches,
and sensors - will arrive on the market for at least another
decade. Currently, corporations are using "nanotechnology"
primarily as a marketing term, and are misleading consumers
by claiming that their products incorporate some form of nanotechnology.
During the next decade we will need to develop a scientific
and technological infrastructure that will facilitate manipulating
and exploiting nanoscale phenomena.
What is your view on the concept of
I believe that the Government should
fund a study to determine if molecular assemblers, as envisioned
by Eric Drexler, could ever become feasible. Currently, the
majority of scientists appear to be sceptical of the concept,
and a few have openly stated that mass-producing molecular
assemblers is effectively impossible. But there has yet to
be any truly scientific study that has conclusively debunked
the concept of molecular assemblers, and Drexler's book Nanosystems
has clearly shown that molecular assemblers are theoretically
possible. If molecular assembler paradigm is intrinsically
unworkable, then the Government would be doing a service to
the scientific community by proving it.
Some suggest that nanotechnology has a star material in the
form of carbon nanotubes. Do you think nanotubes show promise?
Is it possible we will have revolutionary products made with
nanotubes before the assembler viability question is resolved?
I believe that carbon nanotubes show
enormous promise. Carbon nanotubes are in a similar situation
to transistors in the early 1950's - they are available, but
they are expensive. As the cost of making nanotubes plummets,
and manufacturers become better at precisely controlling the
properties and chirality of the nanotubes, a "nanotube
industry" should emerge. I believe that products made
from materials embedded with nanotubes should arrive in the
marketplace within the next decade.
Do you think ethical considerations should play a part in
shaping the development of nanotechnology? How come?
I do not believe that ethical considerations
should be paramount at this point. We don't know what is feasible
or even possible, and we cannot come up with appropriate legislation
until we understand the ways in which these advanced technologies
could affect society. Any legislation would at this point
be premature. I do, however, support the basic guidelines
that the Foresight institute has created.
Nanotech commentators tell us that we should be prepared for
upcoming rapid changes. How can one best prepare?
There is little that the average person
can do to prepare for rapid technological changes. However,
individuals with a basic knowledge of computers, biology,
and chemistry will be better able to comprehend the nature
of the changes that are coming.
Associated with nanotech is the idea of the Singularity. The
idea is that within a decade or two change will be accelerating
so rapidly as to reach a tsunami-like crescendo. That is,
one day the world will be utterly transformed such that by
the end of the day we will be living in a new age. What are
your thoughts on this idea?
I've spoken with a number of AI experts
and nanotechnology researchers, and there seems to be a consensus
that one will bring about the other relatively quickly. Singularity
proponents believe that if AI researchers ever find a way
to create and program a sentient machine, then that machine
will create smarter machines, which in turn will create even
more intelligent machines. Some ultra-intelligent machine
will then design and perfect either molecular assemblers or
nanofactories. Similarly, nanotechnology enthusiasts believe
that advanced nanotechnology will bring about genuine machine
intelligence. It does seem likely that a breakthrough in one
field will lead to rapid advances in the other. But I still
see this process taking several decades. What transformations
would result from such breakthroughs is anybody's guess.
Does nanotechnology scare you? Some commentators talk about
dangers of advanced nanotech. Others imply there are more
dangers in not developing technology as quickly as possible.
Where do you think dangers lurk?
I believe that the benefits that result
from developing new technologies almost always outweigh the
dangers. The greatest dangers often result from ignorance.
Genetically modified food provides an excellent example of
the harm that can result from well-intentioned but ignorant
and misinformed individuals. Genetically modified foods are
safe, and could potentially prevent millions of deaths from
starvation and malnourishment. But some want a comprehensive
ban on all GM foods, simply because they are deemed "unnatural".
Irrational fears from misinformed individuals could do more
damage than any particular technology.
If an intelligent person who knew nothing of nano asked you
for the best single introductory article on the web, what
would you recommend? Which book would you recommend?
a single introduction to nanotechnology, I would recommend
an article by Ralph Merkle:http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/MITtecRvwSmlWrld/article.html
called "It's a small, small, small, small world".
I think an excellent book on nanotechnology is Mark Ratner's
"Nanotechnology: A gentle introduction to the next big
You're interested in computing. What's exciting for you in
the computing world these days?
I am particularly excited about the
potential of molecular computing. A decade ago, the concept
of using molecules as switches, gates, and memory cells seemed
ludicrous to most researchers. Now even conservative corporations
like Intel and IBM are claiming that the switch to post-CMOS
computing at some point during the next several decades is
almost inevitable. Molecular computing could allow the trends
of "smaller, faster, cheaper" in computing to continue
for at least the next twenty years.
much scepticism do you encounter about nano? Who is it from?
How do you deal with it?
actually encounter more confusion than scepticism. Many people
are befuddled by nanotechnology; they aren't sure what to
make of it. The casual and often inaccurate descriptions of
nanotechnology in much mainstream journalism has not clarified
the situation. I generally begin explanations of nanotechnology
by describing the size of a nanometer, and then proceed from
would you feel if nanotechnology simply did not fulfil its
promise, and very little came of it?
nanotechnology does not have a major impact on the world,
I will be both surprised and disappointed. Nanotechnology
is really just an extrapolation of trends that have been active
for centuries. During the past several centuries, humankind
has become increasingly adept at manipulating matter at smaller
and smaller scales.
Nanotechnology, which is really about the manipulation of
individual molecules, is really just a natural extension of
these long-term trends. I am convinced that humanity will
benefit in myriad ways from nanotechnology, although the full
flowering of nanotechnology won't happen for several decades.
You recently attended a Foresight conference. What stands
out from that?
latest Foresight conference was different from earlier Foresight
gatherings because the focus of this meeting was almost exclusively
advanced nanotechnology. Earlier conferences were less focused,
and accepted a broader definition of nanotechnology. There
were also conference presenters who argued that desktop nanofactories
could become a reality within a decade. Such optimism was
not discernable at earlier Foresight conferences.
Copyright © 2004 Jason Des Forges