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Guest Writer - Gastautor - Gast Schrijver

Jason Des Forges

plenty of room down there…
nano talk from New Zealand


Jason 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 molecular assemblers?

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?

For 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 idea."


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.

How much scepticism do you encounter about nano? Who is it from? How do you deal with it?

I 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 there.

How would you feel if nanotechnology simply did not fulfil its promise, and very little came of it?

If 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?

The 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

Jason Des Forges

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