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Updated on May 4, 2009
Nanotechnology: Think factories, only on the molecular scale
Nanotechnology: Think factories, only on the molecular scale

Making Good Technology Smaller

When great visionaries and pillars of Science Fiction looked into the future from times long since past, many of them saw an interesting trend, not toward smaller and smaller components in the electronics we use in everyday life, but toward a "mega-ization" of technology. The belief that "bigger is better" was pretty widely held, and even such writers as Isaac Asimov saw our modern day as the home of gigantic supercomputers in the form of entire sprawling metropolises dedicated to data storage and processing, or hundred-mile-long neural networks, like a giant brain, that would connect people, monitor their conversations, and even act as a high-voltage "think tank". But time has taught us otherwise: gigantic constructs such as those mentioned above waste both space and resources, two important things, of which it has become abundantly clear, especially in recent decades, that are finite; they will be consumed, used up, and in some cases, even polluted, if not by this generation then by some future, leaving only the question of how distant that dark, crowded, and resourceless future may be.

This is, of course, just one of the many reasons electronics (and indeed many other things in our everyday life) have become steadily smaller. As technology has gotten more complex, more advanced, and more versatile, it has also shrunk, allowing normal, everyday people to easily carry all sorts of combination devices, from camera cell-phones to MP3 player radios and everything in between, while saving resources (and incidentally space) in the process. Oh sure, to some degree, Asimov's brain model was bang on, if you consider that it might be compared to the internet; miles and miles of fiberoptic cable that connect people across the globe at steadily increasing speeds (as 56ker's steadily further and further into the middle of nowhere are updated to broadband) confer millions of thoughts, ideas and, granted, a lot of useless garbage, across the world every hour, all encapsulated within a network that is just as easily accessed from the place it was created, as it would be on the other side of the globe. But, while this network could be seen as an exception -for now at least; when the technology can be made smaller, who knows? Just look at the exciting trend toward wireless!- the seemingly universal trend to "nano-ize" is plain to see, and it's safe to say that things are only going to get smaller. A classic example of this is, of course, Nanotechnology. Now, granted, we're still in the very early stages of utilizing and designing, much less building such technologies (we're somewhere between concept and experimentation, almost like the dawning of a new day) but everything scientists have seen thus far leads us to believe that it's a very real (and potentially very useful) new way of bringing about what could very well be the next industrial revolution, having incredible, long-standing repercussions for nearly every field imaginable. Imagine, within the next ten years, Nanotechnology could become advanced enough to allow the creation of some incredibly useful microscopic chemical factories. A single injection could all-but cure diabetes and a host of other chemical imbalance disorders, while researchers working on specially engineered synthetic antibodies could be racing to be the first to push their product through the FDA, sporting valid claims that these "nano-biotics" are capable of curing not only the common cold, but such pernicious and deadly diseases as AIDS and currently uncurable forms of Hepatitis. Fifty years from now, Nano-technology could very well be part of everyday life, tinkering with our bodies in amazing and as yet unthought of ways, restoring currently cryofrozen humans to life, and even, very likely, allowing us to finally cheat death by reversing or eliminating the aging process. Such advancements could lead to a whole new era in intellectual thought, as the up and coming generation of writers, artists, musicians, professors, scientists and philosophers are given an extra handful of centuries (or perhaps more, who knows!) to ponder, create, and discuss issues whose nature we can now only blindly guess at. Sound like Science Fiction? Maybe, but a lot of scientists think it's a perfectly reasonable estimate, and that many of us will live to see some truly astounding things come out of labs working on Nanotechnological devices.

Perhaps the most critical difference between Nanotechnology and what might be referred to as "modern technology" is that it requires a different way of thinking to truly comprehend. When someone says "small," or "tiny," we think something about the size of an ant, or a flea; when someone says "Microscopic" we think of cells, but Nanotechnology is smaller yet- In K. Eric Drexler's ground-breaking 1986 book, Engines of Creation, he speaks of construction at a level beyond that, at the atomic level, that is, creating "machines" atom by atom, not in the huge, classic sense, by spraying surfaces with atoms to get incredibly-thin layers (a process known as molecular beam epitaxy) but by assembling individual atoms like blocks, snapping them together to create "nano-factories" and new, synthetic molecules with very specific functions (i.e. repairing damaged DNA to solve gene-related health-problems or even reverse aging.)

But Nanotechnology has many profound and important applications beyond healthcare and chemical synthesis- The ability to rearrange individual atoms or put them together in any way we choose (within the limits of physics, of course) allows not only the conversion of one element to another, (think alchemy; lead [or anything else, for that matter] being turned to gold) but also, quite possibly, the creation of new elements that don't naturally occur on Earth (at least, not that we've seen so far.) Beyond that, sufficiently advanced Nanotechnology would also provide us with the means to manufacture an incredible assortment of atom assembling machines, indeed molecular factories that are smaller than a cell, designed to work at speeds we can only as yet imagine. There's also the potential to make new materials that are both stronger and lighter than any of those in use today, making titanium, spider silk and tungsten carbide "second best" in their respective aspects.

The majority, if not all scientists working feverishly to usher in a new era of excellence, in both thought and health, as well as other important areas of our lives as humans through the furthering of our knowledge of (and therefore our ability to truly reap the tremendous benefits of) Nanotechnology agree that the impact of such technologies will, in our lifetimes, create a sort of revolution akin to the discovery of electricity, stone tools, or even the beginning of human thought itself. The possibilities for this technology are limitless, books could be written (and have been written!) on simply the potential it carries for both the individual and society as a whole and once Nanotechnology picks up enough steam to reach it's proverbial peak, the human race is likely to be brought forth into a new era that rivals Aristotle's idea of Eudaimonia; A period where sickness is a thing of the past, where resources can be replicated by being built from the ground up at the atomic level using otherwise unusable material, where great thinkers can continue to contribute to society for generations, and where time is an endless prospect.


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