What happened to nanotechnology?

Ten years ago I was doing quite a lot of thinking about the future of nanotechnology. Strangely though, even then, it was already over.

I first came across the idea when I was at school and reading everything I could get my hands on by Richard Feynman. Back in 1959 he gave a talk called “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”. The most famous quote is perhaps:

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.

Technology then sped ahead and many of the things that Feynman had predicted became possible — including in 1990 a team at IBM using a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope to position individual Xenon atoms to spell “IBM”. In the 1990s and early 2000s the idea started to spill into popular science led in particular by an MIT researcher who had a knack for communicating the subject — Eric Drexler. His book Engines of Creation (actually published in 1986) and all the public speaking and interviews he did raised the prospect of molecular machines, of cars and buildings made of diamond and the ‘everything box’ which would enable us to manufacture whatever we liked at home.

Then, in Europe at least, the genetic modification debate happened and there was a sense that nano could be the next technology to face a backlash. And Eric Drexler sort of disappeared. This Wired piece from 2004 paints a picture of a man pushed out of the field he helped to popularise. I’d got a sense of that the year before when I was at a conference about the implications of nanotechnology and found out that the organisers had wanted him there but their academic funders had blocked him being on the agenda.

I was reminded of all this by the article in the current issue of Wired UK which accompanies Steven Levy’s interview with Google CEO Larry Page. It’s called “A healthy disregard for the impossible: 7 epic projects that can change the world”. Almost all of them have the ring of the kind of ideas that Drexler thought nanotechnology would make possible and I wonder how much of his thinking is now around us or close to commercialisation.

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