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William Illsey Atkinson

- About the Book

Nanotechnology and the Big Changes coming fromthe Inconceivably Small

by William Illsey Atkinson
Published by Amacom Books

Since the beginning of the industrial age, most machines have grown steadily smaller, more powerful, and more complex. Now nanotechnology, based on the science of the infinitesimally small, takes technology beyond most popular definitions of reality, to a realm of molecular machines, cell-sized computers, and other astounding possibilities.

NANOCOSM is like a debriefing of the major players in nanotechnology -- scientists, entrepreneurs, educators, venture capitalists, and government officials. Atkinson probes for their best ideas, converts the answers to common English, then tabulates the results. His quest for the biggest concepts in super-miniature technology leads him all over the globe, from Tsukuba, Japan -- home to the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology -- to the Nanotech Planet conference in San Jose, California -- with contributions from Canada, Brussels, Switzerland, Australia, the U.K., New York, and North Carolina.

In NANOCOSM, Atkinson reveals a spectacular view of the immediate future of nanotechnology and its applications in:

  • Medicine -- precision-delivery drugs that assemble themselves and have minimal side effects
  • Computing -- quantum processors triggered by a single particle of light
  • Engineering -- megastructures made of hollow nanotubes boasting exceptional strength and stability
  • And countless other inventions that will redefine how we work, play, and live.

As with any phenomenon, nanotechnology has both its naysayers and its zealots, by turns clouding scientific truth with dismissals, prophecies, and pipe dreams. But nanotech is real: The U.S. President recently announced a $500 million National Nanotechnology Initiative, and "Business Week" named nanotechnology one of the Ten Technologies That Will Change Our Lives. NANOCOSM shows why.

In describing his journey, Atkinson brings personality and voice to the hype that surrounds nanotechnology, and successfully makes it approachable for both the hardened scientist and the inquisitive lay person.
-- Randall C. Willis, Senior Associate Editor,
Today's Chemist at Work (American Chemical Society)

...clearly written, lucidly explained, humorous, and even whimsical book.
-- Richard Worzel, Futurist,
author of The Next 20 Years of Your Life

Nanocosm is the nanotechnology book we have all been waiting for: accurate, realistic and oh so readable.
-- F. Mark Modzelewski, Executive Director,
NanoBusiness Alliance

...a scientific travelogue that describes the new nano-frontier in clear everyday language.
-- Dr. David Akin, Business and Technology Correspondent,
CTV News, Toronto

Copyright ©2003 by William Illsey Atkinson. All rights reserved. Printed here with permission of the publisher, Amacom Books, http://www.amacombooks.org. Please feel free to duplicate or distribute this file, as long as the contents are not changed and this copyright notice is intact. Thank you.


- Excerpt


Nanotechnology and the Big Changes
coming from the Inconceivably Small

by William Illsey Atkinson


The excerpt, below, is called "The Death of Digital Technology," and features remarks by IBM's director of physical sciences, Dr. Thomas N. Theis, about the limits of digital information storage and the coming return to analog systems. This shocking admission highlights a battle in nanoscience between the machinists, who foresee microscopic factories and robots, and the naturalists, who use biomimicry to get viruses and proteins to do their bidding.

NANOCOSM documents this philosophical divide, but mostly finds unity in the world of the super small. Atkinson shows how scientific disciplines are uniting at the nano level: biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering. Also joining forces are the nations of the world; NANOCOSM features contributions from the U.S.A., Japan, the U.K., Brussels, France, Canada, Australia, among others.

Published by Amacom Books (a division of the American Management Association), NANOCOSM also focuses on the evaluation and exploitation of this technology by entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and multinational firms in pharmaceuticals, information technology, manufacturing, transportation, and other major industries.

The Death of Digital Technology

by William Illsey Atkinson

We now take you to Hall B of the DoubleTree Gateway in San Jose, California, where Dr. Thomas N. Theis is announcing IBM's official position on nanotechnology.

Big Blue is constantly sensitive to an emerging commercial consensus, whether among its customers or its competitors. Over the years it has displayed a genius for running around to the front of an existing parade and taking it over. IBM, Theis announces, has a goal: to remake its microtechnology division into a nanotechnology division. Theis accepts the emerging standard: For commercial as well as scientific purposes, the nanocosm ranges between one and one hundred nanometers. That, he says, is the length at which size really matters.

"Below 100 nanometers, the electron senses its quantum confinement and regular electronics ceases to work," Theis says. He now plays that remarkable Big Blue trump card: a depth of original research, applicable to nanotech, that stretches back even before Eric Drexler coined the word, "nanotechnology." The IBM milestones come rumbling out. The first scanning probe microscope, the scanning tunneling microscope (or STM), invented at an IBM Europe basic research lab in 1982. The AFM, or atomic force microscope, ditto: 1986. Seizing, translating, and redepositing individual atoms: 1990. First intramolecular logic circuit: 2001.

"Not how old some of this stuff is," Theis says. (The room is still and silent; every eye in the audience is fixed on him.) "In fifteen or twenty years, the science we are doing today will be just as commercially important as those older discoveries are now." Nanotechnology, as Theis sees it, is "a long-term game.... It can take decades for concepts to move from lab science to products." But despite this time lag, it's an era that's fabulously exciting: "There has never been, or will be, a time like this in the whole history of science." Part of the reason for this is the ability of physical science to slow or reverse its recent relative decline in federal funding.

"I'm enormously enthusiastic," Theis says. "But as people who are in some way involved in nanotechnology, everyone here today must take steps to manage the hype. I'm worried that perception and expectation are getting far ahead of reality. When bubbles burst, there are tears.

"Not," he adds, "that I'm against bubbles." The room, located at the exact financial, geographical, and spiritual center of Silicon Valley, erupts into laughter. "It says much about our society," explains Theis when things quiet down, "that it permits and encourages experimentation."

~ Micro and Nano Transistors ~

Theis proceeds to review IBM research. The silicon transistor, he says, "is already becoming a nanodevice." But silicon's unit hardware can't and won't get much smaller. "We're at the dimensions where the devices won't function if they shrink any more. Physics won't permit it."

As a possible alternative to silicon transistors at the nanoscale, Theis shows us a slide of the FinFET, a field effect transistor with a heat-radiating appendage sticking out of it. This fin is only 20 nm (nanometers) thick. This qualifies it as nanotech by Theis's accepted definition. In fact, nanotechnology has already begun to creep into computer hardware almost unnoticed. State-of-the-art heads for hard disk drives have layers that are laid down on their surfaces with atomic-level control and tolerances of only ten nanometers. Or consider "pixie dust" -- the engineers' nickname for a one-atom-thick rhenium layer that, applied to a drive head, leads to higher data retention at room temperature.

Theis's own lab has achieved data-storage densities of one terabit per square inch. The device that makes this possible is the IBM Millipede, which uses over a thousand individual AFM tips to simultaneously inscribe ROM data on a hard substrate. Theis touts Millipede, as well as other technologies such as standing-wave electronics that have the same function as Millipede, as ushering in a new age.

"These things open up entirely new markets," he says. "They aren't really about data-storage densities. They're about incredible new things."

Tom Theis thinks that 1 terabit per square inch is about the limit for data density that existing technology can attain. Yet "existing technology" is changing as we watch. "Things are accelerating," he says. "The newest GameBoy has a faster central processing unit than a personal computer with a Pentium IV chip. We're approaching the end of Moore's Law."

That "law," first propounded by IT engineer Gordon Moore about forty years ago, states that computing power per unit area doubles every eighteen months. Another way of stating Moore's Law is that the cost of a given amount of computing power is sliced in half every 18 months.

Moore's Law, Theis thinks, may have another "ten, fifteen, even twenty years yet to go. But silicon-based technology can't go on forever." In other words, if Moore's Law is to hold, then at some point in the next few years, something must replace silicon semiconductors. Theis thinks that something is carbon-nanotube technology.

"These things are amazing," Theis says, referring to the hollow cylinders of pure carbon, fifteen angstroms across, known as buckytubes. "Keep the covalent bonds straight, and they conduct electrons like metals. Twist the bonds, and they become semiconductors. But don't believe any claims you hear about buckytubes revolutionizing information technology in a few short years." For one thing, a buckytube transistor requires far more power to modulate than a silicon-chip microtransistor. "Besides, you'd need ten-to-the-twelfth carbon-based transistors on a single chip. That's a trillion -- one followed by 12 zeros. To date, the record number for adjacent carbon-based nanotransistors is all of two."

~ Self-Assembly ~

If miniaturization of components to the angstrom level is one goal of nanotechnology, Theis tells us, another central goal is self-assembly. It may be possible to mill, plane, and mold matter at the atomic level, but it would be much more elegant to persuade nanoscale objects to put themselves together.

"You need two kinds of information to build a snowflake," Theis suggests. "The first is a tiny dust particle. This tells the impinging water molecules how to minimize systemic energy. They use the dust particle as a matrix on which to self-assemble. Yet even given this a priori condition, you won't get any new self-assembled object unless ambient conditions are also right. In other words, you also need environmental information.

"Right now at IBM Labs we're providing both informational sets and getting honest-to-God self-assembly. We can create complex patterns and amazingly regular arrays." "Self-assembly can occur with unusual metal alloys such as silicon-germanium or iron-plutonium," Theis says. "But it need not be limited to such exotic materials. Under the right circumstances, with necessary information input both a priori and from the environment, many physical systems will exhibit self-assembly. In fact, maybe most systems will."

Self-assembly is certainly not one of IBM's core businesses, Theis admits. "Nonetheless, this type of self-assembly process has been patented and looks very promising for future manufacturing."

Theis's next remark makes my hands shake as I take note. This is it: The Revolution. After sixty years of digital dominance, IT's central paradigm is on the brink of reverting to a primitive, long-abandoned, long-despised state. It is as if Big Blue's very hue is about to change to Big Red. The bombshell: Digital may soon be going analog.

~ The Death of Digital ~

Theis sets off his H-bomb with a dry theoretical query: How much digital information is necessary to specify any given structure? "Our current technology needs tens of gigabytes of data to specify a video file," Theis intones. "Yet nature needs only three gigabytes to specify a human being." Here he's referring to the 3,000,000,000 nucleotides that encode the human genome. "Something is out of whack here. Obviously, our set of IT algorithms, which is to say our whole conceptual understanding, is lacking. Under current modes of storing data, to write a file specifying even a simple living organism such as a paramecium would create a file that was unimaginably huge. Yet nature does it effortlessly, and in less space than a pinpoint."

Yes, we can store and manipulate data using digital electronics. But -- and here Tom Theis, staid R&D director in a company that defines staid, holds clenched fists to the ceiling and shouts -- "We're just lousy at it!"

Living things store information in 3-D at the atomic scale, something of which humankind has only recently begun to dream. The simplest organism, a virus that hardly meets the criteria for being alive, is billions of times more complex than the most advanced IBM server.

"So!" he announces. "What's the conclusion?" The future of computing, Theis hints strongly, is to depart from where it's been these last five decades. It must escape from its digital prison and compute as nature does: by analog means. Sooner or later, probably sooner, ones and zeros will give way to computational values that vary smoothly, with the steps between defining limits so tiny they may as well not exist. We humans, who have carried the power of natural brains to its greatest known limit, must go back to our own source: nature. And nature, when she computes, does so using naturally evolved analog techniques. Only we humans know from digital; it may well turn out to be a passing fad.

Does anybody but me see what's going on here? Apparently not. The butt-kickers and butt-kissers still lean forward, waiting for an opening to mock or adore. But what I've just heard seems like Isaiah endorsing Baal, or George W. Bush confessing he's an al Qaeda agent. So, retrospectively, here's my take on Tom Theis's announcement.

A guy whose firm has for the last two generation been committed heart and soul to digital data processing, has just publicly revealed his despair with Ma Binary. He doesn't believe that digital computation will ever be as good as living systems' analog/parallel computation, at least not at most of the processes that really matter -- recognizing faces, creating artwork, and the like. Simon Haykin came close to this concept at Purdue; now I'm hearing it from one of the highest-ranking technical execs at IBM. There's no future in digital. It won't wash. Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets...elsewhere.


Copyright ©2003 by William Illsey Atkinson. All rights reserved. Printed here with permission of the publisher, Amacom Books, http://www.amacombooks.org. Please feel free to duplicate or distribute this file, as long as the contents are not changed and this copyright notice is intact. Thank you.

About the Author

William Illsey Atkinson has spent 30 years uniting science and literature. He was born in Seattle in 1946, his father a U.S. naval officer and his mother the daughter of a Canadian banker. He grew up in Ontario, where he attended McMaster University. He is a citizen of both the U.S. and Canada, which he compares to having two beloved parents.

After university, Atkinson produced readable descriptions of technical projects for the large steel company, STELCO. From 1979 to 1986, Atkinson worked as a science writer for the National Research Council of Canada. There, constant interaction with front-line scientists, including Nobel laureates, gave Atkinson unique access to the latest research in biotechnology, chemistry, physics, and engineering.

From 1986 to 1991, Atkinson was manager of communications for Forintek Canada, an R&D institute in Vancouver. In 1991, he founded Draaken Science Communications to interpret technology for universities, institutes, and private firms.

In 1997, Atkinson received the Prix d'Excellence in Issues Writing from Dalhousie University for his story on the V-chip, which was developed for use by parents to monitor and control what type of television programs their children are exposed to.

Atkinson is also the author of Prototype, a book which reviews some of today's most advanced technology. Prototype was a finalist for the 2001 National Business Book Award -- the only technology book to be so honored. Atkinson lives in North Vancouver, British Columbia.

Copyright ©2003 by William Illsey Atkinson. All rights reserved. Printed here with permission of the publisher, Amacom Books, http://www.amacombooks.org. Please feel free to duplicate or distribute this file, as long as the contents are not changed and this copyright notice is intact. Thank you.

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