Saturday, February 1, 2014

NanoTechnology: Discussing Richard P. Feynman's "There's Plenty Of Room At The Bottum"

The year is 1959, prominent physicist Richard P. Feynman gives a talk entitled "There's Plenty Of Room At The Bottom", one of the first lectures on what is now called nano technology, the manipulation of elements at the nano scale which is approximately in the size range of the cellular down to the atomic.  Feynman outlines a series of uses for nano technology that remain very similar to the aims of modern nano technology.  You can read Feynman's talk here:

This talk is incredibly prophetic from the modern perspective, not only does he call for the modern age of tiny computers, but he puts forward a way of thinking about manipulating elements of the very small that foreshadows modern techniques.  His attention to detail and love of explaining physical mechanisms gives the reading of this lecture a deep and rich aspect combined with the fascinating and revolutionary nature of nano technology.

One of the first things Feynman talks about is writing the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin;  This kind of example was a good start for people beginning to think about scaling computers down from vacuum tubes to transistors.  Keep in mind that in 1959 computers still filled entire rooms, virtually everything Feynman calls for in miniaturizing information technology has come to pass or is well on its way.
He goes on to suggest that the entirety of human knowledge could be written smaller than a spec of dust if the words where condensed into binary code, this is similar in principal to what our computers do to store information in solid state circuits.  He goes on to suggests compressing images and other types of information into digital form and storing them, something we are all familiar with today.

Now he starts talking about electron microscopes and the value of getting more precise instruments for biological research, this would allow for molecular imaging in bio technology and the capability to manipulate chemistry on a much deeper level.  Wikipedia states that electron microscopes today can reveal images down to the pico meter, that's another level below the nano, closer to the scale of the nucleus of an atom.

Feynman now wonders about analyzing and synthesizing any substance, could we possibly utilize processes to create substances on the molecular level?  This also raises the question of building machines out of molecules to create functioning factories or robots the size of a cell or smaller.  These ideas are central to modern nano technology and represent some of the fundamental capabilities nano technologists hope to exercise in the future.

Now he discusses building computers on the nano scale, this is something that people have achieved down to the atomic level in today's modern integrated circuitry.  Building sub microscopic computers was the key to achieving something called Moore's law, put forward in 1965 by Intel founder Gordon E. Moore, it states that computing capability was doubling every year or so, this trend has increased exponentially, as pointed out by futurist entrepreneur Ray Kurzwiel.

Moore's law is exponential, which means that each years progress contributes to next years progress, this kind of pattern can grow very quickly once it gets started, as witnessed by the computer revolution of the 2000's.  One of Kurzwiel's ideas is that this exponential trend has now spread to other forms of technology based on increased communication capability allows expansion of innovation, micro processors have made possible exponential growth in many areas of technology Feynman discusses, such as industrial and medical nano robotics.

One interesting idea he puts forward is a way to use robotic arms to build increasingly smaller robotic arms in order to eventually have many multiple microscopic arms hooked together to work in unison.  Next he imagines tiny lathes producing parts for miniature machines, then ties it all together and imagines a miniature roboticized factory with arms and lathes working together to build complicated machines and robots.  This is idea is the foundation of nano industry, creating production on a nanoscopic scale, with this kind of manufacturing you could create incredibly precise structures at the atomic scale, meaning a new level of quality and efficiency for production.

The ending is about theoretical problems that might occur, Feynman stresses that taking computing from macro to micro scale would require reinventing how computing was done, that is essentially what happened with integrated circuits and modern processors.  He also imagined that there would be quantum effects that could be utilized in order to create advanced computing processes, this of course is the aim of quantum computing, a field that is growing in interest every day.

The last thing he says is about a cash prize he is offering for completing tasks in the direction of nano technology, he offered 1000$ (1959 remember?) to the first person to write a page from a book 1/25,000 times smaller than a standard page, and create a working electric motor no larger than 1/64 inches cubed.  The motor turned out to be easy, but it was not until after Feynman's death in 1988 that someone produced the miniature page from the book to claim the other prize.

So this lecture was especially interesting because of how many different revolutionary aspects were presented, one of Feynman's unique gifts was the power to go from the ordinary to incredibly strange without losing his thread.  This let him discuss topics like atomically precise manufacturing and nano medical robots so that they can be taken seriously, this talk is especially easy to take seriously in retrospect and remains incredibly important for modern theoretical pursuits in the many fields of nano technology.

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