Software control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale

The UK’s physical sciences research council, the EPSRC, has just issued a call for an “ideas factory” with the theme “Software control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale”, a topic proposed by Nottingham University nanophysicist Philip Moriarty. The way these programs work is that 20-30 participants, selected from many different disciplines, spend a week trying to think through new and innovative approaches to a very challenging problem. At the end of the process, it is hoped that some definite research proposals will emerge, and £1.5 million (i.e. not far short of US$ 3 million) has been set aside to fund these. The challenge, as defined by the call, is as follows:

“Can we design and construct a device or scheme that can arrange atoms or molecules according to an arbitrary, user-defined blueprint? This is at the heart of the idea of the software control of matter – the creation, perhaps, of a “matter compiler” which will interpret software instructions to output a macroscopic product in which every atom is precisely placed. Even partial progress towards this goal would significantly open up the range of available functional materials, permitting meta-materials with interesting electronic, optoelectronic, optical and magnetic properties.

One route to this goal might be to take inspiration from 3-d rapid prototyping devices, and conceive of some kind of pick-and-place mechanism operating at the atomic or molecular level, perhaps based on scanning probe techniques. On the other hand, the field of DNA nanotechnology gives us examples of complex structures built by self- assembly, in which the program to guide the construction is implicit within the structure of the building blocks themselves. This problem, then, goes beyond surface chemistry and the physics of self-assembly to some fundamental questions in computer science.

This ideas factory should attract surface physicists and chemists, including specialists in scanning probe and nanorobotic techniques, and those with an interest in self-assembling systems. Theoretical chemists, developmental biologists, and computer scientists, for example those interested in agent-based and evolutionary computing methods and emergent behaviour, will also be able to contribute. “

I’d encourage anyone who is eligible to receive EPSRC research funding (i.e. scientists working in UK universities and research institutes, broadly speaking) who is interested in taking part in this event to apply using the form on the EPSRC website. One person who won’t be getting any funding from this is me, because I’ve accepted the post of director of the activity.

13 thoughts on “Software control of matter at the atomic and molecular scale”

  1. I’d hope they’re pretty good! £1.5 million is a reasonable size carrot. To be honest, I suspect the worst case outcome would be that one emerged with a few entirely fundable projects in surface chemistry and self-assembly, that could be criticised for not being sufficiently different from the sorts of proposals that would pass normal peer review. So I’m pretty sure good science will emerge – the interesting question is whether we can develop proposals for really innovative science of the kind that wouldn’t have been thought of without this kind of process.

  2. I guess that is an ultimate goal of chemistry to be able to arrange atoms and make molecules by design.

    I see great perspectives of this in the pharmaceutical applications (drug design).

    The task is very challenging though – 3 millions may be not enough 🙂

    Join chemical blogs:

  3. I really doubt that design driven atom assembling will be a feasible anytime soon.
    Just imagine you have already assembled n atoms in the space.
    Then how it could be possible to add n+1 atom without destroying of the prevoius structureby any of the mentioned method?
    Any exitation or kinetic energy in the n+1 atom will destoy the molecule.
    Self-assembling seems even more unprobable, because atoms will self assemble to the stable stuctures, which are in most cases not structures we want.

  4. Chemistry student, you’re certainly right that the most general problem is very hard. But on the other hand, there are already examples of situations in which you can design something to self-assemble into something you want. Of course, its not obvious that a self-assembling system to make any desired structure can be made. If it was easy, someone would have done it already.

    Thanks for the tip, Guthrie. I’ll write a comment on this slightly alarming development later.

  5. Intelligent design “experts” are desperate. The more that we come to understand about life, the more threatened they feel. They have their faith and are desperately struggling to explain it with respect to the data. Having nothing to grasp onto, the all-mighty reasoning of “hey, it’s to complex to have happened by itself” is the explanation that we hear time and again.

    It all comes down to ego and a subconscious fear of death.

  6. The creationists at believe that “intelligent design” is behind cell biology.

    But let’s turn that supposition on its head: It’s evident to the relaity-based community that cell biology comprises a set of complex systems which has evolved without inelligent design. It’s also evident that at the macroscale humans perform intelligent design and fabrication of complex systems. But what’s not evident is whether intelligent design and fabrication of complex systems is possible at the nanoscale.

    Indeed, the evidence to date is that intelligent design of complex systems at the nanoscale is very, very difficult, and that it may be impossible.

    So the question for the creationists is this: If it becomes evident that the intelligent design and fabrication of complex nanoscale systems is impossible, doesn’t that imply that the ab-initio intelligent design and fabrication of biological systms is also impossible, and so doesn;t that argue for the non-existence of an intelligent designer of biological systems?

  7. Attobuoy, that’s an ingenious and probably correct argument, though somehow I don’t see it having a lot of traction with the creationists.

  8. What about man-made experiments in which systems are allowed to evolve? Supposing that the products of such experiments ended up being useful molecular machines, would they be classed as the products of ‘intelligent design’ or not?

  9. If a useful molecular machine was to be classed as the product of ‘intelligent design’, how would ‘useful’ be defined? Would it not depend on who benefitted from the usefulness?

    A machine designed by a human to be useful to humans would signify intelligent design because it fulfilled an intended purpose – to benefit its designer. If a machine had only the ability to maintain itself and reproduce, would that be useful?
    It might be useful to the machine but not to an outside intelligence, so no intelligence need have been involved in the design.

    The purpose of living beings appears to be to maintain themselves and reproduce. The ability of humans to add complications to their lives, such as trying to understand their world, making complex entertainments or creating obstacles to overcome, does not change the purpose. This suggests that there was no higher intelligence involved in their creation.

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