Software control of matter – your ideas welcome

The ‘Ideas Factory’ on Software control of matter – in which a group of scientists from different backgrounds spend a week brainstorming new and innovative approaches to a difficult problem – is just over a week away. I’m directing the activity, the outcome of which, we hope, will be novel research proposals, for which £1.5 million has been set aside to fund by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

We were very gratified by the response, and from the applications we received we’ve selected a great group of scientists, from many different disciplines, including supramolecular chemistry, scanning probe microscopy, surface science and computer science, and ranging from some of the UK’s most eminent nanoscientists to young research fellows and postdocs. We’d like to open the process up to anyone interested, so we’ve set up a public blog for the Ideas Factory.

When the sandpit begins, on January 8, we’ll be writing about the process as it happens. But we’d also be very interested in any ideas any readers of the blog might have. You might have an opinion about how we might achieve this goal in practise; you might have thoughts about what kinds of materials one might hope to make in this way; or you might have thoughts about why – for what social benefit, or economic gain – you might want to make these materials and devices. All readers are invited to comment on the thoughts they might have through the comment facility on the Ideas Factory blog. Towards the end of next week, I’ll start putting up some posts asking for comments, and if we get any suggestions, we will feed the suggestions in to the participants of the Ideas Factory, using the blog to report back reactions. One of the mentors for the Ideas Factory – Jack Stilgoe, from the thinktank Demos – will collate and report the comments to the group. Jack’s a long-time observer of the nanotech scence, but he’s not a nanoscientist himself, so he won’t have any preconceptions of what might or might not work.

12 thoughts on “Software control of matter – your ideas welcome”

  1. The “Sandpit” proposals will be covered by the blog, but will scientific papers generated from the selected (funded) research proposals, be submitted to freebie journals? If so, I’ll chip in my two cents (for free) on the “Ideas Factory” blog.

  2. Phillip, at the moment EPSRC is not quite getting off the fence on the subject of open access publishing – see this statement. I suspect that they will, though, come round to the idea of mandatory deposit of papers describing EPSRC sponsored research in freely accessible preprint libraries at the same time as publication in conventional journals. Until then, it’s up to the authors.

  3. This Sandpit idea seems the right idea at the right time!

    What if members of the public have research ideas which are half baked but could be interesting? Is this an appropriate forum for these types of discussions?

    Happy new year.

  4. Yes, that’s very appropriate. If the process is to work, pretty much all the ideas people are considering at the beginning of the week should be half-baked, but by the end of the week we should have focused on a few that can be made rigorous.
    All the best for the New Year to you and Phillip too.

  5. Hi, Richard.

    First, I hope that you had a great Christmas and wishing you all the best for 2007. I think that the public Ideas Factory blog is a great idea and I’ll certainly be interested in seeing what types of comments/criticisms emerge. I’ll post some of my thoughts on the software control of matter topic early next week. Might it be worthwhile making all the participants in the Ideas Factory aware of the blog – via an e-mail from EPSRC, for example – in advance of the sandpit? It could act as a useful sounding board and it’d certainly make for an interesting experiment in “upstream” public engagement.


  6. Philip, I’ll certainly ask EPSRC to send out a circular email to all participants when EPSRC get back to work next week. I might say that Paul Rouse, the EPSRC man in charge of the ideas factory, was very keen on the idea, and indeed we originally hoped that EPSRC would host it and run it. Alas it seems that hosting a blog is too much for the massive computers in Swindon so it was left to me to do it by myself.

    I’m looking forward to seeing you a week on Monday! All the best for the New Year.

  7. I have two comments on this:

    1) As far as I know, the “dry” nanotech people have yet to respond to Richard Jones’s six technical challenges that would need to be resolved in order to realize dry nanotech.

    2) I recently met with a good friend who happens to be an old acquaintance of Eric Drexler from the L-5 days of the late 70’s. He told me that Drexler’s original idea of nanotech was based on synthetic biology (early 80’s). The invention and development of scanning probe microscopy in the 80’s made him think that “dry” nanotech “may” be possible. This is the origin of the whole “dry” nanotech idea that people like Ralph Merkle and CRN are wrapped up in.

    Having done a lot of work with SPMs and having sold them for a living in the mid to late 90’s, I am well aware of the capabilities and limitations of SPM as analytical instruments as well as tools for “nano” manipulation. Techniques such as pin-dip lithography and imprint lithography are useful as possible successors to photolithography in semiconductors and MEMS. However, these techniques are highlt unlikely to lead to any kind of nanotechnology in the sense that the nanotech people talk about.

    Eric Drexler, himself, has recently come out and said that he thinks that “soft” nanotech (synthetic biology, bio-nano, whatever other name you choose to call it) will be the techniques that will lead to the robust “nano” manufacturing that we all want to have.

    So, in a nutshell, this is the history and demise of the “dry” (i.e. diamondoid) nanotech idea.

  8. Kurt, care to provide a source on that supposed recantation by Drexler. As far as I know, Drexler has always maintained that the wet approach was only to be used as a stepping stone to dry nanotechnology.

  9. “1) As far as I know, the “dry” nanotech people have yet to respond to Richard Jones’s six technical challenges that would need to be resolved in order to realize dry nanotech.”

    Challenges 1-3 will all be solved as supercomputer time cheapens and the number of Freitas’s and Merkles doing simulations, grows exponentially.

    Challenges number 4 and 5 are solid technical hurdles that not even the mainstream nanotech community can deal with; definite potential showstoppers.

    Challenge 6 is what we can work with effectively now. Freitas’s and other mainstream diamond simulations are uncovering the needed performance capabilities of our next generation SPMs. It is hard to predict SPM innovations. The original STM design existed for two decades before it was made by Binnig. In summary, I’ll say Challenge 6 is the purpose of these discussions, and #4 and #5 are waiting on some future nanotech inventor. Even the ability to invent a

  10. I believe it was in the where Drexler was quoted as saying that “wet” nanotech was the way to go, although I am not certain about this.

    I know for a fact, however, that Drexler was originally into the “wet” approach, then was “supprised” by the development of the STM and that it was specifically the development of the STM that sparked his interest in the concept of “dry” nanotech.

    The problem of computer simulations is the old problem of “garbage in, garbage out”. Computer simulations and modeling have been used, without much luck, to crack the protein folding problem. I think more research into molecular biology and chemistry is needed in order to develop “nanotechnology” rather than more computer simulation. The advocates of the “dry” nanotech approach have yet to address the issue of complexity and the hierarchy of structure and function that is clearly used by biological systems. I have read “Nanosystems”. It is a good book as far as the science involved in atoms of molecules. Unfortunately, the hand-waving starts when the scale of the proposed “nanosystems” gets above 100nanometes or so.

    BTW, I had dinner last night with my friend who knew Drexler from the L-5 days (late 70’s). We talked about computer simulation (since he is doing some of this for some research he is doing). His research involves both computer simulation combined with real molecular biology experiments, done in tandem. This is the only way to go when doing computer simulation. My friend also believes that “dry” nanotech is possible. I told him I will believe it when I see it.

    In any case, Richard Jones’s arguments about “wet” vs. “dry” nanotech are very similar to arguments of the same made by Thomas Donaldson, who also has background in chemistry and chemical engineering.

    Another limitation of “dry” nanotech, assuming it is even possible, is that it is limited to carbon and a few of the other covalently bonded elements. Biology, on the other hands, uses most of the elements of the periodic table. My impression is that “dry” nanotech is like Babbage’s machines. The real eloquent stuff will be “wet” nanotech.

  11. has thousands of pages and refers to pdfs with maybe a hundred thousand pages as it links in to the foresight website. That is like a reference to someplace in the public library.

    You are discounting the routine practice (as noted by Richard Jones,, in his comment to me about how more density function analysis should have been done sooner) of the chemical researchers which uses computational chemistry as garbage in/ garbage out and then decide to use hearsay about what Drexler said and thought 10-20 years ago.

    Freitas is working with experimentalist. I do not know the stage of the experimental work.

    Protein folding prediction has had recent improved results.
    Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology Eugene I. Shakhnovich and his collaborators, graduate students Eric J. Deeds and Isaac A. Hubner, outline their findings in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The computer model simulates the lightning-quick process of microscopic protein folding for up to 10 microseconds, or 1,000 times longer than ever before.

    You do not know what the limitations of “dry” nanotech are. As you do not know exactly how it may be realized. Why are you predicting limitations on something that you do not think is possible ? If I do not believe in Santa claus then I do not need to predict that his sleigh has a speed limit.

    You have just stated that “I will believe it when I see it”. So even if the scientific journals get filled with the work needed to answer all of the 6 challenges. Computationally modeling every step up to millions of molecules as required to fully satisfy challenge 1. You will not care about it because until a nanofactory is spewing diamond motors at you, you won’t believe.

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