High technology

Nanotechnology: the next revolution

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Jonar Nader speaks about nanotechnology life and questions the possibility of a computer to learn from think for itself. To listen to an excerpt from the radio broadcast, please click on the green play button below.

Here is a transcript of the audio file.

Host: I heard discussions today about nanotechnology and so tell us, what is it?

Jonar Nader: Well let’s first think of the word ‘nano’. We know of the word million and the word billion they are on the big scale of the numbers a million is 10 to the power of 6, and a billion is 10 to the power of 9. Now go to the other end, the sub zero side, the microscopic side, a micro is 10 to power of minus 6 and a nano is 10 to the power of minus 9.

Host: So it is a billionth.

Jonar Nader: So what is nanotechnology? First if you look at all the marvels that we have had today, all the most brilliant things that we have been able to produce in this world, they have actually been produced with boxing gloves on and the light switched off. In a lot of the chemical world and physical world, it has always been hit and miss and it’s always been inventions by accident. You never quite see what you are doing at that microscopic level. Well what nanotechnology is trying to say is that we can take the boxing gloves off so we have a much finer precision to build things,and actually turn the lights on so we can actually see things being built atom by atom. There is what’s called the ‘wet world’ and the ‘dry world’. The wet world is anything that is living, like living molecules. The dry world are things like machines. If you actually look at the great advances in life in the last little while, the biggest boost to the human race has been coming from the dry world. The dry world has even helped the wet world. The things that we have been able to invent in hospitals have actually been able to help the wet world. Imagine if you were able to build things and change them around. Now if you were able to rearrange the atoms in sand and add a few trace elements and you end up with computer chips; if you rearrange the atoms in dirt and water and air, you end up with potatoes so…

Host: Do you?

Jonar Nader: Well you do don’t you, how do you get potatoes?

Host: The potato shelf!

Jonar Nader: Well you might, but we build them. So what on earth could we use nanotechnology for? Imagine if you could build machines the size of molecules that can actually repair cells and that you could perhaps even unify the great brains of physics and computation and chemistry and biology and end up in nanoscience so that you can custom design material from the ground up. If you think that the computer chip is marvellous, think that the computer chip is manufactured using what would in the microscopic equivalent be digging ditches. Computer chips are actually etched away. They use a lithographic process and pretty soon by about 20 years time we’re predicting that we’re going to hit the limits of it physically. We cannot keep digging ditches that fine. But instead of doing that, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could start building them from the ground up, even if not atom by atom, several atoms by several atoms. The promise of all that is to alleviate world hunger. How do you do that ? You can harness energy a lot better, harness electricity a lot better.

Host: Is this the next logical step in what has been to date the computer revolution?

Jonar Nader: It has to be the next step because if you look at the world’s population and the demands we are having on our world, we have to be able to say to a chemist, wouldn’t be fantastic if a chemist could write a script to the physicist and say build this for me. It is a lot of hit and miss. It takes about 14 years to build a substance that is actually useful. That is a lot of time, a lot of computation, a lot of investment, because some of it is so much guess work. But wouldn’t it be great if two brains could get together and say here build this for me and they could actually build it at the atomic level; and have little things like submarines that go into your blood and fix your blood. We are not just talking about dry technology here, we are also talking about wet technology. When we say nanomachines, they don’t have to be robotic type machines. They could very well be cells that work inside like enzymes work, like DNA works – all those things that work in the world as we know it.

Host: or as antibodies work or is that …

Jonar Nader: Yes, all these things that work at the sub-microscopic, we call it nanoscopic world. Everything in nature is made up of atoms put into a particular place. Humans are made up of atoms of a particular shape, well of course we are verging on a very big debate here, but wouldn’t be great if you could actually decide the shape you want from the ground up. What happens today if you want to build a radio? You actually get little components and transistors and this and that, and you engineer them together, but in the world of chemistry you don’t do that. Put them all in a bag and shake them up and hope that at the end of the day something comes out. Well what we are trying to do with nanotechnology is to put chemists and physicists at the same level as builders and masons who build things instead of shake things and hope to God something is going to come out at the other end.

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