Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology


Engines of Creation attempts to survey the world toward which technology is taking us, and in the years since the first publication, technology has advanced a long way toward that world.

The first chapter shows how protein engineering, by making molecular machines much as living cells do, could provide a path to more advanced systems, but it is cautious about the time required to solve the most basic problems. Two years after publication, William DeGrado at DuPont reported the first solid success in de novo protein design. There is now a journal titled Protein Engineering, and a growing stream of results. What is more, additional paths to the same goal have emerged, based on different molecules and methods. The 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Cram, Pedersen, and Lehn for their work in building large molecular structures from self-assembling parts. The 1995 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology was awarded to Nadrian Seeman of New York University for the design and synthesis of DNA structures joined to form a cubical framework. Chemists have started to speak of doing "nanochemistry." In recent years, molecular self-assembly has emerged as a field in its own right.

In its notes section, Engines mentions the possibility that mechanical systems - probe microscopes able to move sharp tips over surfaces with atomic precision - might be used to position molecular tools. Since then, Donald Eigler at IBM demonstrated the ability to move atoms in a vivid and memorable fashion, spelling "IBM" on a surface using 35 precisely arranged xenon atoms. Atom manipulation, too, has taken off as a research field.

Perhaps the clearest indicator is linguistic. When Engines was published, the word "nanotechnology" was almost unknown. It has since become a buzzword in science, engineering, futurology, and fiction. Both in our laboratory capabilities and in our expections, we are on our way.

There is even hope that we might learn to handle our technologies better, this time around. The "Network of Knowledge" chapter describes how a hypertext publishing medium could speed the evolution of knowledge, and perhaps of wisdom. The World Wide Web is a major step in this direction, and software developers are working to add the remaining necessary abilities to move it far beyond mere publication, to support discussion, criticism, deliberation, and consensus-building.

© Copyright 1986, K. Eric Drexler, all rights reserved.
Original web version prepared and links added by Russell Whitaker.