The August 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Is a Lack of Government Funding Holding Back Molecular Nanotechnology?

Experiments need to replace theoretical calculations for MNT to progress but is a lack of funding for those experiments really the obstacle?

2 min read

The stodgy Wall Street Journal has published Adam Keiper’s latest exhortation to pursue the promise of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) the way we were supposed to before it was sidetracked by a shift in government funding policies towards mere advanced material science.

The unscrupulous back-room politics implied in both Keiper’s piece and Eric Drexler’s support of it on his Metamodern blog could indeed all be true, and, frankly, of little surprise.

However, are we really to believe that the lack of real experimental science into the feasibility of MNT is due to a lack of funding?

Key to both Keiper and Drexler’s arguments is that in the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2006 review of the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) there are recommendations for conducting research into the feasibility of molecular manufacturing.

As Drexler condenses the NRC’s recommendations: “…in the committee’s view, theoretical calculations are insufficient: Only experimental research can reliably answer the critical questions and move the technology toward implementation.”

Since that 2006 report, some of the key scientists pursuing MNT, such as Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas, have continued publishing huge tomes on theoretical calculations of MNT. However, experimental research, such as Philip Moriarty’s work in the UK, has remained largely lacking.

The reason we are told for this state of affairs is a lack of funding, presumably because those unscrupulous back-room deals 10 years ago are still blocking the financing. Meanwhile Google and NASA (last I understood was a US-government-funded operation) are funding the Singularity University.

If MNT is the cornerstone of the coming Singularity, surely experiments to determine MNT’s feasibility could find funding while universities established to teach of its possible results manage to do it with apparent ease during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

I am nonplussed. Are we to believe that Prof. Moriarty is one of only a handful of scientists capable of securing funding for his experiments into molecular nanotechnology? Why is it that a Singularity University gets funding but funding for MNT’s research gets locked out? Or is it that the only the kind of funding that the MNT proponents really want is the type of funding the NNI has received over the last decade? 

If the grand-scale funding mechanism is the missing piece that MNT needs to move forward, a possible solution is to follow the model of Prof. Moriarty and secure your own funding, do the research and build up some experimental results that will surely impress the holders of the purse strings in government.

The Conversation (0)

The First Million-Transistor Chip: the Engineers’ Story

Intel’s i860 RISC chip was a graphics powerhouse

21 min read
Twenty people crowd into a cubicle, the man in the center seated holding a silicon wafer full of chips

Intel's million-transistor chip development team

In San Francisco on Feb. 27, 1989, Intel Corp., Santa Clara, Calif., startled the world of high technology by presenting the first ever 1-million-transistor microprocessor, which was also the company’s first such chip to use a reduced instruction set.

The number of transistors alone marks a huge leap upward: Intel’s previous microprocessor, the 80386, has only 275,000 of them. But this long-deferred move into the booming market in reduced-instruction-set computing (RISC) was more of a shock, in part because it broke with Intel’s tradition of compatibility with earlier processors—and not least because after three well-guarded years in development the chip came as a complete surprise. Now designated the i860, it entered development in 1986 about the same time as the 80486, the yet-to-be-introduced successor to Intel’s highly regarded 80286 and 80386. The two chips have about the same area and use the same 1-micrometer CMOS technology then under development at the company’s systems production and manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Ore. But with the i860, then code-named the N10, the company planned a revolution.

Keep Reading ↓Show less