Debate regarding nanotechnology and its prospects has been muddied by multiple definitions of the term, and by controversy about the technical feasibility of basic long-term objectives. This chapter traces the history of ideas and terminology, showing how a deep polarization has developed in the community, generating confused language and misdirected arguments that hinder public discussion both of current research objectives and of long-term benefits and risks.
Although now used more broadly, the term 'nanotechnology' has been used since the mid-1980s to label a vision first described by Richard Feynman in his classic talk, 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom' (Feynman, 1959). The Feynman vision projects the development of nanomachines able to build nano-machines and other products with atom by atom control (a process termed 'molecular manufacturing'). This vision generalizes the nanomachinery of living systems, promising a technology of unprecedented power, with commensurate dangers and opportunities.
The Feynman vision (and rhetoric echoing it) motivated the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). An early NNI document (NSTC, 2000) states under 'Definition of Nanotechnology' that 'The essence of nanotechnology is the ability to work at the molecular level, atom-by-atom, to create large structures with fundamentally new molecular organization.' An NNI promotional brochure (NSTC, 1999) speaks of 'Feynman's vision of total nanoscale control', calling it 'the original nanotechnology vision'.
In his speech proposing the NNI on 21 January 2000, President Clinton invoked this vision on Feynman's home ground: 'My budget supports a major new National Nanotechnology Initiative, worth US$500 million. Caltech is no stranger to the idea of nanotechnology - the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic and molecular level. Over 40 years ago, Caltech's own Richard Feynman asked, ''What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?''...' (Clinton, 2000).
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