The Feynman vision and its implications

Feynman looked far beyond the laboratory accomplishments of his day (Feynman, 1959). He suggested that miniature manufacturing systems could build yet more manufacturing systems: '. . . I want to build a billion tiny factories, models of each other, which are manufacturing simultaneously, drilling holes, stamping parts, and so on.' Working on a small enough scale, these could build with ultimate precision: '[I]f we go down far enough, all of our devices can be mass produced so that they are absolutely perfect [that is, atomically precise] copies of one another.' He asked 'What would the properties of materials be if we could really arrange the atoms the way we want them?' He suggested that nanomachines could achieve this key objective, building things with atom-by-atom control: '[I]t would be, in principle, possible (I think) for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down . . . Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance.'

The idea that nanomachines (picture nanoscale assembly-line robots) can build with atom-by-atom control is the foundation of the Feynman vision of nanotechnology: call it the Feynman thesis. This thesis has several obvious implications, some suggested by biological parallels. As Nobel Prize winning chemist Richard Smalley1 observed in 1999, 'Every living thing is made of cells that are chock full of nanomachines... Each one is perfect right down to the last atom.' (Smalley, 1999). Since cells build more cells, biology shows that nanomachine systems can build more nanomachine systems. And indeed, he states that 'it has become popular to imagine tiny robots (sometimes called assemblers) that can manipulate and build things atom by atom. .. If the nanobot could really build anything, it could certainly build another copy of itself. It could therefore self replicate, much as biological cells do' (Smalley, 2001).

Thus, the Feynman thesis implies the feasibility of nanoreplicators. As we shall see, it is apparently this consequence that led Smalley to become the chief advocate of the view that the Feynman thesis itself is false.

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