The Far Future and Using Atomic Precision for the Next Level of Technology

Adam Brown (Stanford) and Robin Hanson (George Mason University) talk about some interesting intellectual concepts for the distant futures in the conference video below.

Christine Peterson, Foresight Institute, talks about getting to the next level. She highlighted the need for molecular nanotechnology. Leveraging various forms of atomically precise capabilities are starting to reach interesting new levels and leveraging atoms and molecules is getting commercialization (Roswell Biotechnologies) and there is programmable DNA self assembly to make micron scale structures.

I will dive more deeply into the current state of atomically precise manufacturing, listing out some work at Dana Farber and other researchers and some videos of talks on this work.

DNA Strand Displacement driven
Molecular Additive Manufacturing (DSD-MAM)
Contract Number: EE0008310
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/University of Oxford Project Period: 2018 June 1 – 2021 November 30

The Dana-Farber cancer institute team is building a first of its kind molecular 2d printer that is itself atomically precise. It allows the creation of a picomole (10^12) of product simultaneously.

Project Objectives
PROBLEM Develop a pathway to scalable integrated nanosystems for atomically precise manufacturing (APM). Currently there is not even a single positionally controlled molecular printer in existence. Furthermore, printing custom molecules one-by-one would be too slow for most applications. Therefore massively parallel molecular printers would be required in these cases.

RELEVANCE Assembly to atomic-level specification will deliver qualitatively new functionalities and low-variability, ultra-high performance, and will enable tools and processes that dramatically reduce the energy and materials costs of manufacture.

PROJECT GOAL Self-assemble molecular 2D printers from DNA. Self-assembly provides a route to scalable APM. Self-assembled molecular printers will provide rapid-prototyping capability for useful materials, e.g. membranes and catalysts

POTENTIAL BENEFITS Success will initiate a bootstrapping cascade that will lead to APM as a practical manufacturing technology. This will improve the energy and material efficiency, productivity, and competitiveness of manufacturers across the industrial sector, in accordance with the AMO mission.

photovoltaics; photosynthetic and fuel cells; thermoelectrics and anisotropic heat spreaders; solid-state lighting; molecular electronic and plasmonic circuits; selectively permeable membranes; self-repairing materials with high strength-toweight and fracture resistance.

A team of nanobiotechnologists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) led by Wyss Founding Core Faculty member William Shih, Ph.D., has devised a programmable DNA self-assembly strategy that solves the key challenge of robust nucleation control and paves the way for applications such as ultrasensitive diagnostic biomarker detection and scalable fabrication of micrometer-sized structures with nanometer-sized features. Using the method, called “crisscross polymerization”, the researchers can initiate weaving of nanoribbons from elongated single strands of DNA (referred to as “slats”) by a strictly seed-dependent nucleation event.

above – Strictly seed (green)-dependent crisscross polymerization enables the formation of diversely shaped tubes and coiled ribbons (grey), whereby elongating ribbons with different diameters are closed in different patterns by short complimentary single-stranded DNA overhangs (yellow and blue). This series of TEM images shows a variety of elongated nanoconstructs with the scale bar measuring 100 nanometers.

Planting a seed

Having experienced the limitations of DNA origami and DNA brick nanostructures, the team started by asking if it was possible to combine the absolute seed-dependence of DNA origami assembly with the boundless size of DNA brick constructions in a third type of DNA nanostructure that grows rapidly and consistently to a large size.

“We argued that all-or-nothing assembly of micron-scale DNA structures could be achieved by designing a system that has a high free-energy barrier to spontaneous assembly. The barrier can only be bypassed with a seed that binds and arranges a set of ‘nucleating’ slats for joint capture of ‘growth’ slats. This initiates a chain reaction of growth-slat additions that results in long DNA ribbons,” said co-first author Dionis Minev, Ph.D., who is a Postdoctoral Fellow on Shih’s team. “This type of highly cooperative, strictly seed-dependent nucleation follows some of the same principles governing cytoskeletal actin or microtubule filament initiation and growth in cells.” The elongation of cytoskeletal filaments follows strict rules where each incoming monomer binds to several monomers that have previously been incorporated into the polymeric filament and in turn is needed for binding of the next one. “Crisscross polymerization takes this strategy to the next level by enabling non-nearest neighbors to be required for recruitment of incoming monomers. The resulting extreme level of coordination is the secret sauce,” said Minev.

From concept to actual structure(s)

Putting their concept into practice, the team designed and validated a system in which a tiny seed structure offers a high starting concentration of pre-formed binding sites in the form of protruding single DNA strands. These can be detected by DNA slats with six (or in an alternative crisscross system eight) available binding sites, each binding to one of six (or eight) neighboring protruding ssDNA strands in a crisscross pattern, and subsequent DNA slats are then continuously added to the elongating structure.

Foresight has a Molecular Machines working group.

Other Recent Atomically Precise Research

Nicola Gaston (The University of Auckland, New Zealand) “The Tunability of Superatomic Electronic and Magnetic Properties”

Lai-Sheng Wang (Brown University, USA) “In Pursuit of Ligand-Protected Au20 Pyramid: From Atom-Precise Gold Nanoclusters with in situ Surface Active Sites to Gold Nano Hydride”

Rongchao Jin (Carnegie Mellon University, USA) “Atomic-Level Control over the Functionality of Metal Nanoclusters”

De-en Jiang (University of California, Riverside, USA) “Locating Hydrides in Protected Metal Clusters by Deep Learning”

SOURCES- Foresight, Harvard, Roswell Biotechnologies, DOE AMO
Written by Brian Wang,

17 thoughts on “The Far Future and Using Atomic Precision for the Next Level of Technology”

  1. The biggest setback for nanotechnology was when Eric Drexler's wife Christine Peterson divorced him, took over the Foresight Institute and then froze him out.

  2. The main use of quantum computers seems to be to set them up as analogs to quantum processes you want to solve, so that you can get the solution without having to do an absurd amount of classical math. Just set the system up and see what it actually does.

  3. There were easier ways to make money than engineering that pathway, it will continue to be a slow crawl.

  4. Yeah, it's not clear to me that it's impossible. Just rather difficult to get there without already being there.

  5. "Unsettling" in what sense? The only thing that comes to mind is so-called "space sickness," but you are surely not talking about that.

  6. Vacuum tubes were plenty useful in themselves; I think the comparison of current quantum computers with thermionic logic is quite slighting of triodes/tetrodes/pentodes.

    My understanding of quantum computing is that it is not quite as revolutionary as some people think, such that it will probably never completely replace classical computing. The most likely scenario is that quantum computers will evolve into coprocessor modules (much like the early floating point coprocessors or current video cards) which are useful for certain problems, while continuing to be orchestrated by a "classical" processing unit which should not be too distinct from current architectures like x86-64, AArch64 or RISCV.

  7. You are right. At that time there were high hopes about 'dry nanotech', made of non organic molecules, acting like classical machines with cogs and all. The idea was to have a nanometric mechanical manipulator capable of moving and assembling atoms and molecules, allowing to make anything in tiny amounts, including more nano-manipulators. That self replication aspect was what made it potentially revolutionary.

    Turns out quantum effects, Van Der Waals forces and metal vacuum soldering make that very hard, and the most feasible form of doing things like that is with organic molecules, which prefer water as a medium. Hence wet nanotech and now bio-nanotech.

  8. a conceptually elegant object, but not convinced that the path to that is clear and straight as quantum computers/ gates are solving different things than super 'classic' computers. Piece-meal for some time…

  9. The kind of parralelism needed for that is only possible with a truly Universal Quantum Computer. Something still in it's infancy. I would give it another two decades before they're truly useful. The quantum computers we have today are the equivalent of vacuum tubes we used to have…

  10. The scanning tunneling microscope, a macroscopic device that positions its head with atomic precision, had been invented a few years earlier. I believe the assumption was that the first nanotech devices would be built using a system using functionalized tips to deposit and remove atoms and molecules, one at a time, not by a more biological approach.

  11. Protein and complex organic molecule folding has been a problem since the beginning. Not sure if Drexler took that into account back then.

    Without the ability to predict how a complex molecule will fold or bind to others precisely, research of molecular interactions had to be brute-force and trial and error. Which has been certainly getting better and more automated, but it's still like throwing a million keys into a lock to see if it opens.

    Current AI approaches that learn the rules of complex molecule interaction from those millions of trials and errors might represent an actual step beyond this situation, and when we finally start predicting interesting previously non existing molecular structures.

  12. The march to full molecular nanotechnology has certainly been a lot slower than I expected when I first read Engines of Creation, all those years ago. Wow, 36 years ago, already.

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