Alles was der Mensch will, wird machbar sein

[FAZ interviews James Von Ehr II, Ralph C. Merkle, and Robert A. Freitas Jr. at Zyvex Corp., Richardson, TX, on Friday, 28 July 2000. Published in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), 21 September 2000, p. 59. The URL for this interview is and a second copy is located at]

FAZ: Thanks to the debate started by Bill Joy, in Germany we have known for a long time that something pioneering is going on in nanotechnology. Some people even see it as a menacing development that should definitely be stopped. Is it necessary to set limits?

Merkle: What is critical is that there are attempts to stop this research. In fact, these attempts are dangerous. At present different strategies are adopted for dealing with nanotechnology. One is to block or abandon the technology. Another possibility is to continue with it in a controlled way, and to draft guidelines for its use. That is what the Foresight Institute has done. This is the safer strategy, because otherwise we will isolate the technology and push it into the hands of people who are least likely to handle it in a responsible way.

FAZ: Many people think nanotechnology entails similar risks to nuclear technology. Do you also see a risk that a new, major technology could be in store for us which in certain circumstances could become uncontrollable?

Von Ehr: No, nanotechnology is something people will use at home or in the garage, possibly as soon as ten or twenty years from now. What is more, it doesn't consume vast amounts of energy. Critics like Joy see precisely that as a risk. They fear that, like plutonium, terrorists could one day misuse nanotechnology for their own ends.

Freitas: That is another reason why we shouldn't try to stop its development. The technology that leads to problems in some circumstances is the same as the technology that provides solutions. One should not squander these opportunities.

Merkle: What would happen if we were to abandon electricity? Electricity has both good and bad aspects. But if we were voluntarily to decide to stop using it, we would have no communications, no computers and all these modern technologies. That would not be a good strategy.

FAZ: Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy have a vision that in a few decades human beings will be able to design miniscule, molecular versions of all kinds of things that human beings or nature thinks up. Is that what your company is currently working on?

Merkle: In principle, yes. In principle, yes. In a few decades we should be in a position to arrange atoms in most of the ways permitted by physical law. What is more, this technology should definitely be economically justifiable. As yet we don't have all the knowledge we need to do these things. That's why we can take time to discuss the issue.

FAZ: What exactly are you planning to construct?

Merkle: At present we are trying hard to get hold of individual groups of molecules that could be used to build complex molecular machines, and to move them in a specific way. That alone is hard enough. At present our possibilities are still very limited.

FAZ: Wendy Myrvold has compared the present state of nanotechnology with Leonardo da Vinci's situation when he set out to develop a flying machine.

Merkle: We might even be a bit closer to our goal. It is perfectly possible to move individual molecules.

FAZ: The beginnings of nanotechnology date back to Richard Feynman and his famous lecture, There is plenty of room at the bottom, delivered in 1959. When did you start trying to implement his goals?

Merkle: Feynman's talk was truly visionary, but not many people took it seriously at the time. The real movement began in the 1980s, mainly as the result of two crucial developments. First came the invention of scanning electron microscopes, which made it possible to move and manipulate individual molecules or atoms. That came as a shock to many people. The second development was connected with the theoretical work of Eric Drexler. In the mid-1980s Drexler made it clear that the laws of physics do not impede specific manipulation of individual molecules. In the late 1980s and in the 1990s that gained increasing acceptance.

FAZ: Which disciplines collaborate in this field?

Von Ehr: Physicists, chemists, programmers and engineers. It is a very interdisciplinary field.

FAZ: Who finances them?

Von Ehr: So far it has all been my money, I'm an investor. Zyvex is a wholly private company.

FAZ: Something Bill Joy spoke about and that many people find intriguing is the idea of nanobots, tiny molecular robots that can be introduced into the body and reproduce like humans do. Is that a realistic idea?

Freitas: The possibility of designing something like that does exist. But there's no need for medical nanorobots to reproduce. Replicating systems belong in sealed factories, not in our bodies. Do aspirin pills reproduce?

Merkle: Take a machine, for instance a car. It allows you to travel. A horse also allows you to travel. The horse is a biological system. It can do more than the machine, things like eating hay, carrots or other food. That enables it to survive in its environment, unlike a car, which functions only in a very artificial environment. We have to supply it with a certain type of fuel, we have to provide roads, and we have to service and maintain it. The idea of a car running wild and becoming independent is nonsense. In the same way, it is nonsense to think of nanomachines in that way, because the devices we build are not adaptable. They are in a totally different category from microorganisms, for example. In the 17th century, if I had got up and announced that in future human beings would fly, the natural reaction would have been: So you want to fly, do you? In that case you'll have feathers and build nests and possibly even lay eggs. No, the actual design of an airplane is fundamentally different from its biological model. It's the same with reproduction. It is not possible to establish a biological model for reproduction with machines. The independent reproduction of nanobots will in no way be comparable with natural reproduction. But in principle it will be possible.

FAZ: But even the possibility alarms people.

Merkle: The Foresight Institute was founded in 1986 precisely in response to these concerns. Since then, there has been a lot of discussion on the issue. In the meantime, we have even drawn up guidelines for dealing with nanotechnology. The discussion is a tremendous educational process for all of us.

FAZ: So you think your ideas will have to be further developed very quickly so as to overcome people's fears?

Von Ehr: I think we should accept technology in a completely natural way. Look, I wear contact lenses to enable me to see. And since a serious accident 15 years ago I have had pins in my joints that enable me to walk. Having artificial parts in my body doesn't make me any less of a human being. Two hundred years ago that was inconceivable.

FAZ: But surely it is natural for fear to arise when engineers conceive of something so fundamental?

Merkle: What is going on right now is a discussion on what will happen and what should happen if the new technology were to be applied. Most technical people will agree with me that the manufacture of molecular machines is feasible. At present the major differences of opinion are on how long it will take to reach that stage and the technical issues of exactly how to implement it.

FAZ: In which field will nanotechnology deliver the first significant products? Freitas: Possibly in medicine. Nanostructured materials are already nearing clinical trials.

Von Ehr: As a businessman, I think the first major application will be in improved materials. They are easier to produce than nanobots for medical use.

FAZ: What kind of materials do you mean?

Von Ehr: Light, extremely durable materials. Take the shimmering layer of mother-of-pearl inside a mussel-shell. It consists of layers of bio-proteins and tiny crystals of calcium carbonate built up into dense layers. The resulting material is a thousand times more stable than any of the individual components. I believe we will even be able to make materials that are a hundred times more stable than steel. Within the next few years, it will be possible to manufacture the carbon nanotubes that play a major role in this process far more quickly and cheaply. At present we are concentrating efforts on picking up individual molecules in the laboratory and moving them to precisely where we want them. We are practicing a kind of positional chemistry. Small organizations like Zyvex have the chance to take a lead in this field and to try out completely new things.

FAZ: Does that mean that, as in the case of genome research, you are in a race with large institutions?

Merkle: There will certainly be a race, though I don't know when it will begin for real. At present our main race is against time. We want to manufacture products and earn profits as soon as possible.

FAZ: You have compared nanotechnology with the invention of the airplane, but won't the consequences be far more dramatic? Won't technology change the nature of human beings?

Merkle: I tend to be rather conservative in this respect. Look, I'm a bit overweight. If someone comes along and makes sure that I can stay healthy I will accept his help. The point is we are no longer asking what is technically feasible. Instead, we are asking what we want, what we desire. That is our decision alone. Technology opens up possibilities for us. It does not tell us what paths to take.

FAZ: Don't you think that the very fact that this technology is available will change what we want, and our way of life?

Merkle: When we are faced with options that we didn't have before, naturally we start to think about them. Apart from staying as healthy as possible, one of the basic options people would like to have is to live as long as possible. Could wishes like that not be the motor of an entire industry?

Freitas: Of course. But there will always a category of people who don't want to live forever. And there will be people who don't want to be cured. Everyone is free to decide whether or not to take advantage of the new opportunities.

FAZ: Won't there also be a lot of people who can't afford to benefit from the technology?

Merkle: That's a different matter. One decisive factor is that prices will fall quickly once we start to produce molecular machines on an industrial scale. It will be similar to the way it is with software now. Production costs will sink rapidly. Basically, nanotechnology is even cheaper. What does it cost to produce a potato? Potatoes are highly complex molecular machines, yet production costs are extremely low.

Von Ehr: Perhaps the economics of nanotechnology can best be compared with the situation in semi-conductor technology. It is our job to keep prices down so as to stand our ground against the competition. Only like that will we survive economically.

FAZ: Scientists at a recent genetic-engineering symposium in Los Angeles forecast something similar. They claimed that in maybe 15 years from now everyone could be blessed with good health because, thanks to genetic engineering, it would be so cheaply and easily available. This raised a hearty laugh from the large number of students present.

Merkle: The fact is that medical care is expensive right now. Only the care of the young is cheap. Why? Because their molecular machines function well. As yet we are unable adequately to restore the human body's functions. The people most likely to take up the offer of nanotechnology will be those with most to lose.

FAZ: If you are gravely ill you will try anything to be cured. Those are the typical promises. But what if the project goes wrong, if everything turns out to have been a technological soap-bubble?

Merkle: One can simply no longer claim that it is physically impossible to build molecular machines. How can someone who is made from molecular machines claim such a thing? We have biological models for them, microorganisms. They are very simple molecular machines. Craig Venter even maintains that a mere few hundred genes are sufficient to produce a primitive biological nanomachine of this kind artificially. So why shouldn't we succeed?

FAZ: Culturally, many scientists have grown up in a science-fiction world. They watched Star Trek on TV and read science-fiction books. These cultural patterns seem to be very influential. Does that apply to you?

Freitas: Sure, I used to be a Trekkie.

Merkle: If you look at the different scenarios of how nanotechnology could develop, the greatest worry is that politicians might do something that seemed tempting but which was also completely crazy, like banning the technology entirely. That would be a dangerous course to take. Even a total ban could be no more than 99.9 percent effective. And the loophole opened up by democratic states could be taken advantage of by irresponsible regimes to develop this technology for other, menacing purposes.

FAZ: But is the risk of a ban not extremely small, given that President Bill Clinton has decided to spend half a billion dollars of public money on supporting nanotechnology?

Merkle: I hope so. True, the risk has grown smaller, but it is still hard to assess.

FAZ: Are the artificial red corpuscles you describe in your book Nanomedicine one of these useful inventions?

Freitas: In my view, yes. Admittedly, these respirocytes have yet to be constructed, the whole thing is still at the design stage. But one day they will be feasible, once it is possible to build nanobots. I imagine respirocytes as minuscule objects consisting of roughly 18 billion atoms arranged in small balls about a thousandth of a millimeter in diameter. Each respirocyte is a tiny pressurized gas tank equipped with small pumps. Respirocytes are nanobots that move with the blood. In the body's periphery, they release oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide. In the lungs, they do the opposite, recharging themselves with oxygen. The exchange of gases is regulated by minute sensors. Though the respirocytes are modeled on red blood corpuscles, they transport oxygen two hundred times more efficiently than the natural item. A small syringe-full of respirocytes could carry as much oxygen as your entire bloodstream.

FAZ: Where does the energy come from?

Freitas: From blood sugar and the oxygen stored in the devices. We need only about one picowatt per nanobot, so that's not a problem.

FAZ: What happens if these nanomachines are damaged or don't work properly?

Freitas: One possibility that comes immediately to mind is that they might explode. That is most unlikely, because respirocytes are made from an extremely stable, diamond-like carbon material. But even if that were to happen they would only form tiny bubbles that would do scarcely any damage to the body. We will use fail-safe designs. If the nanobots fail, you're still safe. We've done detailed calculations and built in appropriate controls and redundancy.

FAZ: Eric Drexler's book, published in 1986, is called "Engines of Creation." Could you be said to be his engineers?

Freitas: We are more like designers.

FAZ: How long do you think it will be before nanodevices like this can be built?

Freitas: Ten or twenty years. Maybe thirty.

FAZ: Would you see yourselves on a par with the pioneers of the space age, as conquerors of the nanocosmos, as it were?

Freitas: Perhaps. Not right now, but one day perhaps.

FAZ: It sounds as if Hollywood ought definitely to get in touch with you.

Freitas: They already have. Indeed, I'm working with people from PBS who are making a film about the future of medicine. The respirocytes will feature in it, too.

Merkle: When that stage is reached, obviously people will wonder in what circumstances it makes sense to use respirocytes. If artificial blood corpuscles helped to keep me metabolically alive, that would certainly be useful. Nanotechnology will prove to make just as much sense in other technological fields, for example in materials research and microengineering.

FAZ: Do you forecast an industrial revolution?

Merkle: Yes, of course. It will be the next revolution. Nanotechnology will change medicine, transport, material science and many other areas. As yet there is much we can only guess at.

FAZ: What are the prerequisites?

Merkle: If we want to build molecular machines, first we need an assembler, a small device that can make minute copies of itself and serve as a miniature factory. This will make it possible to push forward into smaller and smaller dimensions. That is our main goal. The assembler is to some extent the embodiment of nanotechnology. Once we command this technique, producing components and machines from individual molecules shouldn't be a problem. Most of us will live to see it.


The interviewers for FAZ were Jordan Mejias, Joachim Muller-Jung and Frank Schirrmacher.


Last updated 27 December 2002