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March 02, 2007

Comparing modern skeptism about molecular nanotechnology with FPGA in 1957

Chris Pheonix has a though experiment of taking an FPGA chip back in time to 1957. He indicates the problems that would encountered trying to get the engineers of the day to accept that the FPGA could work and to believe in it enough to invest the time, money and effort into making the connections and supporting systems to program the FPGA and make it function.

The opinions of skeptics are important in determining the schedule by which new ideas are incorporated into the grand system of technology. It may be the case that molecular manufacturing proposals in the mid-1980's simply could not have hoped to attract serious investment, regardless of how carefully the technical case was presented. An extension of this argument would suggest that molecular manufacturing will only be developed once it is no longer revolutionary. But even if that is the case, technologies that are evolutionary within their field can have revolutionary impacts in other areas.

The IBM PC was only an evolutionary step forward from earlier hobby computers, but it revolutionized the relationship between office workers and computers. Without a forward-looking development program, molecular manufacturing may not be developed until other nanotechnologies are capable of building engineered molecular machines --say, around 2020 or perhaps even 2025. But even at that late date, the simplicity, flexibility, and affordability of molecular manufacturing could be expected to open up revolutionary opportunities in fields from medicine to aerospace. And we expect that, as the possibilities inherent in molecular manufacturing become widely accepted, a targeted development program probably will be started within the next few years, leading to development of basic (but revolutionary) molecular manufacturing not long after.


Photolithography was applied to making the first circuits in 1957


October 1957, staff at DOFL used photoengraving and photomechanical techniques to construct the first electronic circuit that incorporated nonprepackaged transistors and diodes as integral parts.
The integrated circuit was patented in 1959.
Vacuum tube computers were still the most powerful machines up to 1958

The first integrated circuits contained only a few transistors. Called "Small-Scale Integration" (SSI), they used circuits containing transistors numbering in the tens.

SSI circuits were crucial to early aerospace projects, and vice-versa. Both the Minuteman missile and Apollo program needed lightweight digital computers for their inertially-guided flight computers; the Apollo guidance computer led and motivated the integrated-circuit technology, while the Minuteman missile forced it into mass-production.

These programs purchased almost all of the available integrated circuits from 1960 through 1963, and almost alone provided the demand that funded the production improvements to get the production costs from $1000/circuit (in 1960 dollars) to merely $25/circuit (in 1963 dollars). They began to appear in consumer products at the turn of the decade, a typical application being FM inter-carrier sound processing in television receivers.

The next step in the development of integrated circuits, taken in the late 1960s, introduced devices which contained hundreds of transistors on each chip, called "Medium-Scale Integration" (MSI).

They were attractive economically because while they cost little more to produce than SSI devices, they allowed more complex systems to be produced using smaller circuit boards, less assembly work (because of fewer separate components), and a number of other advantages.

Further development, driven by the same economic factors, led to "Large-Scale Integration" (LSI) in the mid 1970s, with tens of thousands of transistors per chip.

As I track the progress of technology on this site, the size of the leap to molecular manufacturing is rapidly becoming a smaller one. The expanding space of DNA nanotechnology, directed self assembly, synthetic biology, advanced lithography/nanoimprinting and other techniques for fine control at the 10 nanometer level are setting the stage for a fully enable molecular nanotechnology capability. These are early capabilities in molecular control. I think they are somewhat akin to transistors in the development of computers. They are useful and have some advantages over traditional approaches but they do not scale up as well as the IC systems. They are part of the basis for what will become ICs. Molecular systems will reach there promise when we have a few more key processes and methods to enable super high volume scaling.

Early molecular nanotechnology will have labs on a chip, microbubble circuitry, graphene membranes, other nanoscale membranes for supporting system components.

Also, there will be system architectures and societal experience with precursor systems like from advanced fabber and prototyping systems and modular macroscale robots. Nanoparticles and nanomaterials are already being widely adopted. Carbon nanotubes have already made impressive gains and will be moving from niche applications and research into the mainstream over this year and the next three years.

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