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Dismantling gas giants with nanotech

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Chilling out in the desert

Two hours away is another group whose intense interest in nanotechnology is less welcome: Alcor, the outfit that freezes people at death, hoping they can be cured sometime in the indefinite future. Quite a few cryonics bracelets are visible here.

There is also a fair bit of crossover in CRN's audience with extropians and transhumanists, first made famous in Ed Regis's 1992 book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. Over lunches there is talk of downloading your brain and the need to colonise other planets, given that this one looks likely to be running out of energy sources. For CRN, these are all somewhat unwelcome distractions that do not help get people to take molecular manufacturing seriously.

"CRN," says Chris Phoenix, "is all about molecular manufacturing, and we've been careful all along to keep our focus laser-like." But, he adds, "Any powerful technology will attract all sorts of people who want to use it for their own interests." The notion that we will soon have the technical ability to automate the precise placement of individual molecules carries with it the possibility of aggressive, advanced medicine. Behrooz Dehdashti, for example, is studying angiogenesis – the formation of new blood vessels from an existing group – without surgery.

"So the cryonics people became very interested in it as a way of curing their whole-body frostbite." Phoenix thinks that phrase originated with Ralph Merkle, here to talk about his work creating the tools needed to build things out of carbon, hydrogen, and germanium. You can, he explains, build almost any rigid structure out of carbon and/or hydrogen – diamond, for example – and germanium could add synthetic flexibility.

There's a lot of talk about building things out of diamond. It's rigid, strong, durable, and made out of one of the most common elements on earth. Its biggest flaw is cost, something molecular manufacturing is supposed to change. Tihamer Toth-Fejel, in surveying how to make nanofactories, says our future problem will be an insufficiency of carbon in the atmosphere because it's free and people are greedy. "People will suck all the CO2 out of the air. The Sierra club will dig up Wyoming and burn all the coal just to save the rainforests."

Bring me my diamond encrusted monkey butler

The kind of thing people will want for themselves: a diamond space pier. Hall, who presents an A (apples) to Y (yurts) list of things nanofactories could make, has a detailed plan for a one of these things (PDF) 100km high by 300km long, to be used to launch space craft via a linear electromagnetic motor. He's also designed a flying car that he was surprised to realise resembled the vehicles in the 1960s TV series The Jetsons. The one thing he figures nanofactories can't make: ironically, zircon.

These guys are all perfectly serious, and even if they sound like mad scientists their credentials are not. Merkle, for example, began his career with degrees in computer science at UC Berkeley and electrical engineering at Stanford, and went on to be a pioneer in public key cryptography. These days, besides his directorship of Alcor he is a distinguished professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. Hall has a PhD (and a long research history) from Rutgers. Other speakers have worked for NASA and New York University as well as a clutch of nanotechnology companies.

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