Beyond Nanotech: What's Femtotechnology?
The nanotech field was arguably launched by Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” As Feynman said then: “It is a staggeringly small world that is below… Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin? “
Eric Drexler’s 1987 book Engines of Creation popularized the notion of nanotech and the next tour de force in the field was his classic 1992 book Nanosystems, which laid out conceptual designs for a host of nanomachines, including nanocomputer switches, general-purpose molecular assemblers, and a fascinating variety of other good stuff. Today’s nanotech mostly focuses on narrower nano-engineering than what Drexler envisioned, but it’s still in the process of building a platform and tools that will ultimately be useful for realizing Feynman’s and Drexler’s dreams. The emerging nanotech marks manufacturing and utilization of carbon nanotubes, which have multiple applications, from the relatively simple such as super-strong fabrics and fibers to potential components of more transformative nanosystems like nanocomputers, molecular assemblers, and nanobots connecting our brains to the cloud.
What’s next beyond nanotechnology? Here’s how Wikipedia defines the term femtotechnology: “Hypothetical term used in reference to structuring of matter on the scale of a femtometer, which is 10^−15m. This is a smaller scale in comparison to nanotechnology and picotechnology which refer to 10^−9m and 10^−12m respectively.”
Hugo de Garis, Australian AI researcher, wrote a few years ago in Humanity Plus Magazine on the power of the femtotechnology: “If ever a femtotech comes into being, it will be a trillion trillion times more “performant” than nanotech, for the following obvious reason. In terms of component density, a femtoteched block of nucleons or quarks would be a million cubed times denser than a nanoteched block. Since the femtoteched components are a million times closer to each other than the nanoteched components, signals between them, traveling at the speed of light, would arrive a million times faster. The total performance per second of a unit volume of femtoteched matter would thus be a million times a million times a million = a trillion trillion = 10^24.”
Ben Goertzel, one of the world’s leading AI researchers, noted in his companion article in Humanity Plus Magazine: “What a wonderful example we have here of the potential for an only slightly superhuman AI to blast way past humanity in science and engineering. T he human race seems on the verge of understanding particle physics well enough to analyze possible routes to femtotech. If a slightly superhuman AI, with a talent for physics, were to make a few small breakthroughs in computational physics, then it might (for instance) figure out how to make stable femtostructures at Earth gravity… resulting in femtocomputing — and the slightly superhuman AI would then have a computational infrastructure capable of supporting massively superhuman AI. Can you say “singularity”? Of course, femtotech may be totally unnecessary in order for a Vingean singularity to occur (in fact I strongly suspect so). But be that as it may, it’s interesting to think about just how much practical technological innovation might ensue from a relatively minor improvement in our understanding of fundamental physics.”
So what’s next beyond femtotech? Hugo argues: “If femtotech (10^-15m) is possible, what about an attotech (10^-18m), a zeptotech (10^-21m), a yoctotech (10^-24m)… or a plancktech (10^-35m)? Since the smaller components are, the faster they can signal to each other, one comes to the jaw-dropping conclusion that there may be whole civilizations inside elementary particles, and that may be the reason why we don’t see signs of advanced civilizations in the cosmos, thus answering Fermi’s famous question “Where are they?” (i.e. all the advanced civilizations in space who are billions of years older than the human species). Just maybe, we humans are built with such civilizations in all our constituent elementary particles. Perhaps these “particle civilizations” communicate with each other via “quantum mechanical entanglement”, i.e. zero-signal-time action-at-a-distance. M **aybe advanced civilizations are all around us, inside us, but are too small for us to see or even be aware of.**” This resonates quite well with the Transcension Hypothesis formulated by John Smart to account for the Fermi’s Paradox. Can you see the similarities?
Is there still plenty more room at the bottom, after the nanoscale is fully explored? It seems quite possibly so — but we need to understand what goes on way down there a bit better before we can delve in to build stuff at the femtoscale. Fortunately, given the exponentially accelerating progress we’re seeing in some relevant fields, the wait for this understanding and the ensuing technologies may not be all that long.
We are part of nature evolving toward greater complexity, and all so-called natural barriers, including our own biology, are for us to transcend. There’s plenty of room at the bottom — nanotechnology, femtotechnology and so on. We are also nearing the end of history here where TIME, as we perceive it, won’t have much of significance any longer, so we will need to add extra dimensions to our perceptual realities.
According to the Syntellect Hypothesis, our postbiological posthuman superintelligence will be our next evolutionary stage — sometime by mid-century, the era scientists refer to as the Technological Singularity. Moore’s law will be continued by Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns — after semiconductors there will be many more other more advanced computational substrates — all the way down to the planckscale.