Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A New Sputnik Moment?

Stephen Smith has an post over at his blog questioning President Obama's rhetoric that the down tick in the economy is having the same effect today as Sputnik had on the USA in the 50s and 60s. He's not convinced and neither am I, but near the middle he asks an interesting question: What would be the equivalent of a "Sputnik moment" in today's world?

The shock in the US caused by Sputnik was not so much that it was a military threat - although it was - but that it was a significant technical feat achieved by what most of the western world considered a backwater of scientific thought. Today, there are many technologies that are slowly being developed around the world which are primed for a breakthrough. Earlier this year North Korea claimed a fusion power breakthrough which certainly would have been a Sputnik moment if it hadn't turned out to just be a claim about fusion bombs, not fusion power.

This highlights a very important part of the Sputnik formula: how does the protagonist country dramatically demonstrate their technological achievement so there's no misunderstanding and no way to refute it? Sputnik did this fabulously by broadcasting an unmistakable signal that could be confirmed by amateurs and professionals alike. Any attempt to put the genie back in the bottle with Sputnik would be met with howls from the populous.

Suppose some manufacturing backwater suddenly started turning out superb jet engines, or even a whole new fighter plane. Just as a matter of competitive interest, other manufacturers would no doubt arrange to get their hands on a few samples and check out their quality. I expect that more than a few "national security" inquiries would also be made. What they discover blows their mind: the fan blades, the compressor, the combustion chambers, even the cowling, are all made from materials they've never seen before. Parts of the combustion chambers even appear to be made of perfectly shaped diamond.

By releasing these products onto the market, the protagonist has demonstrated a highly functional molecular nanotechnology manufacturing system. This is a massive breakthrough, and it would be completely unexpected. The current state of the art in molecular nanotechnology is basically: designing stuff we can't actually build. Here's some examples done with the open source nanotechnology CAD tool NanoEngineer-1:

There has also been some interesting work done by Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas Jr. into making a "tool set" that might some day be usable to slowly make small objects in single quantities using hydrogen and carbon.

If some backwater country was to demonstrate that they had a molecular manufacturing system that could build anything they can design, using a handful of atoms - aka, not "just" a hydrocarbon metabolism - and do so on the macro scale, it would instantly make them a super power and set the stage for a worldwide scramble to duplicate their efforts and come up with some reasonable defense. I could imagine immediate calls for non-proliferation of the technology, etc.

That would be the equivalent of a "Sputnik moment" in today's world.


  1. Anonymous2:36 PM

    Yeah, well, Craig Ventner will do it, won't he? He'll design some germ that poops out and/or assembles molecules.

  2. Structural DNA non-technology is coming along. Here's an interesting paper from last year:

  3. Anonymous6:08 AM

    "That would be the equivalent of a "Sputnik moment" in today's world."

    Not even close. The "Sputnik moment" occurred because a) it was a massive blow to national pride (which your example isn't), b) it was a massive demonstration of military might (which your example isn't), c) it was a massive propaganda tool demonstrating the superiority of one political system over another (which your example isn't)... Etc... etc...

  4. Ya kidding right? You don't think a functioning molecular nanotechnology manufacturing system would be a blow to national pride (the US has been funding nanotechnology research for *decades*), or have massive military implications (they can make *anything*, including weapons no-one else can make) and the "political system" challenge really depends on the protagonist doesn't it?

  5. (I'm doubting this post, like last night's, will be allowed, but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.)

    Hmmm. I think anonymous is correct....although, mainly folk over forty really think in such terms anymore, and it's going to diminish. Good fuckin riddance. Besides, I think it's almost unequivocally likely anyone coming up with such capabilities will think in terms of MAS, rather than MAD. You know?