Paint And Patches And Memories And Dreams

They say that the Sydney Harbour Bridge is held up by its paint.

It's not literally true: The original structure is apparently still sound and would stand up fine on its own. But there's an element of truth nonetheless: The thin-film nanofiber cloth treatments that have been applied over the past several decades have a cumulative tensile strength far greater than the original steel. They have almost no strength under compression, of course - they simply fold up under load.

The paint that you buy in a can and apply with a brush or roller contains nanofibers too, although they are much shorter and aren't cross-woven like the Bridge treatments, which have to be made on site and applied with special equipment. They have other properties, of course: You can write on them with crayon and simply wipe it off; they don't discolour or flake; many of them can actually change colour on demand; some can emit light, either sunlight absorbed by day and re-emitted, or light generated from an electrical supply by billions of tiny diodes. The efficiency is pretty bad because less than 5% of the diodes end up connected and facing the right way, but what do you expect for the price?

The treatment of nanotechnology in Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days and its complete absence from Trading in Danger has made me think about the way we take it for granted in our lives. How far it's come from its beginnings a century ago, and how far short it falls of some dreams of that time.

We've come to expect that clothes won't tear or wear or fade, that they'll come clean with the most cursory of washings, that they are cheap and comfortable and will change colour to co-ordinate with our shoes. And that given our measurements and a selection of styles, any tailor can produce a full summer wardrobe in a matter of minutes.

But on the other hand, we - most of us, anyway, those who aren't wealthy enough to own a tailoring system themselves - do have to go to a tailor to get new clothes; we can't simply push a button and have them appear from a nano-assembler. (As in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, for example.) And even those who do own a tailoring system need to order the appropriate bolts of cloth and load them in, because making those is as far beyond the capabilities of the tailoring system as the Bridge's nano-film treatments are beyond cheap supermarket glowpaint.

In medicine, we expect a spray or injection of specialised nanites to help fight infection and repair tissues when we are injured. But these merely assist and guide the healing process, rather than replace it. Anything that's not immediately fatal can almost certainly be repaired as good as new - with the exception of head injuries.

The characters in Diamond Dogs inject themselves with nanomachines to enhance their mathematical ability, and the effects are dramatic, turning relatively normal people into towering mathematical geniuses overnight. (And effectively rendering them asocial, something I've also noticed among regular mathematicians.)

This is so far beyond our present abilities that it looks like a dream. We can repair the damage caused by a stroke, cure and clean up after any number of degenerative diseases. A broken spinal cord is a mere nuisance today, something that will keep you in bed for a week, and keep you from running the marathon for two. A century ago, it would mean paralysis for life.

If you manage to get sick, you go to the doctor and you get cured. It's as simple as that.

But implanting new skills with an injection? There are research programs into using nanotechnology to boost overall brain function, but nothing even remotely so specific. I mailed one of my professors about this, and he replied that It is almost certainly possible, but we do not presently have the knowledge required to even research this type of technology. Which is what I thought, but I'm not a doctor of neurophysics and he is.

Still, medical nanotechnology has vastly improved our health, and has extended our life expectency to the point that no-one currently knows what it is. People in the most technologically developed countries die mostly by accident or by choice. Estimates currently range from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty years - and it's climbing by more than a year per year, so even those estimates are largely meaningless.

The widespread adoption of nanotechnology has occurred in four fields. Two I have mentioned before - materials, and medicine. The other two are manufacturing, about which I know little, and computers.

The computers we have today are the product of nano-scale self-assembly. They are simply too complicated and too densely functional to be made any other way. A memory chip that you buy at the store to plug into your phone or into your console at home holds fifty petabytes of data. Which is kind of absurd, since it would take a year and a half to load that much data onto it. Or copy it off, once it was loaded. But they make them that way because they are so cheap to produce that it makes no sense to produce anything smaller.

It's not quite as true of central processors, since they are structurally far more complicated than memory crystals and very much harder to assemble. And the amount of power required - and so heat produced - is roughly proportional to the number of calculations performed per second, so you can't simply scale them up without regard for anything else. Nonetheless, my console at work is more powerful than all the computers in the world of a century ago.

When my grandfather was born, all of these seemed like dreams as distant as mathematical-talent nanites or faster-than-light travel seem to use today. And yet we take them for granted. This can of paint was produced by Moore Industries. Who was this Moore? Did he invent glowpaint, or did she steal the invention and grow rich from it? The Net would know, but I have breakfast to make.

Posted by: Trixie Misa at 11:18 PM

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Posted by: trainitr at September 21, 2006 06:21 PM (FRdCT)






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