IEET > Vision > Fellows > Ben Goertzel > HealthLongevity > Futurism > Innovation
There’s Plenty More Room at the Bottom: Beyond Nanotech to Femtotech
Ben Goertzel   Jan 11, 2011   H Plus Magazine  

Not long ago nanotechnology was a fringe topic; now it’s a flourishing engineering field, and fairly mainstream. But nano is not as small as the world goes.

A nanometer is 10^-9 meters - the scale of atoms and molecules. A water molecule is a bit less than one nanometer long, and a germ is around a thousand nanometers across. On the other hand, a proton has a diameter of a couple femtometers - where a femtometer, at 10^-15 meters, makes a nanometer seem positively gargantuan.

Now that the viability of nanotech is widely accepted (in spite of some ongoing heated debates about the details), it’s time to ask: what about femtotech? Picotech or other technologies at the scales between nano and femto seem relatively uninteresting, because we don’t know any basic constituents of matter that exist at those scales. But femtotech, based on engineering structures from subatomic particles, makes perfect conceptual sense, though it’s certainly difficult given current technology.

The nanotech field was arguably launched by Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” As Feynman said:

It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.

Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?

The next big step toward nanotech was Eric Drexler’s classic 1992 book Nanosystems, which laid out conceptual designs for a host of nanomachines, including nanocomputer switches, general-purpose molecular assemblers, and an amazing variety of other fun stuff. Drexler’s 1987 book Engines of Creation also played a large role, bringing the notion of nanotech to the masses.

fig 1Contemporary nanotech mostly focuses on narrower nano-engineering than what Drexler envisioned, but arguably it’s building tools and understanding that will ultimately be useful for realizing Feynman’s and Drexler’s vision. For instance, a lot of work is now going into the manufacture and utilization of carbon nanotubes, which have a variety of applications, from the relatively mundane (e.g. super-strong fabrics and fibers) to potential roles as components of more transformative nanosystems like nanocomputers or molecular assemblers. And there are also a few labs such as Zyvex that are currently working directly in a Drexlerian direction.

But Feynman’s original vision, while it was focused on the nano-scale, wasn’t restricted to this level. There’s plenty of room at the bottom, as he said - and the nano-scale is not the bottom! There’s plenty more room down there to explore…


Ben Goertzel Ph.D. is a fellow of the IEET, and founder and CEO of two computer science firms Novamente and Biomind, and of the non-profit Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute (


Yes, smaller and smaller.
Let me know when we get to Planck-tech.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Everyone Could Be Planting Crops

Previous entry: The Forgotten Radicalism of the Enlightenment pt1