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Foresight Update 52

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A publication of the Foresight Institute


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Nurturing Dialog on Molecular Manufacturing

Thoughts from a nanotechnology forum

by Ka-Ping Yee

I attended the inaugural event of the MIT/Stanford/Berkeley Nanotechnology Forum (http://mitstanfordberkeleynano.org/) at Stanford University on May 29 with some trepidation. There have been many harsh words surrounding the controversy over the feasibility of molecular manufacturing (see "Open Letter on Assemblers"). Would I have to confront a crowd of molecular manufacturing skeptics, spreading further misinformation and eager to ridicule Eric? I prepared a question to raise the issue and waited patiently during the presentations.

Meyya Meyyapan led off with some good-natured humour about the definition of "nanotechnology" that helped to put me at ease. "We like to define nanotechnology like this," he said: "Nanotechnology is what I am doing, not what you are doing."

At the end of the talks, I got to ask my question. I said that there seems to be a controversy stirring about the feasibility of assemblers — on the one hand, Smalley claiming in Scientific American that self-replicating nanobots are impossible, and on the other hand, 20 years of published papers, the Nanosystems book, and a world full of living examples of self-replicating nanobots — and asked the speakers how they felt about the controversy.

The response was very encouraging. All of the speakers agreed quite readily that there was nothing fundamentally impossible about self-replicating molecular machines. Steven Chu even repeated back to me, as if clarifying once again for the audience, that biology provides all kinds of existence proofs that self-replicating molecular machines are possible. The consensus I gathered from them was that:

(a) yes, it is useful to consider benefits and risks carefully;
(b) yes, self-replicating nanomachines are possible in principle;
(c) but we're pretty far away from that now (maybe 50 years) so there's no need to get too alarmed just yet;
(d) we should definitely not halt research just because there are some potential risks — there are so many potential benefits that it's a moral imperative to do the research.

I later approached Dr. Chu and explained to him why I was so concerned: that Smalley's view would lead people to ignore risks because they were declared impossible. I said "What we really need is for people like you to go out there and say that we know this stuff is possible, but we should be neither too naive nor too fearful, and have a balanced discussion of the benefits and risks". And he seemed quite receptive. I found his response quite balanced: he cited today's bans on stem cell research as harmful alarmism, and described the example of the temporary moratorium on recombinant DNA research in the 1970s as a more reasonable approach.

He'd heard of Foresight, but not of our Nanotechnology Development Guidelines, so I encouraged him to check them out.

The lesson I learned from this experience is that these scientists are not hostile to us at all. I think they see Foresight's concerns as not yet relevant, but don't deny that they could be relevant in the future. They seem reasonable and open to discussion. And it is clear to me that, when confronted with the feasibility question, prominent scientists in this field don't agree with Smalley.

If I may be so bold as to make recommendations, I would suggest three things:

(a) Let's open channels to people in the field, inviting them to participate in a dialogue about assessing and managing risks.
(b) When talking to scientists, it doesn't seem necessary to discuss whether molecular manufacturing is feasible. We can just take that as a given and talk about the real issues.
(c) Let's use every opportunity to promote the Nanotechnology Development Guidelines (see Update 41) and make them a centerpiece of the discussion.

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Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents

 

Fundamentals of Nanotechnology

Tutorial opens Foresight Vision Weekend

For the first time, a tutorial on "Fundamentals of Nanotechnology" was held in conjunction with the annual Senior Associates Vision Weekend, and the tutorial was open for registration by the general public. Senior associates of Foresight Institute and the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and non-senior associates gathered in Palo Alto on May 2 to hear four experts cover the technical and business basics of nanotechnology.

K. Eric Drexler began the morning with "Nanotechnology in Perspective: History, Status and Prospects," focusing on a vision of nanotechnology that is very different from that currently held in the academic and business worlds. Beginning during the 1970s, Drexler formulated a vision of nanotechnology in which systems of molecular machines would build complex atomically-precise structures by mechanically positioning molecular components, leading to a wide range of far-reaching implications. Drexler described the perspectives from physics, chemistry, biology, mechanical engineering, and computation that formed the foundation of his vision of nanotechnology.

As progress has produced increased control of the structure of matter at the nanometer scale, scientists working in these areas, wanting their work to appear "sexy," labeled any technology involving devices less than 100 nm in size as "nanotechnology." Some of this work was relevant to Drexler's original goal; some was not, prompting Drexler to rename the original goal "molecular manufacturing".

This gap between the long-term goal and near-term, concrete research progress and business opportunities left those pursuing near-term goals in an uncomfortable position as some aspects of the long-term goal garnered increased public attention. These people do not want to foster unrealistic public expectations of miracle cures wrought by medical nanorobots that are beyond what current nanotechnology could produce. Nor do they want to be constrained by regulations directed against "gray goo" menaces that their research and products will not create. In response, some have misrepresented the molecular manufacturing proposal to make it sound absurd so that the problems associated with public expectations and fears also go away.

Drexler argued forcibly that misrepresenting the feasibility of molecular manufacturing is a poor political strategy, as activists advocating harsh regulations will not be fooled. Instead, open discussions of the potential offered by molecular manufacturing, including clean and inexpensive manufacturing, strong materials, extremely powerful computers, and medical devices that bring molecular control to surgery, form the basis for a future that is both appealing and realistic. Open discussions will also re-focus concern away from gray goo-like accidents and toward abuse in the form of very cheap and powerful weapons, including weapons that are non-lethal and thus more easily used for oppressive purposes.

Ralph C. Merkle continued the assessment of where nanotechnology stands, providing a wealth of specifics: "What is nanotechnology: arranging atoms and creating wealth and health." Observing that manufacturing is all about increasing ability in arranging atoms, and that just how atoms are arranged has immense consequences for both health and wealth, Merkle described efforts to arrange atoms better, and where these efforts appear to be leading. Topics ranged from the current interest in exploiting the arrangement of carbon atoms in fullerenes and buckytubes, to using scanning probe microscopes to manipulate small molecules, to proposals leading to assemblers and molecular manufacturing, to what assemblers would make possible. The latter includes putting the computing power of a billion Pentium chips, or the information stored on a football stadium full of CDs, into a volume the size of a sugar cube. Or replace current power generation and current agriculture with cheap solar power. Or medical nanorobots that could supply your body with enough oxygen to survive without breathing for an hour, or do extensive enough repair of cellular damage to revive cryonically suspended patients.

Turning from the potential of molecular manufacturing in the future to today's nanoscale engineering, Scott Mize surveyed "Near-term commercial opportunities in nanotechnology," focusing on controlling the structure of matter on the sale of 100 nm and below, and in a time frame of 0-3 years (near term) or 3-7 years (medium term). Comparing nanotechnology now to IT before the integrated circuit, or biotechnology before recombinant DNA, Mize pointed to tools and materials as the most mature field of nanoscale engineering, with emerging opportunities in the life sciences, and information technology as a longer term opportunity. After describing some areas of the greatest current commercial interest, Mize concluded that, although molecular manufacturing is a long way off, nanoscale engineering is a global effort with unprecedented funding, that will gradually and subtly affect almost everything.

Ed Niehaus wrapped up the tutorial with a consideration of "Nanotechnology Business Scenarios," addressing the time period between Mize's near-term nanoscale engineering opportunities and the long-term molecular manufacturing future of Drexler and Merkle. Will many applications of nanotechnology find commercial success, or will one material, i.e., carbon nanotubes, become the nanotechnology industry. Will there be a societal backlash against perceived or actual dangers? Will the developing nanotechnology industry be stunted by fragmentation caused by restrictive intellectual property laws? Will the Chinese have a large advantage in developing nanotechnology because of less respect for IP laws, and much lower costs for talented researchers?


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Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents

 

Institute for Molecular Manufacturing Report

The portion of Update 52 that constitutes the IMM Report is on the IMM Web site: http://www.imm.org/.

"Progress in Thinking Machines" by J. Storrs Hall, PhD.


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"Recent Progress: Steps Toward Nanotechnology" by Jim Lewis


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Senior Associates Program

The Senior Associates Program has been established to provide steady support for the research projects of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, and for the education and communication projects of the Foresight Institute, enabling long-term planning and commitments, and providing seed money for new efforts.

The Senior Associates Program supports vital research and education in molecular nanotechnology. It enables individuals to play a key role in advancing this technology and its responsible use through their individual or corporate contributions.

By pledging an annual contribution of $250 to $5,000 a year for five years, Senior Associates join those most committed to making a difference in nanotechnology. Benefits of becoming a Senior Associate include special publications, online interaction, and special meetings.

Foresight Institute and Institute for Molecular Manufacturing are nonprofit organizations; donations are tax-deductible in the U.S. to the full extent permitted by law. Donations can be made by check from a U.S. bank, postal money order, VISA, or Mastercard. Credit card donations may be sent by fax.

To contribute, obtain a donation form on the Foresight Institute or Institute for Molecular Manufacturing Web sites, call 650-917-1122, fax 650-917-1123, or email foresight@foresight.org

 

Foresight Update 52 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


From Foresight Update 52, originally published 31 August 2003.



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