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Rename Feynman/Drexler Nanotech to Mechutech

from the what's-in-a-name dept.
PatGratton writes with a "fairly radical suggestion" to distinguish molecular manufacturing/molecular nanotechnology, as proposed by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation and Nanosystems, from other nanoscale science and technologies currently covered by the term nanotechnology. Following is his abstract of his argument. "The full argument is available on my web site: Nanotech vs. Nanotech (Part 1) is intended for a general audience, while Nanotech vs. Nanotech (Part 2) is intended for Feynman/Drexler nanotech advocates. Each document is about two pages."

"Foresight has long recognized that there are two 'nanotechnologies:'; the Feynman/Drexler version and the nanoscale bulk version. However, Foresight's terminology to distinguish between these two different technologies has not really succeeded. The terms used ('molecular manufacturing', 'molecular nanotechnology', 'nanoscale bulk technology') are flawed by being long, broad, and inaccurate."

"More importantly, these terms have failed to be picked up by the general press and thus the general public. Hence the promises and perils of Feynman/Drexler nanotechnology are being ascribed to nanoscale nanotechnology, while the degree of realization of nanoscale nanotechnology is being ascribed to Feynman/Drexler nanotechnology."

"This is a problem, since the confusion may cause a boom/bust cycle in nanotech funding, or more importantly, cause people to underestimate the dangers of Feynman/Drexler nanotechnology. Allowing such confusion to continue would be inconsistent with Foresight's goal of 'guiding emerging technologies to improve the human condition.'"

"To resolve this confusion, I suggest that Feynman/Drexler nanotechnology be renamed to 'mechutechnology' and that the term 'nanotechnology' be assumed to refer to nanoscale bulk nanotechnology."

"This is obviously a fairly radical suggestion, perhaps likely to generate much heat. However, given the continuing confusion between the two nanotechnologies, it seems imperative that something be done about it ñ and this seems to me to be the best (though still somewhat painful) solution."

16 Responses to “Rename Feynman/Drexler Nanotech to Mechutech”

  1. chip Says:

    Maybe not

    Relabelling things is often a useful rhetorical maneuver, especially when confronted with the sorts of issues this proposal is attempting to address. However, a few objections from a memetic engineering point of view come immediately to mind:

    • Established groups often treat use of neologisms as a social marker by which they identify flakes and charlatans who may safely be ignored. Statistically speaking, I think it's actually a pretty accurate marker too. A term like this self-identifies us as fringy.
    • This particular term has about as much poetic resonance as a dead fish. It sounds like something from a bad translation of a bad piece of Japanese science fiction.
    • It's true that there is currently a lot of confusion over the meaning of the term 'nanotechnology' and that the term is seeing overly broad appropriation by a wide variety of folks doing things we wouldn't remotely consider to be nanotechnology. But while this phenomenon may be personally grating, I think that in the long run it serves our interest. Blending in with the herd may be unglamorous, but it's how real things often happen. It may be a very inefficient process compared to one's idealized conception of a nanotech development scheme, but the latter is not one of the choices on offer.
  2. The Living Fractal Says:

    Re:Maybe not

    As much as there is a difference between nano-bulk and FDN there's no reason to get all picky and start making up new names. What we have already works pretty well. In chat rooms and even in casual conversation I find that simply saying FDN for what 'we' consider to be 'real' nanotech works quite well and is easily remembered.

    Regardless of the poetic value of the name we give our technologies… we should at least go the extra distance to remember those who brought us here through including their names or likeness in our terminology. I call it FDN because Feynman and Drexler were historically significant in the whole process and I think it's important to remember our history.

    Let's at least not make up names that attempt to force recognition. I think people can agree with that.

  3. PatGratton Says:

    Re:Maybe not

    Responding to both Chip and Living Fractal (and paraphrasing both of them)…

    Chip…

    We'll sound fringy if we start using new words.
    First, Drexler and Foresight already coin and use new words (nanotechnology, machine phase matter, nanomedicine, mechanochemistry).

    Second, while the general public is less accepting of new terms than technical people are, they will accept new terms for things that sufficiently new and different and which have an impact on their lives. Hence words such as "nanotechnology", "the web", "dot com" do make it into the language of the general public. Granted, our technician's love of neologisms should be restrained – but it shouldn't be capped off completely! As I argue in the papers, this is a case when there's sufficient reason to introduce a new term.

    "Mechutechnology" sounds ugly.
    That may be an ear of the beholder sort of judgement. However… The root, "mechule" or "mechu" is short (2 syllables), and suggests both mechanical action and atomic precision (through similarity to "molecule") – which is precisely what distinguises FD nanotech from NS nanotech. And it's easy to pronounce. Personally, I'd be surprised if a better term could be invented.

    …overly broad appropriation…
    One of my major points in Part 1 was that developers of NS nanotech haven't appropriated the term – that NS nanotech in fact has a better claim to the term "nanotechnology" than FD nanotech does. (See the Part 1 paper for those arguments.)

    Blending in with the herd is unglamorous, but desirable in the real world.
    Why? Are you suggesting that FD nanotech will develop more rapidly if people confuse it with NS nanotech? And that therefore, Foresight should allow that confusion to continue?

    First, Part 1 was written for the general public (and in particular for people considering in investing in nanotechnology) – for them such confusion is undesirable – the confusion might cause them to overinvest.

    Second, in Part 2, I argue that even for FD nanotech advocates such confusion is undesirable. If you can provide me with counterarguments, I'd be glad to try to answer them.

    Living Fractal…

    There's no need for a new term – confusion is not a problem.
    That's certainly not my experience: almost every newspaper article that I've read on nanotech has either confused FD and NS nanotech, or has derided FD nanotech as "fringe" or "science fiction". (If you'd like, I could easily supply a list of newspaper and magazine articles which confuse FD and NS nanotech.) Even in nanotech venture capital conferences, confusion between the two technologies is not the exception, but the norm.

    FDN is a better term because it credits the orginators.
    That's a good point, but against that: It's awkward to pronounce and use at length (I'm assuming that you would pronounce this as "eff-dee-en".) Also, it doesn't work well as a root (FDN-bot? FDN-facturing? FDN-medicine?).

    If instead you say "FD nanotech", then you're two syllables ("eff-dee") longer than "mechutech" – which is too long to pronounce or use on a regular basis – which means that the "FD" would be dropped most of the time. Which brings you back to plain "nanotech" and thus to confusion with NS nanotech.

  4. RobertBradbury Says:

    Good try but no cigar

    While I'm sympathetic to the motivation behind this work, I'm unhappy with its results.

    Pat points out in multiple places, "Mechutechnology is the technology of creating and using mechules, which are mechanically assembled, atomically precise structures". While that may be one path, it is by no means the only path. Many things we see in nature are self-assembled. You may need a mechanical assembler, e.g a ribosome, to assemble the proteins, but many if not most protein aggregates self-assemble. While Eric is a strong proponent of mechanical assembly, I know of no work he has done which denies the possibility of the self-assembling, auto-catalytic formation of atomically precise stiff structures. We already have examples related to this in the many biological proteins that self-organize around disulfide bonds or zinc atoms. One only needs to add the ability to turn weaker bonds into stronger bonds to completely eliminate the need for "mechanical" assembly.

    I think there may be a number of alternatives to mechanical assembly of molecules, including completely self-directed assembly and perhaps thermodynamically-assisted assembly (where the degrees of freedom of the molecules involved may be restricted [e.g. the AFM doesn't have to position the involved molecules in precisely the right locations -- just near enough to get the desired result much of the time.]).

    With respect to a few more concerns… "Nanotech will introduce nanoscale particles into the environment". Yes, and so? Hasn't the bioenvironment been inventing new nanoscale particles for billions of years to which it has had to adapt? What the heck do you think most antibiotics are but weapons that one strain of bacteria uses to disable or destroy another? Are not antibiotics "nanoscale particles"?

    "But mechutech may allow the creation of replicating mechubots able to eat the entire biosphere."

    First the emphasis should be on "may". The biosphere has been at war with itself for billions of years. We have no way of knowing what the complete arsenal of weapons may consist of. To be able to "eat" the entire biosphere one would have to know its entire repertoire of defenses. That information is not available at this time and is unlikely to be within the next 1-2 decades.

    Furthermore the biosphere eating scenario is overblown. Trumping nanoscale weaponry is a simple matter of energy or mass. Sufficient levels of concentrated energy or mass and the survival of nanomachinery is infeasible. So I refuse to accept the fear-mongering quotes.

    While I accept that the "Mechu-xxx" paradigm is an interesting and useful one for discussing a constrained mechanically/molecularly precise assembly process, I strongly reject the idea that it is the only path that can produce robust molecular nanotechnology. Pat's paradigm restricts the FD nanotech vision into a smaller box than that which is available.

  5. bhoover Says:

    Keep Nano

    You've stated obviously good points on the question. The most compelling is the confusion issue.

    The main problem I see is that at present , there really isn't as yet any FDN (though it, appears, from my layman's perspective to no doubt be only a matter of time before there is such) in the sense that there is an N (under the umbrella of which, in a nebulous though nevertheless tangible sense, FDN resides as a distinguished constituent). So it would seem premature to worry too much about breaking out a new term just yet.

    But if you must qualify the name (because despite my comments above, the confusion argument really is compelling), and again from layman's perspective – which may in fact be apropos – keep the nano!

    For instance: mechnanotechnology (little Mac :) , or MNT (ment)).

    Keep nano because:

    1) Maintains nanotechnology recognition (and deserved integrity), historical connection, and root definition.

    2) It sounds really cool.

    3) Most any even slightly science oriented person can identify with the word, and its coolness, eg, nanosecond.

    4) Mechutech doesn't really bring to mind the intended molecule part of it.

    5) Though mechutech does indeed have a nice ring to it, it unfortunately sounds like you want to mechanize me – mech – "you" – tech – and that scares me a little (can we at least get to know each other a little better first?). There can be a lot of bad reactions to the subliminal message this might resonate in some people. A kinder, more human message would be nice.

    6) I had an idea for a neat little animated .gif depicting a little old bent over "nanny" wearing a lab coat, peering into a microscope – I plan on calling her, Nanny Tech, Nano Nanny, Nanny Nano, or some such – and changing to mechutech would ruin everything :) .

  6. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Keep Nano

    Another reason not to change things, people forget what new acronyms mean (reading your response I had to go back and lookup what FDN meant…).

    Seriously, though we do have FN, perhaps FfDN (Feynman/fractional Drexler Nanotech)! I wish people would get that. Its called biotechnology. Feynman simply said there is plenty of room at the bottom to assemble things. Drexler out the principles on which you could build a stiff assembler that could do precise molecular positioning. He also spelled out several paths based on existing methods to do that. But doesn't mean those are the only paths.

    If you consider genes to be blueprints for molecular scale parts and the ribosome to be an assembler, not an assembler of stiff parts mind you, but an assembler nonetheless then, then you have the essential components needed to begin molecular scale engineering now! We don't need molecular sorting rotors built out of stiff diamondoid materials when we have cellular ion pumps that we could manufacture by the kg if we so desired.

    What we need is more clever people to realize that we have everything at hand for bio-nanotechnology and use it productively.

  7. RobVirkus Says:

    Re:Maybe not

    Nanotechnology is a continuum of capabilities which will culminate in something like assemblers. They may not look anything like the original Drexlerian vision in Engines of Creation but the capabilities should be similar. I think the terms which have evolved over time and with thought such as "molecular manufacturing", "mechanochemistry" and "machine phase matter" are fairly clear. By the way, I think the last term refers to the state of the matter and not its motion thus a gear is in machine phase whether it is static or dynamic. I have two objections to your proposed changes. First, the term "mechutech" would likely be shortened to "mechtech" in popular usage rather quickly and that term loses all meaning since it just would be associated with mechanical technology. Second, why change from being perceived as the holy grail of an exploding field to a new unknown field? The proposed changes may cause far greater confusion than that which exists now. I appreciate your effort though.

  8. PatGratton Says:

    Re:Maybe not

    Nanotechnology is a continuum of capabilities which will culminate in something like assemblers…
    This definition is clearly too broad ñ it would include all technologies which would culminate in assemblers. (E.g., software programming, systems engineering, power generation, etc.)

    I think the terms which have evolved over time and with thought such as "molecular manufacturing", "mechanochemistry" and "machine phase matter" are fairly clear.
    The evidence of general audience press, technical-business press clearly indicates that the difference between FD and NS nanotech is not clear.

    By the way, I think the last term refers to the state of the matter and not its motion thus a gear is in machine phase whether it is static or dynamic.
    The definitions that Iíve seen of machine-phase all include motion, e.g.: Nanosystems, p. 6: A machine-phase system is one in which all atoms follow controlled trajectories (within a range determined in part by thermal excitation).

    …the term "mechutech" would likely be shortened to "mechtech" in popular usage rather quickly and that term loses all meaning since it just would be associated with mechanical technology.
    I donít believe that this would happen ñ for the same reason that nanotech has not been shorted to ìnantechî ñ thereís just not sufficient need to shorten it further.

    Second, why change from being perceived as the holy grail of an exploding field to a new unknown field?
    FD nanotech is not the holy grail of NS nanotech. Nor would this change move FD nanotech to a new unknown field. It would be in the same field that itís been in all along – only the name would be different. As for why the two technologies should be distinguished ñ I think that I provide exactly those reasons in the articles.

  9. RobVirkus Says:

    Re:Maybe not

    To your first point. I would call a person designing or programming an assembler or any aspect or its design or capabilities as working in the field of nanotechnology in the Drexlerian sense even if they were only working on code or power generation or whatever. It is the goal which defines the field. A chemist writing code is still a chemist and a mechanical engineer writing code is still an mechanical engineer.

    "The evidence of general audience press, technical-business press clearly indicates that the difference between FD and NS nanotech is not
    clear".
    The press will catch up with more progress and we have the best words to clear up their confusions already.

    "The definitions that I've seen of machine-phase all include motion, e.g.: Nanosystems, p. 6: A machine-phase system is one in which all
    atoms follow controlled trajectories (within a range determined in part by thermal excitation)."
    This definition applies to all states including rest. A gear is still a gear when at rest. The atomic trajectories are still controlled or constrained.

    "FD nanotech is not the holy grail of NS nanotech"
    Well the media seems to think so and in truth the one won't happen without the other.

  10. PatGratton Says:

    Re:Good try but no cigar

    Alternatives to Mechanical Assembly… This is a good point, deserving a long answer ñ which Iíll provide separately…

    With respect to a few more concerns… One could make similar arguments about many current pollutants: plastics (polymers are already found in nature), toxic metals (also found in soil, etc.) Unfortunately, such arguments would be wrong ñ plastics and metals are toxic pollutants under certain conditions. While nanoparticles are already found in nature, nanoparticles produced by nanotechnology would have sizes, shapes and distribution densities different from the current natural spectrum. Given their size and density distributions, itís reasonable to imagine that artificial nanoparticles might interfere with the workings of cells (human and otherwise), or that they might interfere with biological processes in other ways. Do we know that this would happen? No, but itís clearly a reasonable possibility (indeed, one which the NNI is spending a significant part of its budget investigating), and hence it is a recognized peril of NS nanotech.

    Gray Goo Scenario… I used the gray goo scenario in the publication because itís more likely to be known to the general public, and hence required less explanation. However, as I also stated in the article, FD nanoweapons are a more realistic concern than gray goo. And I do not believe that the likely FD nanoweapon attacks could be simply countered. Nukes strong enough to destroy most FD nanoweapons in an area would quite likely kill most people as well ñ or at least most ìgoodî FD nanodevices. (BTW, I would think that the most likely nanoweapon would not be something that used crude physical force (explosion), but rather something like a worm buried in the code of medical FD nanorobots ñ perhaps something that would activate body-wide cell apoptosis, perhaps with a timer based on circadian rhythms that would trigger the apoptosis to occur around a specific date. Thousands, if not millions of such attacks can be envisioned ñ how do you detect and counter all of them?)

  11. PatGratton Says:

    Re:Keep Nano

    there really isn't as yet any FDN…So it would seem premature to worry too much about breaking out a new term just yet… First, it clearly exists as a theoretical possibility, and thus we need a name to encapsulate that theoretical vision ñ in language, we need words to describe possibilities as well as actualities. (Your argument is akin to saying that we should not have had a phrase like ìmoon rocketî until we actually sent a rocket to the moon.) Second, rudimentary FD nanotech experiments have already been done (e.g., spelling out ìIBMî with atoms).

    mechnanotechnology… Too long. Also suffers from the problems of inaccuracy associated with the length scale implied by nano (the fundamental building blocks (atoms) are below the nanometer scale, while many of the interesting structures (e.g., artificial phagocytes and space towers) are above the nanometer scale).

    Historical continuation… would be useful, but is outweighed by the problems with length, breadth and inaccuracy given previously.

    The remaining arguments (2-6) are not substantive.

  12. bhoover Says:

    Re:Keep Nano

    First, it clearly exists as a theoretical possibility, and thus we need a name to encapsulate that theoretical vision..

    I agree. Note that I qualified my contention:

    ..there really isn't as yet any FDN .. in the sense (bold added) that there is an N..

    My thought is that it may be a bit premature to wean this child (FDN) out of N just yet – the suggestion being, that the benefits do not outweigh the costs, so to speak. But, nevertheless, the time is coming (I hesitate to say this 'cause I'm not qualified to speak authoritatively here, but many agree, and such indeed appears to be the case – it's very exciting – hurry up you guys!).

    mechnanotechnology… Too long.

    It is a bit long, though easily shortened to mechnanotech, MNT (if you can stand another acronym) or ment (I really like that one).

    Also suffers from the problems of inaccuracy associated with the length scale implied by nano (the fundamental building blocks (atoms) are below the nanometer scale, while many of the interesting structures (e.g., artificial phagocytes and space towers) are above the nanometer scale).

    You may be streaching it a bit here – perhaps confusing the "hair spliting" accuracy of nanotechnology, with that neccessary for the language describing it :) ? Similar argument could just as well be advanced relative to mechutech – for instance, "space towers" are no more (or less) mechule, than a straw man is atomic (or molecular). For that matter, isn't FDN concerned with cellular mechanics? (An engine mechanic is concerned with nuts and bolts, but we don't call them nuts and bolts mechanics.)

    The remaining arguments (2-6) are not substantive.

    Well, I'm sure this is convenient for you, but pardon me, if I beg to differ :) .

    Ironically, you're basing an argument on semantics, and then dismissing with a hand wave, response points addressing the same (though I realize your objective is not so much asthetically motivated as it is utilitarian). While I don't expect you to care about the death of Nano Nanny (and the many adventures I'd planned for this elderly, though quite spry and twinkle eyed, senior citizen), I trust you are concerned with how your term is received (obviously) – not only by scientists, but by the general public.

    The general public's perception may be more important than scientists'. You could call it foo, and scientists in the field would still know what you were talking about. Semantics is more of an issue relative to the uninitiated.

    Sensitivity to our natural fear of the unknown, and garnering public acceptence may be key, and coining a new word is an excellent opportunity to manifest such sentiments.

    Anyway, why shorten it to mechutech? How do you like mechuletech? It's more immediately descriptive (especially once familiar with mechule).

  13. PatGratton Says:

    Re:Keep Nano

    Is FDN concerned with cellular mechanics? No and yes. No, in the sense that this field of study (actually several fields of study) is already well named and colonized by scientists (cytology, biomolecular chemistry, etc.). Yes, in two senses: first ,cellular mechanics provides many lessons for FDN approaches, and second because it might be adapted into a type of FDN. However, cellular mechanics is not part of FDN.

    Public Impact… Iím certainly concerned about public impact of terms. However your earlier argument that ìmechutechî would suggest borgification to the general public seemed too far fetched to be credible ñ hence I did not address it

    Esthetics… Yes, I considered ìmechuletechî ñ as well as a number of other variations. I rejected these variations on grounds of ease of speech – my final choice seemed the shortest and easiest to pronounce, while still retaining uniqueness and consistency.

  14. PatGratton Says:

    Vision vs. Technology

    I would distinguish between a vision and a technology. Feynman laid out the vision of control of structures all the way down to the atomic scale. Drexler expanded on that vision in Engines of Creation, but did not originate FD nanotech until he published Nanosystems.

    Nanosystems lays out and analyzes in depth a mechanochemical approach to the FD vision ñ thus Nanosystems is the foundation of FD nanotech. I.e., FD nanotech did not exist until Nanosystems was published.

    If there is an approach to the FD vision that is not centered around mechanochemistry, then that approach, because of its radical difference from FD nanotech, should be recognized as a separate technology from FD nanotech.

    If our current knowledge and control of the working of cells (i.e., biotechnology) could be used with very few modifications to achieve the FD vision, then I think that no new name would be necessary ñ we would simply recognize that biotech is much more powerful than it is currently thought to be. OTOH, if very substantial additions to biotechnology were necessary to achieve the FD vision, then I think that it would warrant a new name altogether.

    It seems to me that Iím actually saying nearly the same thing as Robert here ñ except that Iím distinguishing between the FD vision and the FD (nano)technology.

  15. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Vision vs. Technology

    I would disagree. I think Eric spelled out quite clearly a vision for FD nanotech in his PNAS paper in 1981! That was more than a decade before Nanosystems was published.

    I've expanded his approach using our current biotech capabilities and even added some cost estimates and pictures in my Protein Based Assembly of Nanoscale Parts paper. Figure 6. provides a fairly clear picture of the "wet" path to moderately robust FD nanotech that I believe could be followed over the next two decades. It may not be able to build everything that FD nanotech can build but it could probably build a fairly robust subset.

  16. PatGratton Says:

    Re:Vision vs. Technology

    Almost all concepts have fuzzy boundaries. I think that weíre in one of those boundary areas right now…

    I categorize the documents that weíre considering as: Vision statement ñ lays out a goal. Research proposal ñ argues that a goal can be reached and roughly how it can be reached, using arguments based on current science and technology. Basic technology ñ provides basic knowledge needed to work in a given field. Detailed technology ñ provides detailed ìhow toî instructions for doing work in a field ñ e.g., itís almost a cookbook. (Note that both types of technology documents are distinguished from vision statements and research proposals by being practical references for workers in the field.)

    With these definitions, I would identify Drexlerís books and papers of the early 80ís as vision statements and research proposals, while Nanosystems and his similar studies and papers as basic technology. I would rate your paper as vision + research proposal + (maybe some) basic technology. (With the major qualification that my biotech knowledge is not nearly strong enough to expertly distinguish new from existing technology.)

    In short, being more chronologically accurate that I was before, Drexler published FD vision papers before Engines of Creation and FD nanotech papers before Nanosystems. However, these two works are useful reference points because of their depth of detail and degree of dissemination.

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