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Is True Molecular Manufacturing impossible?

HLovy writes "Here we are, through the looking glass, where we ponder the impact of molecular nanotechnology upon the ethical fiber of our society, when we have yet to settle a cosmic bar bet on whether it's possible at all." See "Settle a little bet for me"

HLovy continues, from "Settle a little bet for me":

Let me explain: The U.S. government is paying for a University of South Carolina effort to study the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. The university is jumping enthusiastically into the project and will examine issues like what exactly our culture thinks of when it pictures "nanotechnology." It's going to hold what sounds like a fascinating conference in March to explore how nanotech images in the movies, visual arts and other media influence public understanding, and they'll look at how "self-replication and cascading effects" (translation: "gray goo") is becoming an immovable feature of that image.

As we saw from early 20th-century images of space travel, reality and popular myth often diverge in entertaining ways. In today's mythology, molecular manufacturing is often given a biological analogy, even though it's more likely that an exponentially growing nanosystem – whose individual components would lack the sophistication of a biological molecule – would be easier to predict and control than any mythical monster we've created.

Great stuff. All worthy of study. One problem. One big problem:

We're told that true molecular manufacturing is impossible. That's what eminent scientists have told Congress, anyway, and that's the focus of many spirited debates among the nanorati. The National Science Foundation can't seem to make up its mind, labeling large-scale self-replication "very speculative, more like science fiction," yet also part of its vision for the future.

Do you think it's time to settle the bet?

For more commentary, please see Howard Lovy's NanoBot.

7 Responses to “Is True Molecular Manufacturing impossible?”

  1. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    Time to start studying it…

    I posted the following comment over at Lovy's blog comment section:

    Yes, it's absolutely time to decide whether MNT can work. At this point, we don't need many breakthroughs, mainly a lot of engineering. The objections to the theory are a lot weaker than the work in support of it. "If there's no math, it's probably a myth"–and *all* the math so far is saying that MNT should work.

    In the past decade, MNT has gone from a far-distant projection of what-should-be-possible to a set of concrete proposals for a straightforward manuafacturing system based on a specific and easily analyzed method of chemistry. So let's see some real attention–including criticism–to the proposals.

    Assuming there's no mysterious showstopper that no one has discovered yet, how long will it take to develop? Depends largely on policy decisions and funding model. The cost and difficulty will decrease rapidly. I think by 2010 it'll be obvious that MNT can work, and it'll cost under $1 billion and five years to develop. At that point, if we can't fund it here, it'll happen somewhere else.

    But how can we fund it, when the scientific establishment is currently dead-set against it? We need to improve the standards of discussion. Demand to see the math. Don't assume that credentials imply credibility. Realize that the current refusal to look at MNT is politics, not science.

    And more importantly, how can we prepare for it if we don't believe it can happen? The final stages of development could happen very quickly–there won't be time to make sensible policy at the last minute. But without good policy, things could get very nasty in several different ways. We're currently betting our future that Smalley, Roco, and a few other prominent MNT deniers are right; this is not smart.

    Chris Phoenix
    Director of Research
    Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

  2. Kadamose Says:

    MNT is NOT Impossible

    Molecular Manufacturing is far from being impossible (nothing, and I mean NOTHING, is impossible) – it's just at this point in time, it's extremely difficult to implement with current technology – it's also difficult for 'textbook' scientists to accept something that shouldn't be possible in their outdated and censored research material.

    Smalley, and all those other wannabes, are simply denying MNT simply because, deep down, they fear it. They fear that MNT will topple the world that they've always known…it's a valid fear, and it's something that WILL happen, but in a very good way. In 9 more years, this world and everyone that lives in it, will witness great change – a literal heaven on earth will be established.

  3. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Re:Time to start studying it…

    First: I'm not a naysayer, this is just a reminder to temper your enthusiasm when dealing with people who "just don't get it." Most people don't need the reminder, but the ones who do increase the bogosity factor associated with MNT among those who don't have a strong scientific background, and maybe even among a few who do.

    But how can we fund it, when the scientific establishment is currently dead-set against it? We need to improve the standards of discussion. Demand to see the math. Don't assume that credentials imply credibility.

    Understand this cuts both ways.

    Is the scientific establishment against MNT, or simply being conservative in declaring something to be "a fact?" It's true that new science sometimes leads to technological revolutions, but keep in mind that no model of MNT has actually been experimentally tested yet (The last time I checked, the Feymnan Grand Prize was still available. Did I miss something?) In all likelyhood MNT can be achieved since the basic principles are well-established, but science generally doesn't progress by accepting new models (regardless of how well-established they are) without experimental verification.

    I realize Smalley went a step further than this in declaring MNT to be impossible. He is not "the scientific establishment." He's just a highly visible figure with credentials. Falsifiable and replicable experimental evidence is more valuable than any credentials, no matter how great.

    Realize that the current refusal to look at MNT is politics, not science.

    Science progresses by experimental verification of theory, not blind acceptance of any hypothesis simply because it sounds reasonable. (Although, in this case, it sounds very reasonable. That still doen't make it true until we see some working MNT devices.)

    It makes sense to say there is no known reason why MNT should be impossible, but this is not the same as saying MNT will be achieved.

  4. Morgaine Says:

    Doing is more important than advocating

    People may be worrying too much about the opinions of detractors in this area, even when those detractors are high-profile scientists. If those "scientists" are not smart enough to use mathematics and the scientific method to argue against nanotechnology in a coherent way then they're not smart enough for us to care about their alleged scientific opinions.

    That said, we do need to give ourselves a moral boost by demonstrating elements of the puzzle in action as often as we can. There is currently a vacuum that used to be filled by nanotech progress reports in Foresight Update, and I do think that many of us would like to see a more active stream of technical pointers filling that void, either on that high-profile page or elsewhere. Anything that generates more visible technical synergy for students, engineers, scientists and everyone else is always helpful. (Nanodot is very useful to the community, but it doesn't have a technical focus so hard info tends to drown in a sea of other material.)

    Ultimately though, what matters most is what we do technically, not what we say. Chris's interesting design study is the latest in a growing line of reasonably detailed idea germinators, and the ground in this area is extremely fertile so hopefully we'll see a few seedlings emerge from this. I would very much like to see a followup addendum outlining specific areas that need addressing for use as pivots from which that approach can be levered.

  5. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    Re:Time to start studying it…

    Anonymous, it's refreshing to see well-considered skepticism. We need more people like you in the discussion.

    I am not arguing that anyone should accept MNT as a given. Most of what I wrote was only to establish that the stakes are high, which means that people ought to be willing to look even at possibilities they think are unlikely.

    When I call for science to look at MNT, that is very different from asking them to accept it. But experiment is not the only way to verify a theory. Even before doing experiments, we can check it in simulation, evaluate its elegance, and test it against what's already known. (Note that experiments aren't falsifiable–that's an attribute of theories.)

    You ask whether the scientific establishment is opposed to MNT, or merely conservative. And you say that Smalley is "just a highly visible figure with credentials." Unfortunately, the scientific establishment these days is largely defined by funding. And the funding in this area is largely defined by the NNI. Of which Smalley is a major spokesman. So, MNT is unlikely to get funding. I've been told that the NNI won't approve any grant that has even a hint of Drexler associated with it.

    So maybe I shouldn't have blamed (even by implication) the scientists of which the establishment is made; maybe the blame mainly rests with the funders, of which the establishment is also made. But the fact remains that it's very hard for MNT to get a fair hearing in today's climate.

    I do not expect anyone to believe that MNT *will* be achieved without looking at the evidence. What I do want is for people to start evaluating the evidence rather than following the NNI's lead. In the past, the evidence has not been clear; but the last decade has developed a pretty detailed picture of how MNT could work. It's time for the establishment to examine this evidence; I'm pretty confident that they'll decide it can work–unless it is impossible to arrive at such a verdict and retain your funding.


  6. RichardJones Says:

    Ends and means

    (I posted this on H.Lovy's discussion board too)

    I think the problem with the discussion of the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology is that there's a confusion between ends and means. The end in question is the creation of nanoscale machines capable of doing useful things, particularly assembling other nanoscale objects. We know without doubt that this goal (one could call it radical nanotechnology) is achievable, because, as Drexler pointed out, biology offers an existence proof.
    But there is likely to be more than one means by which this end can be reached, and the proposed route based on carbon mechanochemistry that is associated with the vision of MNT is only one of them. Other routes to a radical nanotechnology would include the isolation and reassembly of biological machines (such as molecular motors) in artificial configurations – this is the program of bionanotechnology. Another route would involve exploiting the same principles as cell biology – the use of self-assembly, molecular recognition, molecular shape changes and Brownian motion – but using synthetic materials.
    The question, then, is not whether MNT is possible, but whether the specific MNT vision represents the best or most practical route to achieving a radical nanotechnology. My own view is that it does not. The difficulty is that the MNT vision considers the inescapable features of the nanoworld – strong surface forces, constant Brownian motion, what is, in the presence of water, a viscosity dominated environment, and a general lack of stiffness in the structures one has to work with – as problems to be engineered around. Biology, on the other hand, has evolved mechanisms that don't merely overcome these problems, they actively exploit them.
    I think the MNT vision is too coloured by our experience of engineering objects on the macroscale. As we understand more and more about how cell biology works, we'll understand how different the nanoworld is to the macroworld, and that biology offers a model for a much better way of engineering things on the nanoscale.

  7. Anonymous Coward Says:


    It all depends on what you mean by MNT. Obviously, if MNT is defined as mass production of useful things built from the "ground up", then it is definitely possible as long as the laws of nature/physics are followed. If MNT is defined as some sort of super-intelligent machinery that can consciously construct anything at a molecular level, then we're introducing some unlikely elements (no pun intended). Biology constructs useful things from the "ground up", but it doesn't mean that any part of the biology "machine" *knows* what it's doing. So any man-made MNT should probably be expected to act similarly.

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