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Unraveling the Big Debate over Small Machines

Anonymous Coward writes "

Behind the public face of nanotechnology — the science fiction novels, environmental doomsday prophecies and excited research news — a debate has been evolving and swirling for the past decade around a fundamental question: Can tiny machines build things useful to humans by moving molecules or even individual atoms?

More…. This isn't a debate of concern only to those in the ivory tower of academia. A major goal of nanotechnologists is to create nanoscale robots — nanobots — that can perform various functions at the nanoscale. These functions include molecular manufacturing: Using nanobot designs, such as fabricators and assemblers, to build products with atomically precise control. Considering the possible applications of nanobots and molecular manufacturing in medicine, computing, industrial production and more, the debate's importance becomes apparent.

Having recognized the debate's importance, writer Patrick Bailey set out to unravel the arguments for Betterhumans. In an article freely available on Betterhumans.com (http://www.betterhumans.com), Bailey reports on the debate over conceptions, misconceptions, theories and misrepresentations of physics and chemistry. And after poring over the arguments and speaking with the experts, he finds no evidence for the claim that nanobots and molecular manufacturing are impossible.

For example, Bailey reports that:

- Two key arguments known as the "sticky fingers" and "fat fingers" problems are red herrings because grabbing individual atoms is not part of serious proposals for nanobots and molecular manufacturing.

- Claims that enzyme catalysis only works in water — which some have argued is necessary for any nanobot proposals that use enzymes — are incorrect because research shows that enzyme catalysis can occur in non-water-based environments.

- Claims that nanobots would take far too long to produce macroscale products don't account for convergent assembly and "nanofactories."

- Claims that nanobots can never be as good as biological organisms are based on measuring the wrong criteria, and if biological parts do prove better then manmade parts they can be exploited for nanobot design — which much research already demonstrates is feasible.

Overall, Bailey reports, the evidence suggests that the debate over nanobots and molecular manufacturing might need to shift its focus from if molecular manufacturing could happen to how and when."

Ed. Note: Yes, an important observation — how does one shift the debtate from "if" to "how" and "when".

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