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Debate with “Soft Machines” continues

Richard Jones over at Soft Machines has comments on molecular manufacturing. Richard: ì[S]ystems that make thingsî should only be a small part of the story. We need systems that do things – we need to process energy, process information, and, in the vital area of nanomedicine, interact with the cells that make up humans and their molecular components. CP: Yes, but as has been repeatedly pointed out, we need better systems that make things in order to build better systems that do things. Manufacturing may be a boring word compared to energy, information, and medicine, but it is fundamental to all. See Read More. Richard: For the idea of general purpose manufacturing to be convincing, one would need to believe that there was an analogous way in which all material things could be represented by a simple low level code. CP: But isn't it the case that we already have ways to represent 3D molecular structures in code, including atom types and bonds? It's not clear why this wouldn't do the job. It's true that atoms come in more types than bits, but why should that be a showstopper? (Yes, I know you did not use that word! But you implied it. ;^)

Richard: I think this leads to an insoluble dilemma – the need to find simple low level operations drives one to use a minimum number – preferably one – basic mechanosynthesis step. But in limiting ourselves in this way, we make life very difficult for ourselves in trying to achieve the broad range of functions and actions that we are going to want these artefacts for. Material properties are multidimensional, and itís difficult to believe that one material can meet all our needs. CP: How did we get into the position of needing to use only one material here? First we were discussing the representation of structures, and now the (alleged) need for simple low-level representation codes has turned into a need to use one material. This seems like fuzzy thinking… or maybe, soft? Sorry, sorry, couldn't resist it! But seriously, this does not follow.

Richard: Matter is not digital. CP: Atoms are digital, for our purposes here, rather than analog. Really, they are, close enough for engineering purposes. (Reminder to readers: digital does not mean binary; it means discrete instead of continuous in value.) We can't play with them they way we can with bits…yet. But someday, we will. Yes, there are rules that must be followed, but we'll learn to keep within them, as we've learned to follow rules in arranging bits into patterns that make sense. The main question is, how long will it take, which partly depends on how much is invested, which partly depends on when this current debate is concluded. So thanks for helping get it over with, Richard! May the correct perspective prevail, whatever it may be.–Christine

4 Responses to “Debate with “Soft Machines” continues”

  1. RichardJones Says:

    Debating and acting

    Two quick points: You say " The main question is, how long will it take, which partly depends on how much is invested, which partly depends on when this current debate is concluded", which to me implies you think we're sitting about having the debate, and when the debate is finished we'll go and do some work. This isn't my position; I have my views about what the best design philosophy for nanotechnology should be, and with my colleagues we're working in the lab to develop them and demonstrate them. Many other people around the world are trying things out, some of which are similar in spirit to our approach, some of which are rather different, and that's as it should be. Naturally, I'd quite like to persuade other people that my approach is the right one, but the proof of that isn't going to come from a debate, it's going to come from results out of laboratories.

    Secondly (and this also relates to your characterisation of me as a sceptic in your post a day or two ago), I do want to point out that you edited out some of the most significant parts of my post. In particular, I begin by quoting Drexler, and saying that I almost completely agree with him. I am sceptical about whether the diamond mechanochemistry route to radical nanotechnology is the right one, but I'm not at all sceptical about whether radical nanotechnology is possible. It's a question of ends and means. I'm quite sure that the end – a radical nanotechnology – will be possible (though I certainly differ with you as to what it will look like and what its impacts will be). What I'm arguing about is the means by which we get there.

  2. ChrisPeterson Says:

    Re:Debating and acting

    I agree that proof will come from the labs, rather than from debate. The debate is important, though, because it affects funding, which affects what one can try in the labs.

    I should make a clarification — this is really important, and I'm surprised that it hasn't come out clearly in the debate to date — diamond mechanochemistry is not seen as a route to radical nanotechnology, but as an example of what could be done once we reach that stage. It's a goal — one goal among many, for that advanced stage — rather than a pathway.

    Regarding the pathway, most of us interested in molecular manufacturing see bionano as a very promising pathway, perhaps the most promising one. As you say, what happens in the labs will show which path is most productive.


  3. RichardJones Says:

    Re:Debating and acting

    I do understand that distinction – it comes out clearly in this earlier exchange between me and Drexler. The reason the debate has got so focused on mechanosynthesis as a route to MNT is because this phase of the discussion crystallised around Philip Moriarty's critique of the Freitas/Merkle proposal.

    I will return to your technical comments when I get a bit more time.

  4. RichardJones Says:

    Bits and atoms

    Chris Phoenix from CRN has also written a commentary on my piece here. You can find a combined reply to both sets of comments on Soft Machines in this post – Bits and atoms.

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