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Briefing Document: NANOBOTS NOT NEEDED

Mike Treder writes "SUMMARY: The popular idea of so-called nanobots, powerful and at risk of running wild, is not part of modern plans for building things ìatom-by-atomî by molecular manufacturing. Studies indicate that most people don't know the difference between molecular manufacturing, nanoscale technology, and nanobots. Confusion about terms, fueled by science fiction, has distorted the truth about advanced nanotechnology. Nanobots are not needed for manufacturing, but continued misunderstanding may hinder research into highly beneficial technologies and discussion of the real dangers.

More…. [Ed. note -- well worth reading]… Nanobots have plagued nanotechnology from the beginning. Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation" (1986), which introduced nanotechnology to the public, described certain kinds of tiny robots with limited capability. But in some fiction and fanciful speculation, these "nanorobots" or "nanobots" possess near-magical powers: transforming any object into anything else, acting as a universal medical device, or destroying anything they touch. This idea has caused confusion about the actual goals of advanced nanotechnology[1] research.

Originally, nanotechnology was about building stuff from the atoms up. "Assemblers" were specialized molecular construction machines. "Disassemblers" were research tools to figure out how to make things. A programmable atom-based manufacturing system would be able to build as many more systems as desired. But all these ideas merged with the nanobot concept, plus a heavy dose of science fiction, to create the idea of a single machine that could do it allóand might run wild, turning the world into a "gray goo" of self-copies.[2]

Meanwhile, the meaning of "nanotechnology" was being stretched. As funding opportunities increased, researchers in related and distant fields of nanoscale technology adopted the term to describe work they'd been doing for decades. By 1992, Drexler had to coin "molecular manufacturing" and "molecular nanotechnology" to indicate what he originally meant by nanotechnology.

Studies have shown that most readers don't know the difference between molecular manufacturing, nanoscale technology, and nanobots. Most nanoscale technologies use big machines to make small products. Molecular manufacturing is about tiny manufacturing systems. But those manufacturing systems are not nanobots.[3] Modern plans for molecular manufacturing do not involve self-contained nanoscale construction robots at all.

No one worries about an inkjet printer crawling off the desk and stealing ink cartridges. Molecular manufacturing systems will be no more autonomous than inkjets. Early, primitive, microscopic systems will not even have onboard computers. In advanced designs, called nanofactories,[4] the molecular fabrication apparatus will all be fastened down in well-ordered ranks inside a much larger structure. All designs will be externally controlled and supplied, capable of producing a duplicate nanofactory in about an houróbut only on command.

As nanoscale technologies begin to move from the lab to the marketplace, and attention turns to molecular manufacturing research, it will be increasingly important for journalists to counter outdated and incorrect ideas of nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. Both scientists and the public have gotten the idea that molecular manufacturing requires the use of nanobots, and they may criticize or fear it on that basis. The truth is less sensational, but its implications[5] are equally compelling.

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is headquartered in New York. CRN is an affiliate of World Care, an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization.


[1] Nanotechnology has several definitions. Today, a widely accepted definition is any technology involving structures between 1 and 100 nanometers with novel properties. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, roughly the length your fingernails grow in one second.) There are many ways of building nanoscale structures and materials, and for each there is a different branch of nanotechnology. Most of these nanoscale technologies use large tools to create small structures. In general, these can be understood as traditional industrial or chemical processes, and not the same thing as molecular manufacturing. For more, see "What is Nanotechnology?" at, and "What Is Molecular Manufacturing?" at,Feb

[2] For more on this worry, see "Gray Goo is a Small Issue" at

[3] In the long term, some products of molecular manufacturing systems could be nanobots (e.g., for medical use), but these are not envisioned to be metabolizing or self-replicating (at least not by credible researchers).

[4] See "Bootstrapping a Nanofactory" at

[5] For information on the risks and benefits of advanced nanotechnology, see "CRN Research: Overview of Current Findings" at

21 Responses to “Briefing Document: NANOBOTS NOT NEEDED”

  1. Kadamose Says:

    Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    Face it, 'nanobots' are required for mature nanotechnology – unless, of course, the technology remains in the hands of the few, and never becomes widespread – which is what I fear is happening at this moment.

    It's not a misconception – most of us know the difference between nanoscale bulk technologies and molecular manufacturing.

    Molecular manufacturing, using bulk technologies and human error, is unrealistic – simply because the process would be too slow to actually produce anything of value, and would not meet the world's consumption requirements. With nanomachines in the equation, it eliminates the use of bulk technologies, and human input; thus increasing the output by several fold.

    These arguments over whether nanomachines are required or not are ludicrous and are simply used as patsies to quelch some of the fear of gray goo and the like. Needless to say, it's not working…so stop wasting precious intellect on matters that are completely false.

  2. HLovy Says:

    If I may object …

    NanoBots are Needed

    To me, fighting against a word like "nanobot" — a word that has been adopted by the general public and infused into the culture — is akin to Eric Drexler's failed attempt to rename his vision of nanotechnology "zettatechnology." They're spitting into the wind. Why would they want to take a simple word that has captured the public imagination and muck it up with distinctions that mean little to the public at large? Nanobot is a cool word (if I do say so myself), and it should be embraced when speaking to the general public. It's only in our own closed circle that it takes on political or derisive meanings.

    More on Howard Lovy's NANOBOT

  3. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    We may be spinning our wheels on the lack of clear specifics. Molecular assembly will certainly require "nanorobots". A complex molecular assembler is an example of such. The "broadcast architecture" designed to prevent the potential problem that the "nanorobots" can make copies of themselves without supervision is created to deal with the problem of unregulated self-replication. However self-replicating "nanobots" as commonly perceived by the public are *not* required for robust nanotechnology and indeed probably slow down its development because too much emphasis will be placed upon the design of things which can self-replicate (not a trivial problem) rather than the design of things which can be made cheaply, are safe, and can be widely distributed.

  4. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    "Why" we should mess with "simple words" depends on the definition — or in this case the perceived definition. Change the word "nanobot" to "biobot" and what you have is bacteria. We have the molecular sequence of the genomic programs (aka a "nanoprogram") for at least 250 species "biobots" now. A decent lab can knock off the genomic sequence of a new species in a few weeks, though interpreting what it means may take somewhat longer.

    The public as a whole tends to deal with oversimplifications which as a result creates misimpressions. The details are in such things as whether or not one has a "molecularly precise assembler". The Drexler v. Scientific American v. a number of other scientists has consumed this topic for nearly a decade. We *already* know of multiple "molecularly precise assemblers". They are called (DNA polymerase, RNA polymerase and the ribosome). Then one needs to add the question of whether or not your xxx-bot can self-replicate. Bacteria (biobots) can, viruses (nanoscale chemical assemblies) cannot. The public is also generally unaware of the unaware of the number of "biobots" (aka nanobots) that they have swimming around inside of themselves (40+ trillion, Nanomedicine, Vol. I, Sec. 8.5.1). So the invention and use of the term "nanobot" tends to be entirely pointless other than from a "hype" perspective.

    So you can object. But I think it may be reasonable to place some attention on "simple words" and what they *really* mean. It is always useful to be mindful of how much of humanity may be lost as a result of even daily delays in the development of nanotechnology which might result from the use of poorly defined words.

  5. stompdonky Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    These arguments over whether nanomachines are required or not are ludicrous and are simply used as patsies to quelch some of the fear of gray goo and the like."

    I don't believe the article mentions the word nanomachines once. The approach for molecular manufacturing, advocated by Mike Treders group CRN, certainly requires nanomachines in the form of nanofabricators. I recommend checking out the links from the article. Especially

  6. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    The problem isn't nanobots in general, it's nanobots used as construction tools. That's only one step away from evoking worries of those "nanobot assemblers" turning into gray goo. It's important that journalists writing about molecular manufacturing should know that nanobots are not construction tools any longer.


  7. ChrisPhoenix Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    Nanomachines are certainly required for molecular manufacturing.

    "Nanobot" has never been defined, but implies something free-floating and at least semi-autonomous. Nanobots are not in fact needed for molecular manufacturing.


  8. HLovy Says:

    Re:If I may object …


    Then take control of the word and redefine it to fit the meaning you'd like to give it. "Nanobot" is a perfectly vague word and can take on different meanings, depending on whose brain it passes through. I've argued before that the Feynman/Drexler vision of nanotechnology is the one that has has the upper hand in the wider culture. It's the business community that has the tough job of redefining nanotech as cosmetics, pants and tennis rackets.

    So, don't make your job harder. Take the word, the concept that the public already has regarding nanotechnology and then talk about the distinctions for anybody who's interested.

    Step back. Get some perspective. The average reader will take a look at this CRN brief and either misinterpret it as meaning it no longer believes in molecular manufacturing or, perhaps even worse, they're just another "insider" nanotech group joining these squabbles over definitions.

    Believe me. I'm a writer and believe in the precise meanings of words. I also believe that words have cultural connotations and definitions that one must also be aware of.


  9. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines


    Someday there will be a conversation, or more likely probably a conference, involving the "nanointelligentsia" [1] and we may have a debate as to what "nanobots" actually are (differentiated from "biobots" mind you) and what they might do (or may or might have done) to advance or retard progress towards nanotechnology in its various forms.

    1. Side note. See(!) I too can stick the "nano-" prefix in front of a word and invent a new concept (which has several meanings depending upon how you think about it…). There aren't too many compound words that one can come up with which register virtually *zero* Google hits (even nanozombie has at least a few references) …

  10. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    Agreed, but I don't intend to even attempt to take on "Fantastic Voyage" or "Prey" (and with a few more minutes I could think up a few more good examples of distortions of nanotechnology). [In fact why don't you propose that as a subject for nanodot? Given a list of examples I'm relatively certain we could get it hosted by Foresight.]

    But getting back to your point — I've looked over Mike's discussion again and I can't see where you are getting "…as meaning it no longer believes in molecular manufacturing…". With respect to 'insider definition discussions' these are necessary — for example there are still debates over "What constitutes a 'black hole'?", "How big or small they can they be?", "How long do they exist?" etc. And if we can't answer those questions it may be difficult to determine when the Earth may be swallowed up by one. [1]

    We agree on the F/D perspective and the problem within business and this is fundamentally a problem of "vision". And right now within nanotechnology there isn't much of that. A lot of hype, a lot of good science, but very little vision. That is why IMO, efforts such as Mike's, involving taking apart what may be misperceptions and reframing them may be worth the effort.

    1. Actually I may be stretching things somewhat but as the recent Hawkings retraction shows these ideas are still in a state of flux.

  11. HLovy Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    Actually, Robert, I think you've made an argument for my case. It's precisely because you can find very little "vision" in the nanotech business community or the government effort that Foresight and CRN should step in to fill the vacuum. CRN is an admirable two-man show (and I was among the first to give them exposure even back when I worked for the business media), but still only a two-man show. So, they can only do selective, pinpoint hits. Why not make it a positive message? Let the scientific "establishment" be the grumpy old men and go out of their way to say what is not possible, or complain about the media that oversimplify their message. CRN hurts its status as a "visionary" group when it decides to "go negative," especially when it attacks nanotech's portrayal in the media. Of course the mainstream media oversimplify. That will never change. Accept it … and use it. Learn a lesson from the ETC Group. Single-handedly, this small group people have been able to manipulate the media into believing that there is scientific evidence that nanoparticles pollute the soil and, if they don't asphyxiate you, they'll leave you brain damaged. Learn from the masters! However, you've got something better on your side — a positive message, a vision and your status as an underdog and, in the long run, the future. Howard No, there is nothing false in Mike Treder's report.

  12. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    Howard, I'm generally not going to touch this statement. But I think there may be a point here we can agree on. Nanotechnology, Foresight, CRN, etc. could all benefit significantly from the services of a professional PR person of the level one sees on a weekly basis on "The West Wing."

  13. HLovy Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    Never watched "The West Wing," but if you're suggesting I should go into PR, well, them's fightin' words where I come from. In all seriousness, though, if the battle is for hearts and minds, then simplification is necessary. The more people approve of your vision — remember, not necessarily understand it, but feel good about it — the more likely they'll be to either leave you alone to work on your science or lobby their representatives to give you some money. That's the way it's supposed to work in a democracy, anyway. Actually, no matter what kind of government you live under, it's best that you make it understandable to the people. Remember the 20th century? In all the major "ism" revolutions, the first ones to be carted away were the intellectuals. But I digress … Howard

  14. Anonymous Coward Says:

    "Don't be rediculous…

    …it's a robot! Robots have never hurt a human.

  15. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    Alright so my question is this: Once some repetive molecular pick and place system able to do covalent molecular assembly is built, and begins to be produced in large amounts, and these National nanotechnology initiatives and whatever else begin focusing on TRUE molecular manufacturing, what do you all think the first main systems will be focused on? General purpose molecular assembly systems and how to make them? Nano mechanical medical machines? also: What needs to be done before people stop focusing on and wasting time on "Nanoscale Technologies" and start for the MEAT of the molecular world: Molecular Manufacturing/Assembly???

  16. jayakar Says:

    Nanobotic-operations rather than Nanobots

    Nanobotic-operations are extrinsically driven (as we presume as the Natural-botic operations existing in the nature); whereas the Nanobots are assigned as intrinsically driven modules, that is not applicable. On viewing the health-care applications there are probabilities for the fusion of Allopathic medicine with the Alternative medicines (traditional systems of medicine).

  17. WillWare Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    "Nanobot" has never been defined, but implies something free-floating and at least semi-autonomous.

    What makes distortive sci-fi work is the autonomy, the idea that this thing could choose and pursue an agenda that we humans didn't set. If you handle that concern, then you can move on to real issues, e.g. that different sets of humans have different agendas.

    I agree with everything Mike wrote, but share the concern that journalists may be a bad target for the essay. Shrill prose sells newspapers. But do journalists set public expectations about complex ideas like nanotech? I think creative outlets (novels, movies, TV, comic books) do more, or at least could nudge debate in the direction of real issues rather than fake ones.

    Then again, a flopped movie spun on a bad premise can publicly clarify that the premise really doesn't merit debate. Maybe we need one summer of badly-written gray goo movies.

  18. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Re:Robust Nanotechnology REQUIRES Nanomachines

    caddy needs to get apolitical clue; chill out and play the game;

  19. RobertBradbury Says:

    Re:If I may object …

    Cough… But within human cells they *would* be used as construction (or at least repair) tools. This is not much different from the nanorobots operating in your gut that make vitamins for you every day.

    Just because it performs "construction" doesn't make it "bad". We aren't too far away from sub-microscale chemical manufacturing devices that produce insulin on demand (this is a very simple detection and production loop to engineer). But just because we have nano-robot like devices that we could inject into the body that would perform a useful "construction" function does not inherently mean that they are "bad". (And please don't go splitting hairs with respect to "chemical" construction vs. "mechanical construction". Last time I checked the human body was a mixture of both.

  20. Jeremy Duke Says:

    Well I didn’t all the documentaries considering I am just a kid. So I don’t now I anyone said this so why can’t the nonobots, when finished with their duty,just lie dormant within the body to kill anyother diesises the nonobots can detect.

  21. Christine Peterson Says:

    Jeremy: the main reason is that some people are made nervous by the idea of having the devices stay inside. Your generation is likely to feel differently about that. —Christine

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