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New version of Productive Nanosystems film released

Foresight Participating Member Mark Sims of Nanorex brings to our attention a new version of the five-minute film Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts posted at Google video. The description:

“Visualizing productive nanosystems and molecular manufacturing is a major challenge in communicating the power of this technology. To help address this problem, Nanorex ( ) and the Foresight Institute ( ) established a challenge grant to fund the production of a new computer-generated animated short film called “Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts”.

“This was a collaborative project of animator and engineer, John Burch ( ), and pioneer nanotechnologist, Dr. K. Eric Drexler ( ). The film depicts an animated view of a nanofactory and demonstrates key steps in a process that converts simple molecules into a billion-CPU laptop computer.”

28 Responses to “New version of Productive Nanosystems film released”

  1. anonimouse Says:


    Talk to any engineer who has set up a macro-scale production line. He’ll give you 10 reasons why, even though the unit reaction at a working tip can be calculated to work, The overall system is unbuildable.

    As a start,
    - Where are the sensors and limit switches found in a real production line?
    - Where is the engineer to look at the system and see if it is properly set up to specified tolerances?
    - How do you build the production line?
    - How do you purify you acetylene feedstock so that no hydrogen or water gets through the rotary mill feeds? (They don’t work like existing ion pumps in cell membranes. They probably don’t work at all.)
    - What are the motors for all that rotary and linear motion? What’s the power feed for all those motors? (A macro production line has lots of AC powered electric motors, and lots of hydrualic actuators, and lots of copper wiring).

    Macro production lines are set up by engineers and technicians using their hands and eyes, in good light, to get things working. Then they can turn out the lights and let things run until something breaks. But even when the lights are out, the production line has its own sensors and limit switches to provide sensory feedback; without them it can’t run.

    Engineers and technicians need sensory feedback loops (eyes, ears, and hands) and macro-scale actuators (hands and tools) to set things up and running, based on a design. The power for setup is provided by human muscles, electric motors (DeWalt), and petroleum-fueled motors (Caterpillar).

    The movie shows a factory that can’t be set up in the first place, because there’s no sensory feedback loop available to do the setup, and no tools to do the setup.

    In contrast, biology works because evolution provides the sensory feedback loop (survive and breed, or not) to set up the machinery through many generations of modification-trial and failure-culling/success-reproduction, and random motion of complicated molecules in water provides the actuation to set up the machinery. Chemical reactions in water provide the power both for setting up the machinery and for running the machinery.

  2. Christine Peterson Says:

    An early schematic of a 747 or Apollo Program system probably wouldn’t have shown all the sensors, actuators, and motors that were eventually needed. That’s what engineering process finds out, as it discovers specific problems and addresses them.

    Regarding your other questions:

    I don’t see why you assume there is no engineer monitoring the system.

    Building the production line is a huge challenge, but the process would be learned incrementally.

    I’m not sure that one has to purify the feedstock prior to the rotary mill feeds if the feeds are shaped correctly (I may be wrong on this, but I think the issue is dealt with in the book Nanosystems).

    I don’t think that your comments invalidate this visualization of the goal. Rather, they sound like useful things to keep in mind when trying to implement it. Thanks for commenting. —Christine

  3. Nanoman Says:

    Exactly, Christine, excellent points in your replies.

    Furthermore, even nano systems MUCH MORE PRIMITIVE than the system shown in the video animation, would revolutionize the world as we know it, technologically. For that matter, a super-limited nano factory only able to assemble say atomic precision fibers or simple lock-together struts, but, which can do it on and on and on, to unlimited lengths, with atomic precision, would seriously revolutionize the global industrial system in ways we cannot totally imagine.

  4. anonimouse Says:

    Christine, I have to admire your hermetic mindset. It’s like a work of art.

  5. Christine Peterson Says:

    Why, thank you!

    Oh wait, I guess that wasn’t a compliment after all. ;^)

    Seriously, I appreciate critical comments and debate. Thanks for your input and I hope you keep sending technical critiques.


  6. anonimouse Says:

    Christine, I’ve done enough hardware development at the nanoscale to understand the problems of nanoscale sensing in painful detail.

    Not only can I not see what I’m doing at a 1-10 nm scale, I can’t even see what I’ve done. If I look at it with an electron microscope, I change it. Sure, I can look at a few conveniently-presented outer surfaces with an AFM or STM, but I can’t see below the surface, and I can’t see features that are hidden by other features.

    Call it metrology, or failure analysis, or whatever else you will, at the nanoscale I am more limited than Helen Keller was at the macroscale.

    And I’m damn good at nanoscale work.

    That’s why I say there’s no sensory feedback loop available to do the setup of the nanoscale factory, and no tools to do the setup. If it could be assembled by a stochastic ontological process like a biological process in water with an evolutionary feedback loop serving as a sensory process, there might be some hope. But the eutactic environment precludes that possibility, and so I say it can’t be built.

  7. anonimouse Says:

    Ontogenic, as in on togeny. Not ontological. The wrong word slippd out of my fingers.

  8. Christine Peterson Says:

    So, is it your position that it is impossible to build eutactic systems in general? Or if not, how would you generalize your position?

    I agree that one can’t “see” below the surface, or features hidden by other features, but presumably these verifications could be made previously in the construction process, when it was still possible to do.


  9. anonimouse Says:

    “Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.”

    H.L. Mencken

  10. Christine Peterson Says:

    We don’t have to argue; we can jointly seek the truth. I ask again: is it your position that it is impossible to build eutactic systems in general? Or if not, how would you generalize your position?

    My job doesn’t go away if you convince me. There’s plenty of work to do on nanotechnology even if eutactic systems were impossible.


  11. anonimouse Says:

    The eutactic environment is a lot simpler than the aqueous environment. Because it’s simpler, it suffers from sensory blight, that is, a dearth of possible nanoscale sensory feedback loop mechanisms as compared to the aqueous environment.

    Among other necessary things, it’s the rich suite of nanoscale sensory feedback loop mechanisms in the aqueous environment that allows biology to work and allows the larger feedback loop of evolution by selection to occur.

    Until someone describes a sufficient set of nanoscale sensory feedback loop mechanisms to make the nanofactory buildable and operable, it remains an armchair fantasy.

    The question of whether it’s impossible or not detracts from rational thought, since you can’t prove a negative.

    But it is meaningful to say that no one has described a way to make it possible. And I think that none of the advocates for using a eutactic environment are asking the hard questions in the areas I have outlined above.

  12. Christine Peterson Says:

    I don’t understand why you are assuming that needed nanoscale sensory feedback loop mechanisms can’t be designed into the system. Water is not the only medium for signals to travel through.

    Regarding whether one can prove a negative: If there is some general reason why eutactic systems are impossible (a physical law, say), that would be worth pointing out.

    Regarding whether anyone has described a way to make this system possible: they haven’t, except in the most general terms. It’s too early for that. But if there are clear showstoppers, it would be great to hear about them now. I haven’t heard one yet. —Christine

  13. anonimouse Says:

    I understand that you don’t understand.

    I didn’t say “can’t be designed into the system.” To do so would be asserting an unprovable negative. You are falling into the “burden of proof” logical fallacy, see e.g.

    You say “Water is not the only medium for signals to travel through,” showing that you miss the point entirely. Water participates in molecular feedback loops. It’s not some kind of ether.

    Now, it seems to me that the sensory blight of the eutactic medium is a clear showstopper, because it strongly conflicts with the sensory richness of aqueous molecular biology. The burden of proof is on the proponents of MNT in a eutactic environment to show otherwise. There are three related showstoppers which to some extent can be attacked concurrently: They need to define a neccessary and sufficient set of sensory mechanisms to enable building and operation of a nanofactory, then show that eutactic operations can provide each one of these sensory mechanisms, then show that all of these sensory mechanisms can be included in a functional assembly.

    Now, in engineering a showstopper is often something that can be overcome or worked around. But until that is done the show is indeed stopped. And sometimes the showstopper is permanent, but not because of any reasonas simplae as violating a physical law. Sometimes it comes down the strength of materials (which is probably what will kill the space elevator idea), sometimes it comes down to insuficient signal-to-noise ratio, but almost always it comes down to something that was unanticipated early on.

    As a start, eutactic MNT proponents should check out the system modeling methods under development by the Institute for Systems Biology ( These modeling efforts give an idea of the necessary complexity of the feedback loops in an aqueous environment to support biolife. Perhaps by substraction from the biolife feedback systems they can define necessary/sufficient eutactic MNT feedback loops.

  14. Christine Peterson Says:

    Response to anonimouse:

    You write, “Water participates in molecular feedback loops.” But water doesn’t need to participate in *all* molecular feedback loops, surely.

    The question of where the burden of proof lies on this issue is an interesting one. I say it’s on your side, you say it’s on mine. Let’s touch base in a couple of decades and see how the project is going. Perhaps by then, one of us will have changed his/her mind.

    Thanks for the suggestion to look at the ISB system modeling methods. Sounds interesting. I think I will hand this suggestion off to some folks more technical than I am, though. —Christine

  15. Chris Phoenix Says:

    Anonymouse, the same dearth of complexity that removes some classes of feedback loop, also removes much of the need for feedback. To take an extreme case, if there is only one way the system can break, you only need one bit of information–which could be supplied by a simple mechanical touch sensor.

    I think I have to agree with you rather than Christine on one point: there would be no engineer overseeing the operation of each production line. There are far too many production lines in a nanofactory to allow human intervention. Basically, you run it until it breaks, and then shut it down permanently. The question is: What would make it break, and how long until that happens?

    Radiation damage will break things. That means you absolutely need redundancy. It can be simple spare-part redundancy on a fairly coarse scale, such as building nine 100-nm-cubed machines where you need eight of them, and then repeating that type of redundancy at several higher scales.

    So, as long as we can keep all other failures below the radiation damage level, we’re home free!

    There are some convenient things about working at the atomic/molecular scale. Surfaces are bumpy; if you place something in approximately the right position, it will align itself perfectly. You don’t need complex grippers and attach points to manipulate objects; surface forces will make things stay where you put them, and simply adjusting the size of the contact pads will allow you to pick up and put down objects quite reliably. Atoms and bonds are perfectly repeatable; each object with the same molecular construction will have exactly the same dimensions. And there’s no wear, and no plastic deformation; the machine works exactly the same over time, with no maintenance required.

    How many assembly-line failure modes have I gotten rid of (in theory)? How many are left?

    A couple of your other questions:

    The point of the sequence of rotary mill feeds is that they purify the feedstock in addition to concentrating it. The binding pockets are shaped to preferentially attract specific molecules. If the wrong molecule does get through, it can be rotored back out with rotors designed to attract it. There aren’t many molecules that will fit in an acetylene-sized pocket; you can remove each one individually.

    A nanofactory like the one shown would operate pretty much in lockstep. It would probably be more efficient to transfer power to the various belts etc. from a central point; by analogy, think of old-style factories with a steam engine and a lot of belts and overhead shafts.


  16. Andrey V Khavryuchenko Says:

    Familiar discussion.

    The models of actuators pictured in the movie where discussed here. From chemical point of view even such simple parts can’t work in an athmosphere, alone the whole system of such devices.

    Will check the ISB site to see their system point of view.

  17. Christine Peterson Says:

    Thanks, Chris Phoenix, for commenting.

    A clarification: I agree that an operational nanofactory would not have a human engineer monitoring its steps. I was thinking of the design/debugging stages.


  18. Chris Phoenix Says:


    Atmosphere? Where did you get the idea there’d be an atmosphere in the nanofactory? Fluid drag alone is enough reason to maintain a vacuum.


  19. anonimouse Says:

    Chris, you seem to take a holistic approach to nanofacotory design. That’s an OK way to start, but to make it real you have to take a reductionist approach, because the devil is always in the details. If you can’t make the reductionist approach meet the holistic approach, then you have a failure to complete the design.

    For example, you say “The binding pockets are shaped to preferentially attract specific molecules.” This is an interesting statement. What do you mean by “attract”? Are you envisioning forces which reach beyond the range of Van der Waals forces? Or is this statement more of a wish than an engineering specification?

    It seems to me there are lots of atoms and molecules smaller than an acetylene molecule which would be swept up by the supposed rotary mills, in the same way that the spaces in the chain on my bicycle sweep up grit smaller than the gear teeth on the sprockets.

    Do you really have some detailed design that can remove water molecules, for example, once they have passed into the space beyond the rotor? If not, it seems to me you’re just blowing smoke, attempting to confuse the issue rather than clarify it, with the aim of creating confidence in the MNT vision. But this is, or should be, more than a confidence game, and you must not create the perception that you are a confidence artist.

    By way of comparison, take a look at the sodium pump anaimation at
    for an idea of what a working design looks like. The system is pretty well understood, as is the method by which it is built. Can you specify a rotary mill in similar detail? A method of building it? A power source?

    Better yet, take a look at oxidative phosphorylation at the same site at
    This is how real molecular machinery works.

    Now, it’s been almost thirty years since Drexler came up with his dream of molecular nanotechnology, and I don’t see much progress. Lot’s of CAD designs, yes, but never a way to build them.

    Christine, I really don’t think waiting another twenty years will make much of a difference. What do you see changing in the next twenty years to make any of these designs realizable?

  20. Christine Peterson Says:

    Over the next 20 years, I expect to see continuing experimental progress toward molecular machine systems, such as the research work presented at the Foresight Conference series, and related work such as described in the Nanodot story above about the first molecular machine combination to be synthesized. —Christine

  21. anonimouse Says:

    Eutactic Sensory Blight. Keep that phrase in mind. Its acronym is ESB.

    ESB is an absence rather than a presence, and so it takes a while to realize its existence. Like the dog that didn’t bark in a Sherlock Holmes mystery, ESB is the clue that explains why eutactic molecular nanotechnology hasn’t happened since Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech “There’s pleny of room at the bottom.”

    The sensory blight of the eutactic environment, as compared to the sensory richness of the aqueous environment, makes each and every one of the MNT stuctures and systems proposed to date impossible to build. I use the term “impossible” advisedly and throw the burden of proof on the proposers of those MNT designs to prove otherwise.

    Christine, it may take you another twenty years to appreciate eutactic sensory blight, and to understand its ramifications. But you will come to do so.

  22. Andrey V Khavryuchenko Says:


    What atmospheric pressure will be there? What environment will all those nanomechanical details work in?

    I’ve started to reply, but found that I can’t find anymore the composition of, say this bearing. As far as I remember, this model contains numerous Si-S and S-H bonds. Am I right?

  23. Christine Peterson Says:

    Anonimouse, if I knew your real name, we could get back in touch in 20 years and see who was right. Whoever was wrong could buy the drinks. But unfortunately, you are hiding behind a pseudonym, so this will not be possible. ;^)

  24. anonimouse Says:

    Don’t worry about it; I know I’m right.

    I think it was Heinlein who said “I could be wrong, but I’m positive.”

    All the best.

  25. Chris Phoenix Says:

    Andrey, for best efficiency (avoiding fluid drag) you want a vacuum. In early versions of the technology, if you need a solvent, liquid xenon is completely inert, yet makes a good solvent.

    Anonimouse, we can’t do a mind-meld, so I can’t download to you every detail of my information. If you want more detail on a topic, ask, but don’t accuse me by implication of not knowing before you even ask.

    There are not a lot of molecules smaller than acetylene. Acetylene has only four atoms, two of them hydrogen, and they’re colinear. Methane is fatter, and acetylene is the smallest two-carbon hydrocarbon. A large fraction of other molecules will be polar, which provides a basis for sorting in addition to steric matching.

    Check out the neon pump at (the PDB file is here at

    This is very different from your sodium pump, but it is a detailed design that ought to work.

    “Attract” was, as you note, an imprecise description. I didn’t mean to imply a long-distance force. The binding site will have affinity for the molecule, which will encounter the binding site many times per second even at fairly low concentration. For more details, read the appropriate sections of Nanosystems and Nanomedicine.

    I don’t know what sensory modalities are available in water that are not available to a proximal probe in vacuum. I don’t think you know either.


  26. Chris Phoenix Says:

    After three days, my last posted comment is still “awaiting moderation.”

    As a result, I will continue the discussion at, CRN’s blog. I probably won’t be checking back here unless someone emails me: cphoenix at

  27. Phillip Huggan Says:

    Why is it necessary to have any sensor information beyond the facoory’s surface environment? If something inside is broken; if the products aren’t assembled as desired, junk part of the factory. All you need for that is modular assembly of the factory parts. The internal sensors are the products themselves. If you really want to see the inside of a factory to ascertain what component is repeatedly breaking, hit it with a particle beam to image it. Don’t need sensors IMO.

  28. New version of Productive Nanosystems film released | Anchorscience LLC Says:

    [...] Foresight Participating Member Mark Sims of Nanorex brings to our attention a new version of the five-minute film Productive Nanosystems: from Molecules to Superproducts posted at Google video. The description: “Visualizing productive nanosystems and molecular manufacturing is a major challenge in communicating the power of this technology. To help address this problem, Nanorex ( ) [...] more [...]

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