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Physicist Michio Kaku dismissive of nanotech

from the man-will-never-fly dept.
David Coutts writes from Australia: "I'm reading "Visions" by Michio Kaku (co-founder of string field theory), the paperback edition published in 1997 by Anchor Books…The purpose of this [post] is to focus briefly on his handling of nanotechnology, which comes under the Quantum Revolution heading. I found his treatment (pages 266 to 273) curiously dismissive… Feynman's famous article is mentioned, but no mention of Engines of Creation or Nanosystems, nor the Foresight Institute. Instead, he agrees with critics who say that "the claims are as breathtaking as their results are meager"… He concludes by saying that "the jury is out", and nanotechnology remains "purely speculative at this point". Has anyone else read the book? If so, what did you think of his treatment of nanotechnology? I would love to see someone from the Foresight Institute refute Mr Kaku paragraph by paragraph. As a layman, I felt that he had already made up his mind and therefore only interviewed those whose minds were similiarly opposed… " Read More for the full post. David Coutts writes "I'm reading "Visions" by Michio Kaku (co-founder of string field theory), the paperback edition published in 1997 by Anchor Books. All in all it's a very enjoyable read. The subtitle of the book is "How Science Will Revolutionise The 21st Century", and has the three broad themes of The Computer Revolution, The Biomolecular Revolution and the Quantum Revolution. His approach, stated up front, has been to interview over 150 scientists from various branches of science over a 10 year period.

Hence, the "visions" of his book have the "important distinction", as Mr Kaku puts it, of representing an "emerging consensus" from people who should know how the 21st century might shape up. The gist is this: his book is more realistic than many previous attempts at prediction. Overall, from a layman's perspective, I would tend to agree. Mr Kaku's feet are firmly on the ground, and his visions deliberately limited to the time brackets 2000 to 2020, 2020 to 2050, and 2050 to 2100. Each time bracket becomes more speculative than the previous one.

The purpose of this email is to focus briefly on his handling of nanotechnology, which comes under the Quantum Revolution heading. I found his treatment (pages 266 to 273) curiously dismissive. Perhaps as a welcome relief to Eric Drexler, his name is not even mentioned once! Feynman's famous article is mentioned, but no mention of Engines of Creation or Nanosystems, nor the Foresight Institute.

Instead, he agrees with critics who say that "the claims are as breathtaking as their results are meager". David E. Jones' point of view (presumably from his article in Nature from 1995)

http://www.foresight.org/hotnews/archive.html#WhatSay1995 is mentioned but not Ralph Merkle's refutation "Nanocritics"

http://www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nanocritics.html plus Philip W. Barth (an engineer from Hewlett-Packard) who apparently posted a a message on the web claiming "that nanotechnology was becoming a pseudoscientific political/social sect like any other religious cult".

He finally dismisses the subject by quoting Istvan Csisary-Ronay Jr (an editor of Science Fiction Studies) who says "It seems like nanotechnology has become the magic potion, the magic dust that allows anything to happen with a pseudoscientific explanation."

Mr Kaku expects MEMS to feature from 2000 to 2020, with Gordon Moore (of Moore's Law fame) a significant backer. From 2020 to 2050 he sees MEMS being replaced with "true molecular machines". Mention is made of buckyballs and nanotubes, which could be used (due to their strength & lightness) for a future skyhook. Daniel T Colbert of Rice University in Houston is quoted as having calculated that nontubes can do the job.

Mr Kaku makes says of the micro-devices being built in this period that they are "a far cry from the self replicating micromachines envsioned by the gurus of nanotechnology." I'm not a guru, but I thought there was a significant difference of scale between "micro" and "nano"?

He concludes by saying that "the jury is out", and nanotechnology remains "purely speculative at this point".

Has anyone else read the book? If so, what did you think of his treatment of nanotechnology? I would love to see someone from the Foresight Institute refute Mr Kaku paragraph by paragraph. As a layman, I felt that he had already made up his mind and therefore only interviewed those whose minds were similiarly opposed to this curious new religion, nanotechnology…

He does list all the scientists interviewed in the preface, but it is by no means clear which scientists gave expert opinions on subjects such as nanotechnology, and whether he took views from all camps.

David Coutts"

4 Responses to “Physicist Michio Kaku dismissive of nanotech”

  1. MarkGubrud Says:

    unconventional wisdom

    Kaku is a smart guy, but between writing graduate texts and popular books on quantum field theory, extra dimensions and string theory, as well as on US nuclear policy, and making speeches against star wars and "nukes in space" as well as teaching courses at CUNY, I think he's a bit overextended.

    His book "Visions" does not seem to go deeper than the usual high-level jounals such as Science, Nature, Spectrum and so on. I've skimmed the book, mostly looking at the same sections you did. It is certainly a fount of conventional wisdom.

    It's interesting to compare Kaku's treatment of nanotech with his gushing enthusiasm for quantum computing, which (as a person working in the field) I tend to regard as one of the few technological "visions" more outlandish than self-replicating universal assemblers.

    The difference is that QC has been adopted by the same academic physics establishment that has disowned assemblers. Why? I think the main reason is that physicists are desperate to find something useful that they can claim as their own. QC clearly falls within the purview of physics, unlike advances in semiconductor tech, biotech, or molecular nanotech, to which EEs, biologists, and chemists have a more obvious claim. QC deals in entangled states, hamiltonians and paradoxes. Physicists love this stuff; nobody else can understand it. Assemblers are Popular Science content by comparison.

    Never mind that biology gives an existence proof for self-replicating nanosystems, while the ultimate feasibility of quantum computing (at least in the standard quantum-binary picture) is still in doubt, and it may take assemblers to make the kinds of physical systems that would be needed to realize QC. For the moment, QC has empowered physicists. Once again we're working on an enormously powerful potential breakthrough, and no one else can touch us!

    So you get hundreds of academic physicists working on "quantum computing," actually, for the most part, basic research on quantum-mechanical systems that might one day serve as a basis for QC; but almost none working on "assemblers," although hundreds are at work on the basic research that may one day serve as the basis for developing assemblers.

    And, as a corollary, you get the kind of "educated" opinions reflected in Kaku's book.

  2. The Living Fractal Says:

    Re:unconventional wisdom

    Great post Mark, a tribute to why I love 'n.'

  3. Kadamose Says:

    What the hell does he expect?

    Nanotechnology is only in its infancy, if that. How can ANY educated person expect a baby to walk and talk on the same day it comes out of the womb? How long did it take the computer to become useful? 40 years. Nanotech isn't going to take quite that long to become useful, in fact, December 21st, 2012 sounds about right for the technology to meet and produce its promises.

    People who write such negative articles are only doing it for attention. Unfortunately, for them, when Nanotech DOES deliver the promises everyone is expecting, these people/idiots will be looked down upon.

  4. Saturngraphix Says:

    Re:What the hell does he expect?

    So
    What happens on Dec. 21, 2012 then?

    know something we dont?

    ;)
    Rob

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