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Whitesides still skeptical of Drexler designs

from the read-the-literature dept.
PatrickUnderwood brings to our attention a Reason writeup of the recent AAAS nanotech seminar: "While appreciative of Drexler's pivotal role in nanotech, Whitesides was at pains to disagree with many of his ideas. 'I personally don't think that these kinds of things are going to work,' said Whitesides. 'We already have biological motors'…Whitesides dismissed Drexler's notion of nanotech assemblers…How would one power an assembler, asked Whitesides. How would one get it the information it needs to know what to do? And would it be really be strong enough to break atomic bonds?" CP: How long has Nanosystems been out — eight years, isn't it?…sigh.

5 Responses to “Whitesides still skeptical of Drexler designs”

  1. kurt Says:

    Good Point

    I bought one of the first copies of Drexler's first book back in '86, and am still skeptical about "Drexlerian" nanotechnology. For purposes of discussion, I will define "Drexlerian" nanotech as mechano-based "reactions" occurring in vacuum environment. If you look at the real nanotech research that's being done (such as in ACS's Nano Letters) you will notice that it is almost all supremolecular chemical self-assembly based on solution-phase chemistry. This is the only nanotechnology that I believe is possible, and is the the kind that is being developed by industry. In another thread, someone pointed out that this approach, which he called "de novo biotech" is the real nanotechnology. I believe that this view is probably held by all of the researcher doing real nanotechnology research. I fully agree with this position. That's one of the reasons why I think both Bill (kill) Joy and Ray Kertzweil are totally out to lunch. I also reject the notion of a "singularity" as well. We will have many technical advances over the next 50 years, but they will be incremental in nature, just like they always have been in the past. Most of it will be in biotech (both existing biological systems as well as purely synthetic biotech) and we will still get tremendous life-extension advances, but it will still be incremental. I believe that researchers are calling the synthetic biotech "biomimetic molecular self-assembly". Since I am still unconvinced of the feasibility of "Drexlerian" nanotechnology, I do not fear the potential downside anymore than believing in the promised upside as well. However, I resent all of the scare-mongering that may attract unwarranted government regulation in a field that really does offer improved health vitality as well as unparalleled economic benefits. Don't even get me started on this "up-loading" fantasy.

  2. kurt Says:

    A follow-on

    You will notice that all of the people who rant and rave (both for and against) about "Drexlerian" nanotech are all software, IT, or computer AI people. You will also notice that the people doing the real research work in developing nanotechnology, such as James Heath and Jim Tour (molecular electronics), have a very different view of what nanotechnology will be about.

  3. atombuddy Says:

    Re:Good Point

    A few points…

    Before you classify me as another nano-optimist, Iím not totally convinced that such things that Drexler speaks of are possible either. This is mainly because he speaks in areas beyond my expertise, my knowledge extending to chemistry but not many matters of engineering and computer hardware. As result I cannot accurately judge. Who can, but future experts in such fields? Although I agree with some of your statements, I found some others arguable.

    If you look at the real nanotech research that's being done (such as in ACS's Nano Letters) you will notice that it is almost all supremolecular chemical self-assembly based on solution-phase chemistry.

    Practical development of nanotechnology involves setting goals with what we can do today. Scientists may not be able to research or create something at present, though it cannot be argued that there is no possibility of making it, especially if it breaks no known laws of science. Such an argument can be extended towards any long term future progress of technology. Using solution based chemistry is a step in the direction of such technologies (if they are possible), regardless of whether the researchers know of and like the works of Drexler, of whether his proposals are realistic or not.

    This is the only nanotechnology that I believe is possible, and is the kind that is being developed by industry.

    I wasnít aware that nanotechnology even existed yet. No one has yet produced any self assembled computers. That aside, someone from Babbages time could argue that computers could never exist beyond the mechanical level because there isnít adequate electronic technology.

    (Iíll assume that instead of ëdevelopedí, you meant ëresearchedí)

    In another thread, someone pointed out that this approach, which he called "de novo biotech" is the real nanotechnology. I believe that this view is probably held by all of the researcher doing real nanotechnology research. I fully agree with this position.

    What do you mean by all of the researchers? Do you mean all the researchers that have point of views similar to Whitesides? I personally canít tell you how many chemists/scientists/engineers agree or disagree ,or even know of Drexlers ideas. There probably isnít an accurate way to find outÖ

    That's one of the reasons why I think both Bill (kill) Joy and Ray Kertzweil are totally out to lunch. I also reject the notion of a "singularity" as well.

    I also have problems with the concept of singularity as well, personally. It cannot be ruled out, but to me it seems a jump out of the reasonably predictable. To my knowledge, it relies on the idea that artificial intelligence can work with nanotech to make ësuper-advancedí technology. No one is sure how artificial intelligence software/hardware could be made. Whether or not this can be sorted out when more powerful computers come along remains to be seen. But some over-exited technological statements canít be used as an argument to reject Drexlers nanotechnology.

    We will have many technical advances over the next 50 years, but they will be incremental in nature, just like they always have been in the past. Most of it will be in biotech (both existing biological systems as well as purely synthetic biotech) and we will still get tremendous life-extension advances, but it will still be incremental.

    Of course. The idea of ëone day boring old crapí and ënext day all expense paid trips to Jupiterí is silly. And biotechnology will certainly advance ñ thatís my field of study. But nanotechnology could possibly be produced from the tools that biotechnology give us. Biotechnology works by exploiting natural protein machines in cells. If these machines could produce hardier stuctures, such as diamondoid components, why wouldnít they work like these machines? On life extension, improvements could be made genetic engineering ñ though unless gene therapy improves sometime soon, at least our generation wonít reap the benefits!

    Since I am still unconvinced of the feasibility of "Drexlerian" nanotechnology, I do not fear the potential downside anymore than believing in the promised upside as well. However, I resent all of the scare-mongering that may attract unwarranted government regulation in a field that really does offer improved health vitality as well as unparalleled economic benefits.

    Since what you seem to be talking about is mostly biotechnology with self assembly, government may not even classify it as nanotechnology. In which case, you neednít worry about scare-mongering negatively affecting government policy decisions, especially if these technologies never come to fruition (which is of course a possibility).

    Don't even get me started on this "up-loading" fantasy.

    I wont.

    Atomboddy.

  4. RobertBradbury Says:

    How can Drexlerian nanoassembly NOT work?

    Classical diamondoid nanoassembly could be done in inert atmospheres as well as a vacuum. The key problem is to keep any activated molecules (e.g. free radicals) from having sufficient energy to interact with anything other than the desired target atoms. I think it is easy to see why there is more work being done in "supremolecular chemical self-assembly" — there are simply more chemistry departments equiped with the necessary equipment than there are departments with vacuum enabled AFMs (which can be pretty expensive as people at Zyvex will tell you). Since the Nobel prizes in chemistry for the next 20 years are likely to come in the areas of the assembly of molecular switches, self-assembly, multi-state memory storage molecules, etc. it isn't surprising to see this part of nanotechnology running ahead.

    I don't see how you can reject the notion of a singularity. As the population increases and wealth accumulates greater resources can be devoted to research. As that occurs we can get closer and closer to the limits allowed by physical laws. Look for example at what will happen to energy consumption when we will replace all incandescent light-bulbs with white-LEDs. As we develop the infrastructure we will be able to produce greater results in less time. Eventually we will have computers with greater "thought" to "power" ratios than human brains. (Ever consider for example how much human brain power would be required to do the simulations necessary to predict the path of a hurricane?) You sound like someone who will not believe the singularity is here until the sun starts going dark when we start to disassemble Mercury.

    You say you "are still unconvinced", but you don't say "why". Do you believe that we landed on the Moon or was it a hoax as some (idiots) suggest? What criteria do you require to be convinced?

    • Self-replication? — bacteria do that at 20 minutes per generation.
    • Self-assembly? — bacteria do that as well.
    • Do we need "AI"? — Not! We didn't require it for the complex things we have built such as the Apollo Command Module or Boeing 767s and Nature certainly didn't require it to evolve the parts we are made up of.
    • Can we do site-specific chemical reactions with AFM tips? — Yes; there are at least two published peer reviewed papers demonstrating this.
    • Can we draw nanoscale lines or other shapes in parallel? — Yes; Whitesides nanoimprint lithography, the nano-ink drawing methods and electron beam systems such as the Lucent Scalpel machine allow this.
    • Can we design "parts" at the atomic scale? — Yes; several drugs are now on the market that have been designed that way and we are getting to the stage where we can design proteins that assume desired shapes with dozens of amino acids.
    • Can we run atomic scale computer simulations of billion-atom assemblies? — Yes; on the largest computers we currently have.
    • Can we "evolve" parts or assemblies of parts that meet certain heuristics without the requirement for a lot of expensive human labor? — Yes; as I point out the group at Brandeis has done in my Nano@Home proposal.

    I do not understand how people can doubt the feasibility. Will you still doubt the feasibility when Zyvex spells out its name in diamond crystals built atom by atom?

    The reason you view "up-loading" as a fantasy is because you do not understand the technologies sufficiently. I've discussed several strategies for this here.

    Its easy to rant about not believing stuff — that is why the people thought the Earth was flat for many years. Its hard to take the time to think these things through to convince yourself of the fesibility, but that is what you need to do.

  5. PaulKrieger000 Says:

    Re:A follow-on

    I argue for it and I am a Mechanical Engineer. There is also Molecular Robotics a company trying to develop molecular robotics. Link (http://www.molecular-robotics.com/). You must not be too hasty to include words like, all, always, never, forever, and words that are limits in posts. I have just proven your point wrong. Sit down!

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