Monday, December 15, 2003

Drexler on 'Drexlerians'

Here are excerpts from a couple of e-mails I recently exchanged with Eric Drexler, the author who first popularized nano, yet now finds himself persona nano non grata among the businesspeople and politicians who have taken the nano name.

Eric Drexler: Regarding the following on your blog:

    "I have not taken any kind of scientific poll, but judging from the conversations I've had with many of the people here, I can safely confirm for the MNT believers something they likely already knew: They are indeed being marginalized by those who speak for the nanotech business community, and proudly so. I used the term "believers" on purpose because one source told me that arguing with a Drexlerian is akin to debating a Creationist: There's simply no winning, since they take their beliefs on faith. I countered that most Creationists do not desire or seek proof -- the very definition of faith -- whereas MNT proponents are actively pursuing proof."
Indeed, it would seem that the other side, which can cite no refereed papers, no defensible scientific arguments, more closely resembles the creationists. Indeed, for them, "There's simply no winning," but because they have no sound arguments for their position.

On a related, point, why does everyone call this work "Drexlerian"? To do so ignores the work of Merkle, Freitas and others, and needlessly personalizes what should be a question of scientific and technical analysis. Indeed, I'd love to see an extended critical discussion of molecular manufacturing that made no reference to "Drexler" or "nanobots", just to see whether the critics have anything coherent to say that does not depend on attacking their habitual, scientifically irrelevant targets.

Me: I think you probably already know the answer to your question on why they pick on those poor little hypothetical nanobots: Because it's done with a kind of wink to the current nanotech business community whose goals are to bring existing nanotechnology to market. They want to distance themselves as far as possible from the idea of "nanobots" because their brand of nanotechnology is finally emerging as a legitimate industry with products to sell. They fear that association with sci-fi-sounding "nanobots" would place loosen their foothold on legitimacy in the business and investment communities.

Drexler: I think I understand their strategy, but it is profoundly misguided. By equating molecular manufacturing with "nanobots" and making false claims about the impossibility of both, they amplify confusion and undercut their own credibility. As a basis for claims of safety, this just won't work. The nanotech business community would do better to embrace the modern understanding of the subject, which includes a simple fact -- that developing and using molecular manufacturing simply doesn't require building scary little self-replicating robots.

Indeed, in the Chemical & Engineering News exchange, I use the term "nanobot" only once -- to reject Prof. Smalley's characterization -- stating that molecular manufacturing will use "no swarms of roaming, replicating nanobots." Prof. Smalley ignores this and continues to confuse molecular manufacturing with "nanobots", using the term a dozen times. I began the exchange by stating that "I have written this open letter to correct your public misrepresentation of my work." The misrepresentation continues.

Me: Interesting comments on the term, "Drexlerian." I've been guilty of using it a few times, too, without even thinking of asking Drexler himself whether he wants to become an adjective. But the word is out there in the culture and has taken on a life of its own in the debate. Its meaning can be either derogatory (Drexlerian = Raelian?) or imply foresight and vision, depending on who is using it.

Like it or not, the name of "Drexler" is no longer your own. Its use does not negate the efforts of others because it's come to describe and symbolize much more than your work, but also that of Merkle, Frietas and probably many others who will come after you. The challenge for you, though, is to draw attention not only to scientists who disagree with you, but also to the many who not only agree but are beginning to prove and demonstrate your theories. That, I think, is the only way to counter any impression that this is about Drexler vs. the rest of the world.

Drexler: I cannot control what people say, but I can urge that they speak more constructively. When critics use my name as a label, they evade the real issues -- of science, technology, and policy -- and lower the discussion to the level of personalities.


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