Thursday, February 10, 2005

Molecular manufacturing: Who needs it, and why?

By Adam Keiper
Managing editor of The New Atlantis,
Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and …
NanoBot Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2005 -- Today’s presentations before the National Research Council committee studying advanced nanotechnology concluded with a trio of panelists describing their research and offering their assessment of the current state of the artin advanced nanotechnology. Their presentations were too technical to describe in detail here. The presenters were:

The rest of the day was spent in a rambling discussion that included the committee, the panelists, and even the unofficial observers around the room. Instead of recounting the entire inconclusive and unorganized conversation, here are a few choice quotations from the afternoon:

Carlo Montemagno: “I've been offered to have a lab set up for me, with a staff and 10,000 square feet, all set up with the wave of a hand, no problem, many, many times - in China.”

Neil Jacobstein (from the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing): “The criticisms [of the NNI made by supporters of molecular manufacturing] weren't made in order to get funding.... The criticisms were made because we're interested in shifting the priorities of the NNI toward molecular machine systems.... There's no issue about a conspiracy or anything like that - it's just that we thought that the priorities were on the low-hanging fruit ... and there was a great deal of skepticism” from NNI about the more long-term, high-risk, revolutionary interpretation of nanotech."

Eric Drexler: “What’s on my wish list: ... A clear endorsement of the idea that molecular machine systems that make things ... with atomic precision is a natural and important goal for the development of nanoscale technologies ... with the focus of that endorsement being the recognition that we can look at biology, and beyond.... It would be good to have more minds, more critical thought, more innovation, applied in those directions.”

Maynard Holliday (committee member, Evolution Robotics): “Maybe we do need some kind of DARPA-like area in the NNI” to fund high-risk projects.

Thomas S. Hartwick (committee member, consultant): “I’ve been through a couple of [technology] revolutions ... so I’m very impressed with how technology goes ... I believe people should dream big dreams.... [But] it drives me crazy when computations are made without taking into account ... all the problems that go along with manufacturing.... So please, as the field matures, don’t decouple computation from the reality of that world.”

Kathleen M. Rest (committee member, Union of Concerned Scientists): “We still haven’t really talked about is molecular manufacturing desirable. ... I think it’s going to be important to us to look at the kind of societal needs ... that we could possibly address” with nanotechnology. “Because, after all, we’re talking about using public funds for investment” so the research should be directed “at least in the back of our heads” toward “some public good.”

And as a bonus, here’s one more quote -- an audio clip from Eric Drexler’s presentation in the morning, in which he responds to criticism that molecular manufacturing seems to promise too much, that it will have too broad a range of applications. The clip is about one minute long, and you can hear it in the following formats: MP3, Real Audio, Windows Audio, or Quicktime.

NanoBot Backgrounder
Molecules, machines and miracles
Molecular manufacturing back on the table
Nano Does D.C.


Philip Moriarty said...


Thanks for posting this very interesting article. I'd really like to see a transcript of the entire discussion, even if it was 'inconclusive and unorganised'.(Do you know whether a transcript might be (or might become) available?).

As regards Jacobstein's, Drexler's, and Hartwick's comments (for example), detailed discussion re. the feasibility of mechanosynthesis and molecular manufacturing continues at Richard Jones' "Soft Machines" site. For example, a transcript of a lengthy debate on a range of fundamental issues in molecular manufacturing is available here:

while Richard's concise and focused commentary on the debate is here:

Best wishes,


attobuoy said...


Kudos to you for your long and incredibly patient discussion with Rob Freitas and Chris Phoenix. You have made many points that I have made on Howard's blog, only you have made them better and more politely than I can. And so I have kept my pseudonymous nose completely out of that forum.

Best regards,

Philip Moriarty said...

Attobuoy - what a wonderful pseudonym! - thanks for your very kind comments.

I've also realised that although I thanked Howard for posting the "Molecular Manufacturing: Who needs it, and why?" piece, kudos are due to Adam Keiper for writing the article in the first place!

In addition, it's worth noting that both Richard Jones at "Soft Machines" [] and Chris Phoenix on the CRN blog [] have recently posted very interesting commentaries on the committee meeting.

Best wishes,


attobuoy said...

Philip, thank you for your kind words.

It may be useful to your thinking for me to reiterate here a point I have made before in Howard's blog. I've called it the "Attobuoy objection."

I hypothesise that, at the molecular scale, the scope of sensing, feedback, and rework done at larger scales is simply unavailable, and that this lack of capability forever bars the realization of the Drexlerian vision. I believe this is a much stronger objection to the Drexlerian vision than the "fat fingers" objection.

Instead, at the nanoscale things get accomplished only by an ensemble average of multiple trials resulting in both successes and failures, combined with culling of the failures and preservation of the successes.

If the succcesses can be relicated and improved upon we get evolution, which takes a VERY long time to reach a state of complexity comprising, e.g., a self-replicating general-purpose assembler such as a human.

Further, the supposition that one can build complex systems without a sufficiently-capable means of sensing and feedback does indeed suppose a violation of the laws of physics, specifically the second law of thermodynamics.

Anonymous said...

Transcripts of NRC meetings are not made available to the public. Their purpose is to aid in report writing. A report to Congress is expected in June. That report will be posted on the NRC website.