Thursday, November 13, 2003

Why won't we take that one small step?

Note: See the update at the bottom of this post

Looks like I struck a nerve with the question I posed a couple of weeks ago. I asked if it's time to reconcile the mixed messages being sent by the "nanotech industry" and the government, both of which promise wonders and profits beyond the imagination while also claiming that the technology that would enable much of their vision is physically impossible.

So, shouldn't we find out which way it is? If molecular manufacturing is possible, then how about an Apollo-style project to build the thing before somebody else does it first -- a nation or group that does not trouble itself over issues like societal and ethical implications. If it's found to be impossible, then let's permanently incarcerate the idea for the crimes of breaking the laws of physics and crying "goo" in a crowded policy theater. Then we can finally give the nano name completely over to the chemicals, manufacturing, biotech and defense industries -- with no underlying, pioneering sense of purpose other than to make lots of neat stuff and loads of money. No JFK-esque "Earth-to-moon" challenge required.

The question has prompted considerable debate on my message board and on Nanodot. To get the discussion going even further, take a look at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology's designs for a "primitive nanofactory."

Incidentally, the House version (PDF 99.4 KB) of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act would have required a study on the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. But not a trace of it remains in the Senate version that could pass at any time now -- as soon as the esteemed body is finished playing its filibuster games. I wonder who had it axed, and what they're afraid of?

Update: The communications director at the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office tells me that the latest version of the Senate bill, dated Oct. 30, "includes studies of both molecular self-assembly, and self-replicating nanoscale machines or devices." That'd be great news if it survives. I've heard that there was some behind-the-scenes lobbying against that provision, though. What came out of a legislative conference between the House and the Senate? Not sure, but the filibuster is over, so I hope we find out soon.


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