Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Stop worrying and learn to love nanobots

HoweStreet.com declares that "Robert A. Freitas Jr. is one of the best-known nano-scientists ..." Well, not to take anything away from Freitas, but the fact that he has a better-recognized name among the general public than any other nanoscientist out there speaks volumes about how far nanotech researchers need to go before they're recognized outside their own circles.

First, a few words about Freitas. I've corresponded with him, met him in person and know many people who are in awe of his work, but what he does is quite different from the work being done by those who toil in the nanomedicine of today. This is an important point to make because this kind of confusion turns up constantly in general-interest publications that breeze through nanotech.

The nanomedicine researchers of today would rather not hear about Freitas and his theories about respirocytes (artificial red blood cells) and other nanobot-ish stuff that folks like Tim Harper gleefully belittle. In fact, as you've seen with Chad Mirkin, many of today's nanoscientists react in anger at the F-name or what he stands for.

His "Nanomedicine" book series is really the only one of its kind, but is controversial. A new volume describes "the many possible mechanical, physiological, immunological, cytological, and biochemical responses of the human body to the in vivo introduction of medical nanodevices, especially medical nanorobots."

In other words, he's measuring the body's responses to technology that does not yet exist. He's certainly leapfrogging. Harper has hammered away at it as "more idle speculation sold as science."

Well, even I know that most true scientists believe there is a need for theorists to run on ahead and check out the landscape. That's pretty much all Einstein did sitting there in the Swiss patent office a century ago: tons and tons and tons of mind-blowingly brilliant speculation that we're all still sorting through.

Really what this is about is not science at all, but about ensuring government and venture capital support for near-term nanotech. It's very strange to me, though, that today's nanomedicine researchers feel the need to advance their own agendas by belittling folks like Freitas. Likewise, many of Freitas' followers pretty much dismiss the brilliant nanobiotech work being done today as unimportant and unrelated to their long-term "Fantastic Voyage" vision.

The two camps are, in fact, involved in completely separate endeavors. What they should be doing is pointing to one another as simply operating on different levels of the nanotech timeline. Nanotech researchers who play ball with the U.S. government belittle the Freitas' vision on one hand, but then lay out 20-year nanomedicine visions that sound very much like the Freitas vision.

Freitas, like the Foresight Institute with which he is associated, is coming out with plans on what to do with technology before the actual technology comes into existence to make the plans relevant. Nanoscientists who know their history and can envision where their work will take them a few decades from now surely must understand that Freitas is playing a necessary role.

So, like an artist who is working on an assembler animation told me: Go ahead, throw potshots at it. But while the argument rages over what is not possible, somebody had to "put this stake in the ground" and make the first move toward creating "a clear image of what we think is possible."

Let me throw an idea out there, then. Since the mainstream media are going to lump Freitas in with folks like Mirkin, James Baker and even Rick Smalley, why not go with that idea and use it to help the general public understand what it is you're doing now and how it might or might not tie in with the more-easily-understandable Freitas-type vision. Just a suggestion.

Remember, you may not like it, but those who are moved by images of flying diamondoid nanobots are more numerous than those who get excited about nanoparticles for MRIs or buckyballs as drug-delivery devices ... and they vote, and they buy magazines.

NanoBot Backgrounder
How big is nano?
Good medicine, bad medicine
Nanobots: Body and antibody
Do no harm: Don't forget Freitas


Philip Moriarty said...


"Freitas, like the Foresight Institute with which he is associated, is coming out with plans on what to do with technology before the actual technology comes into existence to make the plans relevant".

You make it sound like Drexler's (Foresight Institute-endorsed) molecular manufacturing vision is a 'given' and will appear in due course. The key issues to address at the moment relate to the feasibility of molecular manufacturing and, most importantly, whether we can implement the basic 'machine language' steps in mechanosynthesis. I'm what those at the Foresight Institute (and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology) camp might consider an "incremental nanotechnologist" (note that I prefer to think of myself as an experimental physicist). Nevertheless, I have a great deal of respect for Freitas because he - unlike quite a few other 'Drexlerites' - is at least willing to consider in some depth the basic chemistry underlying mechanosynthesis.

I suggest that you visit Richard Jones' (Univsity of Sheffield) excellent Soft Machines website for a number of threads related to the feasibility of Freitas' mechanosynthesis work. The following threads will likely be of interest:

"Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems - where I stand", http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/index.php?p=60

"Is mechanosynthesis feasible? The debate moves up a gear.", http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/index.php?p=50

Note that there is more than enough fascinating, exciting, and inspiring nanoscience pursued in labs across the world without having to rely on nanobots and the like to sell what we do..! (For example, have a look at Don Eigler et al.'s work at: http://www.almaden.ibm.com/vis/stm/stm.html)

Best wishes,


Howard Lovy said...

Thanks, Philip. Yes, Richard Jones and I have been discussing these issues on and off for more than a year now. He's sent me a copy of his book and I recently congratulated him on an excellent piece in his blog outlining his position on the "Drexler" vision.

Richard responded (and I hope he doesn't mind me quoting from his note): "I'm glad you liked it. I was starting to worry that your world-view was becoming so Manichaean that it couldn't accommodate a radical moderate like myself, who thinks both that the nanobusiness lobby has oversold the novelty of its products, and that the Drexlerian diamondoid vision probably won't work (leaving the way open, of course, for the Blairite third way, of a non-diamondoid radical nanotechnology)."

I am planning on addressing all of this (including my "world-view") in a piece to wrap up the year either tonight or tomorrow. I'm up in Northern Michigan now, getting ready for our annual New Year's Eve bonfire in the tundra. More later.