Thursday, February 10, 2005

Molecules, machines and miracles

Photo by Adam Keiper

Eric Drexler, far right, looks on as IBM's Don Eigler, second from left, describes molecular manufacturing as "speculation," "supposition" and "fantasy." At far left is Peter Cummings of Vanderbilt University. Sitting next to Drexler is Ralph Merkle of Georgia Tech.

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

WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2005 -- Eric Drexler fathered the modern field of nanotechnology more than two decades ago. Today, he presented his ideas to the committee tasked by the National Research Council with studying America’s nanotechnology program. Now, as the committee returns from a private lunch, it isn’t clear what they make of Drexler’s ideas – there was clearly significant skepticism from some members of the committee, but Drexler's ideas were treated seriously.


Drexler’s presentation was an overview of molecular manufacturing. The heart of his presentation was an animation showing what a desktop nanofactory might look like. The purpose of the animation, he said, was to demonstrate that molecular manufacturing was “not nanobots … not goo …and not magical.” It would be a “deep and profound revolution,” but not an unattainable one.

To draw a clearer distinction between his own vision of nanotechnology and that of the government nanotechnology program, Drexler showed a slide depicting two fundamentally different objects: a huge boulder and a small, delicate pocket-watch. The boulder represents today’s nanotechnology, he said: “a nanoparticle of about 100 nanometers.” The pocket watch represents the sort of nanomachine encompassed in his vision of nanotechnology. To talk about the great potential of nanotechnology while only funding research on conventional nanotechnology inflates expectations, Drexler said, and makes the public “feel like there is hype in the system.”

Drexler admitted that there is of course an enormous “implementation gap” between our present tools and theories and those needed to achieve molecular manufacturing, and he warned that the gap couldn’t be bridged under current National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) policies. His take on the government’s approach to molecular manufacturing: “Not only are they [the NNI] not doing it, but they have been discouraging it.” He contrasted this with other governments, saying that the U.S. has a number of “known international competitors,” and mentioning that India’s president recently cited Drexler’s book "Nanosystems." (He didn’t mention, though, that there is no clear reason to think this foreign competition is doing serious work yet.)


Soon after his presentation began, members of the committee – biologists, chemists, physicists, and assorted men and women from industry and academia – engaged Drexler with critical questions about his basic theories; Drexler, in crisp sentences, responded to each question carefully. Committee member Paul Schaudies, for instance, a microbiologist from SAIC, pointed out that we don’t understand how cells work – “there are a whole lot of little boxes here that say, ‘A miracle happens here’” – so how could we possibly solve the questions required to develop molecular manufacturing? Drexler’s response: “Engineers deal with the knowns,” so it won’t be necessary to solve all the mysteries that pure scientists might want to solve.

Drexler’s solo presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring Drexler, Don Eigler of IBM, Peter Cummings of Vanderbilt University and Oak Ridge National Labs, and Ralph Merkle of Georgia Tech. Eigler is best known for his arrangement of 35 individual xenon atoms to spell out the letters “IBM” in the 1980s. (“I suspect,” he said, “that I am the only one you [the committee] will hear from that has physically assembled a molecule using techniques other than biology or chemistry.”) He launched a blunt criticism: “Molecular manufacturing belongs in the realm of what I would call supposition, or speculation.” He drew an analogy to the ancient Greeks' speculating about human flight using feathers and wax. “What we do not need,” he said, “is an Apollo Project for molecular manufacturing.”

Drexler objected to Eigler’s use of “charged language” – words like “speculation” and “fantasy,” which “will not encourage people to come forward” with proposals related to molecular manufacturing.

Peter Cummings, speaking in clipped sentences with a strong Australian accent, described his study of fluctuations that might pose difficulties for molecular manufacturing – fluctuations that might, for instance, cause nano-machines to run backwards. But he conceded that “this is not a showstopper” for molecular manufacturing.

Ralph Merkle argued that, in order to develop molecular manufacturing, “What we lack at this point is the will ... to be bolder in what we’re willing to consider.”

The panel ended with questions from the committee about what concrete proposals would constitute reasonable next steps toward the development of molecular manufacturing. What would you do, one committee member asked the panelists, “if you had unlimited resources?” The only answer came from Drexler, who argued for improvement of the tools that would be required or molecular manufacturing, demonstrations of assembly and motion of nanosystem components, and the development of a “first-generation machine” similar to a ribosome.

During the lunch break, as the committee met behind closed doors, the government officials who started off the workshop yesterday – U.S. nanotech head Clayton Teague and White House technologist Celia Merzbacher were spotted sitting down to a lunch with several leading figures from the pro-molecular manufacturing camp, including Drexler. Now, after lunch, the committee has reassembled and is hearing about the current state of the art in nanotech research.


Anonymous said...

"Molecular manufacturing belongs in the realm of what I would call supposition, or speculation" - Don Eigler

Eigler's pioneering work on single atom and molecule manipulation, has been cited by proponents of the Drexlerian MNT 'vision' as an 'existence proof' for mechanosynthesis (albeit, without justification - see
It is therefore fascinating to read of Eigler's stinging criticism of Drexler's molecular manufacturing concept.

"Eric Drexler fathered the modern field of nanotechnology more than two decades ago".

It's time to get beyond this fallacy! Eigler, for example (and amongst a number of other candidates (some being Nobel prize winning scientists)) is a much more appropriate candidate for the mantle "forefather of nanotechnology".

Howard, please let me know if there's a transcript of this discussion available - it'd make for extremely interesting reading!

Best wishes,


Anonymous said...

On Eigler: I don't think he's been cited by the MM community as an existence proof of mechanosynthesis. Just as evidence that some of the requirements--atomically precise positioning, and atoms staying where you put them--are achievable. (This was more important a decade ago, when people were still objecting that quantum noise would make atoms hop around as though they were electrons.)

There's a clear difference, but it's possible that people thought we were saying Eigler was actually doing MM. I've heard third-hand that Eigler was pestered by people who thought he was inventing nanobots. That's a shame.

On Drexler and nanotechnology: Lots of nanoscale research was being done before Drexler came along. But if Drexler hadn't coined (independently of that Japanese guy who used "nano-technology" for micromachining) and popularized the word "nanotechnology," and given people a vision of nanoscale manufacturing systems making amazingly advanced products, the nanoscale research people would still be doing biochemistry, materials science, macromolecular chemistry, and what have you. They wouldn't be in a unified field getting a billion dollars a year and a lot of press. In that sense, Drexler is the father of the field.

One more note on Eigler: his presentation was mainly rhetoric: he put up a flawed syllogism, called it something like "speculation," then accused the MM people of engaging in that (i.e. he implied that we don't know how to do the most basic logic). And he implied that we have no more knowledge of nanoscale machinery and manufacturing than the ancient Greeks had of flight (therefore we're doing no more than spinning Icarus myths).

I didn't see any actual technical criticism in Eigler's remarks. That kind of nasty rhetoric might work on a different audience, but I'm hoping it will backfire this time; the committee, from everything I saw, is smart and savvy enough to realize just how little content and how much venom was in Eigler's presentation.