Nano by Ed Regis


“Senator Gore: How far out is this stuff, Dr Drexler? Suppose molecular nanotechnology got the kind of Federal and private support that biotechnology got over the last ten years. What kind of advances would you expect to see by 2010, for example?

Dr Drexler: That kind of question is one of the hardest to answer in this area. I know how to do calculations of behavior of molecular machinery’ I don’t know how to do calculations of the rate of progress of a research program where there’s a whole series of challenges to be surmounted.

Drexler was by disposition an extremely conservative engineering type who hated to make predictions about human beings and how long it would take them to accomplish a given thing. Nevertheless, since he was always asked the ‘When will it happen?’ question he had worked out an answer, and after some hemming and hawing, he gave it.

Dr Drexler: I commonly answer that fifteen years would not be surprising for major, large-scale applications.” Pp. 8-9

Critical reception

“Calvin Quate, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, said: ‘I don’t think he should be taken seriously. He’s too far out.”

Philip Barth, of the Hewlett Packard company, said: ‘The man is a flake.’

Nanotechnology itself came off no better.

‘This is the kind of thing we see in Omni magazine,’ said Shalom Wind, of the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center. ‘It’s more science fiction than it is science.’

‘It’s this basic hand-waving stuff that anyone can do,’ said Kurt Mislow, a Princeton University chemist. ‘It’s like science fiction, and it turns me off in a major kind of way.’” P. 9

Engines of Creation did not get a smash reception. There were only two major reviews, one of them in the New York Times, which described the book as a ‘clearly written, hopeful forecast, remarkable for an unembarrassed faith in progress through technology’….The reviewer doubted that the nanotech revolution would happen anytime soon. ‘If biology is any measure,’ he wrote, ‘it will be a long time before scientists get nanotechnology humming. Consider that, while the earliest living cells probably had proteins much like some of our own, only after about two billion years of evolutionary trial and error did such nanomachines gather themselves into anything as complex as a nerve.’” Pp. 147-148

“The only other full-scale notice appeared in Technology Review, an MIT publication. Written by Hans Moravec, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, it pretty much embraced the whole nanotech vision.

‘I find his central point convincing,’ Moravec wrote. ‘Atomic scale construction is not just possible but inevitable in the foreseeable future. The human benefits from this technology will be without limit. Self-replicating machinery will be able to create a mind-boggling abundance for all.”

Also: “ ‘Drexler estimates that the time to these developments is under fifty years. I concur. Our accelerating technology will soon reach a kind of escape velocity that will carry us into a new and radically different world.’” P. 148

“ ‘You don’t build a Gothic cathedral until you have the vaulted arch,’ said Vince Rotello, an MIT chemist. ‘Drexler doesn’t have the vaulted arch, and he’s out there saying, “If we had these warp drives we could conquer the universe.” ’ ” p. 163

Sheldon Glashow, Nobelist physicist at Harvard: “There’s nothing kooky about it, except for the premise that you can actually make these things. You make a wild premise and then worry about the little details, fine. The man wants to worry about axles and whatnot. But the issue is to make this small critter that does these things.” P. 167-168

George M. Whitesides, chair of Harvard’s Chemistry Department: ‘The toughest issues is how to make them,’ he remarked. ‘To rely on an “assembler” is not satisfactory; it simply gives a name to something you don’t know how to do. Much of this type of discussion is like discussing automobile fabrication in a world in which there are no lathes, drill presses, welders, stamping presses, and so on….The answer to the question, “Would these devices work if you could build them?” is, “Maybe.”’ “ p. 168

Other critics:

P.W. Atkins, Oxford chemist

Critical reception of Nanosystems

Starts p. 247, more p. 253

Anonymous Harvard PhD says it’s not worth criticizing on p. 247

Shalom Wind of IBM didn’t like it, and says others didn’t either.

“To me, it sounds like it’s impossible,’ said George Sai-Halasz, another IBM Watson researcher who’d attend the talk.’” P. 248

“The problem pre-Nanosystems, then, was not that there was too much criticism of Drexler; it was that, other than for Kurt Mislow [a non-issue] and the Whole Earth Review, there was no criticism whatsoever.” P. 252

Specific objections

1. Carbenes issue, p. 256-257. Julius Rebek. This sounds like a specific, object-level objection.

2. Brownian motion/kT issue. P. 263

3. Others I’m not remembering

Argument for feasibility

pp. 49-50

1. New proteins: Genetic engineering techniques could be improved to the point where some new and novel molecules—specifically, new proteins—could be synthesized by the cells.

2. Self-assembly: If those molecules were properly designed, then under the influence of Brownian motion they could be made to assemble themselves into more complex structures—such as, for example, computers or even more complex programmable molecular devices.

3. Once those self-assembling programmable machines were made, they could be used to build even better, more complex mechanical devices. And those devices could replicate themselves.

4. Conclusion: it is scientifically possible to create controllable molecular machines that could be programmed to manufacture anything allowed by natural law.