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Home > The Atkinson-Phoenix Nanotech Debate -- Page 4

The Atkinson-Phoenix Nanotech Debate - Page 4 - Emails

Commentary text by Chris Phoenix, except where otherwise noted. [Bracked Italics] indicates a correction. Italics used on text indicates a comment taken from an earlier email, written by the other person.

Last update: August 04, 2003.

Page 1: Overview
Page 2: Emails through June 27, 2003
Page 3: Emails through July 14
Page 4: Emails through August 4
Page 5: The wrap-up

July 17, from Bill Atkinson to Chris Phoenix
Subject: Re: Dialog page...

Hey Christopher,

Indeed I know of Mark Modzelewski! Flip over your copy of Nanocosm, and there he is with the lead endorsement: "Nanocosm is the nanotechnology book we have all been waiting for - accurate, realistic, and oh so readable. It's a rare book that researchers and business people can both enjoy." So there.

Now to the reaaaaaaly cool stuff. This is making me hop up and down. Hard to type that way, but hey
-

"My God, am I now a nanobooster?!!?" I wrote to Rocky Rawstern yesterday. He replied: "Stranger things have happened. At worst, your arguments will force the nanoboosters to thoroughly think thru their positions. Might even change minds on all sides of the table. Heck, might even actually effect the outcome! Who'da thunk it! We live in hope :) "

I find this a tremendously exciting dialogue. I've stated and elaborated on my positions, which tend to come down to one thing: frustration. You've done the same thing, to the same result. Now we're both finding our mutual frustration may rest largely in perception. It's not just a matter of hyped PR: many points on both sides need to be addressed by real change, and real goodwill. The marketing communications I've been suggesting you undertake, must spring from genuine common ground, including genuine changes. But I feel now that this may actually be possible.

So here's another suggestion for you, which wraps up all my earlier suggestions. We've discussed various concepts: difficulty of having MAM speak with a single voice, credibility issues, funding &c. Now try this: A new institute. I call it The Calpurnia Institute, C. being Caesar's wife who "must be above suspicion." TCI would find, recruit, and isolate all working scientists interested in helping legitimize MAM via rigorous experiment.

No engineers need apply - TCI's mandate would be solely for experimental investigation. Engineering demonstration would come later (see below). TCI would out-Herod Herod: that is, it would go beyond even the rigor of Wood's Hole, Caltech, or Institute-Louis-Pasteur in requesting, formally and in writing, permission from other scientists outside TCI before citing their work. This shows the second aim of TCI, implicit rather than explicit: To gain the complete trust of the scientific establishment, as a necessary waystation to funding access.

Why not Foresight Institute, or CRN, or some other existing organization or institution? Answer: A new approach requires a new body; new wine needs new wineskins. TFI, while it appears to encourage a variety of opinions, is too closely associated with K.E. Drexler. It's his baby: he's past President and current Chair. There's a tiny whiff about TFI that it's KED's stalking horse: a cleverly organized front to give MAM legitimacy that it has not so far been able to achieve in strictly scientific terms. TFI, in other words, is stuck with a rep that has it being far more about PR than it does about science. Whether or not that rep (rap?) is true (and I think it is, at least to some degree) the reality is that this is its established image. TFI has gone way, way beyond the comfort level of the mainstream scientist: hence their opposition, extending in many cases to ridicule and (even worse for your funding chances) neglect. The scientific establishment, which is the group you're trying to convince, perceives TFI that way. So something utterly new, something utterly rigorous and squeaky-clean, is called for right from get-go.

TCI, rather than a private company, would thus be the vehicle for the MAM business plan. While non-profit, it could court and accept funding from private sources, as we have outlined above. The business plan would quickly evolve into a businessLIKE plan for pursuing new scientific data in deep support of the MAM.

Part of TCI's rigor would be its utter isolation from anything that's riled the scientific establishment (and that drove me crazy when I was writing Nanocosm). No corpsicles, no wild predictions, no squash-the-world's-machinery-into-a-breadbox, no dreaming in color, no castles in Spain. Only ideas that are immediately, directly testable: only sound, dull science. And those ideas will be immediately put to the test. You just watch how fast you'll get legitimated if you go at things this way. As you yourself so presciently note, you can try to change the rules within the system; or you can comment and criticize from the outside; but not both at once. TCI will in effect be a mitochondrion that the scientific establishment will be able to absorb in 3-5 years without a hiccup, and with a clear conscience.

I like your idea of pursuing sensors. Several of my interviewees identified this area as being critical to near-term nanotech. In fact some of the nanosensor firms I found were already in the black, or close to it. But I say again: TCI must restrict itself to very, very basic science. It cannot afford to be seen as limited to a single technology. It will exist to generate basic data. These data may then, along with data of a similar nature produced by the SE, be used to enable and liberate new nanotechnologies. But that's for later. "Your task, should you choose to accept it, will be" (as they say in Mission Impossible) to push the envelope: to pour the footings for tomorrow's nanotechnology. That's your bag. And you have to do it ultra-rigorously. No Merkle, raving to stupefied audiences about the joys of calmly calling your doctor when your heart stops. No corpsicles. No Antidisestablishmentarianism. No bloody emotion-based movements at all. Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.

As you say, "Frustration leads to breaking the rules." Which leads to exclusion from the SE, which leads to more frustration, which leads to more rule-breaking, which leads to further exclusion, ad infinitum. That's the vicious circle that The Calpurnia Institute must set out to break. In doing so, it will also rein back MAM to address a single business level. Orderly experimental progression will most likely lead to orderly progression in whatever technology is spun off from TCI discoveries. It will be an incremental process.

Of course, original research being what it is - adventuring into The Undiscovered Country - there's always the chance that you'll stumble onto wild new effects that can support some truly revolutionary engineering. But that will happen in a way the SE knows and appreciates: first the science, then the technical applications. Again as you say, MAM has to date been driven by the engineers, who have imagined cool things and then set about trying to find ways to make 'em happen. From the SE's viewpoint, that's ass-backwards. And you know, they may be right. Try it their way: for all their rust, fust and harrumphy stodge, the SE do have several centuries of successes they can point to. What has MAM got to lose?

As for your lament that the Pentagon does not seem to be examining the possible effects of the molecular assembler, why should it? It is at least possible that, say, a workers' revolution will engulf parts of Eastern Europe, or that looming Latino majorities in the US Southwest should radically destabilize societies there. But it has yet to be demonstrated that the MA is even possible. Thus the establishments - scientific, political, military, financial - cannot and will not address the policy implications. They're not being staid here, just realistic. That (admittedly with a venom born of frustration at the MAM fringe) is what I say in Nanocosm. And this is what The Calpurnia Institute would address. TCI is your golden bridge to acceptability; thus to funding; thus to success. As it does its work, and assuming it does demonstrate MA feasibility, the policy discussions must follow as the night the day. I even foresee a letter to the White House, much like Einstein's famous note to FDR: "Mr President: Recent scientific data now indicate that..." And there's your Manhattan Project, right off.

But without clear and replicable data in support of the MA, that will never occur. Others will say and write, as they have written to me, that MAM may even be the unintended result of a CIA-sponsored disinformation project, attempting to lure America's commercial rivals into pursuing an unattainable piece of science fiction! So that foreign Manhattan Project you fret over may actually be a US Government aim! I'm not that paranoid: but there is now a clear dearth of sound data indicating an MA can be built. TCI will address this void. (I discount the datum that a Japanese speaker at a Foresight conference expressed confidence in the MA concept; TFI would hardly invite, say, me to address them - part of that perceived, and I think real, TFI bias.)

Let me say explicitly, here, that I'm still not convinced an MA is possible, let alone feasible. I don't think all scientific showstoppers have demonstrably been overcome. But why not answer both our objections via TCI? Whatever it uncovers would settle the matters of possibility and feasibility once and for all. Then one of us could buy the other a drink and we could have a good laugh at all the storm and fury of debate in the past.

As for not judging leaders by their followers: Why not? In fact, one must do this. A responsible leader must disavow any followers that discredit him and his movement. The President, for example, cannot be seen to be allied, and cannot ally himself, with the Ku Klux Klan. I would have a lot more respect for KED if he said to the corpsicle crowd: Depart from me, ye accursed, into everlasting fire. But it's not gonna happen. KED, I think, has elected for numbers rather than rigor. It seems democratic; but science has never been democratic in that way. It must always subjugate itself to the objective truth. As I pointed out in Nanocosm, you can't adjust the gravitational constant by popular vote.

In fact The Calpurnia Institute would be best to treat KED as the SE has done: as Joe Stalin treated Trotsky. The latter, you will recall, was a big man on campus in the Russian Revolution. But he wanted to export revolution, and Uncle Joe wanted to consolidate it first in Russia. So Trotsky had to go into exile. Time for this here, I think. It seems cruel - thanks for getting us going, now take a hike - but loyalty here will doom MAM to perpetual low Earth orbit.

Yes, the fringe will be ignored, and (as you write) "scientists will flock to the...reasonable voice." The cacophony will not be increased because TCI will leave the fringe far behind, and its voice will dwindle. Now and then we'll see a letter to the editor, as we do today about the threat of cosmic rays crashing the world computer system. But the genuine MAM will have been advanced, and legitimized, as it never could have been otherwise.

Bill


July 22, from Bill Atkinson to Chris Phoenix
Subject: Summary To Date

Hi Chris,

Thought it might be useful to give you a quick snapshot of where I am now. My latest entry in The Well dialogue was as follows. I was responding to a query from a reader asking me who had the final say in the dialogue that Rocky is posting, i.e. whom I could consider to have "won." I said:

"No formal vote, guys - each reader must weigh and consider. No need to take things to a formal conclusion. This is more like a garage sale, where everybody lays out his trash & treasures and everyone who's interested can come to browse.

"As so often happens, one of the most important messages is the subtext. Here, that's the astounding ability of daggers-drawn opponents to air arguments and make responses - in a manner that starts out frosty-but-civilized, moves through cordial, and is now bordering on downright chummy. 'I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.' Lo - the possible emergence of common ground!"


So here's where I stand. Kicking, screaming, and biting, I have found myself moved to admit - Let the trumpets sound! - that the molecular assembler has not been conclusively demonstrated to be impossible. Further: that the difficulties I have with the MAM, if addressed, may make me not only suspend my opposition to said MAM, but even (mirabile dictu!) support it. If the Calpurnia Institute (or the same thing by another name) rigorously explores the science behind the molecular assembler; and transparently posts its findings; and cuts itself adrift from the MAM's fringe elements; and generally conducts itself like a dull, staid province of mainstream science; - then it (and you, Chris) can count on me as an ally.

This may not sound like much, so I'll offer a koan. "Mount Everest was moved a mere six inches to the west by the latest intervention of the Applied Tectonics engineers."

Best

Bill

August 4, from Chris Phoenix to Bill Atkinson
Subject: Re: Dialog page...

I apologize for taking so long to reply to this, and also for taking so long to forward your letter to Rocky to post on this site. I promise I won't make a habit of it. I'm moving cross-country from the 11th to the 18th and will be completely off-line, but we can work something out with Rocky if you don't have a response before, say, the 8th.

This time, the delay was caused by me flogging myself to finish the rewrite of the Nanofactory paper--55 pages of architecture and calculations that say that *if* an assembler works, an integrated tabletop nanofactory will be pretty easy by comparison. (The nanofactory paper is linked from http://CRNano.org/bootstrap.htm .) This means that the final stages of MNT (assuming they happen at all) could happen quite quickly--very important if you're planning MNT policy. It also goes a long way toward answering your concerns about control and heat problems in MNT manufacturing.

Are you now a nanobooster? That would be very good news indeed. You're certainly talking like you think TCI might succeed at making enough breakthroughs to legitimize MNT. I hope you think it might, because I have a question/request. I don't know very many scientists, and those I do know are generally busy with careers already. Whereas it's your job to meet nanoscientists (or at least it was while writing Nanocosm). If TCI is a good idea--and you've got me mostly convinced that it is--would you like to be the one to recruit its leader? If you're right about its public success, and I'm right about its possibility for scientific and technological breakthroughs, it shouldn't be too hard to find someone who wants to take it on.

I agree that a top priority of TCI would be to gain the trust of the scientific establishment. I'm a little surprised that if all they're doing is stolid experimental work, they'd need written permission from other scientists to cite them in scientific papers. But I'll assume you're right. But that leads to another, more immediate question: Does CRN, as a non-scientific organization, need to ask permission of scientists we mention in our publications?

Let me give you an example. We're working now on a big paper, one part of which explains the various kinds of information available about MNT. I've come up with five classifications: demonstration, theory, projection, fiction, and inaccuracy.

- Demonstration includes the silicon mechanochemistry, as well as the Fe-CO mechanochemistry, and a benzene-joining demonstration (or something similar).
- Theory is stuff that hasn't been demonstrated, but follows by clear and mostly reliable reasoning. This includes Nanosystems. It also includes Smalley's "fat fingers" argument, but only because he's a Nobelist in chemistry; if it came from anyone else, I'd file it under projection because there's been very little formal work done to back it up.
- Projection is a reasonable guesstimate based on ideas that are more or less plausible. This includes some of the stuff in Engines of Creation (some should count as theory, though Drexler didn't show his work in the book), and your opinions in Nanocosm about why nanobots can't be controlled effectively.
- Fiction is stuff like Prey or Star Trek: the author feels free to violate physical laws.
- Inaccuracy is stuff that's claimed to be non-fiction, but is simply wrong. Smalley's "sticky fingers" argument is inaccurate: sticky fingers grabbing atoms is an incorrect characterization of Drexler's proposals and is completely unnecessary to them. Arguments based on thermal noise and Heisenberg uncertainty used to be projection, but are now also inaccuracy (though it's an easy mistake to make, so I'm not blaming proponents of these arguments unless they've been in the discussion for a while).

Obviously, these form a hierarchy: demonstration usually trumps theory, theory usually trumps projection, fiction can be ignored, and inaccuracy should be actively disputed. I'd like your opinion of this taxonomy and of whether I've been too dismissive of anything I've mentioned.

But the other question is: if CRN is writing this kind of overview of what's known about MNT and how to classify each piece of information, do we need to ask permission of scientists before we mention their work?

I also agree that neither Foresight nor CRN is appropriate to take on the role of TCI. My reasoning is simpler than yours: Foresight and CRN are not scientific organizations. You said, "TFI, in other words, is stuck with a rep that has it being far more about PR than it does about science." What I don't understand is why anyone expected them to be about science. That's what the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing was supposed to be for. Foresight has always been about activism and education. I think it comes back to perception: Drexler was trying to wear two hats and was continually being taken out of context. IMM might be a good choice for TCI. Except that they've done mostly theoretical work, and they haven't shunned Drexler, so by now they're wearing a big scarlet D and can never be accepted in polite company again.

Furthermore, I agree that TCI can easily separate itself from cryonics and from making projections about MNT. As you've described it, its goal is simply to do research, and that's a worthy goal and a good focus. But I wonder: if they're not supposed to associate themselves with anything Drexlerian, what keeps them from being just one institute among thousands? With so many "nanotech" groups already formed and suckling from NNI, how would TCI distinguish itself without ever talking about the applications of its work? Is this something that they'd gain the right to do over time, so that eventually they could republish the relevant chapters of Nanosystems and get them accepted? Or would they be swallowed by the peer pressure and focus more and more narrowly on short-term nanostuff, which will be safer to talk about even (perhaps especially!) after TCI gets accepted and funded?

Of course, original research being what it is - adventuring into The Undiscovered Country - there's always the chance that you'll stumble onto wild new effects that can support some truly revolutionary engineering. But that will happen in a way the SE knows and appreciates: first the science, then the technical applications. Again as you say, MAM has to date been driven by the engineers, who have imagined cool things and then set about trying to find ways to make 'em happen. From the SE's viewpoint, that's ass-backwards. And you know, they may be right. Try it their way: for all their rust, fust and harrumphy stodge, the SE do have several centuries of successes they can point to. What has MAM got to lose?

What have we got to lose? Time. There comes a point when theory, demonstration, and supporting technology are all sufficiently developed that a lot of lab work will do the trick. We can call this the Manhattan Point, or TMP since you seem to like TLA's. I think we may be at TMP already. Five years from now, I'm quite sure we will be--though obviously, I'm less sure that the establishment will realize it. And with my CRN hat on, I'm worried that when we reach TMP (whether or not the establishment realizes it), some country will fund a secret assembler project and a few years later we'll all get an unpleasant surprise with no chance to make sensible policy.

As for your lament that the Pentagon does not seem to be examining the possible effects of the molecular assembler, why should it? It is at least possible that, say, a workers' revolution will engulf parts of Eastern Europe, or that looming Latino majorities in the US Southwest should radically destabilize societies there. But it has yet to be demonstrated that the MA is even possible.

Wait a minute. You're using "possible" in two different senses here. I think you've agreed that "it is at least possible" that an assembler and a nanofactory could work. And certainly "it has yet to be demonstrated that" a workers' revolution will engulf anything.

Going back to my taxonomy, workers' revolutions and looming majorities are *projections*. And molecular manufacturing (positional chemistry fabricators integrated into manufacturing systems), I claim, is *theory*--and many projections of its effects (such as unstable arms race and economic disruption) are at least as well grounded as projections of social trends.

I wouldn't ask policy people to address anything in Engines. But Nanosystems has been out for over a decade. Now, I agree it's not their fault that Nanosystems has been invisible to them. But it certainly has been demonstrated that the MA is plausible. At this point, as we've both said, the problem is one of perception and frustration: getting the word out in a way that policy people can hear, past scientists who don't want to admit the new paradigm.

TCI is your golden bridge to acceptability; thus to funding; thus to success. As it does its work, and assuming it does demonstrate MA feasibility, the policy discussions must follow as the night the day. I even foresee a letter to the White House, much like Einstein's famous note to FDR: "Mr President: Recent scientific data now indicate that..." And there's your Manhattan Project, right off.

Who (what position and reputation) would be able to write such a letter and have it listened to? What other conditions would be required?

But without clear and replicable data in support of the MA, that will never occur. Others will say and write, as they have written to me, that MAM may even be the unintended result of a CIA-sponsored disinformation project, attempting to lure America's commercial rivals into pursuing an unattainable piece of science fiction! So that foreign Manhattan Project you fret over may actually be a US Government aim! I'm not that paranoid: but there is now a clear dearth of sound data indicating an MA can be built. TCI will address this void. (I discount the datum that a Japanese speaker at a Foresight conference expressed confidence in the MA concept; TFI would hardly invite, say, me to address them - part of that perceived, and I think real, TFI bias.)

Lots of points to answer here. TFI invited Smalley to address them at a Foresight Technical Conference a few years ago, at a point where he was speaking quite negatively about the idea of "universal assemblers." And the speaker I mentioned wasn't Japanese; she was an American who'd been studying Japanese opinions on MNT. She didn't express confidence in MA herself; she was reporting her understanding of the general Japanese opinion.

If MAM is CIA-sponsored, who does the rumor suggest is in the pay of the CIA, and who is a dupe? Who other than Drexler is doing *anything* to export the idea that MAM is possible? And--this seems actually plausible--is it possible that this rumor is an effort on the part of the other countries to make us think they're not taking MAM seriously, while in reality they already have a Manhattan Project underway?

Data derived from theory can be sound data; I agree it's not always sound, but it's certainly better than nothing. So far, there's been lots of pretty solid theory indicating that an MA can be built, and virtually no theory indicating it can't. Smalley's "fat fingers" are rapidly losing credibility, and they're the only counter-theory I know of. And the pro-MAM theory destroys in detail most if not all of the anti-MAM projection. Wearing my CRN hat again, if people keep saying "I won't believe it till I see it," they could get a very nasty surprise. How would you characterize the situation at the time of the "Mr. President" letter that started the Manhattan Project, before anyone had demonstrated a chain reaction? Were there sound data, or not? If so, I claim that data supporting MA are equally sound in every way (except that we don't have an Einstein backing them--but we do have a Feynman). If not, then we don't necessarily need sound data to act on the MA possibility. Please answer this paragraph in detail; it really cuts to the heart of the frustration of MAM policy people, including me.

Thanks for sending the summary of your position. It's always encouraging to see mountains move. Perhaps, we can but hope, your example will encourage others to take an unprejudiced look past the MAM at the theory behind it. And perhaps, we can but hope, something respectable but MAM-inspired can arise and provide a foundation for useful policy discussion.

Chris

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