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Home > The Atkinson-Phoenix Nanotech Debate

The Atkinson-Phoenix Nanotech Debate

Started in June 2003. Last update: December 05, 2003.

Commentary text by Chris Phoenix, except where otherwise noted.

William Illsey (Bill) Atkinson wrote a book, Nanocosm, about nanotechnology. In it he was quite critical of Eric Drexler's approach to nanotech, and of Drexler himself. Chris Phoenix (CRN) wrote a review of the book, quite critical of Bill's understanding of the topic.

Bill responded. This touched off an email discussion, presented here for your enjoyment and information. Bill's response and subsequent emails are included in this file. This is the unedited dialog, hot off the keyboard. Corrections, where necessary, have been clearly marked. [Like this --CJP] [or this --WIA]

Email questions or comments to Rocky Rawstern: rocky at future-is-here dot com, and/or Chris Phoenix: cphoenix at CRNano dot org. (Bill asked that his email address not be posted. Chris will stay in communication with Bill and pass on messages if appropriate.)

First, pointers to a few of the highlights. Following that is a chronological list of the discussion. And after that, the emails themselves.


Highlights of the discussion

Bill's concessions:

An assembler might conceivably be possible.
Chris's arguments have made quite an impression.
"Nanoboosters" might actually have a contribution to make.
The simplicity of operation might possibly offset the complexity of design.


Chris's concessions:

We can't be sure we've found all the problems yet.
Diamondoid construction is limited.
Transformative technologies can't be recognized, and never get special handling.


Bill's strongest arguments:

Smalley says nanobots can't work.
Nanobots haven't been demonstrated; they're still completely imaginary.
Not all issues have been demonstrably solved.
The burden of proof is on the Molecular Assembler people.
Calculations alone cannot demonstrate that an MA is possible.
Molecular Assembler people must make concessions to be successful and mainstream.


Chris's strongest arguments:

Why Smalley's verdict on nanobots is questionable.
Mechanical chemistry has been demonstrated.
Nanobots are hard--and useful--for the same reasons computers are.
Drexler deserves less criticism.
The first computer design was criticized on the same grounds.

List of exchanges

Chris's review: "Critique of Nanocosm by William Atkinson"
    But many of Atkinson's attacks on Drexler's work are simply not worth answering.
Bill's response: "Dear Mr Phoenix: A brief response to the on-line review of Nanocosm." Also, his first brief email to me.
    I fully defend all observations and conclusions about Eric Drexler.
Chris's answer, a detailed complaint about Bill's attacks on Drexler, and comments on the technology.
    Science demands skepticism, yes, but not ridicule.
Bill's answer to that.
    I grind my teeth to say it, but you have managed to do something I'd thought was impossible: make me reconsider my position that the nanoassembler cannot be achieved in principle.
But... You haven't done enough genuine science to start listing your real problems - neither experiments to find how the nanocosm really behaves, nor practical engineering.

In his response, Chris broke the discussion into several topics.
"Intro and loose ends" set the stage for the discussion (and included a quick chemistry tutorial).
    You have convinced me that you're willing to listen.
"Dealing with objections" answered several objections to nanobots, including Bill's invocation of Smalley's criticisms of Drexler's theories.
    But some of Smalley's arguments are flat wrong. He talks about fingers gripping atoms. This has never been proposed, and he should know that.
"Feasibility and Desirability" explains why we think we can build nanobots, and why we'd want to.
    But mechanochemistry offers the chance to overdesign right at the beginning, so that we don't have to worry about errors until we get up to the micron scale.
"Personalities and Motivations" is mainly a response to Bill's accusations against Drexler.
    Drexler didn't do it to get funding, or money, or even fame. He did it to get people talking about the policy implications of MNT.

Bill's initial response was short, but encouraging:
    You can imagined me blackened and smoking, having just picked myself up off the floor; you keep blowing me out of my chair.

He followed up with a posting on the Well, of which he forwarded Chris an excerpt.
    But I'm starting to suspect that with certain modifications, the nanoboosters could make contributions to legitimate nanotechnology ...
Chris gave a somewhat boring reply.
    Of course, some of it is backed up by rigorous *theory* without experiment. But some of the theory is quite reasonably extrapolated from experiment.

After several days, and some discussion about publishing our dialog, Bill answered the Feasibility email:
    I like the way the extreme complexity and intricacy of your world view's design and construction may be - I say, May Be! - offset by the extreme simplicity of its operating methodology.
    But... Come back to me when you start your shop work. Till then I'll stay a skeptic.

So of course Chris answered him right back:
    Skeptics are good. We need skeptics. Please stay a skeptic even after the shop work is started. But _Nanocosm_ went far beyond skepticism.
Chris also calls for more funding, compares Drexler's work with a pioneering technology from the 1800's, discusses the creation of a nanoscale clean room, etc...

Bill started a new topic: what the Molecular Assembler Movement has to do to succeed:
    I think we both agree that the M-A movement (which I'll henceforth abbreviate MAM) has a credibility problem in the larger world beyond its own adherents.
Chris appreciated the advice, but brought up some practical issues:
    There are at least three problems with trying to cozy up to the scientists.
Bill reiterated that we have work to do:
    It may not be fair, but those are the conceptions and preconceptions you folks are going to have to address if you want to come back into the scientific fold.
Chris asked for clarification:
    Another problem is that we've already broken the rules. How can we recover from that?

Bill sent a very interesting suggestion:
    Now try this: A new institute. .... TCI would find, recruit, and isolate all working scientists interested in helping legitimize MAM via rigorous experiment.
Bill also sent a very hopeful summary of his current position:
    ... 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.
Chris agreed with most of Bill's TCI suggestions, but right at the end he tried to drag the discussion back to the question of MAM reliability:
    How would you characterize the situation at the time of the "Dear 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 ...

After a long delay, Chris sent a followup:
     We haven't even gotten around to talking about the possibilities of integrating and controlling large systems. My paper on this topic has just been published ...
Bill answered ...
     I'm planning a follow-on to Nanocosm, more technical and with less opinion. .... And this time I want to interview folks like yourself, with far-reaching ideas...That's how much you've persuaded me. As for the A-P Debate, I've been considering it; and I'm all written out .... So thanks again. You've enriched me.
Chris was pleased to end on a happy note ...
    I'm very interested in an interview. And very glad to hear that our debate was enriching to you. I suspect that I'll manage to talk about integrating and controlling large systems while discussing MNT-fabricated weapons. :-)
But Bill injected some pessimism ...
     .... with this signoff: Interesting that Bill Gibson (my fellow US ex-pat and Vancouverite) foresaw Chinese ascendancy in advanced technology as far back as 1984 .... it may well be MNT. We'll see. I hope we like the result. Best til next time -

And so ends the debate!

Postscript: Chris recently got into another debate, this time with a physicist, about how well nanomachines could work compared with biology. Bill was quite impressed with the result: "Common ground! Science meets biomimicry, or rather starts with biomimicry and then goes on to tweak and improve on it! And MNT!" This debate can be found in the discussion area of Howard Lovy's "Nanobot" blog, messages 5-29.

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

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