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The debate over whether molecular manufacturing and nanoassemblers are feasible has turned into a PR war. With billions of dollars of research funding and industrial profits at stake, both sides are taking their ideological clash to the public. So far, Eric Drexler and the Foresight Institute own the moral and scientific high ground. But his critics at the National Nanotechnology Initiative hold the purse strings. And they don't play by the same rules.
Dr. K. Eric Drexler has his game face on. I’m in Palo Alto, watching him sit on a panel discussion of “Nanotechnology: The Money, Science and Politics of the Next Big Thing,” sponsored by the Cato Institute, a national anti-regulatory watchdog group. Drexler is defending his vision of molecular nanotechnology (MNT).
Strangely enough, Drexler’s chief detractors are representatives of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), the government program pouring nearly $3.7 billion into nanotech research and development programs over the next four years. The NNI program legislated by Congress also authorizes public hearings and expert advisory panels, including the American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center to study the emerging technology's potential societal and ethical effects. But no funds are appropriated to study Drexler's molecular manufacturing proposals; the NNI contends that Drexler’s ideas are ‘too far out’ to merit even a feasibility study under the present round of funding—that they are, in fact, ‘science fiction.’
The high irony of this is, of course, that Drexler, along with Arthur R. von Hippel, Richard Feynman and Marvin Minsky, is one of the founding fathers of molecular nanotechnology. He practically single-handedly transformed nanotech from a gleam in Feynman’s eye into a rigorous scientific discipline in its own right with his landmark 1992 book Nanosystems. His farsighted vision of nanotechnology centers on the consequences of MNT, specifically molecular nanoassemblers, a profoundly disruptive technology that, when mature, will transform almost every aspect of human life.
Unfortunately, the NNI doesn’t approach nanotechnology with such a long-term vision or revolutionary focus. NNI has broadened its definition of nanotechnology far beyond MNT to include almost anything on the scale of the ultra-small, from synthetic nanomaterials chemistry to nanoelectronics to MEMS to bioengineering, and focused its vision on nanotechnologies with a relatively quick payoff. Very little of the huge research funding bill recently signed by President Bush will go towards enabling technologies for MNT or molecular manufacturing.
Clearly, Drexler is pleased with neither the policy direction of the NNI, nor the unscientific tone of the criticism recently directed against his work by NNI chief scientist Richard Smalley, whose argument concludes that Drexler is “scaring our children” with his vision of a powerful, transformative MNT in the near future. When a rival panelist derisively refers to Drexler’s Foresight Institute as a ‘religion,’ Drexler ripostes: “That’s a slur! That’s the third slur today…This is not a scientific discussion.”
Indeed, it is not. As evidenced by the seminar’s title, as nanotech shifts gears from theory to applications, the tone of the field’s policy dialogue has changed from a sober, disciplined scientific discussion into a multi-sided, viciously competitive political and economic fray. Huge amounts of money are at stake: not just the government research grants, but the potentially enormous profits of commercial nanotech spin-offs from the research they will support.
The government is also wary of the perceived scariness of some potential consequences of MNT, such as economic dislocations caused by cheap nanomanufacturing, formidable nanoweapons of mass destruction, and the notorious gray-goo scenario. NNI people therefore take care to distance themselves from any research that might cause a politically inconvenient public outcry against nanotechnology.
Apparently this strategy includes stooping to discredit Drexler publicly, for example by using Nobel laureate Richard Smalley to claim that Drexler’s vision is scientifically infeasible. That makes about as much sense as the AEC trying to ruin Einstein’s career. By attacking Drexler, the NNI is sawing off the very limb they’re sitting on, and it’s making them look pretty dumb.
The NNI’s no-holds-barred, hit-‘em-below-the-belt spirit ran high at the seminar, which was attended about equally by Drexler supporters, enemies, and fence-sitters, many of whom wondered out loud at the feckless acrimony of the panel discussion. To his credit, Drexler conducts himself in this highly polarized atmosphere as a gentleman and defender of scientific idealism, principle and rigor, a polished presenter of his point of view. But he also seems drawn out of his element and outflanked by better-funded and far less scrupulous adversaries.
Drexler’s seniority in the field and the scientific logic of his position are unassailable, while that of his detractors is questionable. For more detail on this, see Chris Phoenix's and Ray Kurzweil's analyses of Smalley's position. Essentially the NNI’s objection to funding Drexler is bureaucratic: because Drexler has no experimental work to show for his theories, there is no concrete proposal to merit a technology feasibility review.
Drexler patiently responds, “Fine. I made a detailed, concrete proposal in Nanosystems. So fund some basic research on molecular manufacturing based on that proposal,” in tones similar to a grade-school math teacher going over the rules of long division yet one more time.
The stock NNI reply: Drexler can’t get experimental funding because there has not been a feasibility study, and he can’t get funding for a feasibility study because there is no experimental work. Does this remind anyone besides me of Catch-22?
Then the discussion moves back to whether Drexler has even made a proposal detailed enough to base a feasibility study on. Drexler rolls his eyes, as if to say, “Don’t these yahoos get it yet?” and again brings up the detailed 1992 proposal for MNT he made in Nanosystems.
Like a couple with irreconcilable differences, the two sides go round and round the same arguments, seemingly unable to agree on anything. Certainly, Drexler’s opposition gives the strong impression that they have not read his work very closely, or perhaps not even read it at all. The elephant in the room here is that, in more than a decade since Nanosystems was published, no critic has demonstrated a serious scientific flaw in it.
Actually, all the moves in this dance were choreographed long before the seminar, in discussions between Drexler and NNI personnel such as Smalley, and the positions and arguments of both sides are available online. There were substantially no new issues brought to the table in the seminar. Actually, the most interesting part of the event was strolling around during the breaks, listening to attendees’ impressions of the panel discussion.
The consensus seems to be that Drexler and his opponents are not communicating very well, because they are speaking two different languages. Drexler is a scientist and refuses to budge from high-minded scientific and academic principles, and standard protocols of open inquiry and fair discussion. The NNI is a political animal, speaking evasive bureaucratese and always mindful of their constituents. Ne’er the twain shall meet, conceptually.
Many attendees commented on the perceived lack of principle of Drexler’s rivals. I repeatedly heard phrases such as ‘straw-man,’ ‘circular arguments,’ ‘bait and switch,’ ‘moving the goal posts,’ and the like applied to the NNI position and debating strategy. It seems pretty clear that Drexler owns both the moral and scientific high ground in the argument, though many seem to think he’s politically in over his head, outflanked and outnumbered, and ultimately can’t win.
It may be that, in founding the potentially explosive scientific field of nanotechnology, Drexler has grabbed a tiger by the tail. Whenever big money, big government and big politics get together, things can get gnarly fast. The truth tends to become the first casualty in any war, and the war over the spoils of nanotech is likely to be no exception.
The most interesting comment overheard in my lunchtime pilgrimage from table to dessert tray was, “This is all bullshit. It’s been over ten years since Drexler showed in theory how to build nanoassemblers. By now, the military must have a black program to develop MNT before the Chinese or Arabs or Russians get it. This is just disinformation to throw everybody off the trail by making the impression that we’re not interested in pursuing [molecular manufacturing and self-replicating nanobots].”
Given the powerful potential military applications of MNT, this idea is credible. During the 1940s and 50s, the U.S. government publicly decried the feasibility of nuclear fission and later, fusion, while covertly pouring tremendous resources into nuclear weapons research. Perhaps there is a secret nano-Manhattan Project going on somewhere.
After the seminar, I happen to bump into Drexler and have a rare opportunity to speak with him alone. I bring up the possibility that there could be a secret military project to develop nanoassemblers, and the current government position in the nanotech debate is a disinformation program.
Following the briefest of pauses, Drexler looks me in the eye and replies in the same high, clear voice I’d heard him use during the panel discussion, “Those things are hard to know about.” He still has his game face on.
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