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Home > Molecular Nanotechnology - Omission in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act
Among a rapidly growing group of nano-commentators, Nanotechnology Now is concerned that the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act calls for a one-time study of the feasibility of "molecular self-assembly," and omits any possibility of studying the feasibility of molecular manufacturing. Failure to investigate both the promise and the peril of molecular manufacturing may well lead to a future where we find ourselves taken by surprise, to our collective detriment.
Due to the potential for both good and bad to come from advanced nanotechnologies, we strongly urge you to contact your state's representatives and ask that they support a feasibility study of molecular manufacturing. If the US doesn't do it, then someone else will ...
At the bottom of this page is a summary of the back-and-forth that has been going on recently. At the end of the day, we think reasonable minds will conclude that the Nanobusiness Alliance has poorly chosen its message, one which could come to haunt them, by alienating the businesses that support them (and making them less effective in promoting policy in Washington.)
Editor Nanotechnology Now
December 9th, 2003
us with your comments.
The new Nanotechnology Act is great for nanoscale technology, but it deliberately excludes study of molecular nanotechnology. The House version had called for a study of molecular manufacturing, including detailed questions such as key scientific and technical barriers and estimated timeframe. In the final version, this was changed to "molecular self-assembly," a much more limited form of nanotechnology--but the name is similar enough to fool people. Several nano commentators, including CRN, have been sharply critical of the substitution. The only way to judge the potential impact of molecular manufacturing is to study it. We need to know what it can do and when it could be developed, and the original version of the law could have answered that. Trying to suppress discussion will help nothing, and could be dangerous. To justify the change, Mark Modzelewski, head of the NanoBusiness Alliance, offers only rhetoric about "futuristic sci-fi notions." But two decades of careful research by Drexler and others cannot be dismissed by name-calling.
Chris Phoenix, Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology crnano.org
The current bill is a step forward in establishing ongoing research funds for generic nanotechnologies, but it doesn't fix a fundamental problem with the existing program: a lack of focus on the original Feynman vision of molecular machine systems and molecular manufacturing. An earlier version of the bill called for a study of the Feynman goal, but even this was viewed as too ambitious and was deleted by entrenched interests. That's sad -- immense payoffs for medicine, the environment, and national security are being delayed by politics. The December 1 cover story of Chemical & Engineering News shows that molecular manufacturing is going mainstream. The general public wants this technology, and the public will get what it wants sooner or later: "Science progresses, retirement by retirement."
Christine Peterson, President, Foresight Institute
The revolutionary promise of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) has
become a part of society's expectations for the future. This technology
will provide nanomedicine breakthroughs that could cure cancer and
extend lifespace, bring abundance without environmental harm and
provide clean sources of energy. These ideas are part of the vision that
launched the field of nanotechnology.
K. Eric Drexler, Chairman, Foresight Institute
"An advanced nanomanufacturing program (beyond the safely incremental one proposed in the current bill) would develop the tools required to quickly roll out the energy solutions, build advanced medical devices, or create a new generation of breakthrough electronic chips.
James Von Ehr Bolder nano R&D needed to reduce foreign-oil dependence
I asked Mark Modzelewski of the NanoBusiness Alliance about this very issue. His group was a big backer of the bill. Modzelewski's response: "Frankly, we already know what the bill asks for is possible, but the bill will allow us to look at `to what extent.' It is possible that some aspects of 'molecular manufacturing' might be investigated, but knowing the parties influencing the study, I doubt it. There was no interest in the legitimate scientific community - and ultimately Congress - for playing with Drexler's futuristic sci-fi notions."
James M. Pethokoukis, Senior Writer U.S. News & World Report
Another important issue in the bill is the provision, in Section 5(b), for what is called a "study on molecular self-assembly." I'm not sure where this language comes from: the bill calls for "a one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale." I think that this means a study on self-replicating molecular-scale systems, but self-assembly isn't really self-replication. Given that self-assembling nanodevices have already been demonstrated (1), taking a narrow view of this language seems unlikely to accomplish much: It's like performing a study to determine the feasibility of integrated circuit chips. Been there, done that. Presumably, the broader interpretation of the language will obtain. If it doesn't, that may be an early sign that federal officials aren't really serious about developing what most people would consider to be true molecular manufacturing. Let's hope it doesn't.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, from Give Thanks for Small Victories at Tech Central Station
--The plot thickens and the nanotech bill gets sillier--
Paul Holister. Chief Architect of the Nanotechnology Opportunity ReportTM
Paul Holister. Chief Architect of the Nanotechnology Opportunity ReportTM, and editor of TNT weekly. CIO of CMP Cientifica and Founder and Research Director of the ENA. Quote comes from Issue 13 - TNT Weekly. Email Paul
Like every other technology that humankind has created, it can also be used to amplify and enable our destructive side. It is important that we approach this technology in a knowledgeable manner to gain the profound benefits it promises, while avoiding its dangers. Drexler and his colleagues at the Foresight Institute have been in the forefront of developing the ethical guidelines and design considerations needed to guide the technology in a safe and constructive direction.
Ray Kurzweil, Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief, KurzweilAI.net. From The Drexler-Smalley Debate on Molecular Assembly
1. The original House version of the bill (2) - now worth only its weight in Thanksgiving Parade confetti - contained a provision to study "molecular manufacturing."
The term nanotechnology has been incorporated with a broad public understanding of revolutionary benefits in the future, including unprecedented abilities in medicine to cure cancer, AIDS and other dreaded diseases, as well as enormous environmental promise.
Rosa Wang, Senior Associate Foresight Institute. Principal, GeographicEngine.com
"If the U.S. could manufacture large-scale products with high flexibility, high quality, and extremely low cost, it would possess an economic driver much larger than the whole of computing technology in the last quarter century. This is not an exaggeration, nor is it a description of a free lunch. It is the recognition of an economic opportunity that will accrue to any country that develops molecular manufacturing first."
Neil Jacobstein, Ralph Merkle, Robert Freitas Balancing the National Nanotechnology Initiative's R&D Portfolio
" ... the final version of the document contains a curious recommendation for a “one-time study” into the “feasibility of molecular self-assembly”, which has been interpreted by some as a challenge to those who support Drexler’s vision of molecular manufacturing to make their case or forever hold their peace. Apparently this is not so; the bill in fact seems to have been designed specifically to avoid mention of the Drexlerian model of nanotech entirely. Frankly, this leaves me unsure as to what this proposed one-time study is in fact supposed to achieve, particularly as the feasibility of molecular self-assembly is demonstrably beyond question."
Philip Ball 2003: nanotechnology in the firing line
"The downside is that a sometimes-bitter war has been waged within the nanotechnology community itself, between the scientists and visionaries on the one hand, and the business people on the other. The scientists and visionaries want research on advanced nanotechnology -- the sort of thing that can deliver dramatic progress in treating aging and disease, in solving environmental problems, and in developing outers pace -- to move as quickly as possible. And while it's moving, they want a broad societal discussion on the implications of such technology, with an eye toward addressing them before the technology becomes generally available.
The business community feels, er, differently. It's afraid that advanced nanotechnology just seems too, well, spooky -- and, worse, that discussions of potentially spooky implications will lead to public fears that might get into the way of bringing products to market. This view isn't necessarily sinister. Looked at charitably, it represents the belief that once people are used to nano-pants, and to early nanodevices that can treat disease and remedy pollution without being "spooky" (applications which are, as I noted in an earlier column, already on tap), they'll be less inclined to respond hysterically to talk about "gray goo," or fears of nano-weaponry. Let's focus on getting the Wright flyer built, they might suggest, before we start worrying about ICBMs. In the meantime, it's best to focus research on near-term applications, and to dismiss talk of more advanced nanotechnology as speculative, either directly or through surrogates.
As a public relations strategy, there may be something to this approach, though I'm inclined to be skeptical. Playing it close to the vest, and trying to shut down public debate, hasn't been a very effective strategy where other new technologies have been involved, and there's no special reason to think that it will work here. "
Glenn Harlan Reynolds A Tale of Two Nanotechs
"What the bill does not do has been seemingly pondered by bloggers, Drexlerians, pseudo-pundits, panderers and other denizens of their mom’s basements more than its revolutionary benefits. They have developed an elaborate fantasy about how molecular manufacturing research work was pulled from the bill by some devious cabal."
F. Mark Modzelewski
New York, NY
Industry can help groundbreaking nanotech bill fulfill its promise
"Nathan Tinker, executive vice president of the NanoBusiness Alliance, recently filled me in on some of the details. In Washington last fall, alliance leaders told Sen. John McCain’s staff that the House version of the nanotech bill contained a troublesome section 'a feasibility study on “molecular manufacturing” and “self-replicating nanoscale machines.' ... The alliance told McCain’s staff that the government needs to focus on 'specific technology areas that have relatively demonstrable market potential in the next 15 years or so' and that offer a 'better return on investment,' Tinker said."
"Future marketing students might marvel at how a group of salesmen achieved political victory -- complete with requisite silencing of dissenters -- for an "industry" that does not yet exist. ... But for now, it is commerce that is driving the nanotech vision, redefining "real" nanotechnology to suit what is best for nano business. Business leaders and policy-makers did this by carefully selecting which theories are the ones the general public is supposed to believe, then marginalizing the rest."
Howard Lovy Nano re-created in business's image; Is this the best of all futures?
"The industry is not hiding from any real problems by ignoring your delusional fantasies and rantings, any more than one truly ignores a wino's claims on skid row that bugs are crawling under his skin. The very really issues of nano-health and environmental issues as explored by "real" research in the Washington Post is a matter entirely unrelated to your nutty diatribes. It's a matter the industry does take seriously and has been addressing for some time with research, discussion and taskforces. Because matters such of this are so grave and serious, we avoid mixing in the comic relief of the writings of Eric Drexler and yourself the subject.
I must say I pity the tax payers of Tennessee that pay your salary as well as your students who will enter the job market with a head full of rocks (or perhaps molecular manufactured nanorobots) after listening to you.
Keep up the weird fight. Lord knows I do get a laugh from it."
Mark Modzelewski I guess I just don't understand public relations
"While I feel a certain degree of sympathy for the dinosaurs, I think that if the nanotechnology business community, because of the PR strategy that it has chosen, finds itself scissored between the scientists and visionaries on one side, and the environmentalists on the other, it will have cause to regret its rather shortsighted PR strategy. It's too early to predict that outcome now. But, like a lot of things relating to nanotechnology, it's not too early to worry about it."
Glenn Harlan Reynolds The Nano-Ostrich Approach Doesn't Work
"Clearly being educated man, I can hardly even fathom how you take Drexler's fantasies and turn them into reality in your head. As far as our "pr strategy" as you call it-its not so much pr strategy as a "reality strategy." I don't promote nor spend much time worrying about science fiction and frankly don't even view the zettatechnology/molecular manufacturing/Foresight folks thinking as on the table in the environmental debate. I am clearly not between two poles, as your misguided views on the subject frankly don't constitute a pole in the landscape as far as I see it. I would say my skills as a long time political damage control specialist leave me -all ego aside - a little better skilled then Howard Lovy or yourself at these type of things. So just the same, I will actually be the one with a degree of sympathy here. Keep fighting the -strange- if not good fight for your lost cause."
Mark Modzelewski Battle Over Nanotechnology
If Mark Modzelewski and Richard Smalley really think Drexler’s ideas are just frightening fantasies, then they should quit the name-calling and welcome the chance to disprove those ideas. The government’s feasibility study of molecular manufacturing should be reinstated, and the matter should be put to rest once and for all. If Drexler’s ideas can be proven definitively wrong, then we can relax in our comfortable nano-pants. But if Drexler is correct, there is much work to be done. If the stakes are as high as Drexler and his allies suggest, the world needs to get this right the first time, for there is very little room for mistakes.
Adam Keiper of the Ethics and Public Policy Center The Nanotech Schism: High-Tech Pants or Molecular Revolution?
Thank you for your request to join the Neanderthal Alliance. We here in the superior side of the species have been following, with great amusement, your attempts at cave capital and public funding for your so-called "Wheel" and "Fire" projects. And while we are convinced that homo erectus (tee-hee, we still snort with great humor when we hear those words) is destined for the dirt pile of history, we cannot help but agree with our upright cousins that what you are pursuing is nothing short of an elaborate fantasy.
Howard Lovy's NanoBot Cave Capitalist Part III: Neanderthal Alliance
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