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Home > Molecular Nanotechnology - Omission in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act

Omission in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act

Last update: March 11th, 2004

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.)

—Rocky Rawstern
Editor Nanotechnology Now
December 9th, 2003
us with your comments.

Here are some of the other critical comments:

Chris Phoenix

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

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

Christine Peterson

K. Eric Drexler

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.

So the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) is, of course, plotting an aggressive course toward MNT -- isn't it? Massive research funds are flowing to groups pursing competing approaches, and researchers are touting their results as steps toward the goal...right?

The reality is starkly different. NNI research programs support a host of valuable projects yet exclude work explicitly directed toward MNT. In an effort to distance the field from fears that might threaten funding, the leading NNI spokesman, Richard Smalley, has declared that molecular assemblers are impossible. This stance has opened a vast gap between perception and reality, creating a world in which students interested in pursuing MNT research lack sponsorship, while lab groups and start-up companies working toward MNT goals must hide their intentions. By falsely declaring molecular assembly technology to be impossible, detractors have associated it with warp drives in official circles and relegated it to fringe status.

Fortunately, this erroneous situation is beginning to change, in part because the extended Foresight community refuses to let this important issue be dismissed. We now have a unique opportunity to seize the momentum. Richard Smalley has responded to my challenge, and the ensuing exchange -- the Dec. 1 cover story of the American Chemical Society's magazine, Chemical & Engineering News -- may mark a tipping point, but only if it is seen -- and properly understood -- by a wider audience, and if it is properly translated into action.

—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.

So while I acclaim this bill as a fantastic first step, there's a lot more that can and should be done. We are still spending less than $1 billion per year on nano, which puts it in the company of a lot of minor, unimportant government programs. Nano is more significant than that, and we should consider beginning a truly ambitious program. Every day we delay is a day that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying oil from countries that hate us. Every day we delay is a day that we let thousands of people around the world die who could be saved by nanomedicine."

—James Von Ehr Bolder nano R&D needed to reduce foreign-oil dependence

James Von Ehr II

James Pethokoukis

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

Glenn Reynolds

Paul Holister

--The plot thickens and the nanotech bill gets sillier--

Last week we had some fun with the recent nanotech bill in the US, especially the plan for a one-time study to determine the feasibility of making things using molecular self-assembly, which makes about as much sense as conducting a one-time study into the feasibility of sharpening a stick with a sharp knife. With a combination of cynicism and naiveté, we assumed that the bill had got away from those who actually understood nanotech and ended up in the hands of politicians who didn't understand the difference between self-assembly and molecular assemblers, the result being a terminological boo-boo in the part that was meant to direct figuring out whether Drexlerian-style molecular nanotechnology (MNT) and molecular manufacturing are actually feasible.

We were not alone. Quite a few people, it seemed, thought that the MNT crowd had been given the chance to make their case or forever hold their peace. Even the skeptics seemed to think this was fair dinkum.

We first heard otherwise from those within the MNT camp. Then Howard Lovey, in his nanotech blog, had a bit of a go at us for being somewhat glib about the bill and assured us (Nano's got a brand-new bag: Politics) that in fact much thought had gone into the choice of words, and by those who understood nanotechnology, the intention being to exclude any consideration of MNT from the bill. This, he says, was political.

Howard's view has since been firmly backed up from other quarters, some of which could certainly be expected to know the truth of it. Apparently it was indeed political nanotech, or polinanotec to use Howard's neologism. As Howard points out, the NanoBusiness Alliance, who apparently played quite a part in producing the bill, also confirm in their newsletter that M-N-T is O-U-T. Howard, hardly an MNT acolyte, is nevertheless clearly quite upset (NanoBusiness As Usual) by this intrusion of political infighting into what might otherwise have been at least a civilized, and possibly enlightening, step forward in a longstanding area of contention. His rather barbed comments reflect the view of many we have heard from and stand in stark contrast to those of one well-connected source, who patiently explained to us that now that nanotech is "hot" it is more in the hands of "businessmen, lobbyists and politicians " than scientists, adding that "the truth is written by those in power that has [sic] rarely been scientists, non profit guys or futurists". These people are apparently not worried that "a couple hundred researchers - many abroad - are at odds with some wording to a provision".

While we're not quite sure what truth has to do with all this or where the foreign researchers come in, it does seem that we were wrong. The decision to enshrine in law a completely nonsensical study was apparently not a mistake. It was apparently deliberate. What strange times we live in. Being opportunists, however, we would like to volunteer our services to do the study. We're quite curious as to how much money the US government is prepared to pay to answer the blindingly obvious.

We won't even bother to explore the absurdity of the intentional exclusion of any evaluation of the feasibility of making basic molecular machinery from a bill that is quite happy to take seriously the risk of self-replicating nanobots being released into the wild.

We couldn't help noticing that when you open up the bill, the first page presents you with two words, in large, bold, capitals: AN ACT. Indeed. But in what flavour of play? Supporters of MNT may choose a tragedy; we're inclined to opt for a farce. But wasn't politics always thus?

—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.

Denying the feasibility of an impending technological transformation is a short-sighted strategy.

—Ray Kurzweil, Founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief, From The Drexler-Smalley Debate on Molecular Assembly

Ray Kurzweil

Howard Lovy

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."

I'm not ordinarily a conspiracy theorist, but this one is obvious. So, I hereby retract what I wrote last week about molecular manufacturing proponents having cause to celebrate, and I once again wonder out loud why Congress - despite last week's inspirational rhetoric in the House and Senate - appears to be afraid of simply asking a question.

There are ongoing efforts to find out.

2. There's an interesting passage in a positively giddy-sounding NanoBusiness Alliance newsletter: "(The nanotech bill), contrary to earlier drafts, does not develop an elaborate feasibility study of Drexler style molecular manufacturing."

Congratulations. You must be very proud.

"NanoBusiness News, The Leading Voice of the Nanotech Revolution," goes on to thank all those who, I presume, helped to strip the bill of some of its vision: "If there is any justice a hundred years from now you will be in history books for the leadership and effort you all showed."

Indeed. The first rough drafts are being scribbled right now.

One more interesting choice of words in a quote from F. Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance: "Both sides of the aisle in Senate should be commended for their FORESIGHT and hard work in getting this bill through."

OK. The bold caps are mine.

—Howard Lovy - Howard Lovy's NanoBot. 1. From Nano's got a brand-new bag: Politics 2. From NanoBusiness As Usual

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.

The sweeping changes resulting from nanotechnology are deeply embedded in public understanding of the term as well as in our popular culture.

However, these are the kinds of things that only a large-scale technological revolution can achieve, and is the result of technologies achieved by molecular manufacturing and molecular assemblers. In the establishment of the NNI and broad government and private funding for nanotechnologies, these immense promises underlie much of the excitement around these programs. However, as shown in the recent debate between Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley, there are clearly differences in the concepts. Richard Smalley clearly does not believe molecular manufacturing and molecular assemblers are possible. The current Bill signed by the President had removed a reference calling for a study of molecular assemblers, and some are now quoted in the press as saying that no one is interested in these advanced applications.

What is not realized, is that the long-term expectations for these technologies are not incremental improvements in current technologies, but revolutionary changes. Those who deny the feasibility of molecular manufacturing to dismiss concerns over the dangers are denying these future applications as well.

—Rosa Wang, Senior Associate Foresight Institute. Principal,

Rosa Wang

"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
Executive Director
NanoBusiness Alliance
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

(1) DNA used to create self-assembling nano transistor

(2) H. R. 766

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