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Molecular Manufacturing Research Offers Great Promise, And Deserves Public Monies

The technology also carries risks that require prudent anticipatory policies

The World Transhumanist Association

A statement from the Board of Directors The World Transhumanist Association

Molecular manufacturing is a branch of nanotechnology, an advanced form that, if achieved, could revolutionize industry, commerce, transportation, housing, medicine, space exploration, and environmental protection. It could also supply powerful tools to criminals, terrorists, and abusive governments, and lead to severe environmental damage, massive job displacement, and horrendously destructive wars.

Once developed, molecular manufacturing technology will permit bottom-up engineering by assembling individual molecules according to a specific design. A proposed approach requires the prior development of nanoscale devices ("assemblers") able to manipulate individual molecules, operate in co-ordination, and build copies of themselves as required.

Some scientists, including Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, have stated that molecular manufacturing is infeasible, if not impossible. Others, most notably nanotechnology pioneer K. Eric Drexler, believe that development of molecular manufacturing is not only inevitable, but may emerge sooner than many expect. At this time, no one can say for certain who is right. But so much is at stake-both potential benefits and serious risks-that intensive study is urgently called for.

As an organization, the World Transhumanist Association supports the application of reason, science, and technology to overcome "natural" human limitations and improve the human condition. However, we also recognize that new technologies can bring new risks, and some of these risks may be acute. The wise course is not to ignore or dismiss either the potential benefits or the possible dangers, but to study and understand them.

In recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Foresight Institute President Christine Peterson said, "While the basics of molecular manufacturing have been in the literature for over a decade, controversy still continues about the technical feasibility of this goal. We urgently need a basic feasibility review in which molecular manufacturing's proponents and critics can present their technical cases to a group of unbiased physicists for analysis."

If molecular manufacturing-the ability to create shapes, machines, and products at the molecular level-is truly just the stuff of science fiction and nothing more, then policy makers can safely ignore it. But if it is someday developed, it will have grave societal implications. Prudence suggests that we should determine now how feasible it is, and how far away.

In addition to a feasibility study, Ms. Peterson told the Congressional Committee that a major development project might be warranted: "In developing a powerful technology, delay may seem to add safety, but the opposite could be the case for molecular manufacturing. A targeted R&D project today aimed at this goal would need to be large and, therefore, visible and relatively easy to monitor. As time passes, the nanoscale infrastructure improves worldwide, enabling faster development everywhere, including places that are hard to monitor. The safest course may be to create a fast- moving, well-funded, highly focused project located where it can be closely watched by all interested parties. Estimates are that such a project could reach its goal in 10-15 years."

Before fully committing to the project proposed by Ms. Peterson, the logical step is, of course, to estimate its feasibility. As enabling technologies for the creation of molecular manufacturing continue to evolve rapidly, the need for an objective scientific assessment of projected timelines for achievement of the capability becomes increasingly urgent.

It is important to recognize that molecular manufacturing has serious military implications. Research by groups such as the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology indicates that an unstable arms race is a distinct and alarming prospect. The World Transhumanist Association strongly encourages global cooperation to forestall the deadly possibilities of a new arms race fueled by the unprecedented power of molecular manufacturing.

The WTA calls for the convening of an international panel of unbiased experts to hear testimony from proponents and critics of molecular manufacturing. The panel should make an assessment of feasibility and issue a statement estimating rough costs and timetables for the development of the technology, if it is determined to be feasible. Policy makers, business leaders, educators, and world citizens can then use this statement in considering and making wise choices for our collective future.


The World Transhumanist Association is a nonprofit membership organization that works to promote discussion of the possibilities for radical improvement of human capacities using technology. Transhumanism is concerned with ethically expanding technological opportunities for all people to live longer and healthier lives and to enhance their intellectual, physical and emotional capacities.

Reprinted with premission.
Copyright WTA.

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