Eric Drexler’s Vision of Nanotechnology is Making a Comeback

Fullerene Nanogears
Fullerene Nanogears

 

The dream of atomically precise manufacturing that Dr. Eric Drexler laid out in his groundbreaking 1986 book, “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology” hit a major roadblock in its quest for public acceptance in the early 2000s after criticism of the potential risks associated with it by Sun Microsystems co-founder, Bill Joy and an ill-founded critique of its feasibility by the Nobel-winning chemist, Prof. Richard Smalley.

Bill Joy argued in his widely read Wired article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”, that the technologies that could lead us to a technological singularity –namely, genetics, robotics and nanotechnology– would eventually become so powerful that they would no longer be safely manageable by humanity and would pose a grave existential threat to all life on Earth. Self-replicating nanobots, Joy said, were so dangerous that all research into them should be halted.

Of course a consequence of halting all research into nanotechnology –if such a thing were even possible– would be that research would be forced underground and those who would benefit as a result would be criminal and extremist groups that seek to cause harm. Halting research would also prevent well-meaning scientists from understanding and developing safety measures against the potential risks. Joy’s proscriptions would almost certainly cause more harm than they would prevent.

The criticism from Joy and others caused fear among some researchers that funding towards nanotechnology and related fields would be curtailed by the U.S. Congress in a political backlash. In response, the Nobel prize winning chemist, Prof. Richard Smalley moved to disassociate the term “nanotechnology” from Drexler’s original ambitious vision of true atomically precise manufacturing and instead have it associated with simpler and more basic materials science which Smalley wanted increased funding for.

In 2003, Smalley and Drexler debated back and forth in the pages of Chemical & Engineering News about the vision Drexler had laid out in Engines of Creation. Although his stature as a Nobel laureate would have suggested otherwise, Smalley resorted almost entirely to straw men and ad hominem attacks against Drexler.

Because Drexler had the audacity to seriously and rationally contemplate the physical possibilities of atomic manipulation, Smalley accused him of having terrified the world’s children, writing, “You and people around you have scared our children. I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.”

The straw men were also laid on thick and heavy by Smalley, an example of one of many was a ridiculous figure Smalley claimed Drexler proposed of 1 GHz for the atomic placement frequencyIn his technical book, “Nanosystems”, Drexler actually proposed a far more reasonable frequency of 1 MHz, a thousand times slower than Smalley’s claim. At Smalley’s higher frequency diamondoid nanomachines would overheat and decompose in milliseconds.

Although Smalley’s critique of Drexler was considered to be a “politically motivated attack without any technical merit” by nanotechnology researcher and cryptology pioneer Dr. Ralph Merkle, it was unfortunately very successful in damaging the field’s reputation and in slowing progress for many years to come.

Eric Drexler - The Father of Nanotechnology
Eric Drexler at Oxford University, May 2013 – Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

By the time President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act into law in 2003 Smalley and co. had succeeded stripping all funding for anything remotely resembling atomically precise manufacturing research. Not surprisingly Drexler wasn’t invited to the signing of the bill at the White House.

Richard Smalley passed away in 2005 and only in the last few years has Drexler’s vision started to recover from Smalley’s political maneuvering and ad hominem smears.

In 2016 the concept of advanced molecular machines received a significant boost in its public image when Jean-Pierre Sauvage, Fraser Stoddart, and Bernard Feringa were awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the design and synthesis of molecular machines.”

The Nobel committee compared the trio’s breakthrough to the first crude electric motors constructed in the 1830s, at a time when scientists were unaware that spinning cranks and wheels would eventually make possible industrial fans, blowers and pumps, machine tools, household appliances, power tools, and disk drives, and the revolution in the electrification of cars which we’re living through now.

Two years ago in the summer of 2015, the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office held a workshop on Integrated Nanosystems for Atomically Precise Manufacturing (INFAPM) in Berkeley, California. The workshop was attended by Drexler and other nanotechnology researchers and visionaries and its purpose was to gather information on the vision, goals, barriers and advances needed for the development of atomically precise manufacturing.

A year and a half later on January 1st of this year, Dr. David Forrest who heads up INFAPM at the DOE and organized the summer 2015 workshop, announced that the Advanced Manufacturing Office had decided to begin funding research into atomically precise manufacturing. The announcement is striking in that it is one of the first times that the US government has been willing to explicitly fund research into Drexler’s vision.

With this research finally being seriously funded by the US DOE and the daily advances being made by scientists and engineers around the world in fields such as DNA origami and protein engineering, Drexler’s vision of atomically precise manufacturing can no longer be casually brushed aside by critics, the evidence is mounting that he was right all along.

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