To the outsider, the debate about whether Drexler’s vision of radical nanotechnology – molecular manufacturing or molecular nanotechnology (MNT) – is feasible or not can look a bit sterile. Many in the anti- camp take the view that the Drexler proposals are so obviously flawed that it’s not really worth spending any time making serious arguments against them, while on the pro- side the reply to any criticism is often “it’s all been worked out in Nanosystems, in which no errors have been found”.
One of the most oft quoted but extremely important sayings can be traced to the late physicist Richard A Feynmann. The expression “There is plenty of room at the bottom”, captured the minds of generations of scientists and triggered a whole new science and revolutionary technology. Nearly five decades after Feynman’s lecture, nanotechnology enhanced products are increasingly used in routine as well as high-end cutting-edge technology applications. More exciting possibilities exist in biomedical, energy and environmental related applications. Nanoengineered materials have witnessed extensive application in pollution control, purification and desalination of water and in effective waste management of hazardous by-products. It is a popular belief that the nano-revolution is set to have a far larger global econo-techno-political impact than the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century or the information technology revolution of the twentieth century.
The Problem The all-important practical question is, of course, how do we get from our technological capabilities today to the capabilities needed to implement MNT. This is interesting science in its own right, but some idea of the formidable difficulties involved can be found by reading Philip Moriarty’s critique of a specific proposal by Robert Freitas, and the subsequent correspondence with Chris Phoenix. Drexler himself prefers the idea of developing a biomimetic soft nanotechnology very much along the lines of what I describe in Soft Machines, and then making a transition from such a soft, wet system to a diamond based “hard” nanotechnology. This involves a transition between two completely incompatible environments, and two incompatible design philosophies, and I simply don’t see how it could happen. Without a concrete proposal it’s difficult to judge feasibility or otherwise.
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