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Foresight Update 53

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Nobel Winner Smalley Responds to Drexler's Challenge

Fails To Defend National Nanotech Policy

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Chemical & Engineering News, Dec. 1, 2003. The cover story was the Smalley-Drexler debate on nanotechnology.

Rice University Professor Richard Smalley has responded to a longstanding challenge by Dr. Eric Drexler to defend the controversial direction of U.S. policy in nanotechnology (see Update 52). Drexler, Chairman of the Foresight Institute, authored the books that defined the original goals for nanotechnology. Drexler fears that national policy—which currently rejects those goals—is hampering dialogue, increasing security risks, and failing to deliver on revolutionary expectations. Smalley, a specialist in carbon nanotubes and the leading advocate of national efforts in nanoscale science and technology, has been the most vocal detractor of the original goals. Their four-part exchange, sponsored by the American Chemical Society, is the Dec. 1, 2003 Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) cover story. As described by Deputy Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum, the controversy centers on "a fundamental question that will dramatically affect the future development of this field."

The controversy over the Feynman vision

In his famous 1959 speech, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," physicist Richard Feynman articulated a vision later called 'nanotechnology'. Feynman proposed that mechanical systems (now termed molecular assemblers) could direct chemical reactions, building atomically precise products. This molecular manufacturing process will enable digital control of the structure of matter, revolutionizing areas ranging from medical to military, from environmental to economic. This vision of nanotechnology helped launch the current global surge in research and spending, including the multi-billion dollar U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI). Molecular manufacturing has been the focus of Drexler's work. However, as Baum points out, "Smalley has a dramatically different conception of nanotechnology from Drexler, one that doesn't include the concept of molecular assemblers."

Molecular manufacturing misrepresented

Contrary to Feynman, in a 2001 Scientific American article Smalley claimed to prove the impossibility of molecular assemblers—a claim used to defend the U.S. NNI leadership's rejection of the goal. Smalley had incorrectly argued that molecular assembly requires tools that will forever be impossible: "'There's plenty of room at the bottom'," he wrote, "But there's not that much room," because "To put every atom in its place... would require magic fingers."

In the current C&EN exchange, Smalley now agrees that assemblers (without impossible "magic fingers") could use something like enzymes or ribosomes as tools for doing precise chemistry. Yet Smalley continues his vehement rejection. He now says that molecular manufacturing will forever be severely limited—alleging that it must use tools that closely resemble enzymes, and that enzymes can work solely in water, making only materials like "the meat and bone of biology." Besides misrepresenting molecular manufacturing, these assertions reveal an understanding of enzymatic chemistry that is 19 years out of date: Scientific experiments since 1984 (A. Klibanov, MIT) have proven that many enzymes function effectively in non-aqueous environments. Smalley's alleged limits on molecular manufacturing clearly do not apply.

Metaphors and empty arguments

Ralph Merkle, nanotechnology pioneer and Distinguished Professor of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, identifies additional failings: "Smalley hasn't acknowledged the extensive scientific and technical literature on mechanosynthesis —a literature which includes designs for molecular tools, ab initio quantum chemistry calculations of specific tool-surface interactions, and implementation strategies. My research colleagues and I have published many papers in this new and exciting area, and this work sharply contradicts Smalley's sweeping dismissal of the field. Smalley is just not addressing the issues. Instead, he veers off into metaphors about boys and girls in love. He describes mechanosynthesis as simply 'mushing two molecular objects together' in 'a pretend world where atoms go where you want.'"

"Actually," Merkle says, "Ab initio quantum chemistry calculations don't involve love, or mushing, or pretending. For example, a carbon-deposition reaction which a colleague and I studied using standard quantum chemistry methods moves a carbene tool along a barrier-free path to insert a reactive carbon atom into a dimer on a diamond (100) surface. The tool is then twisted 90 degrees, breaking an internal pi bond, and pulled away to break the remaining sigma bond, leaving a single carbon atom bonded to the dimer on the surface." Merkle adds, "Further computational chemistry research into fundamental mechanosynthetic reactions should be an integral component of any national nanotechnology program. Smalley's metaphors merely cloud the issues."

Baum further observes, "Smalley's objections to molecular assemblers go beyond the scientific. He believes that speculation about the potential dangers of nanotechnology threatens public support for it." Indeed, in his closing remarks, Smalley laments danger scenarios that he says have "scared our children." He urges others in the chemical community to join him in dismissing these dangers by embracing his chain of reasoning.

    "Denying the feasibility of both the promise and the peril of molecular assembly will ultimately backfire, and will also fail to guide research in the constructive direction that is needed."    
    — Ray Kurzweil    

Restoring the vision

Drexler concludes, "We now have publicly available, after months of preparation, Smalley's defense of the U.S. NNI position on molecular manufacturing. He offers vehement opinions and colorful metaphors but no relevant, defensible scientific arguments, hence no basis for crucial policy. Smalley has struggled for years to dispel public concerns by issuing false denials of the capabilities of advanced nanotechnologies. That campaign has failed. It should be abandoned."

Commenting on Smalley's position, Ray Kurzweil, recipient of the 1999 U.S. National Medal of Technology, states "Denying the feasibility of both the promise and the peril of molecular assembly will ultimately backfire, and will also fail to guide research in the constructive direction that is needed."

Regarding U.S. policy, Drexler warns, "In the global race toward advanced nanotechnology, the U.S. NNI leadership has its eyes closed, refusing to see where the race is headed. This creates growing risks of a technological surprise by a strategic adversary, while delaying medical, economic, and environmental benefits. It's time to remove the blinders and move forward with public dialogue and vigorous research, embracing the opportunities identified by Richard Feynman."

Why the general public should care

The 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act passed through Congress and was signed by President Bush. The act authorizes $3.7 billion for research and development programs coordinated among several federal agencies. The legislation further provides funding for public hearings, expert advisory panels and established an American Nanotechnology Preparedness Center, which will study nanotechnology's potential societal and ethical effects. This Act and the accompanying funds should be applied to long-term research that will ensure that the U.S. is not left behind, and that our society can enjoy the benefits more quickly. It is crucial that molecular manufacturing be an integral component of these nationally funded programs.

    "In the global race toward advanced nanotechnology, the U.S. NNI leadership has its eyes closed, refusing to see where the race is headed. ... It's time to remove the blinders and move forward with public dialogue and vigorous research, embracing the opportunities identified by Richard Feynman."    
    — K. Eric Drexler    

For more information:

The Dec. 1, 2003 Chemical & Engineering News cover story, "NANOTECHNOLOGY: Drexler and Smalley make the case for and against 'molecular assemblers'":

Is the Revolution Real? Debating the future of nanotechnology:

"The Drexler-Smalley Debate on Molecular Assembly," by Ray Kurzweil

"Of Chemistry, Nanobots, and Policy," by Chris Phoenix

Discussion on Nanodot:

Foresight Update 53 - Table of Contents

Success, and the next step

Why support Foresight Institute

Foresight Institute has worked hard to get the word out on nanotechnology and its benefits. Because of these efforts, the potential of molecular nanotechnology and its uses — medical, environmental, and economic — are broadly understood by a wide range of people. We consider this a measure of success but now is the time for Phase 2: http://www.foresight.org/stage2

Foresight Institute is focusing on making molecular nanotechnology (MNT) happen sooner rather than later. To continue being an important factor in shaping the future of nanotechnology, Foresight Institute needs your support to further three specific approaches: Direct Research, Legislative Action, and Community Building.

Direct Research

Due to the substantial increase in computing power over recent years, molecular modeling experiments to support MNT are far more affordable. Researchers are able to model much larger systems. We have received two excellent proposals — see especially the new mpg movies in #2.

Proposal 1# - Submitted by Prof. Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas. Ralph is now a Distinguished Professor of Computing at Georgia Tech; Robert is a Research Scientist at Zyvex. They have proposed a 4-5 person team of top researchers at a total budget of $5 million over five years to complete detailed designs of tools to build stiff hydrocarbons into molecular machine components and produce journal articles and graphics showing construction of molecular machine components. The goal is to present a complete computational chemistry-validated system, provably feasible based on appropriate software. This would provide a powerful basis for NNI and other funders to consider molecular factories as worthy of mainstream funding. For the entire proposal and budget: http://foresight.org/stage2/project1A.html

Proposal 2# - Submitted by J. Storrs Hall, PhD. Josh has proposed a program for designing and making movies of molecular machine parts and systems, including new design software, with a budget ranging from $50,000-$350,000 per year, with results in proportion to personnel and budget. For the entire proposal and budget: http://foresight.org/stage2/project1B.html

Legislative Action

The U.S. government has committed $3.7 billion to nanotechnology over four years. Activism in Washington can get a portion of this directed toward MNT. With the help of a Washington insider, we have crafted a proposal to get MNT funded in a major way.

Washington Proposal. Molecular manufacturing should be a major purpose of the NNI, and making this happen will be the primary purpose of Foresight's legislative action over the next several years. Policy work on MNT benefits and drawbacks will not be taken seriously until federally-funded research in this area has begun.

As with most legislative action, there are those in DC who oppose our goal, in this case because they prefer to have funds directed at nearer-term technologies with less controversial applications. However, we feel confident that we can reach our goal, due to the very strong public interest in the positive uses of MNT, especially for medicine and the environment. Ultimately, what the voters want can be made to matter in DC, with enough work. We propose to do that work.

The U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative should include, as one of its Grand Challenges, the development of molecular manufacturing, also termed molecular nanotechnology or MNT. To accomplish this Foresight will need to educate key individuals and groups in Washington. We will need a Washington Representative to do this work. For the entire proposal and budget: http://foresight.org/stage2/project2.html

Community Building

There are many new organizations that are influencing various aspects of nanotechnology, but these organizations are focused on short-term incremental advances, not on MNT—which gives the big payoffs. Foresight needs to expand in order to continue being an important factor in shaping future nanotechnology directions. Of special interest: outreach to students.

Community Outreach Proposal. Foresight operates as a community-building tool for MNT, encouraging new researchers to join the field, connecting potential collaborators, and inspiring students with positive applications they care about—from medicine to environment to space. The organization also helps address possible objections to MNT through its public policy work—vital if we are to avoid the type of problems seen in GMO and stem cell research. Foresight maintains credibility by acknowledging and suggesting solutions to potential negative uses of MNT.

Foresight is already the leader in MNT community-building but much more is needed, both in terms of new functions and stengthening already-successful operations. The following activities will be continued and, where appropriate, expanded: Foresight Research Conferences (including new Student Outreach), Foresight Update newsletter, Nanodot weblog, Prizes (Feynman Grand Prize, Feynman Annual Prizes, Communication Prize, Student Prize). For the entire proposal and budget: http://foresight.org/stage2/project3.html

How do donate:

Please consider making a donation. You'll be making a huge difference to Foresight as we work to speed the advancement of molecular nanotechnology and its medical, environmental, and economic benefits.

To donate by secure online form, or by fax, see: http://foresight.org/stage2/index.html
Donate by telephone by calling 650.917.1122 and a Foresight staff person will be happy to take your information.
Donate by mail — checks postmarked by January 31, 2004 are also eligible for matching funds.
Address: PO Box 61058, Palo Alto, CA 94306 USA
For extra tax savings, donate appreciated stock and avoid capital gains: http://foresight.org/about/RegMemb.html#Stock

Thank you for your support!

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From Foresight Update 53, originally published 15 January 2004.