Are nanorobots and atomically precise manufacturing becoming mainstream nanotechnology?

Two months ago we noted renewed interest in the prospects of atomically precise manufacturing originating from outside the community of those usually interested in advanced nanotechnology. The writer we cited gave an excellent overview of the prospects based on Eric Drexler’s Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, published in 2013, and on Productive Nanosystems: A Technology Roadmap, published by Battelle Memorial Institute and the Foresight Institute in 2007. Three more articles appeared the past few weeks. Foresight President Paul Melnyk forwards this link to an article written by Giulio Prisco “Op-Ed: The nanobots are coming back“:

Nanotechnology has kept a low profile after the early hype in the 90s, but recent advances show that those nanobots might swim in our brains and build things for us sooner than we think. …

After describing how “the nanotechnology hype waves in the 90s” originated in public enthusiasm for “assemblers” described in Drexler’s Engines of Creation – The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, leading “from the Peak of Inflated Expectations to the Trough of Disillusionment”, Prisco comments on the “much less visionary and much more sedate” presentation in Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization of “the mature concept of additive manufacturing at the nanoscale, or Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM) — building precisely manufactured goods from the bottom up, one atom or molecule at the time.” Prisco subsequently makes the analogy of APM with “3D nano-printing” and concludes “APM is visionary but doable, and could be the next technology revolution — this time for real.” In support of his conclusion he cites the medical nanorobot work of Dr. Ido Bachelet of Bar-Ilan University (see “Swarms of DNA nanorobots execute complex tasks in living animal”) and the opinion of “Nicholas Negroponte, one of the founding fathers of today’s Internet” that “in 30 years nanobots will attach themselves to neurons and synapses and play an important role in our thinking and learning”.

To provide further insight into Drexler’s views on APM as elaborated in Radical Abundance, Prisco links to an interview at Forbes of Drexler conducted two years ago, by Bruce Dorminey “Nanotechnology’s Revolutionary Next Phase“. Or read Drexler’s more complete explanation on his blog, especially “The Physical Basis of High-Throughput Atomically Precise Manufacturing“.

Prisco also links to a related Digital Journal Op-Ed piece by Calvin Wolf posted the previous day “Op-Ed: Nanotechnology likely to be the next big technological revolution“:

Is technological progress slowing down? Are we simply refining technological advances originally made in the 1980s or earlier? Fear not: there is a next wave that will revolutionize technology. And it’s small. Real small. A look at nanotechnology. …

After describing several arguments that technological progress from World War II through the early 1970s resulted from plucking “low hanging fruit,” Wolf concludes that we no longer have the will to invest in grand plans, like the Apollo program, but:

We cannot go big, but we can go small. Nanotechnology is the next tech revolution. Microscopic computer chips, operating in flexible units, can complement existing infrastructure, be it digital, physical, or biological. That’s right — microscopic particles, working together in complex networks, could help heal, or even augment, the human body. They could allow nerves to bypass spinal injuries, heal damaged tissue at the microscopic level, or override detrimental brain signals. …

The second part of this post will look at one other recent opinion piece on atomically precise manufacturing, and then look briefly at the evolution of thought from assemblers and grey goo to nanofactories and APM.
—James Lewis, PhD

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