Drexler Calms Fears of Runaway Replicators

The IOP journal Nanotechnology has published a paper by Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler titled "Safe exponential manufacturing" that addresses the fear of out-of-control nano-replicators, and analyzes risks, concerns, progress, misperceptions, and safety guidelines for future molecular nanotechnology (MNT) development.

The Foresight Institute press release:

Contact: Judy Conner
[email protected]

Nanotechnology Pioneer Calms Fears of Runaway Replicators

Institute of Physics Publishes Article on Safe Exponential Manufacturing

Palo Alto, CA – June 9, 2004 – The overactive fear of grey goo and out-of-control nano-replicators is scientifically addressed in the paper "Safe Exponential Manufacturing," released today by The Institute of Physics in their journal Nanotechnology. Co-authored by Dr. Eric Drexler, founder of Foresight Institute and author of Nanosystems and Engines of Creation, and Chris Phoenix, Director of Research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN), "Safe Exponential Manufacturing" analyzes risks, concerns, progress, misperceptions, and safety guidelines for future molecular nanotechnology (MNT) development.

Updated Molecular Nanotechnology Concepts

Drexler introduced the concepts of nanotechnology through his 1981 article in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences and his 1986 book Engines of Creation. The PNAS article was based on a biological model of molecular machine systems – hence the early focus on self-replication – but the logic of the technology led to the very different, non-biological approach described by Nanosystems in 1992 and in the more recent literature.

"Research and thinking in this area has come a long way since the earlier works," says Drexler. "Molecular machine systems can be thoroughly non-biological, and self replication is not necessary."

In particular, it turns out that developing manufacturing systems that use tiny, self-replicating machines would be needlessly inefficient and complicated. The simpler, more efficient, and more obviously safe approach is to make nanoscale tools and put them together in factories big enough to make what you want. Throughout history, people have used tools to make more and better tools. That's how we got from blacksmiths tools to automated industries. The natural path for nanotechnology is similar.

Since the publication of Nanosystems, the focus for Drexler and his colleagues has been on desktop-scale manufacturing devices. This nano-factory is based on the convergent assembly architecture, developed by Professor Ralph Merkle, where small parts are put together to form larger parts, starting with nanoscale blocks. The machines in this would work like the conveyor belts and assembly robots in a factory, doing similar jobs. If you pulled one out, it would be as inert as a light bulb pulled from its socket. See illustration.

Foresight Institute Guidelines for Molecular Manufacturing

With the fear of runaway replicators now in better perspective, attention on molecular nanotechnology can be directed to more important issues, including how the technology will be used, and by whom. Molecular nanotechnology will introduce a clean, large-scale manufacturing capacity that will impact humanity on a global level. These systems will affect all areas of society including medicine, the environment, national security, space development, economics, intellectual property, and privacy.

"To prepare for the unprecedented power of molecular machine systems, Foresight Institute created the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology," said Christine Peterson, President and co-founder of Foresight Institute. "Rather than focus on scenarios of runaway replicators, we should anticipate how molecular manufacturing can be used to improve our health and quality of life, restore the environment, and prevent acts of aggression."

About Foresight Institute

Foresight Institute is the leading public interest organization focused on nanotechnology. Formed in 1986 by K. Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson, Foresight provides education, information, and public policy development on the topic of molecular nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing. The organization's goal is to guide emerging technologies to improve the human condition and environment.

About The Institute of Physics

The Institute of Physics is a leading international professional society with over 37,000 members, which promotes the advancement and dissemination of knowledge of and education in the science of physics, pure and applied. It has a world-wide membership and is a major international player in scientific publishing and electronic dissemination of research in physics and nanotechnology.

Pertinent Links and Images

IOP Published paper – Safe Exponential Manufacturing,
Foresight Guidelines for Molecular Manufacturing
Desktop Nanofactory Images
Professor Ralph Merkle

Additional coverage:

Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) press release
IOP press release: Nanotechnology pioneer slays "grey goo" myths
Interview with Drexler: Drexler dubs "grey goo" fears obsolete
BBC coverage: Nanotech guru turns back on 'goo'

Nanotechnology abstract


Safe exponential manufacturing

Chris Phoenix1 and Eric Drexler2
1 Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, Brooklyn, NY 11238, USA
2 Foresight Institute, Los Altos, CA 94022, USA

Received 6 April 2004
Published 9 June 2004

Abstract. In 1959, Richard Feynman pointed out that nanometre-scale machines could be built and operated, and that the precision inherent in molecular construction would make it easy to build multiple identical copies. This raised the possibility of exponential manufacturing, in which production systems could rapidly and cheaply increase their productive capacity, which in turn suggested the possibility of destructive runaway self-replication. Early proposals for artificial nanomachinery focused on small self-replicating machines, discussing their potential productivity and their potential destructiveness if abused. In the light of controversy regarding scenarios based on runaway replication (so-called 'grey goo'), a review of current thinking regarding nanotechnology-based manufacturing is in order. Nanotechnology-based fabrication can be thoroughly non-biological and inherently safe: such systems need have no ability to move about, use natural resources, or undergo incremental mutation. Moreover, self-replication is unnecessary: the development and use of highly productive systems of nanomachinery (nanofactories) need not involve the construction of autonomous self-replicating nanomachines.

Accordingly, the construction of anything resembling a dangerous self-replicating nanomachine can and should be prohibited. Although advanced nanotechnologies could (with great difficulty and little incentive) be used to build such devices, other concerns present greater problems. Since weapon systems will be both easier to build and more likely to draw investment, the potential for dangerous systems is best considered in the context of military competition and arms control.

URL: http://stacks.iop.org/0957-4484/15/869
PII: S0957-4484(04)78839-X

Note: The abstract contains links that may be used to download the entire paper for free for a period of 30 days (free registration required).

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