Nanoscale tech vs. Mechanosynthesis

from the terminology-drift dept.
Cryptologist Hal Finney points out on the Extropy mailing list that Foresight's views of molecular nanotechnology are still not generally accepted, despite all the funding of "nanotechnology". Read More for his post. Yet there are a few brave researchers who take self-replication via nanotechnology seriously in public; see the end of this interview with Harvard's Charles Lieber in The Deal: "There really are some fundamental scientific problems where you can end up creating self-replicating things and invading bodies, but I don't worry about that at this point." He's right not to worry that this might happen soon. However, since it is a possibility, some of us are putting time into thinking about it in advance — it's a tough problem to head off, and figuring it out will take some time. Hal Finney writes:

A couple of years ago, Foresight essentially declared victory in the war for acceptance of nanotechnology. There were conferences held every year, one or more respected journals, government funding was ramping up, articles in business journals. By all accounts it was now an accepted future technology.

But maybe that was premature. We are seeing a backlash, a rearguard fighting action against the original vision of nanotech. Opponents are trying to build a firewall against Drexlerian mechanosynthesis, drawing a distinction between their prosaic nanotech and Drexler's far-out visions. They prefer to focus on biotech, on nanoparticles, on MEMS, on bulk materials engineering at the nanoscale. All these things can be done today, in fact they are the natural consequence of existing technologies just extending their capabilities a bit. They want to get funding for their current research. In this environment there is no reason to even think about blue sky dreams like eternal perfect health, or nightmares like engineered malignant replicators.

I think Foresight needs to go back to its roots and shore up the foundations. It's not enough to have "nanotechnology" initiatives showing up everywhere. Few of those efforts are making significant progress towards Drexler's machine-based models. Foresight needs to remind people that there is more to nanotech than making ultra-fine powders for smoother paint. We have to keep our eye on the prize, a technology which can utterly revolutionize every aspect of the world. If research is not moving us towards that goal, it should not receive funding under nanotech grants, even if it happens to involve little tiny pieces.

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