Once upon a time, or so the story goes, there was a young man who was hauled up before the court on charges that he had killed his father and mother. He readily confessed to the crime, but nevertheless pled for clemency: after all, he pointed out, he was an orphan.

Recently on his blog Soft Machines, Richard Jones posted an essay entitled The Economy of Promises, in which he asks:

It’s tempting for scientists to plead their innocence and try to maintain some distance from this. After all, the origin of the science fiction visions of nanobots and universal assemblers is in fringe movements such as the transhumanists and singularitarians, rather than mainstream nanoscience. And the hucksterism that has gone with some aspects of the business of nanotechnology seems to many scientists a long way from academia. But are scientists completely blameless in the development of an “economy of promises” surrounding nanotechnology?

Jones’ overall point seems a good one: nanoscientists shouldn’t over-promise what their research could do to funding agencies and to the public. But in using the word nanotechnology for what they are doing, Jones and the nanoscientists have, it seems to me, put themselves in the same logical position as the apocryphal parricide.


The term nanotechnology was introduced to the general public by Eric Drexler in Engines of Creation in 1986. This book of technological futurism was one of the most popular of its type ever published. For a decade, nanotechnology had no other meaning, in the public mind or anywhere else, than the Drexlerian vision.

Then a coalition of subfields in the physical sciences dealing with phenomena on the molecular scale appropriated the term. As Jones himself puts it,

As we see more and more pressure from funding agencies to do research with a potential economic impact, it’s inevitable that scientists will get into the habit of making more firmly what might be quite tenuous claims that their research will lead to spectacular outcomes.

(And I might point out that the competition between scientists is not merely for funding, but for the best and brightest grad students. EoC brought a significant number of smart, motivated students into science who would otherwise gone into other fields where they thought they could make a difference.)

Jones blames this in part on nanoethics studies:

An odd and unexpected feature of the way the nanotechnology debate has unfolded is that the concern to anticipate societal impacts and consider ethical dimensions of nanotechnology has itself contributed to the climate of heightened expectations. As the philosopher Alfred Nordmann notes in his paper If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics, speculations on the ethical and societal implications of the more extreme extrapolations of nanotechnology serve implicitly to give credibility to such visions.

But this misses a blatantly obvious point: what gave credence to the vision, in the public mind, was that thousands of scientists claimed to be working on “nanotechnology.”

By appropriating the term nanotechnology for what it was they were doing, the scientists had pulled a neat rhetorical trick: they were associating themselves with the wonderful promises of Drexler’s vision without having explicitly promised anything themselves. And they reaped the benefits of billion-dollar funding levels worldwide, interest from investors and the media, the cream of the students, and all the rest.

But in so doing, they had managed to change the basic meaning of the term (without bothering to tell the public — which is the major point of Jones’ essay) from “a widely capable industrial base with a capital doubling time measured in hours instead of years,” to “laboratory experiments dealing with stuff measured in nanometers,” whether the latter had anything to do with the former or not. And mostly it did not — indeed, there was a strong if informal message in the academic field to exclude just those studies that would lead to molecular manufacturing!

And thus the pleadings of the “orphan.”

(I must hasten to add that the situation is not as bad as it was five years ago. The difference is that the political incorrectness of working towards a productive, transformative nanotechnology in the original sense, has faded somewhat. There are plenty of scientists in the field who, whether they agree or not how far we can go, agree that this is a good direction to try.)

Jones then proceeds to cast an odd aspersion:

In the case of nanotechnology, we have organisations like the Foresight Nanotech Institute and the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology, whose ostensible purpose is to consider the societal implications of advanced nanotechnology, but which in reality are advocacy organisations for the particular visions of radical nanotechnology originally associated with Eric Drexler.

It seems to me that in so saying, he makes a basic category error. The Foresight Institute is explicitly a futurist organization (hence its name). It was founded as such over two decades ago, and is firmly committed to continuing in that role today. We do not promise. We predict. We have seen a vision of what the future might be, and we named that future nanotechnology. It is the scientists who promise, implicitly, when they borrow the word we made. We claim to identify goals; they claim to move toward them. We say, “This is possible, if you do X.” They say, “We’re doing X.”

Scientists who want to dissociate themselves from Foresight’s vision have an obvious way to start: quit using the word nanotechnology to describe your activities.

But there is another, and I think more preferable, way to proceed.

Keep your promise.

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  1. Anonymous February 11, 2009 at 4:51 pm - Reply

    If you put an SI unit prefix in front of a wide and encompassing term like “machine”, “wave” or “technology” you really can’t expect to claim it as your own for long. Even if Eric Drexler had been the first person to think up the word “nanotechnology”, that wouldn’t have given him any sort of rights over it. Thats not how language works.

    Words’ meanings change. Foresight should embrace the future, not fight it.

    Advocates of Drexler’s ideas have used many terms over the years to try to distinguish his original vision from more recent research. Molecular Manufacturing, Advanced Nanotechnology, Molecular Nanotechnology, Mechanosynthesis… But until the concept moves off the drawing board, its only a matter of time before each of these vague terms becomes attached to something else more real, something that exists.

    Those who would have us revere the word Nanotechnology, do a great injustice to the originality of Drexler’s ideas. Surely if they are a valuable contribution to mankind then they can compete with all the other good ideas out there and win on their own merits. If you think that the only hope of gaining attention for Drexler’s ideas is stopping others from using the term Nanotechnology then doesn’t that put you on the same intellectual level as a domain name squatter?

    Perhaps the best way forward is simply to refer to Eric Drexler’s ideas as Drexlerian Nanotechnology. That would avoid all confusion and, if and when it ever gets built, give the guy the full credit he deserves.

  2. Anonymous February 11, 2009 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    Like a Kurzweilian Singularity? I like it.

  3. J. Storrs Hall February 12, 2009 at 9:50 am - Reply

    @Anon#1: That’s something of a straw man. The point was never that people shouldn’t extend the meanings of words. The point was that people who put new meanings to words while the original is still in general use, and profit from the double meaning, don’t have a right to complain that there is a double meaning (or to call the original users “fringe” or “hucksters”).

  4. Anonymous February 13, 2009 at 2:18 am - Reply

    Congratulations on your new role, Josh.

    Let’s be accurate about what insults are being applied to who here. In my piece, it’s the promoters of nano-business – in the consultancies and trade associations –
    that nanoscientists might call “hucksters”.

    As to who is the father of nanotechnology, I think that most nanoscientists are in agreement with Drexler that this title belongs to Richard Feynman. Whether either are right about that is a different matter.

  5. Anonymous February 13, 2009 at 2:19 am - Reply

    My apologies, the last “anonymous” was Richard Jones.

  6. Anonymous February 15, 2009 at 7:13 am - Reply

    Anon#1 here.

    Josh, I can find so much fault with your argument its difficult to know where to start.

    You talk of scientists profiting from an association with Drexler’s vision. Its my understanding that most scientists have been at pains to dismiss his claims. And while many have done so summarily, without taking the time to explain their position either to the public or Drexler’s supporters, the person you now accuse of profiting from Drexler’s ideas, Richard Jones, is one of the few scientists who has tried to engage with the Drexler camp and examine the scientific issues on an objective basis.

    I can’t see how you might argue, either, that Richard Jones was instrumental in appropriating the word Nanotechnology from its Drexlerian usage. The IOP journal Nanotechnology has been publishing research articles on nanoscale science and engineering since 1990. Indeed Drexler himself wrote an article for it in 1991. The word Nanotechnology clearly had a broad meaning within the scientific community many years before Jones wrote his book. This decade you talk of, where nanotechnology had no other meaning, never happened.

    As far as I can tell, your grievance against Richard Jones is entirely unjustified. And why anyone charged with Advancing Beneficial Nanotechnology would want to draw comparisons between the academic nanoscience community and a murderous child is completely beyond me. If this is your “integrated vision of how nanotech interacts with other advanced fields” then it looks like the Foresight Institute is in for some tough times ahead.

  7. Anonymous February 16, 2009 at 8:28 am - Reply

    Josh, if you’re writing these new (and welcome!) blog entries, please sign them so we can tell that it’s you speaking and not Jim or Christine.

  8. […] But it’s likely that the term will become broadened, as happened to “nanotechnology” itself. (Parenthetically, it’s owned as a trademark by this company.) So I think that history shows that pretty much any desktop manufacturing system will be called a nanofactory, and we purists will be left arguing that there ought to be something in there about mechanosynthesis and atomic precision to the few who will listen. […]

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