I guess when people read about molecular manufacturing, they see what they want to see--never mind what the article actually says.
The article contrasting safe manufacturing vs. gray goo by myself and Eric Drexler is just a few days old, and already people are misinterpreting it. Tim Harper reports that "the scientific community has been treating this as an admission of fundamental flaws in the original vision of molecular nanotechnology making the whole thesis untenable. "
The paper does not discuss any flaws in molecular manufacturing. Its purpose is to put one of the most famous threats into perspective. In fact the paper says that molecular manufacturing works just fine.
The point of the paper was to show why building anything goo-like is unnecessary and undesirable (but not impossible). Molecular manufacturing systems are vastly different from gray goo. Molecular manufacturing is human-scale factories with nanoscale machinery that can, when supplied with refined materials and blueprints, make complete copies of themselves using mechanically guided chemistry. This approach is still thought to be feasible, desirable, and likely to be developed soon enough to care about. Gray goo is small floating self-contained inefficient devices that use biomass. Gray goo will remain useless and hard to develop even after a nanofactory exists.
Our paper made another important point. Even though molecular manufacturing promises many benefits, it also presents some major risks. For example, a manufacturing technology this powerful will tempt many nations to develop it for military purposes. A neck-and-neck arms race would be far more unstable than the nuclear arms race was. But any country that fell behind (or didn't try) would be at the mercy of the technology leaders. This is a vitally important dilemma that no one is yet trying to solve.
Gray goo has been a major impediment to sensible discussion about nanotechnology. Gray goo may be the reason why some scientists have fought so hard (with so little evidence) to avoid admitting that molecular manufacturing is possible. And mention of biosphere-destroying nanobots has appeared all too often in writings ostensibly about near-term nanotech risks like nanoparticles.
With the publication of our article, there's a chance to restart the discussion sensibly: to talk about nanoscale technologies without nanobots, and to talk about molecular manufacturing's promises and problems without dwelling on spooky goo.
But only if people report what's there, rather than what they want to see.
Chris Phoenix, Director of Research