Until just recently, the official website of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) contained this misleading FAQ entry:
"What are nanobots? And are they fantasy or reality?"
"Such creatures do not exist and many scientists believe they never will, saying nanoscale materials are simply too small to manipulate for such purposes -- and if someone wanted to create something destructive, there are many easier ways to do so.
"That said, technologies, starting with fire, are abused at times. For this reason, laboratories are closely monitored and research is peer-reviewed. Research funding is withheld from less-than-worthy projects and from those with questionable credentials or reputation.
"One safeguard against potential abuses is training scientists to consider the ethical implications of the research they perform. Government regulations are always possible should there appear need. Today -- and as far as scientists can see -- anything resembling nanobots remains in the realm of science fiction."
Then, in March 2004, they began hearing from critics of this misinformation, including Howard Lovy, who compared their pronouncement to Lord Kelvin's famously wrong denunciation of flying machines. On Foresight's Nanodot site, Robert Bradbury and others chimed in, and soon they were joined by Jim Pethokoukis of U.S. News and World Report, who wrote about "Why the feds fear nanobots". We criticized the feds ourselves in a prelimary answer to our recommended nanotech study #2.
Finally, CRN's Research Director Chris Phoenix appealed directly to the NNI, asking them to revise this unfortunate FAQ misstatement. Chris told them:
The problem seems to be a confusion between gray goo and molecular manufacturing, with nanobots stuck in the middle. The current entry equates "nanobots" with "destructive" and "science fiction," which will naturally confuse readers who've heard positive things about nanobots being "the next industrial revolution." I'd be happy to explain in more detail or draft a clearer FAQ entry if that would help.
They replied that they were working on it, and now we see that the entry in question has been removed. Clearly that's an improvement, but we hope they will find a way to address the nanobot issue directly and accurately.
Nanobots are a touchy subject politically. But with people like India's rocket-scientist president citing Drexler, the issue won't go away. Nor should it: like airplanes, molecular manufacturing is likely to become an engineering reality while it is still scientifically controversial. And like airplanes, molecular manufacturing is likely to have huge effects on the world.
It won't be easy to clarify the confusion about what's scientifically possible and what's not, especially with some scientists continuing to promote discredited or irrelevant arguments against molecular manufacturing. But the NNI needs to tackle this. If they can't figure out what to write, that's a clear sign that they should be studying molecular manufacturing more carefully.