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« Goings and Comings | Main | Nanotechnology Security »

September 19, 2004


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Well it would appear that the Chinese are no longer just rice farmers. The same could be said about the Taiwanese, Koreans, and although it has been true for sometime the Japanese. Although we may not agree with these countries political or social system. We must recognize that a small group of committed individuals can change the world. Where the small group is is open for discussion I would hope for the United States but it is looking more and more each day as the science continues that MM could come from anywhere. I would emphasize the word anywhere when we looked around world at the current state of affairs in science and technology. We must also not discount the likelihood that the road to MM has many lanes. That is to say MM will be accomplished in several ways.

As to the issue of policy and dealing with the Chinese this has been a long going concern. The Chinese government in general would seem questionable but with that said I am basing that statements on the popular press here in the United States and have not actually been to China or spoken directly with the Chinese government. We should also look to avoid generalizations when speaking of a complex organization such as the Chinese or for that matter United States government.

Once again we're left with the "what if's". What if the Chinese government is the first possessor of MM technology. There is one other encouraging Paradox that seems to a company great change in technology. As Paradox is not the best word perhaps others have paraphrased it in other ways. When a the technology comes into existence typically there are several groups working on the technology at the same time where one of the groups makes either a breakthrough or is simply more diligent in their efforts and arrives at the end result first. There is then great fanfare for this group and perhaps a Nobel Prize or some other monetary compensation. But it should not be discounted the the other groups working on the same technology would likely have arrived at the same place given perhaps even only a few more months time and a little bit of luck.

So back to the point of what if China develops MM first. If this is the case we should note that in their will likely be a six-month or so delay after the development of MM before considerable impact is seen on either the military or civilian fronts. This delay is caused from the availability of designs of useful products as well as a scaling up of energy requirements for the new technology. Depending on where one starts on day one with product designs and available energy as well as how many designers or new forms of energy can be exploited would seem to be a considerable variable.

We should also not discount the effect that espionage will have on this technology. If United States, China, Great Britain are one of the other world powers develops MM it is my opinion we will see great links taken to acquire the technical information as well as working examples of MM.

So to mitigate the effects of China's development of MM technologies we see a situation where in the case of the United States the available infrastructure of our generation of power and availability of trained designers could augment the effect of MM. So that even if United States is second or third in the acquisition of this technology our underlying support issues will perhaps allow United States to catch up quickly and effectively.

Back to the what if China develops MM first should United States be fearful of this event. Certainly if the Chinese decide to use this technology in a aggressive stance this would clearly be destabilizing to the world as a whole. Indeed even at the Chinese decide only to manufacture cars and distributees throughout the entire world this single effect would be profound. Although as we have stated any product produced using MM would be crippling to the industry producing said product. Even if United States were to impose tariffs on the incoming Chinese cars in the scenario I would not be surprised to see a uproar from United States consumer against this policy as they would be able to otherwise purchase a car for perhaps a few hundred dollars. Indeed a car that is made from Diamond has unprecedented fuel efficiency also is the safest car on the road would be in high demand. Just from the fuel efficiency standpoint alone if United States were to switch to cars getting 100 plus mpg this would free up our needs on foreign fuel and perhaps greatly impact our policies overseas.

I would like to say something positive at this point in relation to my previous statements. But the unknowns are exceeding the variables in play. And I cannot clearly comment on the direction that the Chinese would move given MM. Perhaps if some member of the Chinese government in power is reading our comments they could make a more concrete statements as to the direction the Chinese will move post MM.


The best approach to dealing with all of this "nano" stuff is to simply promote open source development of all of this technology. The open source path has proven to be tremendously successful in the IT world with Linux. Open source biology is also being pushed. So should open source nanotechnology.

One hears about all kinds of political and religious ideology: communism, christianity, capitalism,... the list goes on and on.

When it ready gets down to it, the only real conflict is that of centralization vs. decentralization. I will always be on the side of decentralization. The more players there are developing this technology, the better it is for everyone.


Kurt, brings up a interesting point in the issue of outsourcing the technology and bringing together diverse groups to work for common goal. The issue a notwithstanding I find myself wondering where we are today. The term grand challenges has been used to describe concrete variables that need to be resolved before a technology can come into existence. So from the technical standpoint I would ask the general question what are the grand challenges remaining for MM.

I would assume that each path leading to MM would have its own set of grand challenges. If we are going to use DNA to move individual molecules around and at some generational point produce a useful product. This approach to MM would have its own set of grand challenges. If we instead will be using a building block technique where a very small feedstock is introduced and then manipulated to produce larger blocks than a useful product. This technique would also require its own set of grand challenges. Yet again if one where to use a particle laser to deliver feedstock and thereby producing useful product this technique too would require its own set of grand challenges.

So perhaps the answer to the question of where we are today, is we are many places and at many points. It would seem that there is a considerable waste currently occurring in this technology. Where groups that is countries, colleges, industries, and the companies are duplicating each other's work, seemingly without a grand plan. So I would ask what is the grand plan ?......

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Todd, you make a lot of good points. (And I think your writing style is getting more compact--thanks!)

It's true that technology often seems to be invented in several places almost simultaneously. The US had a chance a decade ago to develop MM far ahead of anyone else, but it blew that chance. Now, it has a chance to at least prepare for the development of MM, developing a design capability. But it is rapidly losing that possibility as well. It takes more than a year to write CAD software and train people to use it in a very unfamiliar design space. If China is developing MM, they could easily have a thousand product designers trained by the time the first nanofactory builds the second nanofactory.

It's also worth noting that for every inventor of a technology, there are thousands that could have invented it, but didn't. We might see MM developed almost simultaneously in China, India, and Brazil--with the US still focused entirely on nanoparticles and biology, and professors still telling their students not even to read Nanosystems.

Americans tell ourselves that Sputnik proves we can come from behind and catch up. But we will not have a decade next time. Let's not forget that before the US won the man-on-the-moon contest, the Russians won not only the satellite contest, but the man-in-orbit contest and the lunar-lander contest. And the US has never done very well at sustainable space stations.

Should the US be fearful if China develops MM first? Yes. The US would have basically two choices: preemptive war of conquest against China (with rapidly decreasing likelihood that the US would win), or letting China grow rapidly into a world power of equal or greater capability. Meanwhile, the US economy might well collapse as the basis of international trade shifted.

Where would the US be today if a few key bureaucrats and scientists had convinced everyone back in the 60's that semiconductor lithography was a waste of time, and computers would grow so slowly that high-level programming languages were no better than science fiction? That is exactly the situation today with regard to molecular manufacturing.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Kurt, centralization has a big problem: that people on top can abuse people below with impunity. But decentralization has a parallel problem: that people on the bottom can abuse people above them with impunity.

It's not just the government that is "above." With human psychology, anyone can be seen as "above"--there's always a reason to envy and fear others. We are creatures of hierarchy, and unless you expect every individual to feel that they are on top of the world, they will feel that someone somewhere is above them.

Maybe, as things fall apart and the center cannot hold, MM will give us enough space that we can all find our own world to be on top of. But I am not that optimistic. A variety of Communist movements have proved that people will go to great lengths to tear down their neighbors and reduce everyone to a minimum level.

Then there's the problem of the democratization of dictatorship. Give a control freak too much power, and they will treat an increasingly wide circle of people as "below." Maybe, if everyone had the ability to kill everyone else, the control freaks would be killed early, and everyone else would live free. But I am not that optimistic.

So decentralization sounds great, but does not solve anything by itself. Some kind of powerful policy will have to emerge or be enforced to keep us all from killing each other. Enforcement requires centralization, which is certainly perilous. The easiest way to implement emergence is natural selection. There must be half a billion dessicated proto-lungfish for every one that crawled out and lived.

Maybe it's a failure of imagination on my part that I can't see how to emerge a solution that doesn't involve gigadeaths, and so I tend to fall back on centralization. But it would be a failure of imagination on your part not to recognize how decentralization can go wrong.

So I'm not exactly disagreeing with you; I'm just saying that decentralization is only the first step, and no one has proposed a viable second step.


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Todd, the grand plan has not been developed. There is more than waste: there is active discouragement of working on molecular manufacturing.

You are right that each pathway has its own set of grand challenges. In the next week or two I will be announcing a new website for collaborative research on MM and related topics, and this will be a great question/project to launch there. So please remember it and ask it there, and we can all work on it then rather than just talking in a to-be-forgotten blog thread.



Chris, your point about everyone killing each other is well taken. The problem with any form of centralization gets back to Weber's Law. All forms of hierarchial social institutions eventually exist to perpetuate their own existance. The "insiders" always derive benefit at the expense of the "outsiders". That is unacceptable.

If the centralized agencies ONLY perpose was to control the military applications of MM, I would have no problem with it. The problem is that there will always be pressure groups that will want to regulate peaceful uses of MM, and that cannot be tolorated.

I believe that the open source path is the only one that can ensure that peaceful uses of MM are never limited in anyway, shape, or form. ANY restrictions on the peaceful uses of MM are completely unacceptable.

Mr. Farlops

Kurt writes, "ANY restrictions on the peaceful uses of MM are completely unacceptable."

I think you may find the future rather disappointing then.

Unrestricted, peaceful uses of MNT can easily change into potential military threats. Because of this potential, some agency, somewhere is going to force some level of regulation and policing. Short of changing human nature, I don't see how regulation can be avoided.

I think what we'll eventually arrive at is some middle ground with mature MNT--some ambivalent medium, between totalitarian rigidity and utter anarchy. Greens demanding more regulation and libertarians demanding less won't be happy but this is usually how the world works.

Anyway, on to the issue of China getting there first. This is very disturbing but how credible is it?

Is it so credible that Mike and Chris are going to put this blog on indefinite hiatus, round up experts at Foresight and a few dozen universities, head straight to Washington DC and demand to testify before secret meetings of Congress and the Chiefs of Staff? Are we on the verge of Cold War II: The Disasterously Short Version? Are we a step away from nano's version of the Szilard Letter?

Hal Finney

I don't see much evidence that China is focusing on molecular manufacturing. The specific applications mentioned in the article were not quoted here, and include "nano-materials, nano-electronic components and nano-biological/medical technologies", similar to Western nanotech research.

Also, your quote which tries to show some MM interest is an odd cut-and-paste which left off the sentence that provided context. The "super-advanced" equipment is apparently improved AFMs and STMs. And the reference to "molecular nanotechnology" in this context seems to just mean any nanotech based on molecules, not molecular manufacturing.

Nothing in this article indicates that China is paying any more attention to MM than Americans and Europeans are. Indeed they seem to be following in the footsteps of the West and trying to play catch-up.

Mike Treder, CRN

I agree that there is room for some skepticism about China's actual progress and intentions in developing MNT. From what we have learned so far, it is not possible to say with assurance that they are or are not pursuing such a development program. It behooves us to generate as much dialogue as possible all around the world so that there is no misunderstanding about either intentions or progress.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Is "molecular nanotechnology" another label that is going to become useless through memejacking? Either the author thinks they're working on molecular nanotechnology, or the author is clueless about what the phrase means, or the author is being deliberately misleading.

The "odd cut-and-paste" also omitted an occurrence of the rather significant phrase "the Institute of Chemistry's molecular nanotech R&D division". Slanted quotes are not our style; if Mike had wanted to slant it, he would have left in that phrase. Here is the full paragraph:

"In November 2002, CAS launched a joint project with the U.S. company, Veeco Instruments Inc. The CAS Institute of Chemistry and Veeco agreed to cooperate in the running of a nanometer technology center aimed at providing access to Veeco-made nanotech instruments to Chinese researchers, including atomic force and scanning-tunneling microscopes. The center would also provide the Institute of Chemistry's molecular nanotech R&D division with "super-advanced" measuring and controlling devices. The Institute's chief researcher, Chen Wang, has worked closely with CAS vice president Bai Chunli to ensure support for his work on molecular nanotechnologies.

Note that the microscopes are tools to develop the technology, not the technology itself. Scanning probe microscopes may be very useful in developing molecular manufacturing.

The plural at the end of "molecular nanotechnologies" is interesting, because it's not standard usage. It may be that the author is clueless.

I'll write to one of the professors named in the article for clarification.



Whoever first masters nanotech can rule the world. There are no second or third prizes in the acquisition of this technology. Its winner take all.

Just think of the temptation such power would give. Its a temptation few could resist. Certainly not the Chinese or U.S. military.

Maybe its time for a Manhatten style nanotech project?


The Russians have a proverb, for every rule there are 100 ways around them. Believe me, there will always be those of us who will find away to get around the regulations.

Speaking of which, has it ever occurred to anyone here that MM will make the old O'neill space colonization thing a whole lot easier and cheaper. We should be promoting the unlimited human expansion into space as the only viable approach to dealing with these issues.

Once we are in space, we can all go our separate ways and be done with any possible military conflict.

Mr. Farlops

Kurt writes, "The Russians have a proverb, for every rule there are 100 ways around them. Believe me, there will always be those of us who will find away to get around the regulations."

Then why worry if regulations exist? By the way, good proverb! That one's going in my fortunes file.

Kurt writes, "Once we are in space, we can all go our separate ways and be done with any possible military conflict."

Once again, I think you may be disappointed. Unless human nature is changed, we'll probably bring our violence with us. Eventually the universe will fill up and we'll start rubbing shoulders again with all the politics that implies.

Malcolm McCauley

I think that 1) only a democratically based society would survive the assumed transformation everyone eludes to, and 2) Democracies rarely attack eachother. They're also socially more robust. I think things don't look too bad for the future.

Even if we do spread out, I know I'd still like to keep in touch. I think we'll continue to act as a society, perhaps of an increasing diversity and area , but still a society.

I'm not too worried about military conflict, as long as a democracy is first, things will have a good start. I think it may even be socially necessary, given the probable power of the technology. Unless the government was repressive, which would be a highly volatile situation, and not at all stable....

I'm hoping China will get more democratic by the way... anyone got any ideas/links on that subject?

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Malcolm, how can you be sure democracies are more stable? We don't have enough history to judge. One failure mode of a democracy, as seen in Venezuela, is to encourage a stupid electorate and then put thieving demagogues in power. Given the quality of our media (the more people watch TV, the worse informed they are) I'm not at all sure we're immune.

China is likely to get freer in some ways and not in others. Economically they're getting pretty free. But they still censor websites (including typepad.com, verified personally on my trip there this spring) and arrest dissidents.

Will they ever get actually democratic? My guess is no: as long as the government can keep the population happy enough to avoid revolt, neither the government nor the population will see sufficient reason to adopt such an alien system. And I think economic freedom (leading to economic growth) combined with their existing memeset and a little social engineering will probably be able to keep the population happy.

I think the way for China to become really free is through information, not democracy. I don't know whether censorship is sustainable. If not, then transparency will require good governance whether or not the government is democratic. But the same technologies that make information-sharing possible also make possible an engineered media cocoon (see above on "stupid electorate") and ubiquitous surveillance. So it could go either way.

But I'm far from an expert on China, so this is at best highly speculative.



I think the basic cause of conflict is that there are too many people forced to live near each other who really do not have anything in common with each other. The expansion into space will alleviate this problem. I think the potential for conflict will go way down once we have spread out into space. Also, assuming that FTL is not possible, speed of light limitations will preclude any form of society or empire bigger than a solar system. For the same reason, intersteller conflict will not be possible.

Open source MM combined with the human expansion into space is the only robust, long-term solution to the problems of hostility and conflict. This is what we should be working towards.

BTW, I recently found and reread an old copy of O'neill's "The High Frontier". Thats what has put me on the space colony spin. It seems to me that MM ought to make the O'Neill scenario much easier and cheaper to do. I'm surprised noone else here has picked up on this. Also, at least theoretically, nanotube materials make the beanstock (space elevator) possible. If this is indeed possible, this should make the whole O'neill thing even easier to make happen.

If you are concerned about abuse of MM, take a hint from prohibition and the utterly worthless war on drugs. Make sure that people can get what they want from MM so that they have less incentive to "find the 100 ways around the regulation"

Most people. like myself, want agelessness, morphological freedom, and vastly expanded personal wealth (mansions, boats, airplanes, etc.). Let us have these things and we will be content and live the less desirable stuff alone.

If you're concerned about the Earth's limits to growth, thats just additional argument for space colonization.

Hal Finney

The way I heard it, Drexler was originally into O'Neill space colonies, and it was from thinking about how they could be improved that he had his brainstorm about nanotech. So this is not a new connection at all!

For an example of something from Drexler's L5 days, see his Case Against Mars, still relevant 20 years later.

John B

Most everyone here is hopeful and optimistic. It's refreshing (if worrying!), being as cynical and pessimistic as I am.

"Only a democratic society can survive" the coming of nanotechnology, and "Once we are in space, we can all go our separate ways and be done with any possible military conflict". Wonderful, hopeful dreams.

Unfortunately, I must vehemently disagree.

I suspect that the one organization type that will survive the coming of nanotechnology with little change (except improved capability!) is the police state. The central control already exists, and if nanotechnology is spread from open source models from other, 'nicer' organizations/states, be certain that it will be picked up and used (or 'abused', if you prefer) to maintain the police states' ongoing existance.

Some variants of this mentality/organization will take their first opportunity to head offplanet, and there goes your hope for intra/interstellar pacifism. Others will attempt to remain in a static situation as much as possible, with the inherently increasing pressures needed to keep things going 'the way they always have'.

Note that I don't think of this as a given, nor a particularly good thing - just a high probability given human nature, history, and organization. Things I don't expect nanotech to change in any short period of time...



I first heard of Eric Drexler from the L-5 days. He got into nanotech more recently, in the 80's.

I know that the theoretical tensile strength of nanotubes is sufficient to make the beanstock. In reality, the benastock would be made of a composite that would contain nanotubes. Whether this can be made to sufficient strength is not clear to me, although it probably can.

Nanotechnology will benefit space development in the following ways:

1) Lightweight, high strength materials such as fullerines can be used to make spacecraft lighter and, therefor, capable of carrying larger payloads. This reduces cost.

2) Fully automated, exponential manufacturing will make construction (or growth) of space colonies easier and cheaper to do.

3) Bio-memetic nanotech and biotech will be used for food production, to make the biosphere, and to general landscape the interior of space colonies.

This is all necessary and desirable since, once we get nanotech, we all want to live like billionaires (at least I do) and the earth might not be able to take it. Also, I believe the major cause of conflict is people with incompatible belief systems being forced to live in proximity to each other. The human expansion into space will certainly solve this problem.

Chris, I think that you a right that the Chinese will probably not go for western democracy in the near future. They do seem to have as much economic freedom as we do in the U.S., but the rule of law is lagging. The central government is making an honest attempt to develop effective rule of law, in order to promote economic development. There is a growing demand in China for "good governance" and i think they will get it in the next few decades.

There is a growing amount of personal freedom in China as well (e.g. being able to party and screw as much as you want). I think as long as the Chinese get lots of both personal and economic liberty, along with "good governance", they will probably not push for western style democracy.

I'm not sure this is necessarly a bad thing. Despite my earlier "anarchistic" comments, I actually have not problem with centralized authority, as long as I get what I want out of life. The problem here in the U.S. is that polical power always comes from special interest groups that try to jack around with you personal and economic liberty, and I don't go for that.

As long as I have both personal (morphological freedom and freedom of association) and economic freedom (unlimited wealth creation), a system to regulate MM to prevent abuse is fine by me.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

John, let me play devil's advocate for a minute. Let's assume you're right that democracies in their present form won't survive the transition, while police states could. But there's a third factor: What might today's democracies turn into?

For example, a democracy might experiment with new computer-enabled forms of governance and transparency. (NOT touchscreen voting machines, please!) That might make it more responsive and flexible and productive and creative and diverse. Maybe.

So the question is not, could a post-nano police state outcompete the ragged shells of failed states. The question is, what types of government could transform themselves, not surviving per se but something more like reproducing--and could a police state outcompete them?


John B

Chris, good point about democracies 'evolving'. Wasn't the direct focus of my last post in this thread - I was trying to comment on the (what seems to me overly) optimisitic "we'll all get along" posts above were ignoring at least one signficant source of unfriendliness in the future - the authoritarian state. Personally, I believe such could hold through societal stressors predicted for some of the scenarios regarding the coming of nanotech.

Putting that aside, and addressing your point: It's true, democracies could turn into 'technocracies' or 'nanotopias', perhaps in a Brin "transparency" model or a sousveillance/surveillance model as suggested by Dr Mann's semi-humorous presentation at Transvision '04.

The problem here is the mid-steps required to get to the open society from modern society. To my mind, these are quite risky, potentially easily twisted towards a very authoritarian/"police" state model. See Dr Bostrom's "existential risks" paper - this to me is likely the beginnings of a 'scream' scenario. (Sadly, in my opinion, I think this is quite likely - significantly more likely than growth into a free, open society.)

As for experimenting with new technologies to 'open' things up, all I can say is that it potentially only takes one misstep to lose a self-reinforcing amount of freedom, potentially leading to a 'downward spiral' towards some other form of government.

Finally, all else being equal, history /seems/ to indicate that a 'free' society can outcompete/outinnovate a 'command' society. However, there's a LOT of details which are glossed over in such simplistic analysis, something history is really amazingly poor at handling, from my shallow studies in the field. "normalizing assumptions" are fudge factors, in my opinion - so what if a 1920's penny is equivalent to a 1980's dollar? The 1980's consumer has many many additional choices that the '20s consumer never dreamt of, and some of the '20s "staples" (milk delivery, ice delivery, for just two off-the-cuff examples) are rare in the modern day. But, that's off topic...

Summarizing my blather above, sure, democracies could get through a potentially traumatic 'coming of nano', in some format. So're police states. So are ogliarchies, monarchies, and perhaps even bureaucracies (tho' I kinda doubt that last one.) And there's going to be competition between the survivors for resources, much as there is today - but the specific resources and potentially some of the modes of competition are going to be somewhat different than previously encountered, as are some of the societal stressors.


Tom Craver

I don't think there'll be a lot of competition for resources. Nanotech will eliminate the bulk of international trade in raw materials and finished goods. Much more efficient manufacturing, transportation, and home environmental systems should greatly reduce energy demand (compared to today's use in advanced nations), and efficient solar collection will further reduce the need for importing energy.

I conclude that competition for conventional resources will be a negligible factor in any future conflicts.

One exception - orbital space is a resource that offers distinct military advantages, especially combined with cheap weapons of mass destruction. Nanotech should enable reasonably affordable access to space by any nation (possibly even by individuals).

The most likely end result will be a treaty-organization establishing "space cops" to enforce peaceful use of space - though it may take a war or two to settle on this. The big question then would be whether it'd evolve into a world/solar government, or be limited (by the interests of member nations) to enforcing peaceful use of space.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom, why are you assuming that space will ever be peaceful? Another outcome seems likely to me: space is militarized and turns into a battleground, and peaceful uses are limited if not prevented by the violence and resulting debris. With the only feasible uses being military (requiring hardened satellites), there's not much pressure from that point forward to make space peaceful; the potential applications just never develop.

Perhaps the best way to avoid this is to encourage space tourism *now*. A multinational, multi-billion dollar entertainment industry may be able to lobby successfully against the takeover of space by military interests.


Tom Craver


I don't quite see where I assumed space would be peaceful?? In fact I explicitly mentioned the potential that competition for orbital space might lead to war.

But what is it that you think anyone will be fighting over in space, once orbital space access is either securely controlled, or generally agreed to be open to all? I don't think spacewar is likely to be over resources, at least any time soon - there's too much free mass out there to risk lives fighting over some specific chunk.

When spacewar comes, it'll probably be because humanity has splintered into new groups that no longer understand each other, and consequently fear each other - or perhaps because ancient groups have moved into space and brought their prejudices with them.

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