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« Nanotechnology Questions | Main | By Any Other Name »

February 16, 2005


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Michael Vassar

Do you have any idea why this meeting showed such a different attitude towards MNT than other "nanotec" related meetings have? 30-50 years isn't just reasonable, it's always been the smart money's best guess. 30-50 years is what you get if no-one does a manhattan project, and no projects that do get started turn out to be surprisingly well managed, so they all take twice the time and ten times the money they projected and get cancelled, and if ultimately some division head in IBM or Sony ends up putting together the pieces to build an assembler as a 3 year $20,000,000 sub-task on the way to some 5 year, $50,000,000 goal they have been assigned.
As far as I can see, the point of CRNano is not that MNT will, by default, be developed in a decade, but that it could be developed that quickly and a) if it is, we had better be prepared, and b) actions taken now can cause it to be developed well within 30 years with high probability.


This is a important point the issue of proximity to the technology. With the timeframe unknown we're left with pure speculation. And I will not hazard a guess at this point. I would however like to discuss what elements need to be in place prior to the completion of the MM project. Let us assume

1 The existence of a diamond based molecular manufacturing tabletop device.
2 The device uses carbon in the form of diamond and other rudimentary molecular carbon structures.
3 The device is powered using electricity drawn from any source.
4 The device generates no harmful byproduct.
5 The device utilizes no greater than 10 chemical reactions to produce feedstock utilized within the confines of the device.
6 The device requires 200 kW of electrical power to produce 1 kg of useful product.
7 The device can vary in size from a 2 x 2' to perhaps a 100 x 100' single unit.
8 The device cannot produce complex amino acids thereby cannot produce food.
9 The device cannot produce practical elements utilized in life forms i.e. the device cannot produce a dog, cat, or cow.

With these nine elements in place we have on day one a capability for change. I am not going to pick a specific year that this occurs in this discussion however. I will comment that based on previous information it is likely we will have a six-month window prior to the first MM device arriving. It is during this timeframe where the decisions will begin to be made as to the issues at hand. I will now speculate on the who and where.

1 For purposes of this paper we will assume the United States government produces the device and possesses all relevant patents and single prototype on day one.
2 The device will be produced at a government site in or around area 51 or a similar secure location.

We are now left with the real speculation I will break it down to two possibilities one possibility given the likelihood that the US government will make decisions based on its own continuation. The other possibility based on what I believe should and hope will be done with the technology.

At this point as I have commented in the past on what I think the government will do I not going to comment again I will be that of others.

For my own part I will now comment on a list of concrete suggestions, that I hope the panel in charge of deployment of the MM technology and the use of the technology will consider at some point in the future. Having made the above statement I realize I am but one man living in a small community outside of the pillars of power that will make the final decisions. For my part I hope wisdom will be granted them and that they make the best decision possible.

As we now have a molecular manufacturing capability I would recommend that we if it is not already started should begin a crash program in the design of software related to AutoCAD to be used in conjunction and with the molecular manufacturing device. I would then encourage a database to be formed containing any and all current existing products of which hopefully many can be easily converted to production in the device. As the US government will possess the assembler I would recommend that they utilize their ability to obtain information dealing with patents on all existing products patented in the United States and these devices should be added to the useful product database as soon as possible. I would recommend we immediately post legislation to the House and Senate for the exception to the copyright laws given the existence of the new technology. The aim of this legislation would open up the free production of products regardless of copyright laws currently existing for protection of products.

Is my opinion that the product list will be the next most important issue once the initial device has been established and tested. The use for products list should be begun as soon as there is any likelihood of success so as to preempt the existence of the device and have a list of products available for production. Is my opinion that the device represents the end of the market economy and continuing the copyright hierarchy is irrelevant and should be immediately set aside to facilitate the advance of the new technology.

The next step in my opinion is for the US government to immediately begin construction of additional units by a copy's of the device and distribute the device throughout our government organizations. This will include the military.

It is my opinion that the most important next step is the production of large greenhouse facilities for producing food. These facilities should be automated utilizing robotic workers. The general design for the facilities say perhaps a 300 x 300' structure should be completed prior to the existence of the device. This facility should be duplicated in great numbers and scattered throughout the entire United States. These facilities should be online and making food within three months post assembler.

The next most important issue is the deployment of the device to the individuals of United States. The approved list should be put together of products that individuals may be freely licensed to produce. This list should include but not be limited to household devices, housing, transportation, clothing, and importantly power production capabilities i.e. solar power, when power, geothermal, fuel-cell and any others that can be easily designed for replication.

It is my opinion that a panel should be put together made up of individuals from across disciplinary subjects this panel should be put in charge of the list of useful products which will be given to individuals living in United States i.e. US citizens. It is my opinion that any delay of more than 180 days is unacceptable for the deployment of the device to individuals after its initial inception.

If these recommendations are followed and implemented in a timely manner I perceive a smooth transition to the use of the new technology with little or no loss of life. That is at least in the United States as to the effects on our foreign policy or the jealousy of other countries I cannot say. In general I would say that within perhaps the 180 day peroid. The United States could begin limited deployment of products throughout the world to ease additional world suffering. I would make this a priority but only after necessary elements are dressed within the United States in relations to the deployment.

I must admit I am looking forward to possessing the technology and its implementations to our way of life. And if the change occurs at the five-year point from this day I would be happy but if the change occurs at the 30 yesr point from this day I will be happy as well. As we speak here I am 37 years old in 30 years I will be 67 will have lived most of my life and will be ready to retire. I can think of no better retirement gift than a MM device.


Janessa Ravenwood

Todd: Um, when you say that something will be developed at "Area 51" you kind of undercut your argument. A lot of people think "space aliens conspiracy theorist" and cease to give it serious credence. So you might want to omit that in the future.


You are of course write in your comments in relation to credibility and area 51. I will in the future curve my arguments away from that connotation. I will simply note a secure government facility as the most likely location for development of MM.

Dimitar Vesselinov

Do we have the time? Will we have the energy?

The Coming Energy Crisis or Peak Oil

"Fertilizer, DVDs, rubber, cheap flights, plastics and metals. None of these things have anything in common, right? Think again. An ingredient in all of them, in one form or another, is oil.

Oil is the precious primer of the world economic engine, making it hum. Oil provides 40% of the world's energy needs, and nearly 90% of all transportation. It's also a building block for many products and goods. Cut supplies of this natural resource and life as we know it could change.

But while some experts say the world runs no risk of running out of oil, others disagree. Sounding the alarm is the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas. Its president is Kjell Aleklett, a physics professor at Sweden's Upsalla University.

'[During] the next 30 years we will find more than 150, maybe 200, but probably not, but 150 billion barrels of oil is roughly what you're going to find,' Aleklett said. 'And during the same period, we will consume 1,000 [billion barrels of oil]. So that means we are now digging deep into the reserves we have at the moment.'

Aleklett is among a group of international experts - ex-oil executives and geologists - who believe there is less oil percolating under the ground than the oil industry acknowledges. They say the world has burned up nearly half of all its oil - an estimated 900 billion barrels of crude.

In industry jargon, that halfway point is the 'peak', after which reserves no longer rise but drop. No one denies this will happen eventually. After all, oil is a finite resource. But these oil skeptics - so-called 'peak' oil analysts - say the 'peak' is coming sooner rather than later, maybe even in 2008. They paint a gloomy picture: falling oil supplies plus rising demand will equal shortages - and perhaps a rising risk of war."


Mike Treder, CRN

Michael Vassar, in answer to your question about where this new attitude comes from, or why these particular meetings seemed more open to considering MNT, I can only speculate.

I can't speak for the participants, of course, but my guess is that this shift is a combination of two things: first, the extra attention that has been paid to MNT within the last two years, based on ETC Group's "Big Down" paper, the Greenpeace report, the Royal Society's study, and, I hope, from CRN's activities. Even though the Royal Society report basically dismissed MNT, and the ETC Group paper incorrectly conflated MNT with today's nanoscale technologies, the fact that MNT was being considered at all may have caused some people to rethink their biases.

The second factor, I'd say, is the rapid pace of development in related and enabling technologies. It may be getting harder for people to say "never" or "impossible" about anything, when we see so many incredible accomplishments being announced all the time.

You're exactly right about CRN's position when we say that MNT may not be developed within a decade, but that we'd better find out if it could, and decide what steps should be taken in advance of its arrival.

Philip Moriarty

"Drexler objected to Eigler’s use of “charged language” – words like “speculation” and “fantasy,” which “will not encourage people to come forward” with proposals related to molecular manufacturing." Howard Lovy's "Nanobot", Feb. 10th 2005 .

This sounds very different from the "new attitude" to MNT discussed in the comments above. Don Eigler and his group pioneered controlled atomic and molecular manipulation. Moreover, in recent work they have implemented molecular level logic gates via cascades of molecules. Eigler has a wealth of experience and expertise in manipulating matter at the atomic level. I would take his views very seriously indeed.

Philip Moriarty

It's also worth noting that in the 'molecular level logic' paper mentioned in the previous post, Nanosystems is cited by Eigler et al. Hence, it's not that Eigler is unaware of the 'detail' of Drexler's proposals...


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Eigler was an exception at the NAS workshop. Most people there talked about technology. He talked about how stupid he thought molecular manufacturing was. I would take his views seriously if he had said anything technical. But the closest thing to technical he said is that where we are is comparable to the ancient Greeks spinning tales of Icarus, not the Wright brothers. And I don't think that can be taken seriously; we know a lot of engineering principles at the nanoscale, while the Greeks knew nothing of aerodynamics.

His call for a peer-reviewed standard for progress was especially interesting, given that several other speakers and committee members had said that the peer review system is extremely conservative, and some were calling for a new system to explore the potential of MM.

If you can point me at any technical criticism Eigler has ever made about MM, I will answer it. Otherwise, I will have to assume his objection is personal rather than scientific.


Richard Jones

Translation of the last comment:
"I didn't like what he was saying so I'm going to ignore it."
If you throw away the data points you don't like you'll always get the answer you want!

Brett Bellmore

Didn't sound like a very good translation to me, Richard. Were there indeed technical criticisms, that Chris is glossing over? I'd be interested to hear them.

My biggest technical concern is surface reconstruction, which it seems clear is going to seriously contrain the available design space. Maybe TOO much. Maybe not.

Richard Jones

Well, perhaps my comment was an excessively flippant, Friday afternoon rejoinder. But there is a serious point. Chris is right to say that Eigler has made no detailed, public, technical criticism of MNT - as far as I know, this is his first public comment on the subject. No doubt he will be making the substance of his criticisms known to the committee. But it is highly significant that he has revealed that his position is so negative. We have to judge the significance of people's opinions on the basis of their experience and achievement, and there's nobody with anything like the depth of experience in the areas of experimental physics most relevant to MNT than Eigler.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

As I understand the committee's process, unless they ask Eigler for more information, he doesn't have a channel to clarify or expand his remarks. The time for him to explain himself was during his presentation. He didn't do so.

I was disappointed that he would use words like "fantasizing" rather than using that time to explain his opposition. But that was his choice.

At one point, Eigler said that all we know is that some molecules can be assembled into molecules using SPM. It's apparent that he wasn't talking more broadly than today's SPM technology, since we know lots of other facts in other disciplines/technologies that are relevant to MM.

Unless Eigler publishes something else, I have to assume that the scope of his technical objection was limited to the idea of using near-future SPMs to build entire complex nanosystems. I'd agree with that, but that's not a serious proposal anyway.

His rhetorical reaction to the broader goal of molecular manufacturing appears to have no technical foundation, but rather to be based on a dislike strong enough to make him waste his time accusing us of "fantasizing."

Since he apparently hasn't published any technical objection previously, and didn't give one in this meeting, I still see no reason to worry about his opposition until such time as he backs it up with technical argument.


Philip Moriarty

Oh, this is getting tiresome now....


The debate is going 'round and 'round in circles. In the near future I plan to address a number of unanswered questions from yourself, Jim Moore, and John B (either posted on the CRN blog or at "Soft Machines") and then "make my excuses and leave". I am firmly of the opinion that Freitas and I will make more progress in two paragraphs than you and I made in ~ 50 pages . But, for now:

"Unless Eigler publishes something else, I have to assume that the scope of his technical objection was limited to the idea of using near-future SPMs to build entire complex nanosystems. I'd agree with that, but that's not a serious proposal anyway."

I would be surprised if Eigler's objections rest on the 'bandwidth' of SPM systems and their ultimate potential for molecular manufacturing "nanosystems" as described by Drexler and yourself. Much more likely is that he is critically aware of the difficulties inherent in the low level mechanosynthesis steps and the associated materials/surface constraints. (See Brett's extremely important post above re surface reconstruction. (And, yes, before you ask, I have read your recent post re. cooling in the context of surface reconstruction effects)). Have you spent any time consulting the surface science textbooks I cited a number of times during our debate? Some of your recent posts suggest not. I've read Nanosystems in some detail. As Richard has noted in a recent post , the requirement to read the literature goes both ways. This also holds in terms of acquainting oneself with fundamental physics.

And on the issue of expertise and experience:

"....Smalley is very good at exploring a tiny corner of it. If he expressed an opinion about biocompatibility of dendrimer drugs, no one would listen very hard--it's nanotech, but it's not his field. And although bucky structures and diamondoid are both made of carbon, nanobots aren't his field either. Much of his knowledge and observation doesn't apply."

You might recognise this quote from your debate with Bill Atkinson. In terms of mechanosynthesis - i.e. the manipulation of molecules with atomic precision - all of Eigler's expertise applies. Why do you think that the MNT community comprises such a small percentage (~ 0%?!) of experimental physicists, chemists, and materials scientists? Why do you think that nanoscientists of Eigler's stature have such deep conceptual/practical difficulties with MNT? (No, it's got little to do with Smalley and others' criticism of the field - see here for a persuasive argument. Try again...).


P.S. Thanks once again, however, for the earlier advice on including hyperlinks. It's so much easier to get nicely formatted text when you're aware that standard HTML works...

Philip Moriarty


"His [Eigler's] call for a peer-reviewed standard for progress was especially interesting, given that several other speakers and committee members had said that the peer review system is extremely conservative, and some were calling for a new system to explore the potential of MM."

It is clear from this comment that Eigler and I share the viewpoint that peer review is a cornerstone of the scientific process. For example, without peer review, proposals which are flawed can be lauded as pioneering breakthroughs in molecular manufacturing...


Chris Phoenix, CRN

Surface reconstruction should be less of a problem if you use passivated surfaces, and only depassivate in the small area where you're building.

I don't think Eigler is an expert on solution-phase mechanosynthesis. So he has absolutely no grounds to dismiss the whole field of molecular manufacturing. Trying to support his wholesale dismissal of Drexler's work is indeed a tiresome job; you have my sympathy for that.

As to machine-phase chemistry, there has been very little experimental work. I don't think even Eigler can say for sure how difficult it'll be to deposit cubic boron nitride. Computational chemistry has gone farther than experiment, and I don't get the idea that Eigler has done much computational chemistry.

It'd be nice if he would publish at least some technical basis for his objection, so that we had something to discuss. Until then, people who want to be skeptical can feel free to trumpet his skepticism, and people who want to work on molecular manufacturing can ignore it.


Philip Moriarty

"Surface reconstruction should be less of a problem if you use passivated surfaces, and only depassivate in the small area where you're building"

Glad that you've now taken this on board Chris, you seemed to forget about this basic premise of MNT during our debate.

"Computational chemistry has gone farther than experiment, and I don't get the idea that Eigler has done much computational chemistry"

This is breathtakingly naive. "Computational chemistry has gone further than experiment"?? Without reference and comparison to experiment you can not validate your theory . Without closing the "theory-experiment/observation" feedback loop one should have little confidence in the theory.

Here's a pertinent quote, taken from a letter I sent Drexler in 2003:

PJM: "A particularly illuminating example is that of the Si(100)-(2x1) surface (not that far removed from the C(100) surface which may play a role in your diamondoid structures). Even today - after approximately 25 years of theoretical effort on Si(100) – computational chemistry based on the B3LYP functional (used throughout Merkle’s work) as compared to high level calculations based around a multi reference wavefuction yields a very different ground state geometry for the (2x1) surface."

Now, given that two very high level theoretical approaches yield conflicting results, just how do we decide which gives us the most appropriate description of the ground state of the Si(100)-(2x1) surface? (Hint: the answer's given above...).


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