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« Military Implications | Main | Bad News in the US »

September 10, 2006


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Michael Deering

Grey Goo is only a small issue if you define it in an extremely narrow way and only look at the very near term time frame.

Grey Goo - a diamondoid life-form that thrives in the natural earth ecosystem, metabolizing carbon with available energy, multiplies and evolves.

This is very doable in the mid term and will most likely replace the entire DNA based life on this planet. Intelligence could be built in at a much smaller scale than DNA based life, making intelligence guided evolution much quicker.

Nathan Lamont

One other possible reason why MNT has been so slow to be even looked at seriously, was the "To good to be true" issue. MNT promises to be a utopian type solution to every problem, without much evidence that it will. Most scientist's who have any credibility will shy away from it, not wanting to lose the respect of their peers.

I am sure that there are credbile researchers that do credible work, but what they are doing is based on realistic steps that will need to be taken on the path towards MNT.

Not to say that MNT is impossible, just the timeline at what people claim it will happen is.

Tom Craver

Synthetic biology looks like a much bigger "gray goo" risk than MNT. SB inherently relies on self-copying organisms, and it is much farther along than MNT.

One of the hot research topics is making an organism that can digest cellulose or ligin to produce ethanol. So maybe 10 years from now it's in widespread production use - and it mutates to be able to survive outside the bio-ethanol plant. Result: "The Gray Wilt" - just about every plant is its food.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Nathan, your comment raises two questions: whether it can ultimately live up to its promise, and whether it will do so as quickly as claimed. In both areas, strong claims were made... though on timeline, the claim was conditional: it will happen quickly if people work on it.

You may have a point. But MM has not been the only technology with utopian claims.

Tom, good point about bio. One thing that worries me: It may be tempting to build bacteria with a different genetic code, so that they can't share genes with natural bacteria. On the other hand, that may render them immune to natural bacteriophages, increasing their potential as invasive species.



People aren't rushing to accept the predictions of Drexler, because futurists are almost always wrong.

They're usually correct that things will change, but almost ALWAYS wrong about how soon, and are almost 100% wrong about the details, which they nevertheless foolishly provide with a sound of certainty.

They make ridiculous, pie in the sky predictions, both the specifics and the broad ideas. These rarely come to fruition, ever. Check out the history of futurism (predating the name). We don't have flying cars, robots watching the dishes, et cetera, and we have things they completely overlooked.

The slow pace of nanotech acceptance is on par with what actually happens, and has always happened, with the technologies the futurists go nuts and act like crackpots about.

It's not being retarded by futurism, it's just not being hurried along by the ridiculous speculation they offer.

What's a shame is that futurists are usually correct in a broad way, and the regular people wrong...but it gets bogged down in all the bullshit about how soon it is coming, and how it will be exactly this way and that, most of which is of no interest to regular people or is truly impractical...and all of which never comes to pass anyway.

Brian Wang

Drexler usually did not specify dates. Particularly in his writing.
When speaking he usually gave a broad range.
He usually qualified it with depending upon the effort put into it.

Engines of creation (1986) did talk about worldwide hypertext. That is kind of like the concept of the internet.

Chapter 14 of the engines of creation.

what is happening, leading towards MNT
DNA nanotechnology - Ned Seemans work
Synthetic biology
more advanced tools for manipulation of small things. Arryx (company with laser array manipulator)

Past incorrect and correct predictions
flying cars - insurance and liability issues
household robots: that has happened.
Millions of Roomba's.

Robots washing dishes- partial automation with dishwashers. Washing automated but not the loading and unloading.

consideration needs to be given to economics and socialogy in predicting as well technical feasibility. Also, competing technology and solutions needs to be factored in.

Brian Wang


for your interest here is a flying car.

It works but it is not the safest vehicle. It is useful for military purposes.

Since 1.2 million people die worldwide each year in traffic accidents, it is a good thing that we do not open up the skies to everyone. (the whole terrorist thing too.)

Air taxis using cheaper planes will provide useful point to point transportation by air at a reasonable cost.


KAZ's comments make sense to me. The future never turns out how futurists predict, but sometimes some elements of the predictions are correct. Some of the same things get done, but the details are never as expected. In the 50s they predicted Rosie the Robot running the vacuum cleaner, and instead we've got Roomba. We don't have flying cars but we have airplanes that fly themselves, etc.

Even Drexler's assemblers are now ruled out and the new politically correct structure is the nanofactory. But that won't happen either. We will see nanotech-like things happening, but not the build-anything just-wish-for-it nanofactory. We'll have new kinds of materials, ultra-strong and ultra-light. We'll have some things that go beyond the nanofactory vision, like maybe quantum computers, or invisible composites, or new superconductors. And we'll probably have more automation in putting pieces together to make things.

But the pure build-from-the-atom-up nanofactory will never exist. It's too specific a vision, and those kinds of visions never come true.

Tom Craver

Even Roomba is little better than a toy. I'll buy one when it can empty itself, recharge itself, and pick up loose objects and toss them in a bin (but avoid people and pets).

I think we could probably make a robot that did a decent job of those things today - getting its cost down would be the challenge - I doubt I'd pay more than $300 for such a limited thing.

Let's see - make it blind - vision is too expensive for now (maybe in a few more years...). So it'll need some kind of probe - a sensitive whisker - to detect and characterize objects. Rather than a robot arm, it'll probably take the approach of covering objects with a net that it can close around them to trap the object. To keep it simple, it'll collect one object and haul it to a collection bin. Corners would be a problem for a net, so it could be smart enough to drag objects away before trying to grab them.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Roomba is a matter of taste. Emptying the bin is strangely satisfying in an icky sort of way, and a lot less of a pain than trying to sweep that last line of dust into the dustpan. Objects aren't usually a problem, except for cords. I've been happy with mine.

Interestingly, I'm not sure the house is cleaner now than it was. I never sweep anymore, of course--that would be silly. But I used to sweep when I was on the phone; now I just pace. And Roomba is too noisy to use then...

(Tonight's blog post will answer the question of "Will we ever have a nanofactory." In the affirmative, of course.)


Brian Wang


for robots "watching" the dishes.

Robosapien modified with a camera

Brian Wang


Here is a robot vacuum closer to what you want. Except the price is still about $1400. You will probably have to wait for iRobot to upgrade the roomba as they have the sales volume to get the price down.

Karcher robot vacuum cleaner. This one will unload the dust bag from the bot (the base station has to be emptied, but you do not touch the dirt) and charge itself.

The first is set it and forget it. You can set the time of cleaning and the length of time. The Robocleaner can clean while you're away. It's like having a room cleaned by magic. The second feature is automatic recharging. No need to plug it in. As soon as the battery starts running low, the Karcher RC3000 RoboCleaner automatically returns to the Base Station and recharges. The third feature is It also automatically empties its dirt container into the charger unit's filter bag. With this system, you have virtually no contact with dirt. All you do is change the charger unit's filter bag.

Phillip Huggan

The primary flaw with many futurist predictions is as Brian says: economics. The semiconductor industry is a deflationary force so things like the Roomba have happened. "Bulkier" industries haven't experienced similiar deflationary forces. A Jetson's car is tough Mechanical Engineering. Too expensive. A dishwasher robot is pointless when much cheaper dishwashers are available.

From my personal vantage point I'd say economics is at play for diamond MNT too. A state-of-the-art low temp UHV AFM and accesories, is out of my price range (high six figures low seven figures). That's just for attempting proof-of-principle experiments. To actually scale-up the construction of a proto-assembler using the SPM pathway would be very expensive...


All this talk about robots has reminded me of a conversation I once had about a lawnmowing robot. If you had the choice between a robot who could mow your lawn or genetically engineered grass that stayed at a preprogrammed height, what would you choose? I think most people would pick the GMO grass for the simple fact you would not have to be inconvenienced by the sound of the robot doing its chore. If you still like the smell of a freshly cut lawn, then I'm sure that eventually that would be included as well; not only that but also the feel of cut grass, those nice sharp cuts at the end.

I think the same applies to window washing robots. Would you prefere a robot or special nano-enhanced self-cleaning glass? I think that in the long run nanotechnology, even the more prosaic surface science kind, will obviate the need for robots in many applications. I.E. toilet cleaning robots vs. ultra-nonstick coated toilets.

Tom Craver

It looks like synthetic biology may beat MNT to market - current R&D will probably start yielding interesting applications in about 5 years, growing to major impact within 15 years.

How will SynBio have already changed our world, before MNT arrives?

In particular - will the dangers of SynBio (or something else) be large enough, that a path will be set that will shape how MNT is dealt with?

E.g. if it's trivial to engineer a killer bioweapon - say a modified E.Coli - might we see some terror attack trigger establishment of a world government or world empire, aimed at suppressing dissemination of dangerous technologies (like MNT)?


You guys citing roomba and autopilot, note that these are not only nothing like the actual predictions of futurists past, but are also came DECADES after we were supposed to have fully humanoid housebots washing the dishes, and flying cars.

It's just as I said; the futurists are usually correct that things will be different than the proles expect, but are always wrong about the details and the timeline. They invariably claim it'll be far sooner that it is, and of course they're clueless about what'll actually turn out practical and desirable in application.

And, as I said somewhere else, one needs to think about the regulatory demon. Big Brotherment will, I guarantee, decide that nanofactories (for example) are a threat to jobs, just as regulations and union contracts have prevented complete automation of most factories, mostly with "safety" only as an excuse to "protect" a few jobs, at the cost of making life more expensive and lower quality for every single American.

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we just won't be able to feel it.
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Brian Wang


Clearly whoever you are referring to was wrong. I presume you are not including the Jetsons cartoon as any kind of serious prediction. From the many predictions that people make the ones that catch onto the publics imagination may not be the accurate ones.

What standard of correctness are you saying should be expected? Microsoft could not predict the release year and features in Vista/Longhorn and they were building it. So you are saying people who are outside of these processes should be how accurate ?

Here are my Predictions from an article March 2006. Here I provide some support as to why I made certain predictions.

I plan to fairly regularly update both documents and check to see how I did on the predictions.

I plan to add the impact of metamaterials, revised view of quantum computers (more positive), superlens, nanoantennas and other technology.

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