Monday, January 1, 2007

Molecular Manufacturing Issues

To start, let me say that the issues you will read about below are by no means all the issues. Molecular manufacturing is a very complex subject, one that is not easy to describe in simple terms or language. Opinion on it is divided, and emotions are charged. Intelligent, well-meaning individuals in various camps hold passionate views; pretty much what we should expect from a technology that holds huge potential.

When it comes to molecular manufacturing (MM) there are many influential groups, each with their own views, agenda and ability to influence stakeholders and policy makers. On some points they agree; on many they do not, and in some cases emphatically not.

And yes, I am biased towards a majority of the views held by one of the groups, and beliefs-tempered by the views of the others. They all offer points that should be considered. I disagree with some, and with some of their conclusions, but I’m willing to listen, debate, and change my mind if presented with convincing evidence.

So for this post, I am not trying to create an exhaustive "issues" list; I’d prefer, rather, to start a conversation with you by pointing out just some of them.

What they believe

One group holds that MM is either the Holy Grail of technology or possibly a means to our end. Another group is of the opinion that MM (as defined by the first group) will either never happen (because we’ll never develop it), or is so far into the future that it’s "no worries mates" for now. Yet a third group believes that all R&D into nanotechnologies should be halted until all potential harmful effects are know, understood, and preventative measures put in place. Another, that MM is just one of many advanced technologies that could lead to an unprecedented human evolution, accompanied by greatly extended life spans and vastly upgraded intellects. And finally, another, but by no means final group, believes MM is just one of many advanced technologies that could lead to all sorts of societal ills.

Frankly, it’s hard to get your hands around MM, let alone the points-of-view held by these and other stakeholders (AKA: interest groups. Once again, that’s you and I and everyone folks, the whole unorganized, confused, anxious and hopeful lot).

For the purpose of this exercise specific groups or individuals will not be named. Suffice it to say that someone holds views and beliefs that are consistent with the following questions.

Some of the important issues

     Is MM possible?
     If so, is it safe? If not, why not? (RR: of course, if your answer is "not" then the remaining questions are moot.)

     Is Grey Goo possible? (1)
     If so, how do we prevent/defeat it? If not, why not?

     Can we build the nanofactory? (2)
     If so, what are the steps leading to it, when might we see it, and what are the upsides and downsides to it’s development? If not, why not?

     Do we have sufficient safeguards in place to ward off the potential downsides and increase the likelihood of a positive MM-enabled future? (RR: here we will take a turn away from the script and say "as far as I know there is currently no group that believes MM is possible/likely that also believes that the answer to this Q is yes.")
     If not, what is being done to address this issue?

     Are business, government and individual stakeholders adequately informed regarding the myriad ways in which advanced technologies, including MM, may change our collective future?
     If so, why so many contradictory viewpoints? If not, why not?

     Are stakeholders learning about, participating in, and influencing the debate on MM?
     If so, in which venues? If not, why not?

I hope to enlist the aid of my friends and colleagues in the nano-space in providing answers to these questions. I will also post answers from those that present an opposing yet supported p-o-v. And I will probably answer a few myself, as time allows.

Of course I’ll post those of your comments and questions that meet blog etiquette standards.

I’ll leave you with this: You are a stakeholder (*), whether you believe it or not. When it comes to advanced technologies everyone on this beautiful blue marble is a stakeholder, all 6.5 billion of us. Do you have enough information to enable you to make good decisions about advanced technologies, including MM? If not, ask your questions here.

(*) stakeholder: a person or organization that has a legitimate interest in a project or entity. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For more on these issues, please visit:
Atkinson-Phoenix Debate
Nanotechnology Now Press Kit
Foresight Debate with Scientific American
Published debate shows weakness of MNT denial
Thirty Essential Nanotechnology Studies



Anonymous said...

Fear of runaway nanobots, or “grey goo,” is more of a public issue than a scientific problem. ...although biosphere-eating goo is a gripping story, current molecular manufacturing proposals contain nothing even similar to grey goo. The idea that nanotechnology manufacturing systems could run amok is based on outdated information.

From Grey Goo is a Small Issue

Rocky Rawstern said...

Re: Can we build a nanofactory?

Everything I have researched and read suggests to me “yes, we can.” The technologies needed to create the fabricator (a precursor to the nanofactory) are either here now, in the works, or live as concepts that have strong scientific backing.

Once we have a working fabricator…I’ll leave it to Chris and Mike at CRN to explain:

“So how hard is it to build a nanofactory? You need to start with a working fabricator, a nanoscale device that can combine individual molecules into useful shapes. But once you have that, the rest is pretty straightforward. An early plan for molecular manufacturing imagined lots of free-floating assemblers working together to build on a single massive product, molecule by molecule. A more efficient approach is to fasten down orderly arrays of chemical fabricators, instruct each fabricator to create a tiny piece of the product, and then fasten the pieces together, passing them along within the nanofactory as on an assembly line.

A personal nanofactory will consist of trillions of fabricators, and could only be built by another nanofactory. But a fabricator could build a very small nanofactory, with just a few fabricators in it. A smaller nanofactory could build a bigger one, and so on. Most of the mass of a nanofactory is in the form of working fabricators, and according to the best estimates we have today, a fabricator could make its own mass in just a few hours. So a nanofactory could make another one twice as big in just a few days—maybe less than a day. Do that about sixty times, and you have a tabletop model.”

To read more, visit Personal Nanofactories