Written: Dec 22, 2003
Republished: August 1, 2007
There is a
very important debate in the nanotechnology research community.
The debate is called Drexler-Smalley
debate and is focused on the issue of molecular assembly.
K. Eric Drexler founded the field of nanotechnology about 20 years
ago, and he is the chairman of Foresight
Institute. Richard E. Smalley is a Nobel Laureate in chemistry
and has been a researcher in the field of nanotech for ten years,
working on potential applications of carbon nanotubes.
It is interesting
that one of the great visionaries of our times, who is the foremost
authority in the field of Artificial Intelligence, namely Ray
Kurzweil, has diligently addressed the Drexler-Smalley debate. Kurzweil's
article is a very detailed technical account of the debate,
and he shows very scientifically why it is important to support
In my opinion,
the Drexler-Smalley debate today has a significance way beyond
the interests of their special research areas, just as the field
of Artificial Intelligence had similar debates 20 years ago, when
on the one hand, McCarthy and Minsky, believed AI was possible,
and on the other side, there were those like Dreyfus and Searle,
either negated the possibility of Artificial Intelligence or saw
it too weak. I have written about the AI
years later, it is obvious that Artificial Intelligence is possible,
although it is not the same as natural intelligence, but in many
respects, for example for handling large amounts of information,
it is even more powerful than natural intelligence . So it really
is *artificial* intelligence, not in a pejorative sense. The same
way artificial diamonds of nanotech may prove to be a new creation,
yet better than the original, in beauty, durability, and other
Do Undeveloped Countries Need to Care?
What is important
in such debates is that if people accept the view of impossibility
of artificial remaking of the world, which opponents of nanotechnology
are advocating, we can end up with a loss of opportunity that
may be as important as the computer revolution of the last 20
One may ask
what importance this debate may have for undeveloped countries
like Iran, and whether the Iranian intellectuals should bother
with such a topic. The same way that years ago, many wondered
why Iranians should worry about AI and post-industrial society
debates, when even the industrial society is hardly developed
in Iran, whereas today, everyone sees the importance of computers
and Internet and global economy, and why issues like joining WTO
are of paramount importance to Iran, and many Iranian intellectuals
are now actively involved in such endeavors.
The same way,
the nanotechnology can be the most important technology that may
replicate fuel cells, to put an end to the age
of oil, and not only it would impact the economy of oil producing
countries like Iran, but it can change the whole economy of energy
production in the world, which is the basis of all industrial
production worldwide, and can make a huge impact on poverty and
is no reason why the scientists of a country like Iran should
not be involved in the nanotechnology development, when it will
have an epochal impact not just on the developed countries, but
can change worldwide manufacturing output beyond an order of magnitude.
is why I think the Drexler-Smalley debate is important for Iranian
intellectuals to follow.
is Molecular Assembly
manufacturing processes called manu factus date back to the end
of Middle Ages, in Europe of the late 1500's. It was making things
from raw materials by hand or by machinery carried on systematically
with division of labor. The invention of steam engine in the 18th
century made these machinery power-driven, and the manu factus
developed to industrial factories, and thus changing the face
of Earth in the subsequent 200 years.
is about creating the molecular assembly, which is a miniature
version of manu factus, and can basically remake the whole world
more efficiently, and the result not only can end the energy dependence
on all natural resources, but may finally complete the industrial
development that, as best shown by Daniel Bell, was basically
era of human civilization, a production with power-driven
nanotechnology can successfully complete the remaining part of
the past agricultural and industrial productions, not just by
solving the energy issue, but also by adding intelligence to the
subject of those civilizations, and in short it can help all productive
activities that still lag in pre-industrial modes of production,
to arrive to the post-industrial intelligent production. The way
intelligent programs work in post-industrial high tech industries
today, will be applied to all productive activities, once the
nanotech is fully developed.
Here is how
Kurzweil explains the intelligence used in nanotech using the
word *software* in a very wide sense of the word:
many configurations have been proposed, the typical assembler
has been described as a tabletop unit that can manufacture any
physically possible product for which we have a software description.
Products can range from computers, clothes, and works of art to
cooked meals. Larger products, such as furniture, cars, or even
houses, can be built in a modular fashion, or using larger assemblers.
Of particular importance, an assembler can create copies of itself.
The incremental cost of creating any physical product, including
the assemblers themselves, would be pennies per pound, basically
the cost of the raw materials. The real cost, of course, would
be the value of the information describing each type of product,
that is the software that controls the assembly process. Thus
everything of value in the world, including physical objects,
would be comprised essentially of information. We are not that
far from this situation today, since the "information content"
of products is rapidly asymptoting to 100 percent of their value."
[Ray Kurzweil-The Drexler-Smalley Debate on Molecular Assembly,
Dec 4, 2003]
is the crux of what is at stake in the new nanotech paradigm.
If Newton described laws of motion, and following that, Laplace
argued that having the initial state of the world, and knowing
those laws, one could predict the state of the world at any moment,
here we are seeing that the accomplishment of science in the last
300 years, to describe the structure of things, is followed by
nanotechnology pioneers to work for ultimately rebuilding the
whole nature artificially "atom by atom", as in the
same paper, Kurzweil quotes from Feynman's 1959 seminal speech.
Why is Artificial Remaking Important?
What is the
point of making water from two atoms of hydrogen and one atom
of oxygen. Of course, when making molecules of water this way,
it will be like a manufacturing assembly, and it can be created
in trillions and trillions, and it means *maneuvering* things
atom by atom as Feyman had noted, and the material can become
even more efficient with more desired properties. Moreover in
cases where there is scarcity or environmental hazards, such as
the case of oil, where there is so much dependence on fossil fuel
which is environmentally lethal, nanotech can create a clean alternative
with an economy of scale.
a nanotech process can avoid more errors, just as the computers
make less errors than humans, when dealing with huge amounts of
information, and this is an important problem of current biological
processes, where errors like cancer occur in the existing natural
this also introduce dangers and problems that the critics note?
Kurzweil gives a good example of computer networks and viruses
that are propagated thru them, and notes that we would not be
willing today to discard the computers and the Internet because
of viruses, and intead of returning to the past, we create protection
the main issue of critics like Smalley is not the dangers. Dangers
such as problems of self-replicating mechanisms. Because as we
all know the nature's own self-replicating systems, such as human
cells, have shown the problem of bad copies time and again, which
is why we have diseases like cancer. And not just that, even the
whole process of aging and diseases like Alzheimer's are about
errors in the self-replicating cells. So the control in artificial
self-replicating systems can even be helpful to resolve those
kinds of issues in the existing natural life processes.
In other words,
the above dangers are not the basic issues raised by critics like
Smalley. The main thrust of their arguments is like Dreyfus and
his arguments of chess, at the time of inception of Artificial
Intelligence, namely trying to argue for impossibility of molecular
assembly, referring to issues like fat fingers in nanotech, which
basically means the robot arm for bounding of atoms cannot act
freely when nearing quantum sizes, because of quantum uncertainty
effects. But as Kurzweil excellently shows, the nanotech size
is much larger than sizes where such quantum uncertainties would
even come to play, and even if they were real issues, they are
issues to be solved, and not to cause discouragement for possibility
scientists, in the last 300 years, have been describing the world
by various formulas, and if genetics has been one of the first
sciences to use this knowledge to remake a part of the natural
reality in a controlled way, nanotechnology can remake everything
in the world more intelligently, and it can create the environment
for intelligent tools to be in an effective interaction with the physical world, and
change nature to a wealth producing reality for the human species,
and at the same time help us to go beyond our own biological limitations
and deal with issues like cancer. There is so much at stake here
that leaving this work, can hurt any nation, and the whole world
at large, from the real potentials of our times, and can seriously
impede the development of post industrial global society.
In sum, nanotechnology
is tied to the impact of intelligent tools on life and the world and together they depict
the tremendous potentials in front of humanity and the world.
Back to Features Index
Back to Sam Ghandchi Index