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Is Nanotechnology Real?
Sam Ghandchi
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 Drexler's vision.

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 debates elsewhere.

Today twenty 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 properties.

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 years.

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 wealth worldwide.

And there 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.

The above is why I think the Drexler-Smalley debate is important for Iranian intellectuals to follow.

What is Molecular Assembly

The first 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.

Today's nanotechnology 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 an energy era of human civilization, a production with power-driven machinery.

Therefore 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:

"Although 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]

The above 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.

Also such 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 processes.

Can all 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 against viruses.

Of course 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 of nanotechnology.


Basically 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.

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