Re: NANO: Skeptical MIT Tech Review Interview

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Fri, 13 Nov 1998 15:29:52 -0600

Kathryn Aegis wrote:
> Doug Bailey:
> > Again, we see skeptics who should know better basically saying certain
> > technological accomplishments are impossible without any firm theoretical
> > substantiation for such a finding.
> Why so quick to label any sort of critique of nanotech as uninformed
> skepticism? I think that a healthy dose of skepticism (and Whitesides
> seems to have quite a background to conduct such a critique) will help
> keep nano enthusiasts focused on just what can realistically be
> accomplished. I see nothing in the quotes you provided that indicates
> that Whitesides considers nano applications to be 'impossible'--I doubt
> that he would have expended so much time in reviewing a technology that
> had no hint of potential success.

I agree with Aegis. I have very strong bull detectors, and I didn't hear anything wrong. I heard someone pointing out the flaw in a commonly-used analogy. If the maximum size for assemblers is smaller than the minimum size for chemically powered cells, the analogy is invalid and that's that. If it takes a major research breakthrough to get powered sub-micron units, then that's one of the many leaps required for nanotechnology. Nobody said nanotech was going to be easy. I *pray* nano is hard enough to defeat the human race until there are competent, ethical transhumans around to handle it.

I think Whitesides has done a good job of identifying the basic issues which do not scale down from micron cells to nanometer machines. One is power - ATP-based chemical power doesn't scale down to what are essentially autonomous chemicals; nanotech needs some source of power - electrical, perhaps. Two is friction - the macroscopic or classical effects used to shape current machinery don't operate at the atomic or quantum level; nanotech needs a different type of design, assembled from atoms instead of carved from blocks. Three is manufacturing - how do we make an assembler once we've designed it?

I believe that all three questions are addressed in Dr. Drexler's "Nanotechnology". I would have been interested in a critique of Drexler's answers, but what Whitesides delivered was a perfectly valid critique of a common, popularized, mistaken argument. So I don't think that Whitesides is being unnecessarily skeptical, but I don't think he's disproved nanotechnology either.

--         Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.