Re: NANO: Skeptical MIT Tech Review Interview

Eugene Leitl (
Tue, 17 Nov 1998 22:34:16 +0100

Peter C. McCluskey writes:

> It sometimes looks like that is happening because typical criticisms
> from reputable scientists simply ignore elementary arguments that nanotech
> advocates have been making for years.

Respectable scientists don't read nanotech advocates. Maybe this will change when the latter start be published in refereed journals. Electronic resources, especially Usenet posts are simply not visible to scientific mainstream. This is silly, but you must consider that handicap when you expect to see valid criticisms by the establishment.

> Read the article through Crit and see how easily Ralph Merkle answers it:

Crit is so _slow_, especially overseas. Are there any plans to make the database distributed? Is Foresight running the service on their own resources, or did they receive any hardware/bandwidth donations?

> The accusation that nanotech dreamers reject all criticism without regard
> to merit seems inconsistent with the respect that such dreamers give to
> people who suggest nanotech is undesirable because of risks such as grey goo.

I must say I made basically the opposite observation. There is much imo unfounded belief in rational design (as if one could clone/upgrade artifexes faster than grow computational darwin-in-machina circuitry) and containability of nanoevolution processes (so far archaeology has failed to find even fossil traces of ur-autoreplicators). The 'active shield' mantra is too often invoked. To me, this is simply not addressing the issue, but it is exactly these fuzzy anything-goes claims, criticisms and countercriticisms that point at the heart of the malaise. Nanotechnology as practiced on the web is simply not a science. And nanotechnology, as practiced in the laboratory is simply not exciting enough. Too bad.

> When dealing with the timing of nanotech rather than what is physically
> possible, I think nanotech advocates are more vulnerable to criticism.
> I think Drexler's claims about when the first assemblers will be available
> (10 to 25 years) are reasonable, but I haven't heard a serious published
> attempt to analyze how long it will take.

Futurology is not science. There exists no validated scheme to assign probabilities to future histories. Hence, expecting any real-world criticisms of pipe dreams is not exactly constructive.

> Drexler simply says he can't imagine how 20 years from now there could
> be 20 years more work needed to produce an assembler. This doesn't convince
> people who suspect he's a theoretician who doesn't know much about the
> mundane details needed to translate theory into practice.

'Mundane details needed to translate theory into practice' says it fairly all. Drexlerian nanotechnology means: I can build a device which can more or less sustainably clone itself within a time span of less than an hour by means of mechanosynthetic reactions -- as simple as that.

Is such a device possible? No one can say, now. If there was a detailed, mundane blueprint, we could simulate and validate that. But there is none. How does one supposed to prove the existance and met functionality of a mundane device which is not specified? The science/technology validation process does not work that way. It would help a lot if there was a mundane, well-developed body of theory describing mechanosynthetical processes. But there is none! (Don't say things like Schroedinger or ab initio, that doesn't count). So we have to resort to a massive make-believe that we can build the repertoire of required mundane structures (the set of which, also, happens to be undefined) by this unspecified, mundane set of mechanosynthetic reactions.

Is this science? Is this technology? Whatever it is, it not validable. Which does not mean that it is impossible -- simply we. just. can't. tell. yet.

Please, let's stop this nonconstructive discussion, and let's go back to the workstation/lab. Whoever can push the field of nanorobotics and nanolithography into full-blown all-purpose mechanosynthesis is scheduled to be the next Nobel laureate -- and Generic Saviour as well.