Re: NANO: Skeptical MIT Tech Review Interview

Peter C. McCluskey (
Sun, 22 Nov 1998 11:10:00 -0800 (Eugene Leitl) writes:
>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.

It isn't silly to ignore sources of information whose value is uncertain, but it is silly to confidently reject an argument you haven't listened to, rather than admit to some doubt.

> > 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?

It's running on a 180 mhz pentium with bandwidth that is probably above average. It may be moved to a better machine soon. The biggest problems are that Perl is slow for what it tries to do, and there are probably some unidentified inefficencies in how it handles network i/o. Nobody has volunteered to do much work in these areas.

> > 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

To the extent I understand what you are saying, I can't see any similarity between Drexler's beliefs and the beliefs you are attacking. Possibly Merkle oversimplifies too much when dealing with people who ask the usual half-baked questions, but when responding to thoughfull questions I think he is more skeptical about those issues than you imply.

>malaise. Nanotechnology as practiced on the web is simply not a

I suspect you misunderstand Drexler precisely because most of his communication is via media you find less accesible than the web. (Most of what I know of his arguments comes mainly from Nanosystems and from hearing him in person).

> > 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.

A ridiculous claim. It isn't very succesfull as a science, but there are plenty of falsifiable hypotheses.

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

Engineering time forecasts are routinely made for incompletely specified blueprints, and are often of some help in resolving policy disputes.

>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

One of the many reasons that nobody has provided a detailed blueprint is that we don't have systems powerfull enough to adequately simulate them yet.

>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

I'm not sure what kind of theory you are asking for. I am fairly confident that for any given feature that an assembler would require, a conservative design can be found such that most chemists would say (without feeling a need for simulation) that it would probably work if built. I think Drexler has produced some clear reasons for suspecting his ideas, or something more powerfull, will eventually be built. I think the biggest uncertainty comes from the shortage of good tools for bootstrapping the construction of such features, and that many people are underestimating the progess that has been made recently on such tools.
I think a handfull of people (possibly Drexler, probably someone at Zyvex) have moderately clear guesses about what engineering steps will be taken when. Unfortunately, I haven't seen those guesses published anywhere.

> Which does not mean that it is impossible -- simply
>we. just. can't. tell. yet.

That is a conclusion that Drexler and I would be glad for most people to adopt. The belief that it can't possibly happen in the next 20 years is potentially quite dangerous. Uncertainty poses much fewer risks.

>Please, let's stop this nonconstructive discussion, and let's go back to

My responses are often slow because I give them lower priority than working on molecular modelling software, but if discussions like these raise doubts among people who were previously confident that they could postpone worrying about the effects of nanotech, they can have very constructive effects on how prepared people are.

>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.

I hope the phrase "Generic Saviour" is intended to be sarcastic, but I think it is dangerous to make claims that could be interpreted as encouraging complacency about the effects of nanotech.

Peter McCluskey          | Critmail ( | Accept nothing less to archive your mailing list