SCI and ECON Nanotech

John K Clark (
Fri, 27 Sep 1996 21:16:28 -0700 (PDT)


On Thu, 26 Sep 1996 Lyle Burkhead <> Wrote:

>The "automated" factories that you speak of are only
>automated at one point in the manufacturing process.

And Nanotechnology without AI would be automated in the manufacturing process
too, that is it could duplicate any existing object. If you have a good
description of an object then you could make another one, and if you don't
then Nanotechnology can examine the object and get a detailed description.
Again let me repeat there is no reason to suppose that AI will not come along
with Nanotechnology, but we can do a lot even without it.

Engineers have a good description of automobiles, yet as you point out, to
turn that description into a working car takes a lot of intelligent people
that have learned a lot of difficult skills. Exactly what is it about
Nanotechnology that is so different from conventional manufacturing that it
makes all that unnecessary? I can think of 6 reasons:

1) The parts a car factory uses are very expensive, the parts that
Nanotechnology uses are very cheap.

2) A car factory uses many thousands or millions of different types of parts
and you must learn how to operate all of them. At the most, Nanotechnology
uses 92 different parts (the elements) but in the real world almost
everything we know is made of less than 20, less than 10 parts for life.

3) All the many different parts the factory uses are fragile, and fragile in
different ways, you must learn the proper handling techniques for them all
or you will destroy the parts before you can use them. There is no way you
can damage the parts Nanotechnology deals with.

4) None of the parts the factory uses are absolutely identical. Despite our
best efforts, individual variation still exists, and so we must treat them
differently and compensate for the variation in the assembly process if we
want the finished product to work properly, that often takes intelligence.
On the other hand, according to the laws of Physics one hydrogen atom is
absolutely identical to another hydrogen atom and can be treated in
exactly the same way. Atoms have no scratches on them to tell them apart.

5) Nanotechnology can manipulate matter without ever leaving the digital
domain, and I think most of us know the advantage of that. You may have to
deal with a rod 27 atoms long, or 28 atoms long, but you never have to
worry about a rod 27.5601334 atoms long.

6) Most of the parts a factory uses are very complex and the ways they
interact with other parts are even more complex. Think of the windshield
of a car, it interacts poorly with the engine block, and even with the
windshield frame the interaction must be managed with great skill or you
will have a disaster. Nanotechnology is like building with leggo blocks,
you can build structures of arbitrary complexity, yet there are only a few
different types of blocks and they interact with other blocks in only a
few different ways. It's easy to develop an algorithm to examine any leggo
object and then build a duplicate, it's very far from easy to find an
algorithm that would do the same with a car.

>There are many points where a decision has to be made by
>somebody who has an understanding of the project as a whole

Then complex things would never get made by humans. No one man, no ten men
have a deep understanding of an airliner or a microprocessor or the software
that lets it do interesting things, it's too great for one mind to grasp,
at least a mind as puny as a human.

>and who understands the purpose of his activity.

The purpose of his activity is to make money, but that's even more complex
than manufacturing because not even a billion men understands the economy in
any depth. In spite of our lack of understanding we still manage to build

>>We know for sure that it's possible to manufacture
>>extremely complex objects, like human beings

>No. To "manufacture" something means to make it to a
>specification. Human beings are not manufactured to spec.

Depends on how tight the specification is, by some standards one person is
much like another, but if that specification is not tight enough for your
taste try ants. Every worker ant or bee in a colony (the vast majority) is
identical to every other one, and she is more complex than any machine a
human has ever made, so far. The queen can manufacture hundreds of workers a
day if she receives enough food, and queen ants and bees are very dumb.

True, there might be some very tiny variation in workers development, even
though they have identical genes, but no manufacturing process is perfect and
2 workers would be far more similar than any 2 cars coming off the same
assembly line.

John K Clark

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