The government says "no" to federally funded nanobots
In a story you may have missed in all the pre-Thanksgiving hustle and bustle, the House and Senate passed legislation last week appropriating nearly $3.7 billion over the next four years for nanotechnology research and development. The bill authorizes money for federal nanotech research by "providing grants to individual investigators . . . and . . . establishing a network of advanced technology user facilities and centers." Environmental groups should be pleased that the bill will also support research into the "ethical, legal, environmental, and other appropriate societal concerns, including the potential use of nanotechnology in enhancing human intelligence and in developing artificial intelligence."
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Perhaps most interesting, though, is what the bill apparently does not fund: research into so-called molecular nanotechnology, a theoretical approach to nanotech that proposes the creation of "molecular assemblers," which could build complex products from molecular level up. It is this version of nanotech, promoted by nanotech guru Eric Drexler that often appears in science fiction, where trillions of tiny, self-replicating nanorobots can transform matter into just about anything. But most nanotech researchersincluding Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, co-discoverer of carbon buckeyball moleculesare skeptical of this vision.
The bill does allow a "one-time study to determine the technical feasibility of molecular self-assembly for the manufacture of materials and devices at the molecular scale." But self-assembly is not the same thing as self-replication, with the former being a proven chemical process being developed in nanotech labs. The original House version of the bill did contain an explicit passage that unmistakably referred to Drexlerian molecular manufacturing, including use of the phrase "self-replication." It appears that in substituting the word "assembly" for "replication," some savvy bill writer performed a bit of legislative jujitsu to leave Drexler’s approach out in the cold. After all, why investigate the feasibility of self-assembly when it’s already been proved possible?
I asked Mark Modzelewski of the NanoBusiness Alliance about this very issue. His group was a big backer of the bill. Modzelewski’s response: "Frankly, we already know what the bill asks for is possible, but the bill will allow us to look at `to what extent.’ It is possible that some aspects of `molecular manufacturing’ might be investigated, but knowing the parties influencing the study, I doubt it. There was no interest in the legitimate scientific community and ultimately Congress for playing with Drexler's futuristic sci-fi notions."
In the past, the NanoBusiness Alliance has been openly dismissive of Drexler’s approach, as has Mihail Roco, current head of the federal National Nanotechnology Initiative. It has been suggested that one reason behind criticism of Drexler in the scientific and business community—in addition to legitimate scientific doubts—is that the sci-fi nature of molecular nanotech makes the whole field look wildy speculative and may harm funding. What’s more, the image of self-replicating nanobots run amok provides ammo to antinanotech environmental groups. Indeed, in a must-read debate between Drexler and Smalley in the new issue of Chemical & Engineering News, Smalley notes that in a recent talk he gave to some middle and high school students, many students "assumed that self-replicating nanobots were possible, and most were deeply worried about what would happen in their future as these nanobots spread around the world. I did what I could to allay their fears, but there is no question that many of these youngsters have been told a bedtime story that is deeply troubling." For now, at least, it appears the government has sided with Smalley.