Last December, President Bush signed a bill—the 21st-Century Nanotech Research and Development Act—that will provide $3.7 billion to nanotechnology projects over four years. But the legislation seems to be getting more attention for what it does not fund than for what it does. In particular, it fails to fund a study examining the feasibility of "nanobots"—molecule-size robotic devices that would position atoms and molecules to build complex substances and products from the bottom up in a process called molecular manufacturing.
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At one point as the bill was working its way through Congress, it seemed that a feasibility study would be included, but in the end the government defined nanotech in a more conventional way—such as creating nanosize particles (found now in stain-resistant pants, longer-lasting tennis balls, and deeper-penetrating skin creams) or using chip-making tools to make nanosize etchings on computer semiconductors. And Mihail Roco, director of the government's National Nanotechnology Initiative, has been publicly dismissive of molecular manufacturing and nanobots, as has the NanoBusiness Alliance, a trade group.
But nanobot advocates like Eric Drexler—the guy who coined the term nanotechnology—argue that molecular manufacturing has huge potential and wonder what harm a feasibility study could do. One theory holds that government and business fret that any talk of nanobots would conjure up the Magician's Apprentice scenario (in which tiny, replicating machines get out of control and cover the Earth). That could raise the odds that environmental groups would attack nanotechnology just as they have attacked genetically modified plants and foods.
Some insight into the government's thinking can be found in the FAQ at the NNI's Web site. (Thanks to the nanotech site www.nanodot.org for a heads-up.) In answer to the question "What are nanobots? Are they fantasy or reality?" the NNI site replies: "Such creatures do not exist, and many scientists believe they never will, saying nanoscale materials are simply too small to manipulate for such purposes—and if someone wanted to create something destructive, there are many easier ways to do so. That said, technologies, starting with fire, are abused at times. For this reason, laboratories are closely monitored, and research is peer reviewed. Research funding is withheld from less-than-worthy projects and from those with questionable credentials or reputation."
Thus it seems the government views nanobots as a sci-fi fantasy with only dangerous implications, further implying in the FAQ that the only reason someone would want to create nanobots would be for destructive purposes. In an E-chat I had with Drexler last September, I asked what his version of nanotech could do. As he wrote back then: "[Molecular manufacturing] could produce desktop nanofactories able to convert cheap liquid feedstocks into high-tech products within minutes—products such as laptop computers with a billion times more processing power than modern machines, or sheets of tough, flexible solar-cell material suitable for reroofing a house or repaving a driveway, or 3-D video wallpaper, or parts that snap together to make a new nanofactory."
Nothing dangerous sounding there. Actually, it all sounds pretty cool.