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PRESS RELEASE:  DECEMBER 1, 2003

Published debate shows weakness of MNT denial

Attackers of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) received a setback today when a published debate revealed the weakness of their position. The four-part exchange between Eric Drexler, the founder of nanotechnology, and Nobelist Richard Smalley, who contends that many of Drexler's plans are impossible, is the cover story in the December 1 Chemical & Engineering News.

“We have carefully examined the arguments presented by each side,” says Chris Phoenix, Director of Research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN). “We conclude that Smalley failed to show why MNT cannot work as Drexler asserts.” Phoenix has prepared a 6-page review of the Smalley-Drexler debate, including historical overview, technical analysis, and commentary on policy implications. It is available at http://CRNano.org/Debate.htm.

Drexler, who single-handedly launched the field of nanotechnology in the late 1980's, believes that mechanical control of chemical reactions can form the basis of powerful manufacturing systems. Smalley has tried for years to debunk the possibility of such manufacturing, since it could in theory lead to scary consequences such as tiny machines building exponential copies of themselves at the expense of the biosphere.

In 2001, Smalley published an article in Scientific American claiming that mechanical control of reactions would require impossible “magic fingers.” But in the current debate, Smalley agreed that “something like an enzyme or a ribosome ... can do precise chemistry.” The question to be answered now is: What kind of chemistry can an enzyme-like chemical system do? 

Smalley attempts to define limits, and fails. He claims that enzymes can only work under water, but this is untrue, as almost two decades of published research have shown. With this crucial support missing, his remaining case against mechanical chemistry falls apart. At this point, no one knows the limits of such a system. As far back as 1959, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman said it should be possible “to synthesize any chemical substance.” Work by Drexler and others over the past decade has shown that even a much more limited capability should be sufficient to develop manufacturing systems that can duplicate themselves.

“Smalley's factual inaccuracies, his unscientific and vehement attacks on MNT, and his continued failure to criticize the actual chemical proposals of MNT, demonstrate that we must move beyond this debate,” says Mike Treder, Executive Director of CRN. “It’s time to focus on the technical proposals and the serious societal implications that we can no longer afford to ignore.”

During the past decade, detailed proposals have been developed for the architecture and technology of molecular manufacturing systems. Such proposals cannot be tested fully in the absence of laboratory work and targeted research, but enough is known to initiate action based on existing work. The proposals are sufficiently detailed to support a much more thoughtful critical study than has yet been done, and such a study would result in further refinement of the proposals.

“We can—and we must—begin to quantify the expected capabilities of molecular manufacturing systems,” says Phoenix. “What substances and devices can they build? How rapidly can they work? How easy will it be to design products for these manufacturing systems? How much will it cost to create such a system, and how quickly will that cost decrease over time?” 

Treder adds, “Now that even Richard Smalley is talking about the capabilities of enzymes in molecular manufacturing, instead of impossible magic fingers, we hope that facile and ungrounded denials of MNT will no longer be credible.”

 

             
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