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J. Storrs Hall
CONDUCTED DECEMBER 2001
I first heard of
Engines of Creation in the mid-eighties while I was a staff researcher at
Rutgers working on AI and computer architecture. As a long-time SF fan, I was
long since acquainted with vaguer concepts like "nanoelectronics" and
manufacturing using atomic precision.
Question 2: Have you come across any specific technical criticisms of the concept of molecular assemblers that you find valid?
No. Of course,
it's difficult to give a technical criticism of a machine without even a design
of the machine to go on, so that's not a particularly useful statement. Most of
the critics have had adopted the position "you haven't designed it yet so it
must be impossible," which isn't particularly useful either.
Question 3: Some nanotechnology enthusiasts are concerned that the articles by Whitesides and Smalley in the August 2001 edition of Scientific American will lead many to conclude that the concept of molecular nanotechnology is impossible. Are you concerned by the public reaction to Scientific American's issue on nanotechnology?
SciAm has a long-standing hostility to Drexler not reflected in the general
literature. For specifics on the Aug. 2001 issue, have a look at
http://www.imm.org/SciAmDebate2/ ... note that it's the second Foresight/SciAm
Question 4: Lyle
Burkhead currently runs a site, (geniebusters.org), in which he argues that
molecular nanotechnology will never be used to create bulk commodities. The
basic crux of the site's argument is that a machine containing molecular
assemblers will never be built because the complexity needed to design most
objects (such as computer chips) requires layer upon layer of expertise and
specialized skill. Each molecular factory would need to be so highly programmed
that a whole industry would be needed to design, support and oversee the
operation. If a whole industry is needed, he argues, then we would simply have
the basic production system we have today shrunk to the nanoscale. He writes
that "Designing, building, and retooling complex apparatuses won't be easy or
free in the future any more than it is now". He further states that:
main point is that nanomanufactured stuff will be as hard to design and specify
as current stuff is, if not harder. That is quite right -- but he misses the
point that the end user doesn't actually design and specify stuff, he/she just
selects it. The user of a synthesizer box might have an interface that looks
like shopping on the internet.
Question 5: Tell us about Utility Fog. How did you come across the concept, and how extensively could such a technology be used?
I invented Utility
Fog in a typically serendipitous way. Virtually everyone working with
nanotechnology has had ideas for a polymorphic material to make objects out of.
But I was driving in to work one day and became conscious of my seat belt. I
began wondering how good a seat belt you could make with nanotechnology. One of
my pet peeves about safe cars is the they're built to collapse in an accident;
the crumpling of the structure gives you a longer deceleration path, which is
what makes it safe.
Question 6: How would the individual foglets be able to communicate and coordinate with each other? The task of assigning each one of the quadrillions of foglets a precise place seems incredibly difficult.
Well, it is
incredibly difficult. Frankly, the capabilities of Fog will depend on the
capabilities of software and other control technologies. However, there are
relatively simple methods, involving distributed physical simulations at large
scales and "traffic rules" at small ones that should work for the gross physical
motions involved with simulation of macroscale objects.
Question 7: Approximately when do you believe that the first molecular assemblers will be built?
Between 2010 and 2020.
Question 8: Writers such as Ray Kurzweil claim that the pace of technological advance is accelerating. Critics of Kurzweil claim that exponential advances have only been observed in the electronics, communications, and bio-chemistry fields, and that the rate of technological progress in most other industries is slowing. What is your opinion?
advance overall is composed of many individual advances, each of which involves
a cluster of discoveries and techniques. By narrowing the field enough you can
always find plateaus between advances. Another apparent damper on advance is
satiation -- people are happier having office jobs and cars than they were being
farmers and (mostly) walking -- so less effort is expended changing our mode of
life. Basic living arrangements changed less 1950-2000 than they did 1900-1950.
So where is the effort expended? Medical is a major area -- and electronics,
and information processing, to name some others; the bulk of what we know in
these fields was discovered after 1950.
Question 9: Many writers and scientists argue that the we will soon see the advent of Artificial Intelligence. Others claim that we are no nearer to truly cognizant, sentient machines than we were 30 years ago. What is your assessment of the prospects for AI?
Oddly enough, 30
years ago is about when I first studied AI. It was considered a PhD thesis to
write a program that could do symbolic integration. They didn't have any
inkling how hard most of the real problems, e.g. vision, speech, robotics,
were. Now they know, and they have a host of techniques they didn't have then,
and you can get a computer for $1000 more powerful than any computer in the
world was then.
Question 10: Some writers and scientists argue that the advent of true AI will quickly lead to the development of molecular nanotechnology, and vice versa. Do you agree?
Change those words to "computer modeling and design" and "nanoscale science and technology" and you have a process that's going on right now. Look ahead just one decade...
Question 11: How much longer do you believe Moore's law will continue? Do you believe that we will soon see molecular electronics?
The physics allows for FET's (field effect transistors, such as current chips use) right on down to the molecular scale. The only discontinuities are in fabrication technologies; this means there could be plateaus while fab tech catches up, or jumps where a new technique is brought online. On the average, Moore's law is good for another decade at least, and there's no qualitative separation between "conventional" and "molecular" electronics at the end of that time.
Question 12: What are your plans for the future?
In the short term,
I'm writing a book about ethics for robots. In the long term, it probably
depends on whether anyone paid any attention to the book.
This interview was conducted by Sander Olson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CRN.
Copyright © 2002-2008 Center for Responsible Nanotechnology TM CRN is an affiliate of World Care®, an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization.