This is a writeup of a shallow investigation, a brief look at an area that we use to decide how to prioritize further research.
In a nutshell
Atomically precise manufacturing is a proposed technology for assembling macroscopic objects defined by data files by using very small parts to build the objects with atomic precision using earth-abundant materials. There is little consensus about its feasibility, how to develop it, or when, if ever, it might be developed. This page focuses primarily on potential risks from atomically precise manufacturing. We may separately examine its potential benefits and development pathways in more detail in the future.
What is the problem?
If created, atomically precise manufacturing would likely radically lower costs and expand capabilities in computing, materials, medicine, and other areas. However, it would likely also make it substantially easier to develop new weapons and quickly and inexpensively produce them at scale with an extremely small manufacturing base. In addition, some argue that it would help make it possible to create tiny self-replicating machines that could consume the Earth’s resources in a scenario known as “grey goo,” but such machines would have to be designed deliberately and we are highly uncertain of whether it would be possible to make them.
What are possible interventions?
A philanthropist could seek to influence research and development directions or support policy research. Potential goals could include achieving consensus regarding the feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing, identifying promising development strategies, and/or mitigating risks from possible military applications. We are highly uncertain about how to weigh the possible risks and benefits from accelerating progress toward APM and about the effectiveness of policy research in the absence of greater consensus regarding the feasibility of the technology.
Who else is working on it?
A few small non-profit organizations have explicitly focused on research, development, and policy analysis related to atomically precise manufacturing. Atomically precise manufacturing receives little explicit attention in academia, but potential enabling technologies such as DNA nanotechnology and scanning probe microscopy are active fields of research.
There are a number of related, but distinct, concepts discussed in the context of atomically precise manufacturing, including:
- Molecular nanotechnology
- Atomically precise manufacturing (APM, which is roughly synonymous with ‘molecular manufacturing’)
According to the definition set by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative:
Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter at the nanoscale, at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable novel applications. Encompassing nanoscale science, engineering, and technology, nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, modeling, and manipulating matter at this length scale.
‘Nanotechnology’ is used in a broad sense to include APM, but also many rather different products and R&D projects. Nanomaterials (such as carbon nanotubes), DNA origami, and scanning tunneling microscopes are all considered nanotechnology, but they are not considered atomically precise manufacturing (as defined below) because they do not allow for programmable manufacturing of macroscopic structures.
1.1.2 Molecular nanotechnology
‘Molecular nanotechnology’ is a concept associated with Dr. Drexler’s 1986 book, Engines of Creation. Our understanding of this concept is highly limited, though we understand that:
- It involves using very small, mobile ‘assemblers’ to bond atoms into desired stable patterns, and that they could be used to “build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist.”
- It has been explained with less technical detail than APM, and Dr. Drexler regards his analysis of it as more uncertain than his analysis of APM.
On the first point, Dr. Drexler has received criticism from Richard Jones (a Professor of Physics at the University of Sheffield), Richard Smalley (a Nobel laureate in Chemistry), and the Royal Society. However, Dr. Drexler has suggested to us that these criticisms are based on misunderstandings of his work. For example, he has described the idea of “literally building ‘atom by atom’ ” as a “technically inaccurate popularization of the idea of atomically precise manufacturing.” In Engines of Creation Dr. Drexler noted that molecular nanotechnology “will not be able to build everything that could exist.” In conversation with us, Dr. Drexler said that atomically precise manufacturing—which is the focus of this investigation—”does not include the concept of a ‘universal assembler’ capable of making any possible object.”
1.1.3 Atomically precise manufacturing
In a conversation with us, Dr. Drexler characterized APM as follows:
At a more mature stage in the development of APM, Dr. Drexler envisions desktop-sized (or larger), programmable “nanofactories” which would use earth-abundant materials (e.g., molecules composed of elements from the upper-right hand corner of the periodic table, including carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and silicon) as inputs/feedstocks, and use arrays of molecule-binding nanoscale devices (using gearboxes, motors, and so on to implement positioning/transport mechanisms) to guide the motion of reactive molecules from the feedstocks to assemble objects and machines defined by data files (as in 3D printers today). Such a nanofactory would be capable of placing its inputs in controlled configurations in controlled sequences, providing a degree of control of chemical synthesis that cannot be achieved by means that rely on the diffusion of molecules in solution. Drexler suggests that systems of this general kind could produce a superset of the range of products that can be made by modern industry. The physical principles, mechanisms, and potential system architectures of such nanofactories are examined in greater detail in Nanosystems.
In Nanosystems, Dr. Drexler proposes the following applications of APM:
- Programmable positioning of reactive molecules with ~0.1 nm precision
- Mechanosynthesis at > 10^6 operations/device [per] second
- Mechanosynthetic assembly of 1 kg objects in < 10^4 s
- Nanomechanical systems operating at ~10^9 Hz
- Logic gates that occupy ~10^-26 m^3 (~10^-8 μ^3)
- Logic gates that switch in ~0.1 ns and dissipate < 10^-21 J
- Computers that perform 10^16 instructions per second per watt
- Cooling of cubic-centimeter, ~10^5 W systems at 300 K
- Compact 10^15 MIPS parallel computing systems
- Mechanochemical power conversion at > 10^9 W/m^3
- Electromechanical power conversion at > 10^15 W/m^3
- Macroscopic components with tensile strengths > 5 x 10^10 Pa
- Production systems that can double capital stocks in < 10^4 s
Of these capabilities, several are qualitatively novel, and others improve on present engineering practice by one or more orders of magnitude.
Dr. Drexler also argued that these nanofactories could be used to quickly make additional nanofactories. This helps clarify the definition of APM above, though we do not fully understand the significance (or even the meaning) of many of these proposed applications. However, our understanding is that these capabilities include extremely precise manufacturing, very powerful computers, very stiff materials, and fast assembly of macroscopic objects from raw materials.
Our investigation focused on APM rather than nanotechnology or molecular nanotechnology because:
- We are aware of arguments that APM and molecular nanotechnology could pose global catastrophic risks (see “What is the problem?”), but are not aware of arguments that other forms of nanotechnology could pose global catastrophic risks.
- According to Dr. Drexler, there is stronger evidence for the feasibility of APM than the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology (as noted above).
1.2 Potential development pathways for APM
Progress toward APM may proceed along two different pathways:
- ‘Soft’ approaches using biomolecular materials capable of organizing themselves into desired three-dimensional structures, such as DNA nanotechnology. DNA origami, in which DNA self-assembles in solution to form desired 3D molecular structures, is one example of DNA nanotechnology.
- ‘Hard’ pathways such as ‘scanning probe microscopy,’ where microscopes are used to pick up individual atoms and put them in desired arrangements, one by one. For example, IBM researchers used scanning tunneling microscopes (a special type of scanning probe microscope) to spell out “IBM” on a two-dimensional surface with individual atoms, as shown here.
There is disagreement about which path is more promising. People who think the soft pathway is more likely to yield progress include:
- Eric Drexler,
- Richard Jones, and
- Adam Marblestone, scientific advisor to the Open Philanthropy Project and Director of Scientific Architecting at the MIT Synthetic Neurobiology Group.
Philip Moriarty, a Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham, was more enthusiastic about the hard route.
The following provides additional detail on Dr. Drexler’s preferred development pathway for APM:
Dr. Drexler has a concept for a self-assembling, biomolecular, nano-resolution 3D printer operating in solution. The active head of this device (analogous to a printhead) could be moved by linear stepper motors with displacement increments of about a nanometer, operating along three axes and controlled by external optical inputs. Such a device could also be accurate to a resolution of a nanometer (though the system’s components would not be stiff enough to enable accurate positioning at the small-molecule length scale, due to thermal fluctuations), and would construct objects out of biomolecular materials. One way the active head of a 3D printer could work is by removing protective groups from active sites on a surface, allowing the feedstock materials in the solution to bind to the selected sites, transported by Brownian motion.
Dr. Drexler envisions using these soft nanomachines to create the more mature form of APM described above. We are highly uncertain about how promising these development pathways are, and have not closely investigated them.
1.3 Will it eventually be possible to develop APM?
There is no scientific consensus on whether APM is feasible in principle, and significant skepticism has been expressed in some quarters. We have not carefully considered the object-level merits of the arguments on both sides of this issue—which we believe would require substantial additional work—and therefore we focus on the perspectives of the people we interviewed and the scientific sources we considered.
The feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing has been reviewed in a report published by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS report was initiated in response to a Congressional request, and the result was included in the first triennial review of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative. It discusses APM for 4 pages under the heading, “Technical Feasibility of Site-Specific Chemistry for Large-Scale Manufacturing.” While the committee states that “many scientists foresee a long-term future in which a variety of strategies, tools, and processes allow nearly any stable chemical structure to be built atom by atom or molecule by molecule from the bottom up,” the report was inconclusive regarding the technical feasibility of APM. It noted that Dr. Drexler’s work was hard to evaluate because its questions—about the in-principle feasibility of potential future technologies—are “currently outside the mainstream of both conventional science (designed to seek new knowledge) and conventional engineering (usually concerned with the design of things that can be built more or less immediately).” The report did not identify specific technical flaws with Dr. Drexler’s theoretical calculations. However, it did not regard these calculations as a reliable basis for predicting the potential capabilities of future manufacturing systems, stating that “the eventually attainable range of chemical reaction cycles, error rates, speed of operation, and thermodynamic efficiencies of such bottom-up manufacturing systems cannot be reliably predicted at this time.” Despite this uncertainty, the NAS report recommended research funding for experimental demonstrations that link to abstract models of APM and guide long-term vision related to APM.
A Royal Society report was dismissive of the feasibility of ‘molecular manufacturing,’ stating that they had “seen no evidence of the possibility of such nanoscale machines in the peer-reviewed literature, or interest in their development from the mainstream scientific community or industry.” However, like the NAS report, this report focused primarily on other aspects of nanotechnology rather than APM. Only pages 28 and 109 discuss concepts related to APM, and those pages only cite critical correspondence between Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley, one paper co-authored by Chris Phoenix (Co-Founder and Director of Research at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology) and Eric Drexler, and the opinion of George Whitesides (a Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University). Moreover, these pages seem to be focused on concepts that we and Drexler associate with molecular nanotechnology rather than molecular manufacturing/APM, so it is unclear whether these critiques carry over to APM.
The people we interviewed generally found it plausible that some form of atomically precise manufacturing was feasible in principle. However, some of them also expressed skepticism about the feasibility of some aspects of APM. For example:
- Prof. Moriarty suggested that molecular manufacturing would only be feasible with a limited range of materials, though we are uncertain about the extent to which this is a disagreement with Dr. Drexler, who only discusses a limited range of materials in the context of APM/molecular manufacturing (see Drexler’s definition of APM above).
- Prof. Jones was skeptical of the feasibility of developing ‘hard’ nanosystems from ‘soft’ nanosystems.
We have an incomplete sense of which aspects of APM (such as range of materials, range of possible structures, size of structures created, speed of production, and capacity for self-replication) the people we spoke with thought were realistic, and which they did not.
Dr. Drexler’s most notable individual critic was Richard Smalley, who had an open, critical correspondence with Dr. Drexler in Chemical & Engineering News. We did not thoroughly review the correspondence between Dr. Drexler and Dr. Smalley, but no one we spoke with suggested to us that the correspondence was conclusive regarding the feasibility of APM. We are not aware of any specific, generally accepted, published scientific proof or refutation regarding the feasibility of APM.
1.4 When might APM be developed?
The timeline for APM development is controversial. Eric Drexler and Chris Phoenix—who had the shortest development timelines among people we spoke with—suggested that, given substantial investment and agreement about development pathways, it might be possible to develop atomically precise manufacturing—of a kind that could pose substantial risks or significantly change society—within a decade. The other people we spoke with (Philip Moriarty, Richard Jones, and Adam Marblestone) hold that atomically precise manufacturing advanced enough to pose substantial risks or significantly change society is further in the future. This is consistent with the NAS report’s conclusion that development pathways for APM were unclear. Because APM is a multifaceted concept that lacks a precise definition, we are uncertain about the extent to which the people we spoke with disagree about when different aspects of APM will reach different levels of capability.
Unless APM is developed in a secret “Manhattan Project”—and there is disagreement about how plausible that is —the people we spoke with believe it would be extremely unlikely for an observer closely watching the field to be surprised by a sudden increase in potentially dangerous APM capabilities.
2. What is the problem?
2.1 Is there insufficient work on, and progress toward, APM?
According to Dr. Drexler, lack of consensus about feasibility and implementation pathways is stalling progress in development toward APM. At the same time, Prof. Jones argues that experimental work by nanoscientists has a direct bearing on Dr. Drexler’s proposals in Nanosystems, and that progress in the field has been slow primarily because of the inherent difficulty of the science (though he also acknowledges some institutional challenges to receiving funding for ambitious, uncertain research projects). We are highly uncertain about the extent to which progress toward APM is held back by resolvable uncertainty about feasibility and implementation pathways and the extent to which it would be desirable to accelerate progress toward APM (given the potential risks discussed below).
2.2 What are the potential risks from APM?
2.2.1 APM and weapons development and production
If APM were developed, it would likely be substantially easier to create new weapons and quickly and inexpensively produce them at scale. Our understanding is that APM would make this possible because:
- As discussed above, APM would allow for the manufacturing of a superset of the products of modern industry using abundant feedstocks.
- Nanofactories could be used to produce additional nanofactories (using the same feedstocks).
- APM might speed prototyping and product development because factories could immediately build parts on site, leading to a faster design/prototype/test cycle.
We would guess some especially concerning military applications would include new types of drones and centrifuges for enriching uranium that would be much easier to produce.
In addition to the direct use of the weapons above, some related risks include:
- The possibility that the above capabilities could disrupt geopolitics, including deterrence relationships. For example, Chris Phoenix suggested that there could be an arms race related to this technology, or that one nation might want to forcibly prevent another from gaining advanced APM.
- The possibility that an individual or small group could use nanofactories to cheaply mass-produce weapons, enabling terrorist organizations.
2.2.2 Grey goo
‘Grey goo’ is a proposed scenario in which tiny self-replicating machines outcompete organic life and rapidly consume the earth’s resources in order to make more copies of themselves. According to Dr. Drexler, a grey goo scenario could not happen by accident; it would require deliberate design. Both Drexler and Phoenix have argued that such runaway replicators are, in principle, a physical possibility, and Phoenix has even argued that it’s likely that someone will eventually try to make grey goo. However, they believe that other risks from APM are (i) more likely, and (ii) very likely to be relevant before risks from grey goo, and are therefore more worthy of attention. Similarly, Prof. Jones and Dr. Marblestone have argued that a ‘grey goo’ catastrophe is a distant, and perhaps unlikely, possibility. We are highly uncertain about:
- The in-principle feasibility and difficulty of grey goo,
- The extent to which APM would assist in creating grey goo, and
- Whether, if it is feasible, anyone would intentionally develop grey goo.
3. What are the possible interventions?
A philanthropist working in this area might:
- Help develop an academic consensus regarding the feasibility of APM and possible development pathways. This would likely be accomplished by convening meetings, commissioning feasibility research, and communicating findings. Similar efforts have faced challenges in the past.
- Support policy research related to the development of atomically precise manufacturing. Such research could consider the goals of developing atomically precise manufacturing in addition to risks. However, such research may have limited impact in the absence of greater consensus about the feasibility and timeline of atomically precise manufacturing, and might better be left until such consensus is established. Topics of such research could include arms control, economic impacts of APM, the impact of APM on AI development, and the impact of APM on surveillance technology.
- Support research and development of atomically precise manufacturing. This could include attempts to steer research in particular directions or to grow the field. Prof. Jones estimated that an investment of about $150 million over ten years would significantly grow the field.
- Monitor progress toward atomically precise manufacturing, potentially supporting R&D or policy research as advanced capabilities become nearer.
Dr. Drexler is not aware of any technical research agenda for this field—e.g. analogous to the technical research agendas for reducing possible risks from artificial intelligence that have been proposed by the Future of Life Institute or the Machine Intelligence Research Institute—that might help reduce the potential risks associated with APM. With respect to the risk of unauthorized use of nanofactories to manufacture weapons, he suggests that nanofactories could be designed so that they are only capable of making a limited range of products that does not include weapons.
As stated above, we are uncertain about the desirability of faster progress toward APM. Before pursuing interventions that pushed forward its development, we think it would be important to weigh the possible risks and benefits of doing so.
4. Who else is working on this?
A few small non-profit organizations are explicitly focused on influencing and/or promoting the development of atomically precise manufacturing and/or molecular nanotechnology. Such organizations include:
|The Foresight Institute
|Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
|Institute for Molecular Manufacturing
We have a very limited understanding of the activities of these organizations because our investigation of the field so far has been brief.
The 2015 US Federal Budget provides more than $1.5 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a U.S. Government R&D initiative promoting and coordinating the development of nanotechnology. However, there is currently no focused R&D effort towards atomically precise manufacturing, though there is some relevant research toward a variety of shorter-term goals in applied and fundamental science. Although some academics work on ethical and legal issues associated with nanotechnology (e.g., the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at ASU), we have been told that little of this work is related to atomically precise manufacturing (as opposed to nanomaterials).
Although atomically precise manufacturing currently receives little attention, it does not yet pose a significant risk. It is hard to know how much attention it will receive if/when the technology becomes more mature.
5. Questions for further investigation
Our investigation in this area left us with many open questions which could be addressed in further research, including:
- Do academic organizations studying social issues related to nanotechnology (such as the ASU Center for Nanotechnology and Society) do work that is relevant to atomically precise manufacturing?
- How would promoting progress in atomically precise manufacturing affect the potential risks posed by the technology and/or related technologies?
- How effectively would convening meetings and commissioning research build consensus regarding the feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing and/or build support for specific development pathways?
- Are there possible interventions that could be useful today in directly reducing risks, as opposed to simply improving the pace of progress toward APM, or our ability to forecast such progress?
- How confident can we be that there will be substantial lead time between early signs that APM is feasible and the deployment of APM?
- Are there promising proposals for advancing development toward atomically precise manufacturing? If so, how soon could atomically precise manufacturing be developed?
- Are there any technologies we would be able to differentially accelerate to offset potential risks of APM? (For example, there may be some inherently defensive technology which could neutralize weapons produced by nanofactories.)
- To what extent do critiques of the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology carry over to APM?
- How costly would it be to develop APM?
- Where would APM provide the largest additional benefits in comparison with other technologies currently in existence and under development?
6. Our process
We decided to look into this topic because:
- Atomically precise manufacturing is discussed as a possible global catastrophic risk in some comprehensive treatments of global catastrophic risks.
- Our impression was—and continues to be—that atomically precise manufacturing receives little attention from government or philanthropy.
Our investigation to date has mainly consisted of conversations with five individuals with knowledge about atomically precise manufacturing and/or its potential risks:
- Eric Drexler – Academic Visitor, Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, University of Oxford
- Richard Jones – Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Professor of Physics, University of Sheffield
- Adam Marblestone – Director of Scientific Architecting, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Synthetic Neurobiology Group (scientific advisor to the Open Philanthropy Project)
- Philip Moriarty – Professor of Physics, University of Nottingham
- Chris Phoenix – Co-Founder and Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
We also had informal conversations with Eric Drexler, reviewed documents he provided, and listened to three audiobooks related to atomically precise manufacturing:
- Nano by Ed Regis
- Radical Abundance by Eric Drexler
- The Visioneers by Patrick McKray
The research on this page focuses substantially on Dr. Drexler’s perspective because work in this field has been very limited, and our understanding is that he has been responsible for a substantial fraction of the work on atomically precise manufacturing.
Relationship disclosure: This page was prepared by Nick Beckstead, who previously worked with Dr. Drexler at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
|Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder 2008, Nanotechnology as global catastrophic risk
|Drexler 1986, Engines of CreationEngines of Creation
|Drexler 1992, NanosystemsNanosystems
|Drexler 2013, Radical AbundenceRadical Abundence
|FLI survey of research questions, 2015
|Foresight Institute’s 990 for 2013
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Philip Moriarty, September 3, 2014
|GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014
|Institute for Molecular Manufacturing’s 990 for 2013
|Jones 2004, Soft MachinesSoft Machines
|Jones 2004, Did Smalley deliver a killer blow to Drexlerian MNT?
|Jones 2004, Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I standNanosystems – where I stand
|Jones 2005, The mechanosynthesis debate
|Jones 2007, Nanotechnology and visions of the future (part 1)
|Jones 2008, Rupturing the Rapture
|MIRI Research Agenda, 2015
|National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology InitiativeA Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative
|National Nanotechnology Initiative Website
|NNI Website, What It Is and How It Works
|Nick Beckstead’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Miles Brundage, April 4, 2014
|Sander Olson interview with Philip Moriarty 2011
|The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering 2004