In a nutshell
- Background: 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.
Published: June 2015
Published: June 2015
- What is the problem?
- What are the possible interventions?
- Who else is working on this?
- Questions for further investigation
- Our process
There are a number of related, but distinct, concepts discussed in the context of atomically precise manufacturing, including:1
- 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:2
‘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.
‘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.”3
- 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.4
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.5 However, Dr. Drexler has suggested to us that these criticisms are based on misunderstandings of his work.6 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.”7 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.”8
Atomically precise manufacturing
In a conversation with us, Dr. Drexler characterized APM as follows:9
In Nanosystems, Dr. Drexler proposes the following applications of APM:10
- 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.11 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).
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.12
- ‘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.13
The following provides additional detail on Dr. Drexler’s preferred development pathway for APM:14
Dr. Drexler envisions using these soft nanomachines to create the more mature form of APM described above.15 We are highly uncertain about how promising these development pathways are, and have not closely investigated them.
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.16 It discusses APM for 4 pages under the heading, “Technical Feasibility of Site-Specific Chemistry for Large-Scale Manufacturing.”17 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,”18 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).”19 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.”20 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.21
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.”22 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).23 Moreover, these pages seem to be focused on concepts that we and Drexler associate with molecular nanotechnology rather than molecular manufacturing/APM,24 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.25 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,26 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.27
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.28 We are not aware of any specific, generally accepted, published scientific proof or refutation regarding the feasibility of APM.
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.29 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.30 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 is31 —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.32
What is the problem?
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.33 At the same time, Prof. Jones argues that experimental work by nanoscientists has a direct bearing on Dr. Drexler’s proposals in Nanosystems,34 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).35 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).
What are the potential risks from APM?
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:36
- 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.37
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.38
- The possibility that an individual or small group could use nanofactories to cheaply mass-produce weapons, enabling terrorist organizations.39
‘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.40 According to Dr. Drexler, a grey goo scenario could not happen by accident; it would require deliberate design.41 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.42 Similarly, Prof. Jones and Dr. Marblestone have argued that a ‘grey goo’ catastrophe is a distant, and perhaps unlikely, possibility.43 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.
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.44
- 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.45 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.46
- Support research and development of atomically precise manufacturing. This could include attempts to steer research in particular directions or to grow the field.47 Prof. Jones estimated that an investment of about $150 million over ten years would significantly grow the field.48
- Monitor progress toward atomically precise manufacturing, potentially supporting R&D or policy research as advanced capabilities become nearer.49
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.50
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.
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:51
|Organization||2013 revenue||2013 assets|
|The Foresight Institute||$814,135||$945,461|
|Center for Responsible Nanotechnology||Not available||Not available||Institute for Molecular Manufacturing||$2,194||$14,028|
We have a very limited understanding of the activities of these organizations. In addition, we are uncertain how much of the Foresight Institute’s work is focused on APM in contrast with other forms of nanotechnology.
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.52 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.53 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).54
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.
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?
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.55
- 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,56 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.
- 1. “’APM’ is roughly synonymous with the older term ‘molecular manufacturing,’ and is often associated with ‘molecular nanotechnology’ (a broad and less well defined concept), or ‘nanotechnology,’ a term that now often refers to substantially unrelated areas of materials science and nanoscale device fabrication.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 2. NNI Website, What It Is and How It Works, pg 1.
- 3. “These second-generation nanomachines - built of more than just proteins - will do all that proteins can do, and more.[…]They will be able to bond atoms together in virtually any stable pattern, adding a few at a time to the surface of a workpiece until a complex structure is complete. Think of such nanomachines as assemblers.
Because assemblers will let us place atoms in almost any reasonable arrangement (as discussed in the Notes), they will let us build almost anything that the laws of nature allow to exist.”
Drexler 1986, Engines of Creation, ch 1.
- 4. “Engines of Creation aimed to estimate a boundary between what seems likely to be possible in the future and what does not, considering everything that could be made by manufacturing systems that could be made by manufacturing systems…that could be made by manufacturing systems that could be made today. In comparison with Nanosystems, it operated with a less conservative standard of proof and discussed a wider range of possibilities.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 5. “Drexler wrote a popular and bestselling book ‘Engines of Creation’ [sic], published in 1986, which launched a futuristic and radical vision of a nanotechnology that transformed all aspects of society. In Drexler’s vision, which explicitly invoked Feynman’s lecture, tiny assemblers would be able to take apart and put together any type of matter atom by atom. It would be possible to make any kind of product or artefact from its component atoms at virtually no cost, leading to the end of scarcity, and possibly the end of the money economy. Medicine would be revolutionised; tiny robots would be able to repair the damage caused by illness or injury at the level of individual molecules and individual cells. This could lead to the effective abolition of ageing and death, while a seamless integration of physical and cognitive prostheses would lead to new kinds of enhanced humans.” Jones 2007, Nanotechnology and visions of the future (part 1).
“The original concept of molecular manufacturing described by Dr Eric Drexler, Chairman of the Foresight Institute, imagined the synthesis of materials and objects by a mechanical ‘assembler’; that is, a machine with the ability make any object by selecting atoms from the environment and positioning them, one at a time, to assemble the object.
This assembler can be programmed and is independently powered. As it can make any object, it can reproduce itself.” The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering 2004, pg 109.
- 6. Based on materials from conversations not documented in public notes.
- 7. “The idea of literally building ‘atom by atom’ is itself a technically inaccurate popularization of the idea of atomically precise fabrication—chemical processes routinely yield atomically precise results, yet never juggle individual atoms. Ironically, the popular idea that APM would require impossible atom juggling became a popular criticism among scientists who seemingly neither read the literature nor considered how APM might actually be accomplished.” Drexler 2013, Radical Abundence, pg 324.
- 8. “Dr. Drexler notes that although he used the term ‘universal assembler’ in a section heading in Engines of Creation, he did not argue that assemblers could be universal in the strong sense that a Turing machine is universal, and noted that assemblers ‘will not be able to build everything that could exist’. However, some people (such as Dr. Richard Smalley) represented and criticized proposals for mechanically guided assembly as if these called for devices with impossibly strong universality. To be clear, atomically precise manufacturing does not include the concept of a ‘universal assembler’ capable of making any possible object.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 9. GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 10. Drexler 1992, Nanosystems, pg 1. In personal communication, Dr. Drexler stated that the correct figure for tensile strengths of macroscopic components was 5 x 10^10 Pa, and that the figure of 5 x 10^10 GPa originally occurring in Nanosystems was a typographical error.
- 11. “Building a nanofactory using another nanofactory
A nanofactory could manufacture another nanofactory, most likely by producing several separate pieces that would fit together into a new nanofactory. Dr. Ralph Merkle has designed one potential method for this.
On the smallest scale inside a nanofactory, nanoscale mechanisms of tens to hundreds of nanometers in size would transport molecular building blocks at a speed in the range of centimeters per second. These basic blocks would be brought together to react and form larger components.
At a transport speed of 10 cm/s, with parts spaced 1 nm/apart, a molecular processing device in a nanofactory could perform about 100 million reactions per second. A system able to construct macroscale products would require large arrays of processing subsystems that contain long chains of such devices, and would require sequences of larger devices to combine small atomically precise building blocks to form larger components. Making allowance for all this, and de-rating the small devices by a factor of 100, to 1 million operations per second, would still allow a nanofactory to build enough parts to build another meter-scale nanofactory in about 1,000 seconds, given adequate energy inputs and cooling.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 12. Based on materials from conversations not documented in public notes.
- 13. “The phrase ‘soft nanotechnology’ is used to refer to nanoscale objects designed with the principles at work in subcellular biological systems in mind. This contrasts with ‘hard nanotechnology,’ in which researchers attempt to extrapolate from the principles of mechanical engineering to design nanoscale objects.
Biological nanomachines operate very differently from machines designed using principles of mechanical engineering. For example, biological systems organize themselves through self-assembly and Brownian motors, which function by principles very different from the principles typically operative in mechanical engineering. Prof. Jones is therefore more optimistic about ‘soft’ development pathways for nanomachines (such as DNA nanotechnology) in comparison with ‘hard’ development pathways (such as atomic force microscopy).
In this respect, he is an agreement with Dr. Eric Drexler.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014.
“In the past, researchers in fields related to biomolecular machinery and biomolecular design have made major contributions to the types of tools that could ultimately contribute to developing early prototype forms of molecular manufacturing. He thinks biomolecular approaches are the most promising routes for advancing the technology, at the present time, as well as integration of biomolecular approaches with top-down lithography.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
“Researchers are attempting to make progress in APM primarily through ‘hard’ approaches (such as scanning probe microscopy (SPM)) and ‘soft’ molecular self-assembly approaches. Prof. Moriarty works on SPM and is most enthusiastic about that approach.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Philip Moriarty, September 3, 2014.
- 14. GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 15. “Transition from solution-based, soft nanosystems to dry, hard nanofactories
In a nanofactory that does not transport its feedstock materials in solution, transport of molecules must instead be done mechanically, and this would require considerable complexity and progress along the technological gradient mentioned above. Working in a dry environment would require applying other methods to perform the functions currently performed by solvents. For example, via Brownian motion, solvents provide transport without requiring transport structures, as well as motion with six degrees of freedom (though it cannot be controlled). An intermediate step towards dry, hard nanofactories would involve mechanically controlling the position of materials along spatial axes, and using Brownian motion to achieve correct orientation.
On the path toward APM, it will likely be most effective to take advantage of the benefits of solvents for as long as possible, because of the complexity and hence difficulty of performing these functions by mechanical transport.
Dr. Drexler has not written extensively about the transition from solvent to non-solvent APM in particular, but remarks that mechanical transport can be introduced in a solution environment, and then use of solvents can be reduced as convenient.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 16. “In response to a directive from the U.S. Congress, the National Research Council established the Committee to Review the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The task to be addressed by the committee was set forth in the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, Section 5, Public Law 108-153.” National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, pg 113.
- 17. National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, pgs 106-109.
- 18. National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, pg 106.
- 19. “The committee found the evaluation of the feasibility of these ideas to be difficult because of the lack of experimental demonstrations of many of the key underlying concepts. The technical arguments make use of accepted scientific knowledge but constitute a ‘theoretical analysis demonstrating the possibility of a class of as-yet unrealizable devices.’ Thus, this work is 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). Rather, it may be in the tradition of visionary engineering analysis exemplified by Konstantin Tsiolkovski’s 1903 publication, ‘The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices,’ and today’s studies of ‘space elevators’ based on hypothetical carbon nanotube composite materials.” National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, pg 107.
- 20. “Although theoretical calculations can be made today, 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. Thus, the eventually attainable perfection and complexity of manufactured products, while they can be calculated in theory, cannot be predicted with confidence.” National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, pg 108.
- 21. “Finally, the optimum research paths that might lead to systems which greatly exceed the thermodynamic efficiencies and other capabilities of biological systems cannot be reliably predicted at this time. Research funding that is based on the ability of investigators to produce experimental demonstrations that link to abstract models and guide long-term vision is most appropriate to achieve this goal.” National Academy of Sciences 2006, A Matter of Size: Triennial Review of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, pg 108.
- 22. “The original concept of molecular manufacturing described by Dr Eric Drexler, Chairman of the Foresight Institute, imagined the synthesis of materials and objects by a mechanical ‘assembler’; that is, a machine with the ability make any object by selecting atoms from the environment and positioning them, one at a time, to assemble the object.
This assembler can be programmed and is independently powered. As it can make any object, it can reproduce itself. If the process malfunctions or is corrupted, intentionally or not, the self-replication process could continue indefinitely. Over the past 20 years or so, Drexler and his colleagues have continued theoretical studies of the feasibility of such machines, but as far as we are aware there is no research in this field that has been supported by funding agencies, and there has been no practical experimental progress over this period. The reason is simple: there are many serious fundamental scientific difficulties and objections, to the extent that most of the scientific community believes the mechanical self-replicating nano-robot proposal to be impossible.
The scientific issues have been debated in open correspondence between Dr Drexler and Professor Rick Smalley, corecipient of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of carbon 60—so called buckyballs. In summary, there are two major difficulties: first, to lift and position atoms one needs very fine manipulators, of a similar size to the atoms being worked with; second, the atoms being manipulated must first attach – i.e. chemically bind – to the manipulator, and then unbind from the manipulator and bind to the object. Although scientists have used atomic force microscopes to manipulate a restricted group of individual atoms and molecules into simple structures on surfaces, the properties of matter on this lengthscale appear to be incompatible with the requirements for a mechanical self-replicating technology. These objections have been termed by Smalley as ‘thick fingers’ and ‘sticky fingers’. Professor George Whitesides has questioned the feasibility of the energy management system that would be needed to handle the large energy input and release that occurs at the different stages of the construction process. Because the assembler is a nanomachine, its positioning accuracy is severely limited by the intense bombardment it receives from atoms in the environment – whether gaseous or liquid – which causes Brownian motion. It is quite clear: making a mechanical self-assembler is well beyond the current state of knowledge.” The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering 2004, pg 109.
- 23. The entire discussion of page 28 reads as follows: “The fact that (albeit very rudimentary) structures can be fabricated atom-by-atom has lead to speculation that tiny nanoscale machines could be made which could be used in parallel to manufacture materials atom-by-atom. The idea is to fabricate one or a few machines (or assemblers) that would first make copies of themselves, and then go on to make materials in parallel, in principle solving the problem of slow production speed. This speculation has led some individuals to voice fears of uncontrollable self-replication, known as ‘grey goo’, which are discussed in Annex D. Such concerns currently belong in the realm of science fiction. We have 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. Indeed, the originator of concerns over grey goo, Eric Drexler, has since retracted his position (Phoenix and Drexler 2004).” The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering 2004, pg 28.
- 24. “Dr. Drexler notes that although he used the term ‘universal assembler’ in a section heading in Engines of Creation, he did not argue that assemblers could be universal in the strong sense that a Turing machine is universal, and noted that assemblers ‘will not be able to build everything that could exist’. However, some people (such as Dr. Richard Smalley) represented and criticized proposals for mechanically guided assembly as if these called for devices with impossibly strong universality. To be clear, atomically precise manufacturing does not include the concept of a ‘universal assembler’ capable of making any possible object.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 25. “Molecular manufacturing appears to be compatible, in principle, with the known laws of physics. Biological molecular machines provide a proof of concept for roughly analogous, although not completely analogous, types of capabilities. Many specific aspects of the visions outlined by Drexler and others may turn out to be wrong, but the basic idea of the long-term possibility of some form of programmable atomically precise manufacturing has not been disproved.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
“Prof. Jones believes it is unlikely that atomically precise manufacturing (APM)/molecular manufacturing (synonymous terms) could outperform organisms at their own tasks. At the same time, he believes organisms are proof that it is possible to build machines that can convert energy into movement, perform chemical synthesis, and process information (among other abilities) on the nanoscale, because organisms do just those things on the subcellular level.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014.
“Will it be possible to make functional machines and devices that operate on the level of single molecules?
Yes. As pointed out by Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, Nature, in cell biology, gives us many examples of sophisticated machines that operate on the nanoscale to synthesise new molecules with great precision, to process information and to convert energy. We know, therefore, that radical nanotechnology (using this term to distinguish these sorts of fully functional nanoscale devices and machines from the sorts of incremental nanotechnology involved in making nanostructured materials) is possible in principle; the question is how to do it in practise.” Jones 2004, Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I stand.
- 26. “Question: So you are still a skeptic of the concept of molecular manufacturing?
Answer: I am a skeptic. I believe that the concept of molecular manufacturing - of creating macroscopic objects atom by atom for any material, is flawed. I do not believe that this technique can be scaled-up to manufacture macrosized objects for arbitrary materials. In “Nanosystems” [sic] Drexler makes a careful and clever choice of the type of system required for mechanosynthesis/molecular manufacturing, taking into account the key surface science issues. I’ve never been able to see why it is then claimed that these schemes are extendable to all other materials (or practically all elements in the periodic table), for the reasons I discussed at considerable length in my debate with Chris Phoenix.
But I want to take this opportunity to give credit to Drexler. He has been the subject of a lot of criticism – some of it rather non-scientific and ad hominem- from what might be described as the ‘traditional’ (i.e. non-molecular manufacturing) nanoscience community. Drexler deserves significant kudos for the concept at the heart of the molecular manufacturing scheme; single atom chemistry driven purely by (chemo)mechanical forces is demonstrably valid. Richard Smalley, despite raising other important criticisms of the molecular manufacturing concept, misunderstood key aspects of mechanosynthesis and put forward flawed objections to the physical chemistry underlying Drexler’s proposals.
My misgivings arise, however, when a universal molecular manufacturing technology is extrapolated from mechanosynthesis, leading to claims that assemblers will be able to synthesize ‘virtually anything’. Again, I covered my objections to this in the debate with Chris.” Sander Olson interview with Philip Moriarty 2011.
- 27. “Unlike Dr. Drexler, however, Prof. Jones is skeptical of the potential to develop ‘hard’ nanomachines from ‘soft’ nanomachines. In Prof. Jones view, it’s completely unclear how we would make that transition, but also impossible to rule it out on specific technical grounds.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014.
“The bottom line is that we have no idea whether complex and rigid mechanical systems–even ones made from diamond–can survive in the nanoworld.
Put all these complications together and what they suggest, to me, is that the range of environments in which rigid nanomachines could operate, if they operate at all, would be quite limited. If, for example, such devices can function only at low temperatures and in a vacuum, their impact and economic importance would be virtually nil.” Jones 2008, Rupturing the Rapture.
- 28. For example, Richard Jones, a skeptic regarding molecular nanotechnology, wrote:
“The most high profile opponent of Drexlerian nanotechnology (MNT) is certainly Richard Smalley; he’s a brilliant chemist who commands a great deal of attention because of his Nobel prize, and his polemics are certainly entertainingly written. He has a handy way with a soundbite, too, and his phrases ‘fat fingers’ and ‘sticky fingers’ have become a shorthand expression of the scientific case against MNT. On the other hand, as I discussed below in the context of the Betterhumans article, I don’t think that the now-famous exchange between Smalley and Drexler delivered the killer blow against MNT that sceptics were hoping for.” Jones 2004, Did Smalley deliver a killer blow to Drexlerian MNT?.
- 29. “However, there are widespread misconceptions about the nature and in-principle feasibility of such systems, R&D projects are generally focused on shorter-term issues, and there is little coordinated effort toward developing these systems. Without a change in these perceptions and research directions, atomically precise manufacturing would not be developed for a long time. However, if there were a wide enough agreement about development pathways and enough funding were available, it would be hard to rule out developing atomically precise manufacturing within ten years of establishing a well-funded, well-focused, and well-structured research program.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
“Some may suggest that we’d notice if many top physicists and chemists stopped publishing, as one might expect if they were recruited by a Manhattan project. A government would need to hire physicists and chemists for this project, but not necessarily top physicists and chemists. As a result, an observer may not notice that the scientists who had been hired for the project were not participating in regular activities, such as publishing other research. In Mr. Phoenix’s view, this approach could potentially take as few as 10 years from when it began.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014.
- 30. “Risks from molecular manufacturing seem relatively improbable and distant, although evaluating them can be difficult because the future of the technology is so uncertain.
It is extremely unlikely that risks from molecular manufacturing as such, such as ‘grey goo’ and international instability, will arise in the next 10 years.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
“The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology writes ‘A fabricator within a decade is plausible – maybe even sooner’. I think this timeline would be highly implausible even if all the underlying science was under control, and all that remained was the development of the technology. But the necessary science is very far from being understood. Firstly, there are important uncertainties about the effect on the proposed mechanisms, based as they are on the scaling down of macroscopic mechanical engineering principles, of ubiquitous features of nanoscale physics such as strong surface forces and Brownian motion. This will be particularly serious for devices intended to work in ambient conditions, rather than at very low temperatures at ultra-high vacuum, and I believe that the problems this will cause are seriously underestimated by proponents of MNT. Secondly, there is currently a huge gap in the implementation pathway. Even proponents of MNT disagree on the best way to reach their goal from our current level of technology. Drexler favours soft and biomimetic approaches (see both Nanosystems, and his letter to Physics World responding to my article), though the means of moving from soft to hard systems remains unclear. Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle favour a more direct route using diamondoid mechanosynthesis; see the ongoing discussion with Philip Moriarty here for the difficulties that this proposal may face. In conclusion, even if diamondoid-based nanotechnology does not break any physical laws in principle, I believe in practise that it will be very much more difficult to implement than its proponents think.” Jones 2004, Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I stand.
“Prof. Moriarty believes advanced APM is unlikely to be achieved until relatively far in the future because it requires many difficult technologies and has advanced slowly up to the present, and that other scientists working with SPM have similar views. He is extremely skeptical of claims by, e.g., Ray Kurzweil, that advanced forms of atomically precise manufacturing will be available in the 2030s. Speaking optimistically, non-scalable atom-by-atom construction of small 3D objects (i.e. nanoparticles) using SPM techniques might be possible in about 30 years. Advanced APM is extremely unlikely to be possible before then.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Philip Moriarty, September 3, 2014.
- 31. “Manhattan Project
Under this scenario, one or more governments would secretly develop the technology. A government could simultaneously develop several component technologies. It could also use a ‘design-ahead’ approach, in which designs are made in advance for use as soon as necessary technologies become available.
There might be no warning if APM developed this way. Some may suggest that we’d notice if many top physicists and chemists stopped publishing, as one might expect if they were recruited by a Manhattan project. A government would need to hire physicists and chemists for this project, but not necessarily top physicists and chemists. As a result, an observer may not notice that the scientists who had been hired for the project were not participating in regular activities, such as publishing other research. In Mr. Phoenix’s view, this approach could potentially take as few as 10 years from when it began.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014.
“Chris Phoenix and some others have proposed that molecular manufacturing could develop secretly, through a government research effort comparable to the Manhattan Project. Dr. Marblestone thinks this is unlikely in the present climate because molecular manufacturing is not a known priority of any government. Still early in its development, molecular manufacturing as such is not considered a near-term solution to urgent issues, and there are still many uncertainties associated with the relevant engineering problems, so it does not fit the current funding habits of the US government.
It might be difficult to keep a ‘Manhattan project’ type nanotechnology effort secret. The gaps in chemical shipments, funding allocations, and researcher time would be noticeable.
A secret, centralized project with significant funding would likely be inefficient because of the serendipity necessary for early scientific progress in a field. A centralized route might stymie experiments that do not obviously fit into the research agenda. DNA origami is an example of a serendipitous discovery that might have been unlikely to occur in a centralized, secret molecular manufacturing initiative, but that accelerates the entire field.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
“Hypothetically, surprise could come if there were a secret project aimed at developing the technology, but that would be implausible in the present climate.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
- 32. “People who are watching the field and know what to look for would be unlikely to be caught off guard even by rapid developments in atomically precise manufacturing. While development could be surprisingly fast, it would be possible to observe the substantial advances in various capabilities of nanosystems (e.g., mechanical stiffness of various types of nanostructures, number of moving parts of mechanical systems, and lattice sizes of materials used to build intricate systems) that would come before the technology reaches its mature form. Hypothetically, surprise could come if there were a secret project aimed at developing the technology, but that would be implausible in the present climate.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
Also see the section labeled ‘Possible signs of progress’ in GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
- 33. “It can be argued that it will eventually be possible to implement nanosystems capable of programmable, high-throughput, atomically precise manufacturing. However, there are widespread misconceptions about the nature and in-principle feasibility of such systems, R&D projects are generally focused on shorter-term issues, and there is little coordinated effort toward developing these systems. Without a change in these perceptions and research directions, atomically precise manufacturing would not be developed for a long time. However, if there were a wide enough agreement about development pathways and enough funding were available, it would be hard to rule out developing atomically precise manufacturing within ten years of establishing an effective research program. Potential development times have continued to shrink as implementation-relevant technologies advance (in pursuit of other objectives).” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
- 34. “A widely held view in the MNT [molecular nanotechnology] community is that very little research has been done in pursuit of the Drexlerian project since the publication of Nanosystems. This is certainly true in the sense that science funding bodies haven’t supported an overtly Drexlerian research project; but it neglects the huge amount of work in nanoscience that has a direct bearing, in detail, on the proposals in Nanosystems and related work. This varies from the centrally relevant work done by groups (including the Nottingham group, and a number of other groups around the world) which are actively developing the manipulation of single molecules by scanning probe techniques, to the important background knowledge accumulated by very many groups round the world in areas such as surface and cluster physics and chemical vapour deposition. This (predominantly experimental) work has greatly clarified how the world at the nanoscale works, and it should go without saying that theoretical proposals that aren’t consistent with the understanding gained in this enterprise aren’t worth pursuing.” Jones 2005, The mechanosynthesis debate.
- 35. “He thinks slow progress in the field has resulted primarily from how challenging the science is, not from a concerted effort to limit funding. For example, Don Eigler attracted interest in his atomic force microscopy (AFM) work. People invested in developing the technology, but the research did not produce hoped-for advances, so funding decreased. Prof. Jones does, however, speculate that the competitiveness and specialization of the American scientific community, does work against grand visions like Dr. Drexler’s, and this may have contributed to a reluctance in the USA to articulate APM as an explicit goal. In addition, pressure to earn short-term returns limits funding for long-term, highly uncertain projects.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014.
- 36. “Advanced atomically precise manufacturing has the potential for an extraordinary range of beneficial applications, but would also enable the development of new and powerful weapons.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
“Mr. Phoenix is most concerned about the possibility that, in the future, mature APM technology could be used to create new weapons and manufacture more of them at a rapid exponential rate. Examples of such weapons may include:
- Mosquito-like machines that can administer a deadly substance
- Objects that change a microclimate by concentrating the sun’s rays
In addition to manufacturing, general-purpose nanofactories would speed prototyping and product development because the factories could immediately build parts on site, leading to a faster design/prototype/test cycle.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014.
- 37. Based on materials from conversations not documented in public notes.
- 38. “These advanced capabilities could, if realized, result in geopolitical uncertainty and instability. For instance, if one nation had a sufficient lead in APM capabilities, it’s possible that rapid exponential growth in their supply of new weapons could give them a decisive military advantage over other nations. Anticipation of this could result in an arms race between nations, or one nation making a pre-emptive strike. For example, one nation might be tempted to launch a pre-emptive attack on another nation that was going to gain access to this technology because advanced APM-based defenses might not be able to stop attacks by offensive APM. APM will provide a diverse and rapidly-shifting array of attacks and defenses, potentially making it difficult to rely on a MAD-like calculation to prevent war. Therefore, a nation might be motivated to devastate the tech base of another nation, or impose massively intrusive surveillance on it, in order to keep it from developing APM.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014.
- 39. Based on materials from conversations not documented in public notes.
- 40. “The early transistorized computers soon beat the most advanced vacuum-tube computers because they were based on superior devices. For the same reason, early assembler-based replicators could beat the most advanced modern organisms. ‘Plants’ with ‘leaves’ no more efficient than today’s solar cells could out-compete real plants, crowding the biosphere with an inedible foliage. Tough, omnivorous ‘bacteria’ could out-compete real bacteria: they could spread like blowing pollen, replicate swiftly, and reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days. Dangerous replicators could easily be too tough, small, and rapidly spreading to stop - at least if we made no preparation. We have trouble enough controlling viruses and fruit flies.
Among the cognoscenti of nanotechnology, this threat has become known as the ‘gray goo problem.’” Drexler 1986, Engines of Creation, ch. 11.
“’Grey goo’ is a doomsday scenario in which self-replicating nanofactories consume all the earth’s resources. Dr. Marblestone thinks grey goo is unlikely to be a risk for at least decades because self-replication and use of general feedstock – both essential for grey goo – are distant technologies, which need not ever be developed. If molecular manufacturing were to develop gradually and openly, policymakers could monitor emerging threats and establish regulations when necessary.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
- 41. “Dr. Drexler suggests that the nature of the technologies (essentially small-scale chemistry and mechanical devices) creates no risk from large scale unintended physical consequences of APM. In particular the popular ‘grey goo’ scenario involving self-replicating, organism-like nanostructures has nothing to do with factory-style machinery used to implement APM systems. Dangerous products could be made with APM, but would have to be manufactured intentionally.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 42. “There has been some popular concern over whether advances in APM could result in a doomsday scenario referred to as ‘grey goo.’ Mr. Phoenix does not think this is the main threat from nanotechnology, in part because making it would serve no practical purpose and would require a range of challenging technological advances, such as:
- A miniaturized, mobile nanofactory
- A miniaturized, mobile feedstock processor
- A small, efficient computer to control each machine
- A harvesting system to gather the necessary materials
- A size that is too small to clean up or dispose of easily
In Mr. Phoenix’s view, it is likely that other risks from APM will emerge significantly before the grey goo scenario becomes a realistic possibility. Nevertheless, Mr. Phoenix believes it is likely that someone will eventually try to make grey goo.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Chris Phoenix, August 20, 2014.
- 43. “ ‘Grey goo’ is a doomsday scenario in which self-replicating nanofactories consume all the earth’s resources. Dr. Marblestone thinks grey goo is unlikely to be a risk for at least decades because self-replication and use of general feedstock – both essential for grey goo – are distant technologies, which need not ever be developed. If molecular manufacturing were to develop gradually and openly, policymakers could monitor emerging threats and establish regulations when necessary.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
“It is this concern about the proper relationship between man and nature that underlies the most far-reaching concern about nanotechnology—the suggestion that we will make self-replicating nano-robots that will escape our control and out-compete ordinary, natural life. Of course, this is a primal fear about any technology. The question is, is it realistic to worry about it?
We should be clear about what this proposition implies—the suggestion that we can make an entirely synthetic form of life that is better adapted to the Earth’s environment than life itself is. Can we out-engineer evolution? The practical answer is that this is certainly not possible now or in the next twenty years, and maybe not for a lot longer. We do not understand, at anything like the right level of detail, how life does work. We now have the parts list, but hardly any understanding of how everything fits together and operates as a complex system…
But is it even possible in principle to develop a different form of life that works better than the one that exists now?…Evolution is a very efficient way of finding the optimal solution to the problem of life. Does it always find the best possible solution? Maybe not, but I would be very surprised if we can do better.” Jones 2004, Soft Machines,pg 218
- 44. “In the short term, a philanthropist could organize meetings aiming to:
- Assess the feasibility of advanced atomically precise manufacturing,
- Assess proposed development pathways toward atomically precise manufacturing (especially ‘soft’ pathways involving structural DNA nanotechnology and self-assembly of biomolecular materials), and
- Create a roadmap which would mobilize people and resources to develop atomically precise manufacturing.
[…] If successful, these meetings might establish the feasibility of nanosystems with general (macroscale) manufacturing capabilities, clear up misconceptions about the technology, build support for specific ‘soft’ development pathways, and mobilize people and resources toward the development of atomically precise manufacturing.
There have been roadmapping efforts and assessments related to atomically precise manufacturing in the past, but they did not lead to these results. One feasibility assessment was conducted in 2006 as part of the Triennial Review of the US National Nanotechnology Initiative. At the time, there was a widespread hostility toward atomically precise manufacturing, especially from leaders of the nanotechnology community in Washington DC, and there was pressure first, to prevent the study, and then for the study to report a negative conclusion. Citing his book Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation, the assessment found no fundamental problems with Dr. Drexler’s technical analysis of the feasibility of atomically precise manufacturing, but said that such analysis cannot be conclusive, in particular with respect to the reliability and thermodynamic efficiency of the nanosystems described by Dr. Drexler. The report recommended funding further research on the technologies, including the pursuit of implementation pathways. However, this recommendation was removed from the executive summary of the report and received little attention.
A roadmapping report was made in 2007, sponsored by The Waitt Family Foundation, Batelle, the Foresight Institute, Sun Microsystems, and Zyvex Labs, in conjunction with several of the US National Laboratories. This roadmap had little visible impact, perhaps because it wasn’t sponsored by the right institutions and lacked key, influential participants, and because its recommendations were diffuse and weren’t strongly promoted. Future meetings and reports would need to avoid these failings. Today, Dr. Drexler would propose a substantially different and more focused roadmap that centers on concrete lines of development.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
- 45. “Significant efforts to promote policy-oriented research related to atomically precise manufacturing would be premature prior to more credible and widely accepted assessments of the feasibility of the technology. In the absence of more widespread acceptance of central ideas related to atomically precise manufacturing, this research would have little immediate impact.
In the medium term, if the central ideas related to atomically precise manufacturing gain more widespread support, a philanthropist could support policy-oriented research on issues posed by atomically precise manufacturing. Advanced atomically precise manufacturing has the potential for an extraordinary range of beneficial applications, but would also enable the development of new and powerful weapons. As we now have academic institutions doing policy-oriented research on nuclear policy, in the future, we may want to have academic institutions doing similar policy-oriented research on issues related to atomically precise manufacturing. Some of the questions such research could address would be analogous to issues related to nuclear policy, and some would be distinctive. Dr. Drexler and Dennis Pamlin discussed some of these issues in ‘Nano-solutions for the 21st century.’” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, October 8, 2014.
- 46. See the headings under “Potential focus areas for an APM policy community” in GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 47. “Scientific research
If the group of experts decided that the technology should be developed [by hobbyists and academics], the next step would be to encourage [hobbyists and academics] to work on it. To do this, a funder could:
- Hire a small group of scientists (a biochemist, a mechanical engineer, a condensed-matter physicist, and maybe an industrial designer) who think the project is interesting and are eager to see how far they can take it.
- Fund them and their graduate students to design inexpensive packages of tools and projects that hobby groups could use.
- Fund a research group to study what kind of chemistry could be used in molecular construction projects and how to build nanoscale motors.”
- 48. “Funding on the order of £10 million per year for 10 years would likely be enough to lead to progress in the field.
If he had £100 million, Prof. Jones would probably first hire Ramin Golestanian of Oxford, the leading theorist and world expert on how to make molecular machines, to develop better theories and models of how to make such machines. He would also hire chemists to investigate possible energy sources, such as an artificial ATP, to fuel molecular machines. He would hire experts in chemical computing such as Andrew Turberfield to advance information processing. He would also consider how to produce something like artificial bacteria, which would be in some ways similar to grey goo.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Richard Jones, September 30, 2014.
- 49. “Dr. Marblestone suggests monitoring developments and periodically:
- Assessing the state of the relevant science and technology
- Assessing potential risks and benefits
- Evaluating whether a centralized or decentralized approach would be most efficient at any given time
- Assessing the level of commercial interest in related technologies, and commercial tolerance for systematic long-term research in this area, which could lead to more focused and more secretive projects
- Assessing the level of interest of governments in this type of technology
- Deciding whether to fund research or policy, or just to keep monitoring progress
- Conceptualizing what progress could look like in the short and long term
Monitoring this topic as a case study would also allow foundations to develop an understanding of how people and governments think about and respond to ongoing and future technological change.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
- 50. “There is no technical research agenda for the safe development of APM, such as exists for, e.g., artificial intelligence (AI). Dr. Drexler suggests that the nature of the technologies (essentially small-scale chemistry and mechanical devices) creates no risk from large scale unintended physical consequences of APM. In particular the popular ‘grey goo’ scenario involving self-replicating, organism-like nanostructures has nothing to do with factory-style machinery used to implement APM systems. Dangerous products could be made with APM, but would have to be manufactured intentionally.
The most effective way to ensure that nanofactories are not used to make dangerous products is to build nanofactories that are only capable of producing a narrow range of products (‘restricted’ nanofactories), which could potentially be expanded carefully over time. Ensuring that only safe nanofactories are created would be mainly an institutional problem. It would be very difficult to manually alter an appropriately designed restricted nanofactory to create a nanofactory capable of making dangerous weapons without having tools with the same potentially concerning capabilities as a general-purpose nanofactory.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Eric Drexler, January 23, 2015.
- 51. Foresight Institute’s 990 for 2013
Institute for Molecular Manufacturing’s 990 for 2013
- 52. “The 2015 Federal Budget provides more than $1.5 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a continued investment in support of the President’s priorities and innovation strategy.” National Nanotechnology Initiative Website.
- 53. “Currently, there is no focused effort towards molecular manufacturing as such, but rather a range of academic research on improving programmable nanoscale spatial and chemical control, aimed at a variety of near-term applied and fundamental science goals.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Adam Marblestone, August 27, 2014.
- 54. “Many people in this field [responsible innovation] are familiar with Drexlerian nanotechnology and debates between Drexler and Smalley. They see that historical episode as a cautionary tale against focusing on technological developments in the distant future. A paper on this issue is ‘A Critique of Speculative Nanoethics,’ though there is disagreement in these fields about how far to think ahead, the role of future-orientation in technological governance, etc. People who focus on nanotechnology governance do not emphasize Drexlerian molecular manufacturing, and focus instead on nearer term issues like nanoparticles. This is consistent with the field’s general tendency to focus on what is currently happening in labs—or will soon be happening—rather than focusing on more speculative issues involving future technology. This partly driven by a general perception that it’s very difficult to make progress on such questions.” Nick Beckstead’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Miles Brundage, April 4, 2014.
- 55. For example, Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder 2008, Nanotechnology as global catastrophic risk in Global Catastrophic Risks, edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic.
- 56. “It is hard to find people in the nanoscience community who have significant familiarity with Drexler’s work, though there are some. No very comprehensive summary of criticism of his work has been formally published. However, there is a great deal of technical criticism at Richard Jones’ Soft Machines blog, including the ~50 page debate Prof. Moriarty had with Chris Phoenix almost ten years ago. In the last ten years, the state of the debate has not significantly changed.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Philip Moriarty, September 3, 2014.