X-Message-Number: 10642
Date: Sun, 25 Oct 1998 07:37:53 -0800
From: Peter Merel <>
Subject: Molecular Robotics

Thomas Donaldson writes,

>Perhaps I misunderstood you on the effect of nanotechnology, but as
>I understood you we would all have virtually whatever we wanted and
>therefore economics would cease to be relevant. 

No, I believe we're actually pretty close on this. You might like
to refer to that "nanostones" article again to see this. 

>When I said that nanotechnology would not be equivalent to a matter
>duplicator I meant exactly that. Whatever we used nanotechnology to
>build would require matter from somewhere to build it. A matter
>duplicator (if such a thing could ever exist as a practical tool)
>would not have that problem.

Certainly. It's fair to say, however, that Drexlerian nanotech would 
dramatically improve our efficient access to matter, thus rendering the
point moot from a human perspective. Transhumanity, of course, should have
grander and subtler fish to fry.

>None of this has been a consequence of Drexler's specific ideas; what
>Drexler did was to notice what was happening and give a name to it. 

I think you're not giving the man anywhere near adequate credit. Of course
we don't have a working assembler yet; neither do we have working cryonics,
but I trust you won't pooh-pooh Ettinger's work as of no consequence. 
Drexler's contribution to nano-science has, perhaps, been slight; his
contribution to nano-engineering is seminal. No pun intended.

>Now the limit of this process would indeed be the kind of machine you
>talk about, but coolly regarded that limit will take a long time 
>coming. For one thing, all machines consist of atoms of some element
>or other, linked together according to the rules of chemistry, and
>those molecules again combining by suprachemistry (one of the 
>lines of study behind nanotechnology, actually). This automatically
>limits any given machine: it can only work in milieu in which it
>can continue to exist and not be too badly distorted from its 
>proper form. I doubt very much that modestly high temperature
>in an atmosphere of pure O2 would be very good for a mostly carbon
>machine... yet we can still devise machines which work in such 

I'm not certain what you're suggesting here. Are you saying that you
doubt a Drexlerian assembler can exist in a workable environment? If so, 
please explain what ribosomes and flagellae do that is so very different 
from what Drexler envisions. I dare say Ralph Merkle and Eugene Leitl are 
best equipped here to answer this concern in detail.

>In his later writings Drexler seems to want to limit the word
>"nanotechnology" to only one particular kind. 

If so, I've not read these. Last I heard, Drexler had distinguished
his brand of nanotech by the term "molecular nanotechnology" - can
you give a reference for his new usage? Me, I think he should have called 
it "molecular robotics" ... but since I'm very far from being any sort of
nanotechnologist, I'm content that they call it what they like.

>My personal opinion is that the leading nano-
>technology now, in the broad sense, is biochemistry-molecular biology,
>and I have had the experience of finding devotees of nanotechnology
>(in Drexler's sense) propose that it might do something which current
>biotechnology has already done or is right now working on. Biotechnology
>doesn't even require water for its milieu: right now, biochemists are
>busily adapting enzymes to work in solvents such as polyethylene glycol
>(no kidding). 

Um, unless he's recently changed his tune, I think Drexler's position
is and has always been that molecular biology is one of the two most promising
paths to nanotech. The other one is via the manipulation of arrays of STM
tips. Biotech sounds most likely to me because it yields useful (profitable)
byproducts on the way. But of course it'll just as likely happen through
some other weirdo discovery that occurs just by accident while someone
is trying to do something completely different.

Peter Merel.

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