X-Message-Number: 21616
From: "MIKE TREDER" <>
Subject: Drexler Counters Smalley
Date: Fri, 18 Apr 2003 08:22:57 -0400

An Open Letter to Richard Smalley

Prof. Smalley:

I have written this open letter to correct your public misrepresentation of 
my work.

As you know, I introduced the term "nanotechnology" in the mid-1980s to 
describe advanced capabilities based on molecular assemblers: proposed 
devices able to guide chemical reactions by positioning reactive molecules 
with atomic precision. Since "nanotechnology" is now used label diverse 
current activities, I have attempted to minimize confusion by relabeling the 
longer term goal "molecular manufacturing". The consequences of molecular 
manufacturing are widely understood to be enormous, posing opportunities and 
dangers of first-rank importance to the long-term security of the United 
States and the world. Theoretical studies of its implementation and 
capabilities are therefore of more than academic interest, and are akin to 
pre-Sputnik studies of spaceflight, or to pre-Manhattan-Project calculations 
regarding nuclear chain reactions.

You have attempted to dismiss my work in this field by misrepresenting it. 
From what I hear of a press conference at the recent NNI conference, you 
continue to do so. In particular, you have described molecular assemblers as 
having multiple "fingers" that manipulate individual atoms and suffer from 
so-called "fat finger" and "sticky finger" problems, and you have dismissed 
their feasibility on this basis [1]. I find this puzzling because, like 
enzymes and ribosomes, proposed assemblers neither have nor need these 
"Smalley fingers" [2]. The task of positioning reactive molecules simply 
doesn't require them.

I have a twenty year history of technical publications in this area [3 - 12] 
and consistently describe systems quite unlike the straw man you attack. My 
proposal is, and always has been, to guide the chemical synthesis of complex 
structures by mechanically positioning reactive molecules, not by 
manipulating individual atoms. This proposal has been defended successfully 
again and again, in journal articles, in my MIT doctoral thesis, and before 
scientific audiences around the world. It rests on well-established physical 

The impossibility of "Smalley fingers" has raised no concern in the research 
community because these fingers solve no problems and thus appear in no 
proposals. Your reliance on this straw-man attack might lead a thoughtful 
observer to suspect that no one has identified a valid criticism of my work. 
For this I should, perhaps, thank you.

You apparently fear that my warnings of long-term dangers [13] will hinder 
funding of current research, stating that "We should not let this 
fuzzy-minded nightmare dream scare us away from nanotechnology....NNI should 
go forward" [14]. However, I have from the beginning argued that the 
potential for abuse of advanced nanotechnologies makes vigorous research by 
the U.S and its allies imperative [13]. Many have found these arguments 
persuasive. In an open discussion, I believe they will prevail. In contrast, 
your attempt to calm the public through false claims of impossibility will 
inevitably fail, placing your colleagues at risk of a destructive backlash.

Your misdirected arguments have needlessly confused public discussion of 
genuine long-term security concerns. If you value the accuracy of 
information used in decisions of importance to national and global security, 
I urge you to seek some way to help set the record straight. Endorsing calls 
for an independent scientific review of molecular manufacturing concepts 
[15] would be constructive.

A scientist whose research I respect has observed that "when a scientist 
says something is possible, they're probably underestimating how long it 
will take. But if they say it's impossible, they're probably wrong." The 
scientist quoted is, of course, yourself [16].

K. Eric Drexler
Chairman, Foresight Institute


1. Smalley, R. E. (2001) Of chemistry, love and nanobots - How soon will we 
see the nanometer-scale robots envisaged by K. Eric Drexler and other 
molecular nanotechologists? The simple answer is never. Scientific American, 
September, 68-69.

2. Drexler, K. E., D. Forrest, R. A. Freitas Jr., J. S. Hall, N. Jacobstein, 
T. McKendree, R. Merkle, C. Peterson (2001) A Debate About Assemblers.

3. Drexler, K. E. (1981) Molecular engineering: An approach to the 
development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation. Proc. Natnl.
Acad. Sci. U.S.A.. 78:5275-5278.

4. Drexler, K. E. (1987) Nanomachinery: Atomically precise gears and 
bearings. IEEE Micro Robots and Teleoperators Workshop. Hyannis, 
Massachusetts: IEEE.

5. Drexler, K. E., and J. S. Foster. (1990) Synthetic tips. Nature. 343:600.

6. Drexler, K. E. (1991) Molecular tip arrays for molecular imaging and 
nanofabrication. Journal of Vacuum Science and Technology-B. 9:1394-1397.

7. Drexler K. E., (1991) Molecular Machinery and Manufacturing with 
Applications to Computation. MIT doctoral thesis.

8. Drexler, K. E. (1992) Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, 
and Computation. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

9. Drexler, K. E. (1992) Molecular Directions in Nanotechnology. 
Nanotechnology (2:113).

10. Drexler, K. E. (1994) Molecular machines: physical principles and 
implementation strategies. Annual Review of Biophysics and Biomolecular 
Structure (23:337-405).

11. Drexler, K. E. (1995) Molecular manufacturing: perspectives on the 
ultimate limits of fabrication. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. London A (353:323-331).

12. Drexler, K. E. (1999) Building molecular machine systems. Trends in 
Biotechnology, 17: 5-7.

13. Drexler, K. E. (1986) Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of 
Nanotechnology. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

14. Smalley, R. E. (2000) quoted in: W. Schulz, Crafting A National 
Nanotechnology Effort. Chemical & Engineering News, October 16.

15. Peterson, C. L. Testimony before the Committee on Science, U.S. House of 
Representatives, 9 April 2003.

16. Smalley, R. E. (2000) quoted in N. Thompson, Downsizing: 
Nanotechnology---Why you should sweat the small stuff. The Washington 
Monthly Online, October.


See you in the future!

Mike Treder

Executive Director, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology - 
Director, World Transhumanist Association - http://transhumanism.org
Executive Advisory Team, Extropy Institute - http://extropy.org
Founder, Incipient Posthuman Website - http://incipientposthuman.com
KurzweilAI "Big Thinker" - http://kurzweilai.net/bios/frame.html

Interests: acting, architecture, art, baseball, bicycling, cosmology, film, 
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