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Posted: Oct 23, 2009

Reflections on 'Reflections on Feynman and Nanotechnology'

(Nanowerk Spotlight – by Eric Drexler) Yesterday, an article in Nanowerk presented yet another description — by someone else — of what I think about nanotechnology. Since I am a leading expert on that topic, perhaps I can offer a more direct and reliable statement of my actual views, together with a brief perspective on the past, present, and potential future development of nanotechnology.
I am inspired by the progress of the field, not only in laying the foundations for realizing Feynman's vision, but also in wide-ranging achievements that neither Feynman nor I could have imagined in the early years, achievements that are the products of ongoing discovery and bold imagination.
Advances in atomically precise nanotechnologies (in, for example, materials science, surface science, chemistry, and bionanotechnology) have had diverse applications, and have also built a technology platform for further progress in atomically precise fabrication. The programmable, atomically precise fabrication machinery found in nature (ribosomes and nucleic acid polymerases) points the way to powerful new capabilities. The approaches becoming accessible today involve self-assembled biomimetic systems, and these, in turn, can raise the technology platform further, incrementally enabling systems that make greater use of positional control to assemble components and reactive molecules to produce an every wider range of intricate functional structures. Contributions to this line of development and its applications come from every area of nanotechnology.
The Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems has explored paths toward these objectives. The Roadmap study was led by the Battelle Memorial Institute, which manages research at U.S. National Laboratories that include Pacific Northwest, Oak Ridge, and Brookhaven. These labs hosted a series of Roadmap workshops and provided many of the participating scientists and engineers. I had the privilege of helping to direct the project, and I recommend the result as a guide to some of the high-payoff directions for current research.
Unfortunately, yesterday’s backward-looking guest article in Nanowerk reinforces the widespread but quite mistaken idea that my views are essentially the opposite of what I’ve stated above, and that those perverse ideas are also those of the Foresight Institute. I cannot speak for that organization, or vice versa, because I left it years ago. Contrary to what the article may suggest, I have no affiliation with the organization whatsoever.
Regarding terminology, it is of course entirely appropriate to use the term “nanotechnology” to describe nanoscale technologies. The idea that there is a conflict between progress in the field and future applications of that progress is puzzling. This idea appears to stem from a strange episode that came to a head during the political push for the bill that established and funded the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative, an episode in which some leading science spokesmen quite properly rejected a collection of popular fantasies, but quite improperly attributed those fantasies to me. Reading claims by confused enthusiasts and the press that “Drexler says this” or “Drexler says that” is no substitute for reading my journal articles, or the technical analysis in my book, Nanosystems, and in my MIT dissertation). The failure of these leaders to do their homework has had substantial and lingering toxic effects.
A more recent article in the IoP journal Physics Education, “Productive Nanosystems: the physics of molecular fabrication” can serve as an antidote to some of this.
Regarding the central topic of yesterday’s guest article by Chris Toumey, the relationship between Feynman, nanotechnology, and the vision of a transformative, atomically-precise manufacturing technology, I can speak of some aspects of this from first-hand experience.
I had an opportunity to discuss the topic with Feynman after he had read a preprint of my 1981 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which described a bionanotechnology path to implementing ideas he had outlined, taking them further in scale and scope to develop a technology base for what has since been termed “molecular manufacturing”. We discussed where this leads, since he took the basic ideas for granted.
Five years later, I introduced the then-disused term “nanotechnology” to describe nanoscale technologies in connection with molecular manufacturing. Over the next few years, interest in this “nanotechnology” took hold and exploded, driven by excitement regarding the potentially revolutionary applications of molecular manufacturing.
The field of nanotechnology as we know it today built on this in several ways. The excitement regarding the vision translated into fresh support for under-appreciated areas of research; the term itself helped to bring disparate disciplines together, building collaborations and a sense of shared purpose; and (as I hear at conferences again and again) many members of a generation of students were inspired to join in the effort to build the new technology.
As Toumey implies, neither Feynman nor the vision of molecular manufacturing created the fields that have joined to become “nanotechnology”, nor did they provide the concrete scientific opportunities and technological applications that drive it forward. However, what set nanotechnology on its path to prominence was not a sudden realization by the public and politicians that new molecules and nanostructures have a host of applications in materials, sensors, and so on. It was, and is, the promise of revolutionary advances in atomically precise manufacturing, advances that will build on the technology platform now emerging from nanotechnology research.
By Eric Drexler. Nanotechnology researcher Eric Drexler authored Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, as well as the earlier book, Engines of Creation. His personal blog is Metamodern.com; his website is E-drexler.com.

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