It’s a lovely northern california day early last November, and you would expect K. Eric Drexler to be pleased. By almost any measure, his Foresight Institute’s conference on nanotechnology is a raging success. After years of struggling to gain the respect of the mainstream research community, the meeting has hit the scientific big time.
This year’s keynote speaker is Steven Chu, a physicist at Stanford University and recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize for his work on manipulating atoms. The conference’s technical sessions are packed with talks by some of the most prestigious names in chemistry, biophysics and materials science. Three days of presentations cover the latest work in carbon nanotubes, molecular wires, biomotors in living cells and nanofabrication. Out of about 300 registered attendees, roughly 40 are from corporate research groups, and more than 120 from academic or government labs. Even the National Science Foundation has sponsored a forum.
But Eric Drexler, the longtime popularizer of nanotech, is clearly not happy. Grasping the podium angrily, the chairman and founder of the Foresight Institute tears into his lunchtime speech, leading off with harsh words. “My mentor at MIT, Marvin Minsky, advocated rudeness as a means of promoting scientific progress,” begins Drexler. He then proceeds to savage his critics, dismiss past magazine articles as “attack pieces,” and bemoan the lack of serious research into nanotechnology.
Some of Drexler’s remarks are tongue-in-cheek, such as when he reveals that the reason he has never been turned down for a federal grant is because “I haven’t applied for any.” But he is not joking when he maintains that “there is no controversy” over who’s right about nanotechnology. There isn’t a debate, he rails, there is just one side-his. Very small machines will be built, will make anything we want, and will transform civilization as we know it. What about those who dispute the vision? He says that he has asked people to give technical criticisms of his ideas and still hasn’t found anyone whose arguments stand up.
The audience, a mixture of nanotech aficionados and professional researchers, listens in polite silence. No one rises to argue. Afterward, it’s difficult to judge reactions. But some are clearly annoyed. Says one researcher, “I don’t believe in anyone’s utopia. It’s too much like those magazine stories in the 1930s, predicting that all of us would be riding around in our little gyrocopters in the future.”
Welcome to the nanotech culture wars. On one side is the Drexler-led contingent, which includes computer scientists, technology buffs and believers in cryonics; on the other side is the community of mainstream researchers in physics, chemistry and materials science. Despite Drexler’s self-professed belief in the value of rudeness, however, there is little mudslinging in evidence at the Foresight meeting. Most of the back-and-forth is couched in the cautious words of scientific debate. Indeed, many in the research community simply prefer to ignore Drexler’s ideas as an unwanted distraction.
There is, in fact, ample evidence at the conference that the two cultures-nanoenthusiasts and serious researchers-are floating past each other, largely oblivious to the other’s ideas. But make no mistake about it: At stake is the heart and soul of nanotech-or, at least, the public’s and mass media’s perception of this fledgling field.
Since the early 1980s, Drexler has championed a utopian vision of synthetic molecular nanomachines made of subminuscule mechanical parts-actual gears and axles on the molecular scale-that would cure human illness, eliminate poverty and wipe away environmental pollution. Drexler has also warned that nanoweapons unleashed against the world could wreak mass destruction. In short, it’s a belief that nanotech will change everything.
In spite of his status as the field’s foremost evangelist, Drexler didn’t actually coin the word “nanotechnology.” (Japanese researcher Norio Taniguchi created it in 1974 to mean precision machining with tolerances of a micrometer or less.) But Drexler brought the word and the field into the public mind, popularizing his version of molecular manufacturing in a 1986 book Engines of Creation and adding an exhausting level of detail in a 1992 book, Nanosystems. Both volumes depicted a future in which self-replicating nanorobots (“assemblers,” in Drexler-speak) would manufacture batches of any material permitted by the laws of nature, one atom at a time. And, predicted Drexler, all this would come to fruition in a few decades.