Business Impact

Moses of the Nanoworld

To his followers, K. Eric Drexler is the prophet of nanotechnology. Will he be left behind by the rapidly developing reality of nanoscience?

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.

This story is part of our March/April 1999 Issue
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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.

Pursuing this vision, Drexler and Chris Peterson, his wife and professional partner, made the pilgrimage from the Northeast (both hold degrees from MIT) to the West Coast, founding the nonprofit Foresight Institute in Palo Alto in 1986. Their stated goal was to organize discussion of the technical and social implications of what they believe is a foregone conclusion: rapid change in the face of nanotech. The first Foresight meeting was held in October 1989 and attracted about 150 participants. At the first gathering, more than half of the talks covered proposed policy issues, computation theory, societal consequences of nanotech-and, of course, Drexler’s ideas for the assemblers.

Since then, Drexler’s notions have spawned a cottage nanoindustry that includes a Palo Alto-based Institute For Molecular Manufacturing (where he is a research fellow), a startup company, Zyvex, that intends to build Drexler’s assembler, well-attended conferences, a small bookshelf of publications and-most recently-countless Web sites. And, lest you think this is a group far outside the boundaries of science, Drexler’s vision has inspired dedicated followers among numerous computer scientists.

Despite that ever-widening circle of believers, however, Drexler’s ideas have largely failed to win over the scientific mainstream (p. 46). A number of researchers give Drexler and the Foresight Institute credit for generating interest in nanotech, but few experimenters in chemistry, physics or materials science buy the concept of mechanical assemblers inhabiting a microscopic factory floor. “I don’t think that there is any more enthusiasm for most of these ideas now than at the beginning. If anything, less, as the real, science-based expertise in nanofabrication increases,” says Harvard University chemist George Whitesides, a pioneer in molecular self-assembly. “Still, Eric was captivated by the vision early on, and he deserves credit for his willingness to try to imagine what that world might be.”

One pointed criticism of the Foresight Institute is that, in the face of a growing understanding of nanoscale science, Drexler has steadfastly refused to change his original notion of nanotech as being a miniature robotic world. Although Drexler declined repeated requests by TR for an interview, his colleagues defend the assembler notion. Ralph Merkle, for example, a director of Foresight and a computer scientist at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, says self-replicating assemblers with robotic arms moving atoms around remains the most likely route to the nanoworld. “Computer scientists are very comfortable with the idea,” says Merkle. “You can do it on a computer.” He acknowledges, however, it “will take time” to convince many chemists and physicists.

The Foresight Institute has also been tainted in the eyes of mainstream researchers by an association with fringe technological elements. It has, for instance, close ties with the cryonics movement, in which people pay to have themselves frozen immediately after death in the hope that they can eventually be thawed out and returned to the living. Merkle is a director of Alcor Foundation, a nonprofit cryonics business, while Drexler is on the scientific advisory board. (During his after-lunch speech at the meeting, Drexler called the fact that cryonics is not part of the country’s health care policy a “national disgrace.”)

This embrace of a decidedly nonmainstream notion may have alienated some potential allies, but Merkle says it is important to expose people to the consequences of cryonics, a technology he is sure will come about. And, he says, nanotech and cryonics may be linked up in the future. He argues that nanotech will revolutionize the practice of medicine as nanomachines repair damaged tissue. The purchasers of cryonics services, he explains, expect that their mental “software” can eventually be downloaded to the new, improved “hardware.”

Not surprisingly, that argument leaves a lot of scientists cold. A number of those at the conference expressed a keen desire to move the science forward, and leave these distractions-and the past disputes-associated with nanotech behind. “The spotlight should be on the science, not on the personalities,” says Reza Ghadiri, a biochemist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “The character of the meeting has changed, and now the talks emphasize things you can test.

Could it be, then, that Eric Drexler is unhappy because nanotechnology has moved beyond him? Richard Smalley, a Rice University chemist and 1996 Nobel laureate who attended the Foresight conferences in 1995 and 1997, says Drexler “had a tremendous effect on the field through his books.” But, Smalley adds, as the Foresight meetings have gotten scientifically better and better, “Drexler is now almost a bystander.”

In the minds of many, the burgeoning field of nanotech is no longer identified with-or dependent on-Eric Drexler’s vision of molecular manufacturing. The science has gained its own momentum, forming its own picture of a nanoworld. And while it may not meet Drexler’s grandiose expectations, nanotech is, in some ways, growing bigger and more inclusive than many scientists would have ever thought possible. Yet in doing so, it may have left its conceptual progenitor behind.

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