The Debate Between Advocates of Soft and Hard Nanotech, June 2008 – February 2009

Dr. Richard Jones is Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. In 2008, Jones published a book, Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life, that describes why he thinks that advanced nanotechnology will go along more of a biomimicry and organic path rather than rigid structures designed with a mechanical engineering mentality. Soft Machines is published in the UK and the USA by Oxford University Press. For a couple years now I’ve been following Jones’ commentary on nanotechnology, and I respect his viewpoint.

In a recent post on his blog, Jones responds to a response from Robert Freitas and Dr. Ralph Merkle to Jones’ article “Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture”, published in the IEEE Spectrum special issue on the Singularity from June 2008, a paranoid hit piece on the Singularity that editor Glenn Zorpette disingenuously and dishonestly presented as a balanced review. (I made a response of my own shortly after the article was published.) The general gist of Jones’ position is that molecular nanotechnology based on mechanical engineering principles and rigid structures will never be successful, and that organic and soft structures are the future of nanotech. Meanwhile, Rob Freitas and Ralph Merkle have been championing the rigid, mechanical engineering-type approach for well over a decade. This blog post by Jones is the most recent message in a round of debating that has been ongoing between the soft approach and the rigid approach for two decades.

The relevance of the debate between advocates of soft nanotech vs. rigid nanotech (“molecular manufacturing” or “molecular nanotechnology” (MNT)) is that if rigid nanotech is impossible, many of the technologies anticipated by transhumanists and futurists — Santa Claus machines, advanced cybernetics, superabundance, rapid manufacturing, self-replicating nanofactories — may prove impossible or much more challenging than common transhumanist timetables would suggest. Ray Kurzweil’s predictions would be a common example of timetables — in Kurzweil’s books, he basically takes the development of molecular nanotech for granted, anticipating it rolling out in the 2020s. The thing is, while the feasibility of molecular nanotech seems likely to me personally, I consider a 2020s development timeframe to be implausibly soon. 2040s seems more likely, if the technology is even possible at all. This puts me in stark disagreement with many who comment on molecular nanotech, including Ray Kurzweil and the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, the latter organization writing on their website that molecular nanotechnology “might become a reality by 2010 to 2015, more plausibly will by 2015 to 2020, and almost certainly will by 2020 to 2025″.

(When I say dates like “the 2040s”, note that I’m discounting the possibility of superintelligence accelerating things along or a global catastrophic event halting things in their tracks. Sometimes people call this “CRNS” meaning “Current Rate No Singularity”. Dates like this also discount the possibility of nuclear war, sustained global economic depression, or unexpectedly rapid technological growth.)

On their Nanofactory Collaboration page, Freitas and Merkle point towards 2030 as a likely date for nanofactories if their direct-to-DMS effort has sufficient funding ($1M-$5M/yr).

Besides the back-and-forth between Freitas/Merkle and Jones, another interesting element to the debate has appeared in recent months, with Eric Drexler — the “father of nanotechnology” himself — criticizing the DMS (diamondoid mechanosynthesis) research path of Freitas and Merkle, as pursued by their Nanofactory Collaboration team. In a December 2008 blog post, Drexler called diamond synthesis “a bad approach” and said, “Contrary to popular opinion, diamond synthesis seems almost irrelevant to progress toward advanced nanosystems. At the current stage or research, it is both difficult and unnecessary”. Drexler recommends instead starting with organic “soft machines”, using those to build pyrite, magnetite, and keratin-like structures. He writes, “mechanosynthesis begins with soft machines” and that “there is no gap between soft and hard nanomachines: The technologies form a continuum, and working together, they can form a bridge”. Very poetic!

Back on the Freitas/Merkle side, a 28 December 2008 update to the Nanofactory Collaboration website linked to Drexler’s post and said, “Our assessment is that diamondoid mechanosynthesis (DMS), including highly-parallelized atomically-precise diamondoid fabrication, is the quickest currently feasible route to a mature molecular nanotechnology, including nanofactories. We do not think that DMS is a “necessary first step” for molecular manufacturing, and we wish the best of luck to those pursuing other paths. However, we do think DMS is a highly desirable first step, since it offers a much faster route to mature nanosystems than competing approaches. We disagree with the statement that “diamond synthesis seems almost irrelevant to progress toward advanced nanosystems.” We have a favorable view of the feasibility of the direct-to-DMS approach – a favorable view supported by hundreds of pages of detailed analysis in recently-published peer-reviewed technical journal papers and by gradually-evolving mainstream opinion“. As someone who has followed and admired the work of Freitas, Drexler, and Merkle for over a decade, this is like “Clash of the Titans” to me. What could possibly be more stimulating than considering the merits of each side? Well, a few things, but this ranks up there.

Meanwhile, writing in “Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture”, Dr. Jones scoffs at the prediction of near-term digital control of matter granted by diamondoid nanomachines. Jones laughs at the stance of Ray Kurzweil and other “singularitarians”, remarking, “In 15 years of intense nanotechnology research, we have not even come close to experiencing the exponentially accelerating technological progress toward the goals set out by singularitarians”. Here we have a slightly annoying situation which I keep running into again and again. I consider myself a “singularitarian” by the predominant definition of 2000-2005, the one laid out by Eliezer Yudkowsky, not the new definition presented by Ray Kurzweil in 2005, which defines a Singularitarian as someone “who understands the Singularity and who has reflected on its implications for his or her own life”, a definition so broad as to be meaningless. I can’t tell what Jones means when he says “singularitarian”, as he doesn’t define it, but I take it he means the latter definition, or perhaps more specifically, people that agree with all the predictions of Ray Kurzweil. Maybe he could clarify. In any case, I am a singularitarian according to the 2000-2005 definition, and completely reject the vague and too-inclusive 2005-2009 definition.

With regard to Jones’ comment, I regard the Core Claim of the “Accelerating Change” school of the Singularity — that rates of technological progress in the past are an unreliable predictor of the future — as plausible, but reject the Strong Claim: “Technological change follows smooth curves, typically exponential. Therefore we can predict with fair precision when new technologies will arrive, and when they will cross key thresholds, like the creation of Artificial Intelligence”. Adhering to the Strong Claim of the Accelerating Change school is what leads Kurzweil to say implausible and overconfident things like that human-level AI will be invented in precisely 2029.

In his article, Jones does not reject molecular nanotechnology outright, but says, “I can’t take seriously the predictions that life-altering molecular nanotechnology will arrive within 15 or 20 years and hasten the arrival of a technological singularity before 2050″, and that “Complete control will remain an unattainable goal for generations to come. But some combination of self-assembly and directed assembly could very well lead to precisely built nanostructures that would manipulate the way light, matter, and electrons interact—an application of nanotechnology that’s already leading to exciting new discoveries”. Instead of totally dismissing radical nanotechnology visions, Jones says, “We shouldn’t abandon all of the more radical goals of nanotechnology, because they may instead be achieved ultimately by routes quite different from (and longer than) those foreseen by the proponents of molecular nanotechnology”. I think that is definitely a possibility, but that diamondoid mechanosynthesis looks feasible enough that it should still be pursued. It is difficult to condemn the DMS approach until it receives adequate funding and continues to fail despite that. The approach has barely even begun to be tested — why dismiss it so soon?

Of course, according to Jones, transhumanists artificially inflate their subjective probability of the feasibility of MNT because MNT would be helpful to achieving transhumanist goals like extreme life extension and nanomedicine. Indeed, there is an entire section in the Transhumanist FAQ devoted to molecular nanotechnology, which says, “A common guess among the cognoscenti is that the first assembler may be built around the year 2018, give or take a decade, but there is large scope for diverging opinion on the upper side of that estimate”. This is a fairly noncommittal and broad estimate — it basically says that the first assembler will be built between now and about 2030, but the upper limit is hazy. Such a vague guess leaves much room for fidgeting and revision over the next couple decades.

It’s hard to tell how much stock transhumanists place in MNT. Many of them make a big deal out of it, like the transhumanists that show up at Foresight Institute conferences (probably making up about 40% of the attendants), while others don’t pay it much mind, like James Hughes at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Myself, I think it’s much more important to create an unbiased probability estimate of the plausibility of MNT than to make a biased estimate for dumb reasons. In his response to Freitas and Merkle, Jones writes, “what is not forbidden by the laws of physics is not necessarily likely, let alone inevitable. When one is talking about such powerful human drives as the desire not to die, and the urge to reanimate deceased loved ones, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that rational scepticism may be displaced by deeper, older human drives”. Regarding Kurzweil, I’m starting to think that Jones is right. A recent interview in Rolling Stone with Ray Kurzweil said:

“Using technology, he plans to bring his dead father back to life. Kurzweil reveals this to me near the end of our conversation … In a soft voice, he explains how the resurrection would work. “We can find some of his DNA around his grave site – that’s a lot of information right there,” he says. “The AI will send down some nanobots and get some bone or teeth and extract some DNA and put it all together. Then they’ll get some information from my brain and anyone else who still remembers him.”

This makes no sense to me, and is somewhat creepy. Even if you could create a clone of your father and fill it with memories from faded memories of other people, that wouldn’t be your father in any meaningful sense. He wouldn’t remember most of his life, as people have many experiences alone, and many of the people that observed his father’s childhood would already be dead, making their memories irrecoverable. What kind of puppet would only have memory of himself up to the birth of his children? I respect much of Kurzweil’s thinking, but this new claim is just weird.

As a transhumanist, on a personal level, I am not emotionally attached to molecular nanotechnology. I pay attention to it because I think the technology could plausibly be developed, maybe in the next 20 years, and if it is, the impact it has on the world would be huge, especially in the manufacturing sector. But if it turns out to be impossible, then those ideas should be discarded, and we should move on to something new. As Jones himself says, “We shouldn’t abandon all of the more radical goals of nanotechnology, because they may instead be achieved ultimately by routes quite different from (and longer than) those foreseen by the proponents of molecular nanotechnology”. This is completely correct. So, those transhumanists that have a deep emotional attachment to molecular nanotechnology, nanomedicine, and/or nanobots should drop it. If accelerating the development of MNT is even your goal, you can help the idea’s reputation by acknowledging the probabilistic, non-certain nature of its development. The goal of MNT has already been tarnished enough by starry-eyed futurists attracted to the idea mostly for its promise of science fiction-like outcomes. Such delusion hampers the efforts of serious theorists like Freitas, Merkle, and Drexler.

Comments

  1. Starry-eyed Contemporarist

    We will certainly achieve many “singularities” or near singularities, before the real thing, i.e. we will hit the limits of improvement in many appliances, energy technologies, and particularly, simulation, so that improving it becomes exponentially harder, like the last zilionth step towards 0K, the absolute zero temperature. Stuff gets good enough, 90-99%. Nearly completely believable virtual reality in terms AV, maybe some other senses, life-like characters with emotions, simulated speech. Microsoft’s ESP virtual/paraworld platform will probably play a big part.

    Michael, do you have any idea when molecular level simulation becomes possible in main stream applications, like games? Does it require 10, 100, 1000, 10,000X CPU speed up? I have a feeling that the stuff you read in some upload-scifi, should be doable way before a soft/hard takeoff.

  2. kurt9

    I consider myself a “transhumanist” and I definitely consider “hard” nanotech to be unlikely. However, I do not consider it necessary for our goals. Brian Wang has presentations about a “mundane” singularity, which is much more consistent with how I view our future prospects.

    The mainstream media always associates transhumanism with AI and uploads living in a virtual environment running on an advanced computer network. I think this is a very specific, very limited concept of transhumanism. Transhumanism can be more generally defined as the advocacy of using technology to improve human well-being in the more general sense.

    In my case, I have never bought into the whole uploading/virtual reality thing. Certainly aging can be cured and wet nanotech like synthetic biology will lead to improvements in human capacity. Where I part company with much of the transhuman community is that I believe we will remain as discrete physical beings for a long time to come. This is why I remain interested in “quaint” ideas such as space colonization and the like.

  3. michael vassar

    Odd. I am usually more conservative about tech than Michael A is, but in this case it seems to me that he overestimates both the difficulty and the importance of hard MNT. I would typically call the 2020s slightly surprisingly early for MNT and the 2040s slightly surprisingly late. Regardless, if hard MNT takes longer I would still expect wet nanotech to do most of what hard MNT could do, just less suddenly, over roughly the 2030s through 2060s.

    Interestingly, I think that my estimates of the relative difficulties of MNT and other technologies almost precisely coincide with those of both Kurzweil and CRN. In general I expect things to all take about 2X as long as CRN does and they set their expectations for time to MNT in the late 1990s. Unlike Kurzweil, I don’t believe in technological acceleration (and the track record of his predictions for 2009 seems to validate this judgment on my part, see http://iranscope.ghandchi.com/Anthology/Kurzweil-SM.htm) but without acceleration Kurzweil’s estimate of the 2020s corresponds, I believe, to the 2040s.

    Interestingly, I do agree with Kurzweil’s claim that a superintelligently constructed extrapolation from genomes, memories, written records, and whatever other traces people leave could plausibly constitute a resurrected person in the opinion of my extrapolated volition, and I would certainly expect my non-extrapolated self to treat one as such, but I would prefer not to emphasize this scenario because it may deter people from the pursuing more total information preservation methods possible with cryonics (or even with crude brain freezing).

  4. We are looking at faster computing developments based on recent breakthroughs. There are 4 ways that we can get computing down to 1-2 nanometer feature or element size and they could be scaled up and delivering product within 4-10 years. Many thought that computing might permanently stall at 10-20 nanometer features. Now it seems that 1-2 nanometers is certain within 10 years. 100-400 times smaller in area and 1000-16,000 smaller in volume.

    The self assembly of 10-100 terabit per square inch magnetic memory. They have self assembled several square centimeters and the process appears to be compatible with current computer chip fabrication processes. They seem confident in adapting the self assembling process to produce photonic and computing elements.

    The room temperature quantum dots based on dangling silicon bonds.

    More durable and higher density nanoimprinting is working at 13 nanometer features and they seem confident about going to 1-2 nanometers.

    Oxide Nanoelectronics on Demand (University of Pittsburgh)

    Electronic confinement at nanoscale dimensions remains a central means of science and technology. We demonstrate nanoscale lateral confinement of a quasi–two-dimensional electron gas at a lanthanum aluminate–strontium titanate interface. Control of this confinement using an atomic force microscope lithography technique enabled us to create tunnel junctions and field-effect transistors with characteristic dimensions as small as 2 nanometers. These electronic devices can be modified or erased without the need for complex lithographic procedures. Our on-demand nanoelectronics fabrication platform has the potential for widespread technological application.

    Rather than building them from silicon, the team used two different forms of the common mineral perovskite. When two of the insulating crystals of the right thickness are held together, the place where they meet can conduct electricity. But if one of the pieces is too thin, then current will not flow.

    Working with wafers that were just too thin to conduct, Levy’s team found that they could “draw” conducting patches onto the crystal using a microscopic needle. A positive voltage from the needle rearranges the crystal’s atoms to create lines 2 nm across that conduct like electrical wire.

    Write and erase

    The process has been used to make transistors roughly 1000 times smaller in area than those fashioned from silicon. The “wires” can also be easily erased and recreated up to 100 times.

    Being able to erase parts of a design and write over them again also offers more exotic possibilities, says Levy. It could be possible to use the phenomenon to could create hardware that rewires itself as it handles data, he says.

    btw: The nanofactory collaboration page has a timeline for nanofactory experimentation by 2030 if the funding happens at a sufficient level.

    I think things are coming together for near term surge in computing capability and for various methods of manipulation and control and manufacturing at the 1 to 10 nanometer scale. Industrial scale self assembly and DNA production and control combined will lessen the requirements on atomically precise pick, place and react.

    If we are sitting at the molecular fabrication doorstep with multiple substantial 1-2 nanometer capabilities, and with some slower but molecularly precise pick and place capabilities then we get within a series of doable kluges to getting onto a bootstrap path to full-blown no limit molecular manufacturing.

    The “combination of substantial self-assembly and directed assembly” could be substantially in hand this year or within 3 years. We just have to creatively work the combinations and plug some gaps.

  5. kurt9

    Electronics at the 1-2 nanometer feature size is about in line with Drexler’s predictions in the late 80′s and may represent a final limit on computation density. It will be interesting to reach the ultimate limits of computation in the middle of the next decade.

    The DNA fabrication device that Dr. Seeman has developed strongly suggests that the real nanotechnology will be “wet”. I think Brian is correct that we should not “hang our hats” on the idea that exponential manufacturing musy necessarily be based on “dry” nanotechnology that may prove to be impossible (as I think).

    Our goal is the creation of an affordable (defined as something a small group of us can do) “exponential” manufacturing capability as well as biological immortality so that we can decouple from whatever elements of the greater society that we find distasteful (for example, socialism or religion) such that we create whatever we want on our own.

    This has been my intent since I first entered these milieus in the late 80′s.

  6. The (very) weird thing about his father is briefly mentioned in the trailer of the movie about it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntY01qoIdus

    Someone really needs to sit down (or email) Ray and ask him how exactly he thinks resurrecting his father is going to happen, and if there’s no good answer, he should probably stop mentioning that in public before it does hard-to-correct harm to the whole H+ movement (which too often gets confused with the Kurzweilian gang by the media).

    Off-topic: Michael, you might be interested, because of your work w/ global catastrophic risks, by a post I wrote recently:

    I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

  7. Not the ultimate limits of computation.

    1. Have to get fully 3 dimensional
    2. Have to go to reversible computing to get lower heat generation and power usage
    3. Have to have (interprocessor/on-chip or in-cube) optical communication speeds

    Also, Stanford researchers wrote 35 bits on an electron cloud. Sub-atomic storage density appears doable.

  8. A very interesting read, thanks Michael. Some good comments too.

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