It is a pleasure to see that the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering
have been commissioned to study the benefits and dangers of nanotechnology.
Since I see molecular machine systems as central to the promise of the field,
it is a further pleasure to see the committee chaired by a mechanical engineer
concerned with aerospace systems. I am writing to introduce myself and offer
assistance in your work.
Like you, I've spent time in the MIT Aero-Astro department, where I earned a masters degree on an NSF Graduate Fellowship. My other MIT degrees are an S.B. in Interdisciplinary Science and a Ph.D. in Molecular Nanotechnology. A book based on my dissertation (Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nanosystems.html>) provides a physics-based foundation for analyzing the construction and behavior of nanomechanical systems, from molecules to factories.
The best-known, most dramatic benefits and dangers of nanotechnology are anticipated consequences of molecular manufacturing, a concept based on the Feynman vision of nanomachines building with atom-by-atom control. A messy political situation now surrounds this concept. Some highlights of the situation as I see it:
* The term 'nanotechnology' has been redefined, confusing the goal of molecular manufacturing with the reality of nanoscale research.
* Scientists commonly criticize long-term engineering goals as though they were proposals for immediate laboratory implementation.
* Fear of public fears of potential consequences of molecular manufacturing has motivated denials of its feasibility.
* Senior scientists have, in support of those denials, misrepresented the fundamental technical concepts of molecular manufacturing.
* The U.S. NNI-centered community has rejected any serious examination of the consequences of the Feyman vision, inhibiting discussion of risk management and inviting a public backlash.
* The U.K. has now chartered a process that holds promise of getting public discussion back on track, with fewer unfounded fears and denials.
Please consider me a resource in discussing and evaluating issues in this area. I've been frustrated by the low quality of discussion in the U.S., and find myself full of hopes for a higher-integrity process in the U.K.
With best wishes,
K. Eric Drexler
Chairman, Foresight Institute
Los Altos, California
P.S. I've appended a sample of my advice to U.K. leaders in the recent
gray-goo flap (a copy was sent to Lord Sainsbury):
To: Ian Gibson
Subject: Nanotechnology and Grey Goo
Dear Mr. Gibson:
In response to Prince Charles's nanotechnology concerns you've been quoted
as saying that "We shouldn't be associated with scare stories -- science
fiction about grey goos" ; in this, you reflect views common in the
I introduced the terms "nanotechnology" and "grey goo" in the mid-1980s in a
well-known book, Engines of Creation . I am chairman of the Foresight
Institute  and hold a doctorate in Molecular Nanotechnology from MIT. My
dissertation is the basis of a graduate-level text in the field,
Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation . I am
writing to warn of the tendency of current "nanotechnology" specialists to
dismiss long-term prospects and concerns on false grounds.
I place "nanotechnology" in quotes here because its meaning has shifted,
creating ongoing confusion: I introduced the term to refer to a specific set
of advanced capabilities, now renamed "molecular manufacturing" , but
"nanotechnology" has come to describe an extremely diverse set of current
technologies with little in common save size. Specialists in current
nanotechnologies typically have little understanding of molecular
manufacturing. For evident reasons, they would be more comfortable if its
exotic opportunities and dangers could be dismissed, and many have seized on
flimsy pretexts for doing so. For example, the chief critic, Prof. Richard
Smalley, has dismissed it based on a simple straw man attack. I publicly
challenged this in a recent open letter , which has drawn wide attention.
Molecular manufacturing will be an inevitable result of progress in
nanofabrication, leading to revolutionary improvements in computers
(portable machines with a billion processors), medicine (devices able to
find and destroy cancer cells), the environment (zero-emission industrial
production), and arms (ultrasmart non-lethal weapons). In a competitive
world, calls for suppressing molecular manufacturing in democratic societies
would amount to unilateral disarmament.
While self-replicating "grey goo" is feasible and thus a legitimate concern,
the Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnogy show how such dangers can
be avoided . The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology  is addressing
this and related topics, and the U.S. Nanotech R&D Act of 2003 (HR766) calls
for the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to study both "molecular
manufacturing development" and "the possible regulation of self-replicating
In light of these facts, attempts to calm public fears by simply denying the
feasibility of molecular manufacturing will inevitably fail. A better course
would be to show that its consequences are manageable and still distant. In
open discussion, I believe that current research will be seen as low risk,
and that the case for continued vigorous pursuit of nanotechnologies will
K. Eric Drexler
Chairman, Foresight Institute
1. Grey goo dismissal
2. Engines of Creation
3. Foresight Institute
4. Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation
5. The Future of Nanotechnology: Molecular Manufacturing
6. Open Letter to Richard Smalley
7. Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnogy
8. Center for Responsible Nanotechnology