Distractions and the Drexler-Smalley Debate

I was still thinking about the pernicious effects of smartphones on attention when I wrote the comic. I have been trying to listen to more audio books instead of doomscrolling. I listened to “Deep Work” by Cal Newport and “Effortless” by Greg Mckeown over the last few weeks. There is an interesting tension between them. I agree with both. It takes deep work to make progress. It takes real, effortless recreation to recover from that deep work. Maybe I’ll write something about that at some point.

I posted a video this week about the Drexler-Smalley debate. The big question was “Can we make a nano-3D printer that can fabricate literally anything?” My PhD is in chemistry, and I have experience with using photolithography for microfabrication as well as building simple bio-inspired nano-machines. So I have some of the relevant background and context to explain this. I put the edited text-version at the end of this post.

I’ve collected a bunch of cool articles and links, too.


Artificial Lives: On the Occult Origins of Chemistry and the Stuff of Life
I knew some of this – like the founder of the Jet Propulsion Lab was a fairly serious occultist, for instance. This article suggests that the occult root of chemistry – alchemy – still has philosophical consequences. That’s neat. When do I get my invitation to the Black Mass? Should I bring something? Cookies?

Privileged people misjudge effects of pro-equality policies on them
I think we all feel precarious. That feeling means that any increase in taxes feels like a real threat. Even if those taxes are levied on someone else, could I be next? Could my already tenuous position be made worse in order to… what? Support someone I don’t like or relate to? That attitude is emotional, not related to the tax policies’ actual effects. I don’t know what to do about that.


The Adventures of Lady Nokids
I’m not an antinatalist (yet!) but being child-free has some serious perks.

Technically, it’s fine.
Beyond meat is pretty good. It tastes beefy enough for me. But there are so many possibilities!

I wanted super powers but all I got was lymphoma

It’s like Occam’s Laser or something
It’s more of a shitpost meme than a comic. Still, I laughed.

Frog problems


How Gris Made You Cry With Its Colors | Psych of Play 
This game, Gris, is a true work of art. It has no violence, no way to lose, but the puzzles are engaging and the stakes feel high. There is no dialogue but the emotions are very strong. I played it, but it’s almost as beautiful just to watch. This video shows its beauty and then delves into its themes of loss and grief and healing. 

Sanditon Preview
We’re watching Sanditon. After each episode, I cant help bu adopt formal speech patterns for an hour or so. It is highly enjoyable. It transports me to a different world, however briefly. 

The Kronk Effect 
This is an examination of a Disney movie from 2000 followed by a meditation on ego and art. Kronk is a character in The Emperor’s New Groove. He’s voiced by Seinfeld’s David Puddy (“yeah that’s right”). Kronk is the best part, but that’s true in part because he’s not the main character. Quote: “Is the goal my personal glory and bragging rights? No! It’s QUALITY. Decisively framing quality as your goal while dissuading your fear-based motivations will reveal to you when your centrality is not necessary to the excellence of an operation. Sometimes you are best utilized as a side character.”

How to Not Kill an Extremely Rare Microbe 
Microcosmos is a fun watch – and educational! It’s a cross between Attenborough and Sagan. This one shows the drama of finding a very rare little creature and trying to study it without killing it or losing it. 

Projectile fusion  
This is a neat way to make fusion: no magnets, plasma, or lasers. It takes a powerful railgun and points it at  a deuterium-tritium target. 

This is not a video essay. 
I like video essays and this made me chuckle. 

Why Don’t You Love Hawaii??
I relate hard to this. Hawaii is hot and full of bugs. Those are just facts.

Essay version of the Vlog: Drexler, Smalley and the debate over Nano 3D printing

You can get a feel for the pissing-match tone of the debate from this quote: “I see you have now walked out of the room where I had led you to talk about real chemistry, and you are now back in your mechanical world. I am sorry we have ended up like this. For a moment I thought we were making progress.”

That’s some serious shade. That’s not the kind of letter you want from a Nobel prizewinner. That’s like a beloved grandpa saying ‘I think you’ve made some really bad life choices.’

That short passage was from one of Richard Smalley’s later letters in the back-and-forth debate in Chemical and Engineering News. Smalley won the Nobel prize for discovering fullerenes, the weird ball-shaped carbon molecule. So he was kind of a big deal. On the other side of the debate was K. Erik Drexler who published “the Engines of Creation” – a book on nanotechnology – and co-founded the Foresight Institute as a place to think carefully about nanotech and nanotech policy.

Drexler’s book is all about the promise and the dangers of ‘molecular nanotechnology.’ He imagines what we might do with control over matter at the atomic level, and methods for how we might build devices at this nano-scale. He imagines that we might build atomic-scale “assemblers” that can place molecules into specific positions where they will form bonds. The assembler will build up molecules into materials, and then build up those materials into human scale objects. It would be like a 3D printer that can build things with atomic precision: anything from a rice bowl to a smartphone.

That sounds great, but it comes with a scary possibility: what if we built self-replicating nanomachines and they escape?

When all this was going down in the late ’90s and early ‘oughts, Pop culture conceptions of nanotechnology were terrifying. Drexler’s ideas definitely fed into worries like that. Just for context, here are some examples:

Neal Stephenson’s 1995 novel The Diamond Age is about people living in a nano-tech-enabled future where any material thing can be created by sophisticated 3D printers called Matter Compilers. A dystopian future emerges where a few people have control over the Feed that supplies energy and matter to the assemblers. The Victorians control the Feed and everyone else can come serve them or go starve somewhere else.

Another example: Sun Microsystems co-founder and chief scientist Bill Joy published an essay in Wired in 2000 called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” This essay explicitly describes the dangers of runaway self-replicating technology. Could nano-machines replicate endlessly and convert the whole biosphere to copies of themselves – a “grey goo” scenario?

“Prey” by Michael Crichton in 2002 also explores this idea, maybe? I won’t read Michael Crichton any more – I find his books insufferable. But I read the summary. For you. Apparently, escaped hybrid(?) bio-nano-bots kill animals and reproduce rapidly in the wild. They evolve. And then they take over peoples’ BRAINS, including the main character’s wife. Michael Chrichton – I mean the main character – saves his wife from the mind control bugs that are making her evil with a big MRI magnet. But then she dies. (Crichton divorced his wife a year after publication – coincidence?). The main character develops a vaccine (single-handedly? impressive.). That solves the problem (what about the animals? biosphere? Don’t sweat the details, Michael, just cash that Hollywood check and run).

And there are a bunch of other Grey Goo scenarios cropping up in that era, from big budget sci-fi to afternoon cartoons:
Disney’s animated series ‘Gargoyles’ (1994)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)
The Culture’s hegemonising swarms (Surface Detail 2010)
According to tvtropes, episodes of Power Puff Girls and Star Trek

So this is a reasonably big deal in the popular culture. Some of this can be traced straight back to Drexler’s popularizing these ideas. But, 20 years on, there’s no “assembler” or “matter compiler” and it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen any time soon. Certainly nothing is even close to approaching a grey goo scenario. Why not?

Smalley wrote a piece in Scientific American called “Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots.” He explained why he predicted that there would be no assembler. Maybe we can make a mechanical device for making one product molecule at a time. But that is very slow. It would take millennia to print a grain of rice. The only way such a strategy could be useful is if you can make a self-replicator.

“Imagine if this one nanobot were so versatile that it could build anything, as long as it had a supply of the right kinds of atoms, a source of energy and a set of instructions for exactly what to build. We could work out these detailed instructions with a computer and then radio them to the nanobot. If the nano- bot could really build anything, it could build a copy of itself… Self-replicating nanobots are really interesting. If they are feasible, then the notion of a machine that can build anything from a CD player to a skyscraper in a remarkably short time doesn’t seem so far-fetched.”

So, a single ‘print head’ might be an interesting scientific tool… but a practical ‘matter assembler’ can only be made out of such print heads if they can self-replicate. But CAN we actually build an assembler good enough to build another assembler? Smalley argues no. He calls the main problems the “fat fingers problem” and the “sticky fingers problem.”

For now, I want to stay focused on WHY he felt it’s important to communicate his opinion. Kids were scared of this idea – it was in the sci-fi movies of the time and seemed reasonably concerning. Smalley says:

“Students were asked to write an essay on ‘Why I Am a Nanogeek.’ … Of the essays I read, nearly half assumed that self-replicating nanobots were possible, and most were deeply worried about what would happen in their future as these nanobots spread around the world… while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.”

If Smalley is correct, then we have a good news/bad news scenario. This is good news from a safety standpoint – no grey goo absorbing the planet. But it’s bad news in the sense that we don’t get to have post-scarcity matter assemblers any time soon.

Drexler is in the be-careful-of-nanotech camp. He would say that he’s pro-technology-development, but doesn’t want us to ‘move fast and break things.’ Because, you know, grey goo. And he’s not making stuff up. Drexler did experimental work. He made a good case that we can build SOMETHING using the pick-and-place molecular 3D printer idea, and believes it will lead to assemblers and their related dangers:

“I have a 20 year history of technical publications in this area and consistently describe systems quite unlike the straw man you attack [Annu. Rev. Biophys. Biomol. Struct., 23, 337 (1994); Phil. Trans. R. Soc. London A, 353, 323 (1995)]. My proposal is, and always has been [Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 78, 5275 (1981)] to guide the chemical synthesis of complex structures by mechanically positioning reactive molecules, not by manipulating individual atoms. This proposal has been defended successfully again and again, in journal articles, in my MIT doctoral thesis [the basis of “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation,” John Wiley & Sons (1992)]. And before scientific audiences around the world. It rests on well-established physical principles…”

So, Smalley brought his Nobel prize, but Drexler brought his receipts: he has a PhD from MIT, and peer reviewed papers on building molecules by mechanical assembly – mechano-synthesis. Then he suggests Smalley is making a fallacious argument:

“Your reliance on this straw-man attack might lead a thoughtful observer to suspect that no one has identified a valid criticism of my work. For this I should, perhaps, thank you.”

And the concludes with some motivation-questioning of his own:

“You apparently fear that my warnings of long-term dangers will hinder funding of current research, stating: ‘We should not let this fuzzy-minded nightmare dream scare us away from nanotechnology. … [the National Nanotechnology Initiative] should go forward.’ However, I have from the beginning argued that the potential for abuse of advanced nanotechnologies makes vigorous research by the U.S. and its allies imperative. Many have found these arguments persuasive. In an open discussion, I believe they will prevail. In contrast, your attempt to calm the public through false claims of impossibility will inevitably fail, placing your colleagues at risk of a destructive backlash.”

These are two very different approaches to scientific communication. Smalley uses poetic analogies and speaks to the general audience. Drexler uses citations and a more technical language. I think Smalley was a more effective communicator in this context. But others – like Ray Kruzweil, a rather famous technological prognosticator – think that Drexler made the better points.

Be that as it may, I think that 20 years of hindsight validate Smalley better. He suggested two key points:

1. The Fat Fingers Problem:
That nanobot/print head can only have manipulators made of molecules. It can’t use magic fingers smaller than atoms to pick and place other atoms. That puts a limit on the precision of the system. To use the 3D printer analogy, it’s a print head trying to print a duplicate of itself but the duplicate must be as precise as itself. Any error will make every subsequent generation worse until they fail entirely.

When biology makes stuff like proteins, it solves the problem by containing the reaction in the heart of a ribosome (another big protein) and controlling the whole environment around that chemical reaction. A print head can’t wrap all the way around its reaction, it has to hover above it. If you make the print head more like a ribosome, then it can’t be a print head any more.

And if you want to make it out of something other than protein in water, then you have to start over on a lot of very hard chemistry.

2. The Sticky Fingers problem: the robot/print head needs to manipulate molecules using strong chemical bonds in order to be precise. Weak bonds are inherently floppy. But it needs to make stronger chemical bonds in the printed product. The pieces obey the same rules while being picked up as while being placed down. In the 3D printer analogy, the print head is made of the same material it’s trying to spit out. Why would that material stick to the print job instead of the print head?

Drexler says that these are not real problems – just details. If we can’t make a print head, then we will make something more like a ribosome. If it can’t print onto a surface, it will just spit out the products into solution and they can self-assemble into the product we want. And that might work, but that won’t be an assembler. It will be a fermentation vat. And making the precise nanotechnological product you want from a more life-like system is very different from the conceptions in the Engines of Creation.

So who was right? They agree that biology is already a kind of prototype nanotechnology. They agree that a tiny robotic arm can be used to make a single molecule react with another molecule. Where they disagree is how powerful and versatile this can be. 25 years of progress suggest that Smalley was right. Mechano-synthesis has not come close to making an assembler.

Drexler followed Feynman in thinking maybe we could get to nanotechnology by successively smaller robotic machines, and the mechano-synthesis idea is like that. Build a machine that can build smaller machines, like a little robotic machine shop. Then use those to build smaller ones and so forth. But that has not turned out to be the most successful approach.

Self-replicating nanobots? No. Not even close. We are just barely able to predict 3D protein structures most of the time. Making them work together to do all the sophisticated reactions of self-replication is still restricted to mother nature’s kitchen.

Self-assembling smiley faces? Yes. It doesn’t look anything like Drexler’s nanotechnology, but DNA origami is a way to make precise nano-objects from a molecular size substrate.

Nano-lithography? Yes. It’s close to molecular level, the silicon traces in modern chips are 150 atoms wide. There’s no assembler technology going on. It’s sophisticated optics and old fashioned chemistry.

Some cool micro-mechanical systems exist, but they are nowhere near an assembler in size or sophistication.

Sources cited:

Smalley, Richard E. “Of Chemistry, Love and Nanobots.” Scientific American 285, no. 3 (September 2001): 76–77. https://doi.org/10.1038/scientificamerican0901-76

NANOTECHNOLOGY: Drexler and Smalley make the case for and against ‘molecular assemblers‘” December 1, 2003 Volume 81, Number 48 CENEAR 81 48 pp. 37-42

Joy, Bill. “Wired 8.04: Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Wired, 2000, 18.

Decatur W, Martz E, Hodis E, Prilusky J, Canner D, Berchansky A, 2013, “Ribosome”, Proteopedia. https://dx.doi.org/10.14576/370873.1864705

Rothemund, Paul W. K. “Folding DNA to Create Nanoscale Shapes and Patterns.” Nature 440, no. 7082 (March 16, 2006): 297–302. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature04586.

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