An open debate about radical nanotechnology

A public debate about nanotechnology – Nanotechnology: Radical New Science or Plus ca Change? – has been organised by Philip Moriarty at the University of Nottingham as part of a Surface Science Summer School at 4.30 pm on Wednesday 24th August . The themes of the debate are:

  • Are nanofactories capable of manufacturing virtually anything with little or no environmental impact really just a few decades away, as some groups are claiming?
  • Is nanotechnology based on scaled-down everyday engineering concepts viable or should we look to biology for insights into how to tame the nanoworld?
  • Are there potential risks associated with the manipulation of matter at the atomic and molecular levels and how might those risks be controlled?
  • Or, is nanotechnology simply a buzzword for science which, far from being a radical departure from what has gone before, simply represents a natural convergence of the conventional disciplines…?
  • The panel includes myself and J. Storrs Hall, author of the recently published book Nanofuture: What’s next for nanotechnology. As it happens, Nanofuture was part of my holiday reading, so I know that we will be getting a robust and wholehearted defense of the Drexlerian position. In addition, we have a science policy expert from the thinktank Demos who has been studying public perceptions of nanotechnology, Jack Stilgoe, and further names to be announced.

    The primary audience for the debate will be young graduate students doing PhDs in nanoscience, so we can be sure that there’ll be a vigorous technical discussion. But anyone’s welcome to turn up (Philip asks that you drop him an email – see his personal web-page for an address – if you want to come). And if you can’t make it in person, submit your question online via this link.

    (Updated 13 July following Philip’s information below that Dave King can’t now come to the Summer School)

    13 thoughts on “An open debate about radical nanotechnology”

    1. Richard,

      Thanks for advertising the debate via the Soft Machines blog. Unfortunately, David King sent me a message very recently to state that, due to other commitments, he now cannot attend the School. I will modify the timetable and programme accordingly in the near future.

      Best wishes,


    2. Are nano-facories capable of manufacturing virtually anything with little or no environmental impact really just a few decades away, as some groups are claiming? (I would guess this is Philips question here.)
      I have a slight problem with this question, the phrase manufacturing virtually anything can be taken a couple of different ways. If taken in a strictly literal fashion, being able to make anything from biological organisms to every device invented with a full choice of every element in the periodic table, I would completely agree with Philip that it will not happen in 10, 20 or 50 years.
      I would prefer this question: Is a programable fabrication system that can self replicate and manufacture an increasingly wide range of devices structured from the nano-scale to the human scale possible in just a few decades? I think that this much more modest yet still revolutionary goal is possible.

    3. Jim, the wording here is Philip’s. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration of what is being claimed by some MNT supporters. In fact, I think the claim is made fairly explicitly in J. Storrs Hall’s book Nanofuture (though I left my copy at work so I can’t at the moment retrieve a suitable supporting quotation). Of course, I don’t agree with this position, but as you say that still leaves open the question of whether some more modest, but still significant, goal is attainable.

    4. One problem in the nanotech debates is the tendency for each side to try to position the other side into the most extreme and disadvantageous corner possible. Anti-Drexlerians argue as Phillip does that the issue is whether nanotech can build “virtually anything”. Pro-Drexlerians argue that the other side is claiming that mechanosynthesis is impossible. So long as each side only chooses to argue against the most extreme claims of the other, they talk past each other and progress is impossible.

      I would prefer to see each side take a more courageous and objective stance and stop trying to demonize the opposition like this. Each side should be allowed to state the position that they are willing to defend. My guess is that if this is done, both sides will achieve 90% agreement right off the bat! Then they can productively discuss the areas where they disagree and where both of them agree that they disagree.

      I know that there are bad feelings on both sides, and each wants to make up for past hurts by attacking the most extreme and unreasonable statements they can find that the other side has ever made. But I hope that the debaters can put this history aside and join together in a good faith effort to identify areas of genuine disagreement, positions that both sides are willing to defend and which do not exaggerate or mischaracterize their beliefs.

    5. Hi everyone,

      In response to Hal comments, I know this will not be politically correct but…

      I actually am glad that there is vigourous debate about where things stand! I understand that there are two fears out their which are

      1. Caution types: That Nanohype will lead to unrealistic expectations which will burst the bubble in say 2015!

      2. Risk takers: That Nanotech if developed will lead to everybody carrying nuclear weapons in their pockets for self defence!

      The truth of these positions are of cause somewhere in the middle. The point I think is to find the truth! I believe that vigour debate is healthy as it leads to Popperian falsifiable claims. If Nanofactories are not built in say 2015, then the Drexlerians have been refuted! If, companies are still investing in Nanotech in 2025, then the caution types will also have been proven wrong!

      Let the arguements begin!

      An amateur mathematician.

    6. Zelah, you are certainly right to say that there is going to be vigorous debate; one can’t hide the fact that the areas of disagreement are substantial and important. But there’s nonetheless wisdom in Hal’s advice, and in particular his insistence that the debate ought to be conducted with an assumption of good faith on both sides.

    7. What about this open-ended question?: “What scientific evidence is available that demonstrates that mechanosynthesis (defined as the mechanical forcing of a reaction between two molecules) is possible?” Not in 10, 20, or 50 years..but possible at all. While people argue over this or that, I really haven’t seen any peer-reviewed papers on the topic. That’s how a constructive debate can be progressed: through hypothesis and experimentation.

      -Howard Salis

    8. As it happens, one of my contacts/collaborators has recently written a review article about just this topic. I think it’s in peer review right now. I”ll of course give a summary here when it’s out.

    9. In their comments, Hal and Jim raise a number of important and well-argued points (as usual). (Apologies for the delay in responding but I’ve been on holiday). I’d first like to assure Hal that I agree that we need to move beyond previous bad feeling and I’m very hopeful that the debate will facilitate this. I also very much agree with his comment re. each side being allowed to state the position they are willing to defend. Indeed, this is how the debate will begin – each speaker will have a few minutes to outline their concept of nanotechnology. (I’m disappointed, however, that Hal felt that some of the topics I outlined for the debate were somehow meant to demonise the “opposition” – this was not my intent at all). The questions posed by Jim and Howard are very interesting and will certainly be put to the panel! In addition, please note that David Forrest has recently been confirmed as a member of the debate panel.

      Best wishes,


    10. The event aims to address this question: “Is nanotechnology based on scaled-down everyday engineering concepts viable or should we look to biology for insights into how to tame the nanoworld?” With the caveat that, obviously, the engineering concepts being scaled down must take into account the differences that crop up at the nanoscale, I would think the answer to this either/or style question is: Yes to both. Sorry I’ll miss Philip’s debate, sounds fun.–CP

    11. I thought there was a new field of nanobiology?

      I also thought that for every action, there is a reaction. I assume that
      the action of creating synthetic molecules will have a reaction. No?
      Like the technology of splitting an atom…for good or for no good?
      Nuclear medicine, nuclear energy or nuclear weapons?

      The question is, will the researchers be careful to keep the public informed of every aspect of the research, so that we/they can be equals in making
      decisions about the future.

    12. Have a look at this post and the links in it for more about issues of public engagement in nanotechnology. For my part, I’m doing my best to keep the public informed through this blog (and my book)!

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