Drexler and the nanosubmarines

I wrote below about Drexler’s unhappiness that I had illustrated my article in Physics World with a particularly
silly image of a nanosubmarine. He wrote that could not be held responsible for the “ridiculous artists concepts” that have become associated with his work, and thus my criticism of the nanosubmarine illustration wasn’t a fair criticism of MNT. I’m quite sure that if Drexler had been directly involved in the production of images like these, then they would be much more physically plausible. But I wonder if the supporters of Drexler have been as quick to seek correction when these images are used in connection with articles that are positive about MNT? The particular image I chose is very widely circulated, as it appears on the Microsoft Encarta online encyclopedia with the caption “Nanobot computers of the future” . Many readers – particularly high school students – will regard this source as authoritative, and it is perhaps a pity that this image remains unchallenged there.

The neutral onlooker might also find it puzzling that exactly the same image appears on the website of the Foresight Institute, of which Drexler is Founder and Chairman Emeritus. Of course, Drexler can’t be held responsible for everything on this large website, particularly given that he has no executive role. But the casual browser must surely be forgiven for thinking that images on the Foresight website carried some kind of endorsement from the Foresight Institute, and thus by extension from its Board chairman.

But the issue of the use of imaginative images is far from black and white. I gave a talk at a conference in May in which I made similar criticisms of this kind of image, and I was surprised to be taken to task about it by a prominent member of the UK nanobusiness community. His argument was that I should consider the image as a metaphor, and if the public found it easier to understand the image of a nanobot vacuum cleaner sucking up cholesterol deposits than a more realistic picture of, say, an anti-cholesterol drug wrapped up in an advanced nanoscale drug-delivery device like a liposome, then the imaginative image served a valuable purpose. Perhaps I’m too literal minded to buy this argument. The message must surely be that visual metaphors are very powerful, but if not used carefully they can rebound in unexpected and unwelcome ways.

2 thoughts on “Drexler and the nanosubmarines”

  1. There is a link at the bottom of the Foresight page you linked to, which goes to the front page of Foresight’s “Nanotech Art Gallery”. There we read:

    Artwork in this Gallery should be appreciated as expressions of each artist’s unique creative impulses and insights. Some works may be highly interpretive or impressionistic, while others may attempt to achieve photographic realism or the precise rendering of a technical engineering illustration. Some images are in the nature of rough drafts or quick sketches; others are more elaborate finished pieces. All styles are welcome here. And all images are presented with the understanding that they are “artist’s conceptions” which may or may not entirely reflect the technical nanodevice designer’s original intent or the ultimate engineering reality.

    The presence of this image among hundreds of others in the art gallery should not be taken as an endorsement by the Foresight Institute.

    If you want to criticize a more realistic nanomedical device, why not Freitas’ respirocyte? It’s basically a nanotech oxygen and CO2 tank. What does your physical intuition say about that one?

  2. Well, if everybody always read the small print, then there would be many fewer misunderstandings in the world, but they don’t. For the respirocyte question, see my answer to your other comment.

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