Competitive Consumption

Partisans of molecular nanotechnology keep coming back to the theme of the devastation that they say will be caused to the world’s economic systems when it becomes possible to manufacture anything at no cost. Surely, they say, when goods cost nothing to make, then the money economy must wither away? I don’t accept the premise of this argument, but even if I did I think it is based on a misunderstanding of how economics works. The laws of economics, inasmuch as anything in that discipline can be described as a law, are really observations about human nature, and as such are not likely to be overturned on the basis of a mere technological advance. The key fallacy in this way of thinking is very succinctly put in an excellent book I’ve just finished: A nation of rebels: why counterculture became consumer culture, by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter.

This book is mainly an entertaining polemic against the counterculture and the anti-globalisation movement. What’s relevant to us here is its gleeful demolition of the idea of postscarcity economics, as proposed by Herbert Marcuse and Murray Bookchin. This is the idea that once machines were able to take care of all our material needs and wants, we would be able to form a society based not on the demands of economic production, but on fellowship and love. It’s very easy to see the connection between this and the arguments made by the proponents of molecular nanotechnology.

The key concept in understanding what’s wrong with these ideas is the notion of a “positional good”. Positional goods get their value from the fact that not everyone can have them; people pay lots of money for an expensive and rare sports car like an Aston Martin, not simply because it is a nice piece of engineering, but explicitly because possession of one signals, in the view of the purchaser, something about their exalted status in society. The whole aim of much advertising and brand building is to increase the value of artefacts which often cost very little to make, by associating them with status messages of this kind. Very few people are immune to this, unless they live in cabins in the wilderness; for most of the middle class majorities of rich countries their biggest expenditure is on a house to live in, which by virtue of the importance of location and neighbourhood is an archetypal positional good.

When one realises how important positional goods are in market economies, the fallacy of the idea that molecular manufacturing would cause the end of the money economy becomes clear. In the words of Heath and Potter:

“What eventually led to the undoing of these views was the failure to appreciate the competitive nature of our consumption and the significance of positional goods. Houses in good neighborhoods, tasteful furniture, fast cars, stylish restaurant and cool clothes are all intrinsically scarce. We cannot manufacture more of them, because their value is based on the distinction they provide to consumers. The idea of overcoming scarcity through increased production is incoherent; in our society, scarcity is a social, not a material, phenomenon.”


I’m grateful to Tim Harper for some kind words about me in his column on Giving his roundup of how nanotechnology fared last year, he notes that 2004 ” was also the year that the tricky issue of the Drexlerian idea of molecular manufacturing – the version popularised by the Foresight Institute – finally began to be addressed in a scientific manner”, and he mentions both this blog and my book Soft Machines in connection with this. But, as he goes on to say, “there is much work to be done, however, to build trust between the scientific and molecular nanotechnology communities”.

To build trust, you need understanding. It’s probably true that many in the scientific community have not made the effort to understand the point of view of the molecular nanotechnology community. But equally, I think that in that community that there is a very widespread lack of understanding about how science works. I don’t mean this in the sense that they don’t understand the scientific method or basic scientific results; it’s the sociological aspects of science as a human enterprise I’m talking about here. You need an understanding of how science as a collective effort selects problems and makes progress in order to be able to predict and understand the ways in which nanoscience will turn into nanotechnology.

A simple example of the sort of misconception that results is the widespread view in the molecular nanotechnology community that the high profile scepticism of figures like Richard Smalley is all that stands in the way of progress towards their goal, because scientists are discouraged from pursuing these lines of enquiry for fear of their career. The truth is absolutely the opposite; there would be no surer way for a young scientist to become rich and famous than by proving Smalley wrong, and you can be confident that if someone with the right experience and the right equipment could think of a way of making a big step towards demonstrating mechanosynthesis, they would be doing it now. And if they were successful, they’d probably find space for a few kind words about Drexler in the speech they gave as they accepted their Nobel prize…

Nanotechnology and universal surveillance

What potential impact of nanotechnology on society should we worry about most? The headlines are being made by the possibility that nanoparticles are especially toxic. This is a real concern, but the problem is relatively bounded and the solutions aren’t difficult to put in place (even if those solutions are going to be bad news for laboratory rats). The primal fear is of loss of control of a technology so powerful that it could lead to the extinction of all life – the problem of grey goo. But as the hubris and lack of realism implicit in the assumption that we will, any time soon, be able to engineer what amounts to a new and superior form of life becomes more apparent, this fear should lose its force.

My major worry is in the way we’ll deal with a world in which computing and communication power is so cheap that every object and artefact can have the capability to sense its environment and interact with its neighbours. RFID and smart dust give us a good idea of which way this technology is heading, and developments in evolutionary nanotechnology are sure both to greatly increase the capability and dramatically decrease the cost of such devices.

Worries about the way this is heading are eloquently stated in an interesting new essay on nanotechnology by one of the grandest figures of US academic nanoscience, George Whitesides (the essay is in the current edition of the new Wiley nanotechnology journal, Small, but it probably needs a subscription for full text access).

“In my opinion, the most serious risk of nanotechnology comes, not from hypothetical revolutionary materials or systems, but from the uses of evolutionary nanotechnologies that are already developing rapidly ….
���Universal surveillance������the observation of everyone and everything, in real time, everywhere; a concept suggested by those most concerned with terrorism���is not a technology that I would wish to see cloak a free society, no matter how protectively intended.”

Availability of Soft Machines

Anyone who has tried to buy a copy of my book Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life in the last few weeks will notice that there have been problems of availability – higher demand from the USA than the publisher anticipated has resulted in stocks being cleared out. My publisher now tells me that new stock has just arrived from the printer at the UK warehouse, so within a few days the book should be easier to get hold of.

Nanotechnology films from the European Union

A couple of 1/2 hour documentaries about nanotechnology, made by the EU nanotechnology program, are now available online.

Nano: the next dimension is a serious and straightforward documentary, introduced by the French Nobel Laureate chemist Jean-Maire Lehn, and featuring other eminent European nanoscientists such as Cees Dekker, Harry Kroto and Christian Joachim.

Nanotechnology is aimed at the younger audience. It has does have some good things, despite its rather cheesy attempts to connect with youth culture, and (in the English version) terrible dubbing. It does, however, feature a very silly animation of a medical nanobot.

My thanks to Raymond Monk from the European Commission for bringing this to my attention.

You can’t always get what you want

New readers of the more visionary writings on advanced nanotechnology could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the desires of the writers that come first. They want the material lifestyle of a billionaire, they want to travel in space, they want to live for ever – and advanced nanotechnology is invoked as a Deus ex Machina to make their wishes come true. Scientists are taught not to covet their own hypotheses – not to want to believe in their own theories so deeply that their critical judgement is clouded. This is a good principle, though one that’s difficult for fallible humans always to follow. Science has delivered huge improvements to the human condition, and nanotechnology has the potential to improve things much more. But, difficult as it is, we need to focus not on what we want, but what we can achieve, given the constraints of the universe we live in.

In the words of Sir Michael Jagger,
“You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need”.

With thanks to David Bott, and a Happy New Year to all my readers.

Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I stand

For the convenience of new readers of Soft Machines, here’s a quick summary of my personal positions on the question of the feasibility of the variety of nanotechnology proposed by Dr K. Eric Drexler in his book Nanosystems. Many of the arguments are made in my book Soft Machines; I’ve discussed some of these issues in my blog in the last few months, and I’ll get round to going into more detail about some of the others in the New Year.

  • Will it be possible to make functional machines and devices that operate on the level of single molecules?
    Yes. As pointed out by Drexler in his 1986 book Engines of Creation, Nature, in cell biology, gives us many examples of sophisticated machines that operate on the nanoscale to synthesise new molecules with great precision, to process information and to convert energy. We know, therefore, that radical nanotechnology (using this term to distinguish these sorts of fully functional nanoscale devices and machines from the sorts of incremental nanotechnology involved in making nanostructured materials) is possible in principle; the question is how to do it in practise.
  • Do the proposals set out in Drexler’s book Nanosystems offer the only way to achieve such a radical nanotechnology?
    Obviously not, since cell biology constitutes one radical nanotechnology that is quite different in its design principles to the scaled-down mechanical engineering that underlies Drexler’s vision of “molecular nanotechnology”, or MNT. One can imagine an artificial nanotechnology that uses some of the same operating principles and design philosophy as cell biology, but executes them in synthetic materials (as discussed in Soft Machines). Undoubtedly other approaches to radical nanotechnology that have not yet been conceived could work too. In comparing different potential approaches, we need to assess both how easy in practise it is going to be to implement them, and what their ultimate capabilities are likely to be.
  • Does Nanosystems contain obvious errors that can quickly be shown to invalidate it?
    No. It’s a carefully written book that reflects well the state of science in relevant fields at the time of writing. Drexler’s proposals for radical nanotechnology do not obviously break physical laws. There are difficulties, though, of two types. Firstly, in many cases, Drexler used the best tools available at the time of writing, and makes plausible estimates in the face of considerable uncertainty. Since then, though, nanoscale science has considerably advanced and in some places the picture needs to be revised. Secondly, many proposals in Nanosystems are not fully worked out, and many vital components and mechanisms remain at the level of “black boxes”.
  • How easy will it be to implement the vision of diamondoid-based nanotechnology outlined in Nanosystems?
    The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology writes “A fabricator within a decade is plausible – maybe even sooner”. I think this timeline would be highly implausible even if all the underlying science was under control, and all that remained was the development of the technology. But the necessary science is very far from being understood. Firstly, there are important uncertainties about the effect on the proposed mechanisms, based as they are on the scaling down of macroscopic mechanical engineering principles, of ubiquitous features of nanoscale physics such as strong surface forces and Brownian motion. This will be particularly serious for devices intended to work in ambient conditions, rather than at very low temperatures at ultra-high vacuum, and I believe that the problems this will cause are seriously underestimated by proponents of MNT. Secondly, there is currently a huge gap in the implementation pathway. Even proponents of MNT disagree on the best way to reach their goal from our current level of technology. Drexler favours soft and biomimetic approaches (see both Nanosystems, and his letter to Physics World responding to my article), though the means of moving from soft to hard systems remains unclear. Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle favour a more direct route using diamondoid mechanosynthesis; see the ongoing discussion with Philip Moriarty here for the difficulties that this proposal may face. In conclusion, even if diamondoid-based nanotechnology does not break any physical laws in principle, I believe in practise that it will be very much more difficult to implement than its proponents think.
  • Will the advantages of the diamondoid-based nanotechnology outlined in Nanosystems be so great as to make it worth persisting to overcome these difficulties, whatever the cost?
    This depends what you want to use the technology for. Much of the emphasis from proponents of MNT is on using the technology to manufacture artefacts. But arguably the impacts of nanotechnology will be much more important and far-reaching in areas like information processing, energy storage and transduction, and medicine, where the benefits of diamond as a structural material will be much less relevant. In these areas, evolutionary nanotechnology and other approaches to radical nanotechnology, like soft nanotechnology and bio-nanotechnology, may have a greater impact on a much shorter timescale.
  • If the diamondoid-based nanotechnology proposed in Nanosystems proves to be impossible or impractical to implement, does that mean that nanotechnology will have only marginal impacts on the economy and society?
    Not necessarily. See this post –Even if Drexler is wrong, nanotechnology will have far-reaching impacts – for a discussion.
  • Small but deadly?

    A piece in today’s Independent newspaper – Small but deadly – neatly illustrates much of what is good and bad about mainstream journalism about nanotechnology today.

    The main text of the story reports a study from the Rice group reporting on the mechanism by which unmodified buckminster fullerene damages human cells, and the way in which this toxicity is greatly reduced by attaching functional groups to the surface of the fullerene molecule. Although the story is not exactly news (the paper in question appeared on September 23rd, and was extensively reported elsewhere), the main text of the report is fairly clear, accurate and well written.

    But if the science reporting is good, the context in which the story is introduced is lamentable. The introductory paragraph moves quickly from Michael Crichton’s Prey, via self-replicating robots consuming the planet, to Prince Charles’s warning that nanotechnology could lead to a thalidomide-like health disaster.

    And if only the science journalist could have a quick word with the picture editor. Once again, the story is illustrated with a completely idiotic medical nanorobot image from the Science Photo Library’s extensive range of stupid nanotechnology graphics. To add insult to injury, this is described in the caption as a “computer simulation”.

    Is mechanosynthesis feasible? The debate moves up a gear.

    Followers of the Drexlerian flavour of radical nanotechnology often accuse nanoscientists of ignoring their approach for reasons of politics or prejudice, and take the lack of detailed critiques of books like Nanosystems as evidence that the whole Drexlerian program is feasible, and indeed imminent. Scientists, on the hand, find the Drexlerian proposals too futuristic and too lacking in practical implementation details to be even worth criticising. The result is an ever-widening gulf between the increasingly bitter Drexlerites and a dismissive and contemptuous mainstream nanoscience community, which does neither side any good. So it’s a very positive development that Robert Freitas has presented a detailed scheme for achieving the first steps towards the mechanosynthesis of diamondoid nanostructures, and even more positive that Philip Moriarty has made a detailed critique of these proposals, based on his deep practical knowledge of scanning tunneling microscopy and surface growth processes.

    Philip’s critique is contained in an 8-page letter to The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology‘s Chris Phoenix. The letter was prompted by an approach from Chris, asking Philip to expand on the criticisms of the Drexlerian vision that I reported him making at our joint appearance at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Chris has, in turn, replied to the letter, and will be publishing the whole correspondence on the CRN web-site in due course.

    The letter covers a lot of ground; at its heart is an exploration of some fundamental problems with the Freitas scheme – just how will a diamondoid cluster grow, and is the assumption that the mechanosynthesis tool-tip will grow in the necessary pyramid shape at all realistic? The answer to this seems to be, in all probability, no.

    Just as important as this critique of one specific proposal are the general comments Philip makes about the importance of proof-of-principle experiments and of the theory-experiment feedback loop. This gets to the heart of the gulf between conventional nanoscience and the followers of Drexler. To the latter, theoretical demonstrations of feasibility in principle are primary, and considerations of how one is going to achieve the goals are secondary engineering issues that don’t need detailed consideration now. But to nanoscientists like Philip, the devil is in the details. It’s these details that determine whether a theoretically possible outcome will in practise be achieved in 10 years, in 50 years, or never. The Drexlerites tend to say “if x doesn’t work, then we’ll just try y”. But the more and more specific systems we try out and have to discard, the further away we get from the MNT dream of a system that can make any combination of atoms consistent with chemistry.

    Freitas and Merkle have taken a very positive step in addressing these issues of implementation and experimental detail. The fact that the proposals can be criticised is positive too; in science this type of criticism isn’t destructive. It’s at the heart of the process by which science moves forward.

    Update – 26th January. The whole correspondence between Moriarty and Phoenix, including the original letter, is now available for download here.

    Nanorobotics in the UK

    Nanoscientists would love to have an instrument which would allow them to see what they were doing while they picked individual molecules up and moved them around. At the moment researchers can manipulate individual molecules with scanning probe microscopy techniques, and high resolution transmission electron microscopy allows structures to be visualised with resolutions better than an individual atom. A major grant has recently been awarded to a team of UK scientists to combine these technologies, developing instrumentation that combines nanoscale actuators with high resolution electron microscopy. The result should be a new tool for manipulating single atoms and molecules while they are being imaged, with atomic resolution, in three dimensions.

    The ��2.3 million ($4.4 million) grant comes from the UK government’s Basic Technology Program. It is led by Beverley Inkson and Guenter Moebus here at the University of Sheffield, and also involves the nanoscience group at the University of Nottingham.

    simulated interaction between electron beam and surface
    The image is a simulated interaction between an electron beam and a surface, showing the size of the electron beam to scale with the atoms making up the surface. The immediate uses that are foreseen for this technology are mostly as a nanoscale research tool, with applications to research in nanoscale electronic, magnetic and electromechanical devices, the manipulation of fullerenes and nanoparticles, nanoscale friction and wear, biomaterials, and systems for carrying out quantum information processing.

    More details can be found in this one-page PDF.