[extropy-chat] Responsible Nanotechnology Newsletter

MIKE TREDER iph1954 at msn.com
Sun Jan 1 17:28:24 UTC 2006

C-R-Newsletter #36: December 31, 2005

To read this on the Web, with nice formatting and hyperlinks, go to 

NOTE: In the items below, links are indicated with [brackets], and shown at 
the end of each section.

Editor’s Note
We wrap up our third year, appropriately, with monthly newsletter #36. 
Here’s wishing all our readers a prosperous and joyous 2006!


- CRN Goes to Yale
- New President at Foresight
- CRN Task Force Progress
- Bragging About Blogging
- A Global Surge Protector?
- Inside CRN, Parts 1-5
- Milestones & Moving Forward
- Feature Essay: Simple Nanofactories vs. Floods of Products

Every month this newsletter gets you up to date on recent events, but to 
follow the latest happenings on a daily basis, be sure to check our 
Responsible Nanotechnology weblog at http://CRNano.typepad.com/


CRN Goes to Yale

On Wednesday, December 7, CRN Executive Director Mike Treder gave a talk on 
"Transforming Society: Ethical Issues in the Nanotech Revolution," at Yale 
University's Institute for Social and Policy Studies. The presentation was 
addressed to Yale's [Technology and Ethics Working Research Group], an 
interdisciplinary affiliation of faculty, students, and community members.
A unique feature of this opportunity was its length. The format allows for 
about 90 minutes of lecture and discussion, followed by a brief break for 
dinner (delivered to the meeting), and then more informal discussion. With 
almost three hours to approach a topic, the presenter and group are able to 
explore it in some depth. Still, at the end several people commented that we 
had barely scratched the surface of the many serious issues surrounding 
advanced nanotechnology.


New President at Foresight

The Foresight Nanotech Institute has a [new president]. On December 9, Scott 
Mize stepped down after one year in the position, and Marc Lurie was 
appointed to replace him. Prior to joining Foresight, Lurie founded and as 
CEO helmed @hand, a software and services company delivering 
mission-critical mobile solutions to large enterprises.


CRN Task Force Progress

Work is proceeding smoothly for the CRN Global Task Force on Implications 
and Policy, a [diverse group] of world-class experts brought together to 
develop comprehensive recommendations for the safe and responsible use of 
molecular manufacturing.

Currently, we are completing first drafts on a series of essays that each 
identifies a specific concern of a task force member about advanced 
nanotechnology. Almost 20 essays have been written so far. When these are 
published in anthology form early next year, we will ask for feedback on our 
ideas, as well as public input on additional concerns.


Bragging About Blogging

[Technorati] is the equivalent of Google for the blogosphere. Currently 
tracking 23.4 million sites and 1.8 billion links, Technorati ranks weblogs 
by what they call ‘authority’, based on the number of confirmed links from 
other blog sites.
According to them, [CRN’s Responsible Nanotechnology blog] has more 
authority than 99.9% of all the others out there. Of course, there are a lot 
of blogs, and many of them are highly esoteric. But it's nice to know that 
so many other bloggers have seen the value of referring their readers to our 


A Global Surge Protector?

Concentration of power is the topic of Mike Treder’s most recent Future 
Brief essay...
Molecular manufacturing represents power: political power, military power, 
and economic power. When this power becomes available, will a "global surge 
protector" be needed? If so, how might that be devised and implemented?
Who controls that power and how widely -- how democratically -- it is 
distributed will make all the difference when nanotechnology is fully 
developed. Decisions we make before that time will determine whether our 
world becomes safer or more dangerous; more just or less just; more free or 
more oppressive.
Chances are you have a surge protector in your home to shield electronic 
devices from unexpected power surges. Someday soon, we may need protection 
from unprecedented surges in global political power.

Read the full essay [here].


Inside CRN, Parts 1-5

In December, we published a [five-part series] on our blog that gave a look 
"inside" CRN. The series of short articles reviewed the process CRN follows 
in choosing how and what to describe as the likely results of our research 
into molecular manufacturing.

Commenting on the series, Jamais Cascio of [WorldChanging.com] said:

CRN looks primarily at the implications of what they term "middle period" 
nanotech, such as nanofactories -- much more sophisticated than 
nanomaterials, but not the fantastic nanoassemblers of science fiction. I 
strongly encourage our readers to check out the recently-concluded "Inside 
CRN" series at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog. The five 
posts cover CRN's mission and goals, and explain how their focus differs 
from other nanotech resources. It's a great introduction to an extremely 
valuable organization.


Milestones & Moving Forward

As we commemorate our 3rd anniversary this month, we are proud of what we’ve 
accomplished so far, but mindful that greater challenges await us in 2006. 
This is important work that few others are doing. To keep moving forward, we 
will need to grow fast.

A [new page] on our website lists some of the significant milestones from 
CRN’s first three years. That page also outlines our current 
priorities—including research, outreach, and development—and suggests 
several ways in which you can help advance this work.


Feature Essay: Simple Nanofactories vs. Floods of Products
Chris Phoenix, Director of Research, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

In [last month's essay], I explained why even the earliest meter-scale 
nanofactories will necessarily have a high throughput, manufacturing their 
own mass in just a few hours. I also explained how a nanofactory can fasten 
together tiny functional blocks – nanoblocks – to make a meter-scale 
product. The next question is what range of products an early nanofactory 
would be able to build.


For several reasons, it is important to know the range and functionality of 
the products that the nanofactory will produce, and how quickly new products 
can be developed. Knowing these factors will help to estimate the economic 
value of the nanofactory, as well as its impacts and implications. The 
larger the projected value, the more likely it is to be built sooner; the 
more powerful an early nanofactory is and the faster new products appear, 
the more disruptive it can be.

Because a large nanofactory can be built only by another nanofactory, even 
the earliest nanofactories will be able to build other nanofactories. This 
means that the working parts of the nanofactory will be available as 
components for other product designs. From this reasoning, we can begin to 
map the lower bound of nanofactory product capabilities.

This essay is a demonstration of how CRN's thinking and research continue to 
evolve. In 2003, I published a peer-reviewed paper called [“Design of a 
Primitive Nanofactory”] in which I described the simplest nanofactory I 
could think of. That nanofactory had to do several basic functions, such as 
transporting components of various sizes, that implied the need for motors 
and mechanical components also in a variety of sizes, as well as several 
other functions. However, not long after that paper was published, an even 
simpler approach was proposed by John Burch and Eric Drexler. [Their 
approach] can build large products without ever having to handle large 
components; small blocks are attached rapidly, directly to the product.


The planar assembly approach to building products is more flexible than the 
convergent assembly approach, and can use a much more compact nanofactory. 
Instead of having to transport and join blocks of various sizes within the 
nanofactory, it only needs to transport tiny blocks from their point of 
fabrication to the area of the product under construction. (The 
Burch/Drexler nanofactory does somewhat more than this, but their version 
could be simplified.) This means that the existence of a nanofactory does 
not, as I formerly thought, imply the existence of centimeter-scale 
machinery. A planar nanofactory can probably be scaled to many square 
centimeters without containing any moving parts larger than a micron.

Large moving parts need to slide and rotate, but small moving parts can be 
built to flex instead. It is theoretically possible that the simplest 
nanofactory may not need much in the way of bearings. Large bearings could 
be simulated by suspending the moving surface with numerous small 
load-bearing rollers or “walkers” that could provide both low-friction 
motion and power. This might actually be better than a full-contact surface 
in some ways; failure of one load-bearing element would not compromise the 
bearing's operation.

Another important question is what kind of computers the nanofactory will be 
able to build. Unlike my “primitive nanofactory,” a simple planar-assembly 
nanofactory may not actually need embedded general-purpose computers 
(CPU's). It might have few enough different components that the instructions 
for building all the components could be fed in several times over during 
construction, so that information storage and processing within the 
nanofactory might be minimal. But even a planar-assembly nanofactory, as 
currently conceived, would probably have to incorporate large amounts of 
digital logic (computer-like circuitry) to process the blueprint file and 
direct the operations of the nanofactory fabricators. This implies that the 
nanofactory's products could contain large numbers of computers. However, 
the designs for the computers will not necessarily exist before they are 
needed for the products.

Any nanofactory will have to perform mechanical motions, and will need a 
power source for those motions. However, that power source may not be 
suitable for all products. For example, an early nanofactory might use 
chemicals for power. It seems more likely to me that it would use 
electricity, because electric motors are simpler than most chemical 
processing systems, since chemical systems need to deliver chemicals and 
remove waste products, while electrical systems only need wires. In that 
case, products could be electrically powered; it should not be difficult to 
gang together many nanoscale motors to produce power even for large 

The ability to fasten nanoscale blocks to selected locations on a growing 
product implies the ability to build programmable structures at a variety of 
scales. At the current level of analysis, the existence of a large 
nanofactory implies the ability to build other large structures. Because the 
nanofactory would not have to be extremely strong, the products might also 
not be extremely strong. Further analysis must wait for more information 
about the design of the nanofactory.

Sensing is an important part of the functionality of many products. An early 
nanofactory might not need many different kinds of sensing, because its 
operations would all be planned and commands delivered from outside. One of 
the benefits of [mechanosynthesis] of highly cross-linked covalent solids is 
that any correctly built structure will have a very precise and predictable 
shape, as well as other properties. Sensing would be needed only for the 
detection of errors in error-prone operations. It might be as simple as 
contact switches that cause operations to be retried if something is not in 
the right place. Other types of sensors might have to be invented for the 
products they will be used in.


Nanofactories will not need any special appearance, but many products will 
need to have useful user interfaces or attractive appearances. This would 
require additional R&D beyond what is necessary for the nanofactory.

The planar assembly approach is a major simplification relative to all 
previous nanofactory approaches. It may even be possible to build 
wet-chemistry nanofactory-like systems, as described in my [NIAC report] 
that was completed in spring 2005, and bootstrap incrementally from them to 
high-performance nanofactories. Because of this, it seems less certain that 
the first large nanofactory will be followed immediately by a flood of 


A flood of products still could occur if the additional product 
functionality were pre-designed. Although pre-designed systems will 
inevitably have bugs that will have to be fixed, rapid prototyping will help 
to reduce turnaround time for troubleshooting, and using combinations of 
well-characterized small units should reduce the need for major redesign. 
For example, given a well-characterized digital logic, it should not be more 
difficult to build a CPU than to write a software program of equivalent 
complexity – except that, traditionally, CPU's have required months to build 
each version of the hardware in the semiconductor fab.

An incremental approach to developing molecular manufacturing might start 
with a wet-chemical self-assembly system, then perhaps build several 
versions of mechanosynthetic systems for increasingly higher performance, 
then start to develop products. Such an incremental approach could require 
many years before the first general-purpose product design system was 
available. On the other hand, a targeted development program probably would 
aim at a dry mechanosynthetic system right from the start, perhaps bypassing 
some of the wet stages. It would also pre-design product capabilities that 
were not needed for the basic nanofactory. By planning from the start to 
take advantage of the capabilities of advanced nanofactories, a targeted 
approach could develop a general-purpose product design capability 
relatively early, which then would lead to a potentially disruptive flood of 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Recent developments in efforts to [roadmap the technical steps] toward 
molecular manufacturing make the work of CRN more important than ever.


It is critical that we examine the global implications of this rapidly 
emerging technology, and begin creating wise and effective solutions. That’s 
why we have formed the CRN Task Force.

But it won’t be easy. We need to grow, and rapidly, to meet the expanding 

Your donation to CRN will help us to achieve that growth. We rely largely on 
individual donations and small grants for our survival.

To make a contribution on-line click this link > 

This is important work and we welcome your participation.

Thank you!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Fine Print:

The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology(TM) is an affiliate of World 
Care(R), an international, non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization. All donations 
to CRN are handled through World Care. The opinions expressed by CRN do not 
necessarily reflect those of World Care.

More information about the extropy-chat mailing list