Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines
© 2004 Robert A. Freitas Jr. and Ralph C. Merkle. All Rights Reserved.
Robert A. Freitas Jr., Ralph C. Merkle, Kinematic Self-Replicating Machines, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 2004.
6.3.5 Assemblers Would Be No Better Than Conventional Alternatives
A fifth criticism is that molecular assemblers would not be able to produce products of any great value, and that continued evolutionary advances in existing manufacturing methods will allow us to make everything we could desire by extensions of existing techniques.
This argument receives its greatest support from a very simple fact: we know and understand the value of the products that we can already make, for we use them regularly and understand them at least reasonably well. We have little understanding of the products we have not yet made, and so we question both their feasibility and their value because we have no experience of them. Thus, any product that has not already been made is viewed with suspicion. But the justification of a new manufacturing method is precisely that it can make new products that are of great value – and it is precisely here that our collective understanding is at its weakest. As a consequence, some critics have argued that assemblers will make little contribution to our ability to manufacture useful new products because these critics have but a weak grasp of the truly astonishing range of products that are possible but which have not yet been made.
Fortunately, we have one class of products where molecular manufacturing will clearly let us build new and remarkably valuable products: computers [208, 3074-3078]. Computer memories, computer processors, and mass storage will all very obviously benefit from improved manufacturing technologies. Even the poorest informed can understand that computers are dramatically more powerful today than they were a few decades ago, and that this trend is likely to continue for at least many more years. Almost everyone can understand that computer hardware may be pushed to its utmost limits if we are able to arrange atoms in the precise patterns that we desire, rather than the molecularly imperfect patterns that we can make at present.
Even here, though, ignorance can create a fog that thwarts progress. In a conversation with a highly placed head of a governmental research organization, one of the authors [Merkle] found himself explaining that the ability to arrange dopant atoms at specific lattice sites would greatly improve the performance of computer hardware (as compared with the present-day statistical dispersal of dopant atoms in regions of silicon). The highly placed official quite literally did not know if such precision would or would not be helpful . Ignorance of what has not yet been built creates doubts that sap support, and lends credence to those who advocate doing nothing. There is always a plentiful supply of such advocates.
Computers, of course, are only one of the many revolutionary new applications of molecular nanotechnology. Medical applications will transform healthcare throughout the world [199, 228-235, 2910]. Here, it is much easier to miss the magnitude of the change that is coming. Disease and sickness are so much a part of our lives that we have a hard time envisioning a day when they may be absent, much as medieval patients would have been hard pressed to envision a modern hospital or the vast improvements that have taken place in health care. The first author’s publication of Nanomedicine Vol. I  in 1999 and Vol. IIA  in 2003 are the first steps in conveying to a broader technical audience the raw magnitude of the all-encompassing shift that is coming. No discussion of an individual improvement, or of some particular way to alleviate one particular unhealthful condition, can convey the scope of the medical revolution that is now appearing on the horizon. Book-length expositions are required to bring together in one place our best understanding of the many ways that nanomedicine will improve and expand our lives.
The interested reader is also referred to other sources [2887, 2891, 2910, 3080] for discussions of the many applications of molecular nanotechnology. Those who argue that nanotechnology will bring only modest benefits fail to grasp the magnitude of the changes that are in store, in part because people often have a hard time envisioning the impact of a new technology. We most easily understand what we can see and touch and use directly in our lives. Theoretical extrapolations based on abstract analysis of well-understood physical law is beyond most people, as witness the general rejection of rocket flight  in the early 1900s – even though the basic principles of Newtonian mechanics were well established and the energy that could be derived from chemical rocket fuels was well known .
Last updated on 1 August 2005