The stodgy Wall Street Journal has published Adam Keiper’s latest exhortation to pursue the promise of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) the way we were supposed to before it was sidetracked by a shift in government funding policies towards mere advanced material science.
The unscrupulous back-room politics implied in both Keiper’s piece and Eric Drexler’s support of it on his Metamodern blog could indeed all be true, and, frankly, of little surprise.However, are we really to believe that the lack of real experimental science into the feasibility of MNT is due to a lack of funding? Key to both Keiper and Drexler’s arguments is that in the National Research Council’s (NRC) 2006 review of the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative) there are recommendations for conducting research into the feasibility of molecular manufacturing.
As Drexler condenses the NRC’s recommendations: “…in the committee’s view, theoretical calculations are insufficient: Only experimental research can reliably answer the critical questions and move the technology toward implementation.”Since that 2006 report, some of the key scientists pursuing MNT, such as Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas, have continued publishing huge tomes on theoretical calculations of MNT. However, experimental research, such as Philip Moriarty’s work in the UK, has remained largely lacking.
The reason we are told for this state of affairs is a lack of funding, presumably because those unscrupulous back-room deals 10 years ago are still blocking the financing. Meanwhile Google and NASA (last I understood was a US-government-funded operation) are funding the Singularity University.
If MNT is the cornerstone of the coming Singularity, surely experiments to determine MNT’s feasibility could find funding while universities established to teach of its possible results manage to do it with apparent ease during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
I am nonplussed. Are we to believe that Prof. Moriarty is one of only a handful of scientists capable of securing funding for his experiments into molecular nanotechnology? Why is it that a Singularity University gets funding but funding for MNT’s research gets locked out? Or is it that the only the kind of funding that the MNT proponents really want is the type of funding the NNI has received over the last decade?
If the grand-scale funding mechanism is the missing piece that MNT needs to move forward, a possible solution is to follow the model of Prof. Moriarty and secure your own funding, do the research and build up some experimental results that will surely impress the holders of the purse strings in government.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.