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Nanoassemblers: A Likely Threat?
Volume 4, Issue 2

Martin Moskovits, University of California, Santa Barbara

In his popular book Engines of Creation, author and innovator, Eric Drexler, proposed the concept of a nanoassembler, a tiny robot equipped with the ability to construct with the aid of many others, useful objects by identifying raw materials at the atomic, molecular or, at least, the nanometer scale, then assembling these tiny constituents into a complex structure. The nanoassembler would also have the ability to reproduce itself in anticipation of a given task, then, presumably, disassemble those nanoassemblers no longer needed, harvesting the raw materials for subsequent projects. Several individuals (including Drexler himself) have expressed concern about the prospect of the dust-particle- sized nanoassemblers replicating themselves uncontrollably, leading to large parts of the earth’s surface being covered in a blanket of nanoassembler-dust, a material christened “gray goo” by Drexler. A great deal of concern has been expressed regarding personal and environmental risk posed by technological developments in nanotechnology. The threat posed by the possible development of nanoassemblers depends, of course, on the range of capabilities that such nanoassemblers could possess. Some have suggested that in carrying out its prescribed duties, a nanoassembler, in the full incarnation proposed by Drexler, would likely have to contravene either or both the second law of thermodynamics and the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics. In this article, Dr. Martin Moskovits assesses the likelihood of creating nanoassemblers of the type proposed by Drexler as highly unlikely. This does not preclude the development of useful microscopic robots with far more limited abilities than those proposed by Drexler, such as a micro-robot that navigates the circulatory system diagnostically. These, however, would not need to be self-replicating and would therefore not pose the same level of risk as Drexler’s nanoassemblers. Simple, microscopic, self-replicating mechanical systems would also be possible, which could pose health and environmental threats not unlike pathogens, but a nanoassembler that carries out wholesale molecular assembly intelligently and cooperatively as proposed by Drexler is unlikely.

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