Learning From the Slow Acceptance of Molecular Manufacturing

What can we in the healthy life extension community learn from the experiences of advocates and planners of molecular manufacturing? From a pure advocacy point of view, work to advance funding and support for this sort of future nanotechnology is five or more years further along the classic path of growth, public awareness and education than our work for healthy life extension science. Battles that have already been fought in the nanotechnology arena lie ahead for organizations like the Methuslah Foundation and initiatives like the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) - unless we can steer our way to avoid them.

I and others have discussed this topic in the past, comparing Eric Drexler on the nanotechnology side with Aubrey de Grey on the healthy life extension side. As we all know, Drexler has not had a smooth ride of it in the past couple of years as folk raising funding for nanoscale engineering (i.e. early stage nanotechnology, quite different from the proposals put forward by the likes of Drexler and Robert Freitas) engaged in a rather nasty campaign of character assassination of both Drexler and the science of molecular manufacturing.

You'll find some more recent thoughts on this topic over at Responsible Nanotechnology:

NanoEnthusiast wrote on our blog yesterday, "I can't help but think that if all the radical ideas related to Drexlerian nanotechnology (i.e radical life-extension, nanofactories that can make anything) had not been talked about; then maybe the rather modest-sounding claim that one can build interesting nanostuctures out of diamond one atom (or dimer) at time would have been accepted more easily."


A few days ago I (Chris) was making a list of the reasons why molecular manufacturing might have met with such slow acceptance and determined resistance. Here are some:

  • Drexler committed the unforgivable sin of scientists: he wrote a popular book.
  • He published a catchy term for a horrifying scenario ("grey goo"). Drexler, and several other nanotech people, spoke in favor of cryonics.
  • Bill Joy published a scary anti-MM article just as the US National Nanotechnology Initiative was getting off the ground.
  • For a very long time, vitalism was a significant problem: the idea that machines can't make machines, only life can do that.
  • MM people sometimes cited non-MM-focused research as evidence of MM's feasibility, and the researchers often objected to that, especially once MM became controversial.
  • Drexler was too far ahead of his time, and for a while there was very little experimental evidence to back up his physics-based extrapolations. Even today, this is a weak spot. (Trouble is, once the evidence is all in, we'll be very close to building a nanofactory, with no time left for adequate policy discussion!) (Other trouble is, even where evidence existed, it was ignored--for a number of years, scientists made such broad claims of impossibility that they effectively declared biological life impossible!)

I think that retreating from well-founded predictions that are two steps ahead rather than one step ahead is neither acceptable nor helpful to advancing your cause. If you want to move the debate, educate people and retain your own self-respect, you have to tell it as it is. Being far out in advance of what others are willing to commit to in public - while still having the science to back your position - is the best thing you could be doing.

We advocates must work to turn what were once seen as unthinkable goals for radical life extension into the conservative, mainstream position on the future of medical research.

I have talked before about the merits of the suitable outrageous extreme as a cultural device for advancing the cause of healthy life extension. This device has been working, and working well. A few years of making a plausible scientific case for medical technologies capable of supporting healthy life spans of 1,000 years or more has already notably moved the debate. Supporters of healthy life extension in the mainstream can now openly discuss and advocate 10 and 20 year healthy life extension with no funding repercussions. We can certainly keep this process going, but progress is damaged by those who make the run to moderation, taking a vow of silence or accepting lesser research goals in return for funding. Every voice that falls silent makes it that much harder to gain support for our position.

I do not think that Drexler's woes and the attendant attacks on research into molecular manufacturing - and other two steps ahead nanotechnology such as nanomedical robots - are a function of Drexler's actions. Quite aside from the fallacies inherent in assigning responsibility for the actions of party A to party B, not to mention the creation of figureheads, I have a better theory. To my mind, this all stems from a collision of brands and namespaces. When I talk about nanotechnology or nanomedicine, I have to clarify what I mean. Nanotechnology has become such a broad term that it is meanless to invoke it without qualifiers (early, advanced, existing, future, etc). Are you talking about nanoscale engineered such as that under development for new cancer therapies to guide drugs with pinpoint accuracy? Or are you talking about molecular manufacturing and the future production of goods, atom by atom? There are many other shades and meanings.

Once you have a collision of namespaces, conflict is inevitable. We can see this in the healthy life extension community for the term "anti-aging." The actual details of conflict, personalities involved and so forth are somewhat irrelevant - it all stems from the brand collision and resulting issues with conservative funding sources, public perception, support and so forth. I think we can trace back all the real acrimony over the nanotechnology namespace to the point at which initiatives to gain large-scale public funding were obtaining results; some folk felt that Drexler and advanced nanotechnology advocates were reducing their chances of obtaining funding, and so went on the attack. Human nature at its worst, as usual.

So what can we learn from this? When it comes to initiatives like SENS, the MPrize or research directly supported by Methuselah Foundation donors, we should carve out our own novel names and brands. If we talk about anti-aging research or even aging research, we are engaging in a namespace collision with entrenched interests and their funding activities. You can get away with that while the sums are small, but real money changes the game.

Take a look at the Longevity Dividend initiative, for example. Assuming continued growth and success on the part of the organizers, it's easy to draw the parallels between this and the National Nanotechnology Initiative that sparked the attacks on Drexler and advanced nanotechnology. It makes sense to move the long-term, forward looking work of healthy life extension advocates out of the namespace - and firing line - of moderates who support short-ranged initiatives and goals.

Once large amounts of money are on the table, and the possibility of brand confusion is raised, there are always some few in the wider community who will actively attempt to harm legitimate scientific work over funding issues. They should be treated as they deserve, but let's remove the incentive for undesirable actions in the first place.

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Drexler did invent his own term: Nanotechnology. In the long run, I can't see that it made much difference; the term was hijacked almost immediately. Within years of the term being hijacked, Drexler invented new terms... and almost a decade later, the NNI was still opposed to molecular manufacturing and Drexler personally.

A lesson from nanotech that you would do well to learn is: beware of threatening entrenched interests. So what entrenched interest would be threatened by healthy life extension? Why, the medical industry, of course! A year of lifespan in the US costs $36,300 on average... but above age 65 it costs $145,000. Multiply that by hundreds of millions of Americans, and you've got money worth killing for.

If they ever seriously think you might succeed, watch for articles discussing the possibility that anti-aging might reduce medical costs. When they appear, batten down the hatches, because a storm is coming. The corollary is: DO NOT make such arguments yourself! The possibly-paranoid extension is: Start working to build a life-extension research infrastructure in countries that don't have a strong lobby from the medical establishment, or that have a strong counter-lobby. Perhaps somewhere in South America might be suitable.


Posted by: Chris Phoenix at September 12th, 2006 4:06 PM

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