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Sander Olson Interviews

Christine Peterson


Sander Olson, who conducted this interview, is a member of the Foresight Institute.]


Question 1: Tell us about yourself, your background, current activities, etc.


Iím currently the President of the Foresight Institute (, a position Iíve held since 1997.


Question 2: Tell us about nanotechnology now versus when Engines of Creation was written in 1986. Are you more optimistic, less optimistic?


The theoretical aspects, the technical aspects, havenít changed. I have the same level of optimism and pessimism that I had back then, regarding the potential benefits and problems that we can expect from the technology. There are huge potential benefits, and some potential problems that will need attention. Those kinds of analysis havenít changed. It has taken longer for the scientific community to ďget itĒ than we expected. But it seems to have a generational component. Younger people tend to pick up on these ideas faster, unsurprisingly. As those individuals progress in their careers, we can expect to see some exciting developments. Iím basically optimistic. The timeframe, when I originally heard it, had a conditional in it: Molecular assemblers could be developed ďXĒ years after we make a concerted, sustained effort. Hence the finish date depends strongly on the year that we make the initial commitment.


Question 3: Have we made that initial concerted, sustained commitment?


No. This is an engineering project. As such, it is going to take a well-funded engineering effort in order to make this thing happen. I donít currently see such an effort anywhere. We are much closer to having that start, and I am feeling optimistic about its happening, but it hasnít started yet.


Question 4: Could molecular nanotechnology possibly happen without this absolute engineering effort, or is this concerted effort a requirement?


There does need to be a concerted engineering effort. However, as time progresses, the effort needed diminishes. If we were to start today, it would be a major effort. Over time, the needed effort decreases, because the infrastructure advances and improves.


Question 5: That almost seems to auger for waiting, since waiting would reduce the amount of engineering effort required.


One could argue that, but it is a risky strategy. One canít be sure that someone else in the race isnít going to have a breakthrough, and win the game. Even though it is tempting to wait, I wouldnít advise it. The stakes are too high, and we canít afford to lose this one.


Question 6: What is your assessment about Scientific Americanís attitude towards molecular nanotechnology? Have they been fair?


Scientific American has been looking at this topic for many years. The first article that they wrote, which I believe was a column, was positive. Since then, there have been some negative articles. They havenít looked at the case as seriously as they need to. They jumped to a conclusion, instead of doing a serious analysis. They have some work to do.  Eventually they should get around to it, it is simply a matter of time. The handling of this subject is also affected by the personal tastes of the people who happen to work there, so over time the treatment of this subject will vary. I assume that eventually it will go back towards a more positive treatment.


To learn more about this debate, visit:



Question 7: Some critics have stated that molecular assemblers will have potential in niche markets, but will never be used to create bulk commodities. These critics argue that bulk commodities are currently  inexpensive, approximately a dollar per pound for many materials and foodstuffs. They claim that even if molecular assemblers reduced these prices to zero, it would not have a major economic impact. Will nanotechnology ever be used to create bulk commodities?


Mother nature already uses her own version of molecular nanotechnology to make foodstuffs, which are bulk materials, so that is a clear proof-of-concept. However, the question of whether nanotechnology will be used to make bulk materials is a fairly boring one. A far more interesting question is: what will molecular assemblers be able to make that is new and exciting (or scary)? What can you create in terms of medical devices, environmental cleanup equipment, and military weapons? Those are the key issues.


Question 8: Tell us about your opinion of using molecular nanotechnology to extend life. How far can one take this?


The concept that we can use advanced molecular nanotechnology to stop and even reverse aging is true, and I donít think that that is a very controversial statement. When we have the ability to control the human body, down to the molecular level, that will certainly aid us in controlling the aging process. The controversial question isnít whether nanotechnology will give us a wonderful tool against aging, but how hard it will be to develop molecular assemblers. At some point in the future, we should have fully developed nanotechnology, and the advanced software needed to direct it, combined with the low costs of molecular-level rearrangement that nanotechnology should bring. With all those factors in place, we should have all the tools  that we need to successfully attack virtually all of the diseases that one can envision, including aging.


Question 9: Some have argued that artificial intelligence, or the Singularity, will bring about molecular assemblers, and vice versa. Which do you think will come first, and will one inevitably bring about the other?


I find the argument that one technology brings about the other to be persuasive. Machine intelligence and molecular nanotechnology are both extraordinarily powerful tools, and a breakthrough in one field should provide a huge advance for the other field. This should occur regardless of which comes first.


The other question, which one comes first, is a harder one. I donít know, and I donít think anybody knows. It is difficult to know when machine intelligence might be developed. There are so many computers in the world, and there are so many individuals engaged in software development, in so many different countries. So we donít really know what is happening on the software side. Given the way software works, someone could be farther along than he/she realizes. With atoms and nanotechnology, the process is incremental. Iím not sure that that is the case with machine intelligence. Someone could potentially have a sudden breakthrough.


Question 10: What about Mooreís Law? How long do you think it will continue, and can molecular assemblers ever be feasible without nanocomputers?


Simpler assemblers donít need to include a computer. One can do some interesting things without nanocomputers. It is hard to argue that one could have assemblers but not nanocomputers. Since one can have simpler assemblers without nanocomputers, it is pretty clear that we will get there.


Traditional scaling should hit the wall by 2015. But after that, with quantum computing, it is a different ballgame. Iím not good at understanding where quantum computing is going. But I think that we will definitely see molecular electronics, indeed we are already seeing such developments.


Question 11: What is your current best timeline for molecular nanotechnology, given an appropriate large-scale engineering effort?


Even with a lot of money and talent, it is hard to imagine any enormous advances in less than a decade. One could get partial nanotechnology, and that would be really cool. But for an advanced assembler, at least a decade of real effort will be required. A realistic timeframe for such a scenario would be 10-20 years. I think that others at foresight, and in the larger nanotech community who have looked at this goal with serious attention, would agree with these timeframes Ė but again, this assumes sufficient funding, which will need to be substantial.


Question 12: What is your view of nanotechnology and space exploration? Will the exploration and colonization of space ever be feasible without molecular nanotechnology?


Without molecular nanotechnology, it seems to be taking an awfully long time. Those of us interested in the topic are disappointed in the rate of progress. We could do it without molecular nanotechnolgy, but it would be a very lengthy process. If we are going to get serious about the exploration and colonization of space, then we need to get serious about molecular nanotechnology. There are people at NASA who understand the potential of nanotechnology as an enabling technology. This is not surprising, since NASA is an engineering agency, rather than a pure science agency.


Shortly after we achieve mature molecular nanotechnolgy, we should have both genuine machine intelligence and the widespread exploration and colonization of space. This could begin to occur within years of mature nanotech.


Question 13: What are your plans for the future?

Foresight Instituteís objectives for the future will largely remain stable. We will continue to educate policymakers, the technical community, and the general public on what to expect, both in terms of the benefits (medical, environmental, etc.) and the safety and arms-control issues that need attention. Increasing numbers of people understand that molecular nanotechnology is coming, and that this is an issue that needs to be grappled with.

This interview was conducted by Sander Olson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CRN.


CRN was a non-profit research and advocacy organization, completely dependent on small grants and individual contributions.


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