Volume 4, Issue 2 
December 2009

Recombinant DNA and Self-replicating Molecular Manufacturing: Parallels and Lessons

James B. Lewis, Ph.D

Page 3 of 6

“In retrospect, very few of those attending the Asilomar Conference foresaw the pervasive, complex, robust, and rich ramifications of recombinant DNA technology. Nor could most have predicted the pace at which fundamental understanding of biology has deepened. As with all changes in human thought and technological developments, we are left with new and unanticipated issues. And, as so often in the past, science, which itself is a uniquely human endeavor, is challenging traditional ideas and values."

What lessons does Asilomar have to teach us about “reconciling conflicts, apprehensions, and scientific ambitions regarding self-replicating nanotechnology”?
Comparisons of self-replicating DNA molecules and self-replicating nanotechnology are clouded by the fundamental differences between evolved biological replicators and designed self-replicating nanotechnology, and by the history of how visionary ideas of self-replicating nanotechnology were introduced. In particular, the fact that the initial treatment of nanotechnology (in 1986) envisioned self-replicating, microscopic assemblers [1] has caused a confusion of issues by making self-replicating nanotechnology seem more similar to a self-replicating DNA molecule in a bacterium living in a gut than is in fact the case. Further confusing discussion of the safety of nanotechnology is the notorious "gray goo" scenario [2], in which the biosphere is consumed by out-of-control assembler-like machines.

Superficially, the threat of out-of-control replicators destroying the biosphere seems similar to the threat of a biological replicator with unexpected properties spreading disease. However, there is no real similarity because the idea of accidentally out-of-control assemblers was almost immediately (1988) recognized to be a red herring [3]. Furthermore, it soon (1992-1999) became apparent that universal self-replicating assemblers formed an extremely inefficient self-replicating molecular manufacturing system compared to more complex macroscopic nanofactories composed of large numbers of molecular mills and parts assemblers [4, 5, 6]. The risks of self-replicating nanotechnology were succinctly summarized by Phoenix and Drexler writing in 2004:

"It has since become clear that all risk of accidental runaway replication can be avoided, since efficient manufacturing systems can be designed, built, and used without ever making a device with the complex additional capabilities that a hypothetical ‘grey goo robot’ would require. However, this does not mean that molecular nanotechnology is without risks. Problems including weapon systems, radical shifts of economic and political power, and aggregate environmental risks from novel products and large-scale production will require close attention and careful policymaking."

[1] Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, Anchor Books, New York, 1986. See Chapter 1, section 6 "Universal Assemblers"
http://e-drexler.com/EOC/EOC_Chapter_1.html - section06of10

[2] Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, Anchor Books, New York, 1986. See Chapter 11, section 1 "The Threat from the Machines"
http://e-drexler.com/EOC/EOC_Chapter_11.html - section01of05

[3] "A Dialog on Dangers," K. Eric Drexler, originally published in 1988

[4] Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, K. Eric Drexler, originally published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in 1992. http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/Nanosystems/toc.html

[5] "Architectural Considerations for Self-replicating Manufacturing Systems," J. Storrs Hall, Nanotechnology 10, 323-330 (1999). http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0957-4484/10/3/316; draft available at http://www.foresight.org/Conferences/index.html

[6] "Safe exponential manufacturing," Chris Phoenix and Eric Drexler, Nanotechnology 15, 869-872 (2004). http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/0957-4484/15/8/001



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