Chairman, Foresight Institute

Dear Mr. President:

I must respectfully decline your invitation, as I am unsuited to such a role, but I wish to take this opportunity to offer a potentially crucial piece of advice regarding strategic research directions.

The United States, like all the leading technological powers, has recently turned its research efforts toward a broad field called "nanotechnology". I introduced this term in the mid-1980s and described long-term prospects that helped motivate the recent explosion of interest and investment. Advanced nanotechnologies, based on molecular manufacturing, will enable the production of computer systems a billion times more powerful than today's, aerospace vehicles with 98% less structural mass, and medical tools enabling molecular repair of cells, tissues, and organs. These and related technologies will be economically and strategically decisive.

Molecular manufacturing will be based on molecular machine systems able to manipulate and assemble molecular components to make larger products. If you look in a conventional factory today, you will see electronic devices sensing and controlling processes, but the actual work—shaping, moving, and assembling parts—is done by machines that, quite naturally, use moving parts to move parts.

Research programs today are poorly focused on developing the molecular machine technologies essential to the strategic objective of molecular manufacturing. Researchers, steeped in late-20th-century culture, often see machinery as somehow archaic, left over from the 19th century, rather than recognizing it as the necessary foundation of technologies past, present, and future. The broad field of nanotechnology embraces a host of topics related to more fashionable academic topics, such as biotechnology, materials, and microelectronics. Interest in these topics has diverted resources into short-term efforts that are well worth doing—but not at the expense of neglecting core technologies essential to the long-term promise of nanotechnology.

The issues here are broad and basic enough that policy makers need not defer to the judgment of narrow technical experts: Advanced nanotechnologies will be based on molecular manufacturing, which, like all manufacturing, will require systems of machines with moving parts. Accordingly, the development of molecular machine systems must be a central priority of the ongoing National Nanotechnology Initiative.

K. Eric Drexler
Chairman, Foresight Institute
Author of Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation; Unbounding the Future; and Engines of Creation.