Behind the public face of nanotechnology—the press releases, science fiction novels and environmental doomsday reports—a debate has been evolving and swirling for the past decade around a fundamental question: Can tiny machines build things useful to humans by moving molecules or even individual atoms?

Often portrayed as a heated sparring match between squabbling scientists, the primary focus of the debate almost always centers on the comments of Eric Drexler and Richard Smalley—a stage seemingly set by two brilliant men indisputably at odds with each other’s position. Drexler, founder and chairman emeritus of the Foresight Institute in California, is a nanotechnology pioneer—sometimes considered the founder of nanotechnology, having invented the term to describe his early work based on ideas introduced in Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and is a professor of chemistry, physics and astronomy at Rice University in Texas.

This isn’t a debate of concern only to those in the ivory tower of academia. A major goal of nanotechnologists is to create nanoscale robots—nanobots—that can perform various functions at the nanoscale. These functions include molecular manufacturing: Using nanobot designs, such as fabricators and assemblers, to build products with atomically precise control. Considering the possible applications of nanobots and molecular manufacturing in medicine, computing, industrial production and more, the debate’s importance becomes apparent. “Lack of funding together with objections from leadership circles in the US program have had a chilling effect on the research community and students wishing to pursue these topics,” says Drexler. “It has inhibited broad, open discussion of goals and of how individual research pieces might fit together.”

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