Nanotechnology and the future of our species


Once upon a time a nutty scientist gave a talk called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

The scientist was the wacky and wonderfully entertaining Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman, the guy who solved the mystery of the Challenger disaster. It was 1959, and he was not referring to organization charts but, rather, to the bottom of the physical measurement scale. He was referring to atoms and molecules measured in nanometers.

Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization by K. Eric Drexler

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As a student, Eric Drexler took up Feynman’s challenge. He’s the man who crafted the term “nanotechnology” and set off a race for its realization. In Radical Abundance, he sets the record straight on this much-misunderstood field and paints a picture of a possible (not certain) future of plenty for the human race.

It’s important to note at the outset that, despite the implied inevitability of the book’s subtitle, Drexler is not in a class with the boosters of a glorious future such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. (I previously reviewed Diamandis’ Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.) Drexler is more level-headed than that. He recognizes the immensity of the challenges facing homo sapiens in the twenty-first century, from the self-inflicted travesty of global climate change, to the danger of massive unemployment once manufacturing is completely automated, to the sheer perversity of human nature in organized settings.

A future of unlimited possibility

At his most expansive, Drexler describes a revolutionary new nanotechnology manufacturing paradigm that could produce such items as ultra-efficient solar energy generators, ultra-safe, zero-emission automobiles, and, presumably, perfectly insulated dwellings with innumerable electronic capabilities — all from simple raw materials such as air, sand, and water.

“Imagine a world,” Drexler writes, “where the gadgets and goods that run our society are produced not in a far-flung supply chain of industrial facilities, but in compact, even desktop-scale, machines. Imagine replacing an enormous automobile factory and all of its multi-million dollar equipment with a garage-size facility that can assemble cars from inexpensive, microscopic parts, with production times measured in minutes. Then imagine that the technologies that can make these visions real are emerging — under many names, behind the scenes, with a long road yet ahead, yet moving surprisingly fast.”

An unfortunate detour along the way

As the author explains at length (and in more than one place, resulting in some duplication), his vision of nanotechnology — enunciated in a scholarly paper at MIT in 1981 and in a widely read book for the public, Engines of Creation, five years later — was a call for Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM). In Drexler’s concept, scientists and engineers a few decades down the road would perfect the techniques of assembling atoms and molecules into minuscule machines capable of crafting slightly larger machines, which would in turn create even larger machines. After numerous generations of ever-more capable machines, the system would turn out all manner of useful items. And the whole manufacturing system would be housed in the equivalent of a box just slightly larger than the products it was designed to manufacture.

Sadly, Drexler’s compelling vision was bowdlerized soon after the publication of Engines of Creation by both journalists who rhapsodized about such things as tiny robots that would rush to a blood clot and demolish it before damage could be done, and science fiction writers who, of course, went much further. You may recall reading about nanobots run wild and becoming “gray goo” that would consume everything in their path, including their creators. Though Drexler protested loudly that this was nonsense, the most colorful of these creations took hold in the public imagination and helped suppress the funding necessary for R&D to bring his vision to fruition.

Even worse happened in 2000 during the transition from the Clinton Administration to that of George W. Bush. Earlier that year, Wired magazine published an article by Bill Joy — a cofounder of Sun Microsystems and one of the country’s most celebrated technologists — warning about the dangers inherent in nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and the creation of sentient robots. Joy’s disquiet was summed up in a single sentence: “robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate.” In effect, Joy had fallen prey to the “gray goo” fallacy. And apparently his fear projected onto the managers of a bill recently passed by Congress to allocate a billion dollars to nanotechnology research: instead of just taking the money and running with it, the custodians of the program rewrote the terms of the grant (after Congress had defined them) so as to rule out any mention of atoms or molecules and instead to redefine nanotechnology as a field dealing with anything really, really small (i.e., measured in nanometers). As a consequence, the field bifurcated into two streams, with the public drowning in all the confusion that came about.

A book for scientists, engineers, and their fans

Radical Abundance covers a lot of territory, from Drexler’s personal intellectual history to the history of technology to the difference between science and engineering as well as his vision of future plenty. However, much of the book requires more than a rudimentary understanding of science. Rather than characterize its audience as the general public, it’s probably fairer to say that those who would gain the most from the book are scientists, engineers, and people who can engage in conversations with them without becoming befuddled. In other words, the book is challenging at times for a reader such as me: my last organized brush with science was half a century ago in college, and what I learned then (little of which I remember) bears little resemblance to science today, anyway. Nonetheless, the prophetic message in Radical Abundance — and the numerous warning signs posted throughout the book — make this invaluable reading for anyone concerned about humanity’s prospects for the future.

For further reading

This is one of the books I’ve included in my posts, Gaining a global perspective on the world around us and 10 best books about innovation.

It’s also one of 20 good nonfiction books about the future (plus lots of science fiction).

You might also enjoy Science explained in 10 excellent popular books (plus dozens of others)

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