Exploratory Engineering and Radical Abundance: an Exclusive Interview with Dr. Eric Drexler

It’s been nearly two decades since Dr. K Eric Drexler published his last book, Nanosystems. But he’s been busy in the meantime, and there’s a new title in the works, with Drexler decamping to Oxford’s Martin College while he finishes it up.

A lot of mud has been flung at Drexler’s theories over the years, and while sceptics might argue that molecular nanotechnology – or, as Drexler is calling it now, “atomically precise manufacturing” – is no more likely than it ever has been, it’s no less likely, either.

Indeed, Drexler is confident that we’re edging closer to the actuality. “There’s been extensive progress in atomically precise fabrication, and it’s accelerating via the invention of unanticipated methods, what might be called ‘expected surprises’,” he says. He’s kept a close eye on biomolecular research, in particular protein engineering, structural DNA nanotechnology, and peptoids – fields where development is accelerating.

“Researchers have already completed atomically precise structures well into the million-atom range,” he says. “In terms of structural size and complexity, an objective that now seems within reach is what might be called a ‘Mark II ribosome’, a functional, non-biological structure that enables programmable molecular fabrication comparable in some respects to what we see in ribosomes, enabling a similar kind of control and a new range of products.”

Despite this influence from the life sciences, Drexler is keen to point out that his proposed APM production systems would resemble miniature desktop factories far more closely than the “mushy stuff” of biotech. Readers of science fiction authors like Bruce Sterling or Cory Doctorow will feel a chime of recognition when Drexler describes “boxes full of machinery, like what you see in 3D printers — cartridges of materials, programmable mechanisms moving back and forth to put bits of material in place, and so on.” And so they should – Drexler’s books have been influencing hard SF since their publication.

Increases in computing power mean that we can now model complex mechanical systems at the atomic scale with great precision. These models play an important part in a form of speculative research Drexler calls ‘exploratory engineering’, which “tells us something about the boundaries of technology based on limits set by physical law.”

Molecular-scale experiments are cheap and fast by comparison to macro-scale engineering research, and when it comes to time-scales, Drexler says they’re merely “a matter of resource allocation and the development of supporting tools, such as design software. Given the widespread, competitive nature of the research areas in question, there’s a potential for rapid progress.”

Drexler shies away from the bold predictions of the more flamboyant futurists like Ray Kurzweil. Indeed, as science fictional as his omega point may sound, Drexler maintains that his projections are in fact very conservative, fully bounded by the known laws of physics. Given that those projections include changes of multiple orders of magnitude in manufacturing cost, throughput, and product performance, his caution makes sense; as Kurzweil and his fellow Singularitarians are well aware, bold promises attract opprobrium.

Drexler’s caution extends to considering the implications of the technological changes he envisages, which makes him a good fit for Martin College, home to serious futurist think-tanks such as the Future of Humanity Institute and the Oxford Geoengineering Programme. “To date, the technology has progressed faster than the dialogue regarding expected consequences and their policy implications,” says Drexler. “I think we need to begin a more serious conversation on the implications of this kind of technology, and to explore scenarios that lead to a different kind of future from what’s now expected.”

Like most technologies, APM is morally neutral, but a nanotechnology ‘arms race’ between competing nation-states (or perhaps even post-national actors of a similar reach and scale) is a real possibility and a genuine concern. Drexler takes heart from the way the internet is “expanding the scope of collaboration and transparency.”

“These collaborative patterns — already widespread in science — can provide a basis for strengthening cooperation across nation-state boundaries, and a favorable environment for broader cooperative policies that can decrease a range of economic and societal risks.”

The results just might be worth those risks. While the techno-utopian dream of a post- scarcity civilisation will probably always remain unattainable, Drexler believes APM’s unprecedented efficiency could cause radical changes in the economic organisation of production. “The creation of physical products using APM has parallels with software, where the information content of the product — the design — becomes the most important economic component.”

So while Drexler’s future may not have many places for human assembly workers, savvy jobseekers may want to make their move into the intellectual property law industry now, in order to avoid the rush.

The full text of the interview is below:

Paul Raven: It’s been eighteen years since your last book was published; what are the most significant shifts since then, with respect to the capability for atomic precision manufacture?

K. Eric Drexler: As I discussed in my Oxford talk, my analysis of technologies in this area is based on the exploratory engineering approach, which tells us something about the boundaries of technology based on limits set by physical law. Because physical law is timeless, exploratory engineering methods can yield durable insights. The ongoing development of atomically precise technologies has expanded in the general direction I’d outlined, but with the invention of unanticipated methods, what might be called “expected surprises”.

There’s been extensive progress in atomically precise fabrication, and it’s accelerating. A leading area has been capabilities based on biomolecular engineering and related atomically precise engineering technologies. Protein engineering, structural DNA nanotechnology, and peptoid research are areas where I’ve been closely following developments and engaging with experimental research communities.

I should mention, though, that the APM production systems I described in my talk would look a lot like desktop factories. Not mushy stuff like what you see in biotechnology, but boxes full of machinery a lot more like what you see in 3D printers — cartridges of materials, programmable mechanisms moving back and forth to put bits of material in place, and so on. There are enormous differences, of course, in cost, throughput, materials, product quality, and so on.

h+: In your lecture, you talked about probing the possibility space of physical law and finding “stepping stones” to lead us to APM from current capabilities, and that component design is the main task at the present time. What are the nearest few steps, and how long would you estimate it’ll take us to complete them?

Eric Drexler: I’ve mentioned the ongoing rapid progress in biomolecular structures. Researchers have already completed atomically precise structures well into the million-atom range. I expect to see further growth in developments that link these materials to inorganic components, and in methods in design and materials that increase the size and robustness of structures. In terms of structural size and complexity, an objective that now seems in reach is what might be called a “Mark II ribosome”, a functional, non-biological structure that enables programmable molecular fabrication comparable to what we see in ribosomes — not comparable in all respects, of course, but enabling a similar kind of control and a new range of products.

As for time frames, this is a matter of resource allocation and the development of supporting tools, such as design software. Given the widespread, competitive nature of the research areas named above, there’s a potential for rapid progress.

h+: Would it be accurate to describe a post-APM world as having transitioned to a state of economic abundance? And how would economics have to change in order to cope with such a fundamental shift of the material basis of civilization? (I’m thinking here of the internet’s corrosive effect on institutions or businesses wherein formerly scarce goods suddenly become infinite and non-competitive, e.g. digital media and publishing; is that even a suitable comparison?)

Eric Drexler: A world with APM-level production capacity would remove some of today’s constraints on economic scarcity, but also change the organization of production. The production of physical products has parallels with software, where the information content of the product — the design — becomes the most important economic component. The requirements for raw materials point to a potential for production at a surprisingly low cost. As I mentioned in answer to a question similar to this the other night, I think we need to begin a more serious conversation on the implications of this kind of technology, and to explore scenarios that lead to a different kind of future from what’s now expected. To date, the technology has progressed faster than the dialogue regarding expected consequences and their policy implications.

h+: Near the end of your lecture, you spoke of the risk of an APM “arms race”; how can the scientific – and exploratory engineering! – communities ensure that nation-states (or actors at a similar global scale) do not seize such an advantage, be it APM or any other highly disruptive technology?

Eric Drexler: I think that all disruptive technologies have the potential to be used for destruction or aggression. I outline what I see as some of the leading concerns a few years ago in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

In connection with this, it’s encouraging to see the growth of communities and institutions that use the internet to expand the scope of collaboration and transparency. I think these collaborative patterns — already widespread in science — can provide a basis for strengthening cooperation across nation-state boundaries. This can provide a favorable environment for broader cooperative policies that can decrease a range of economic and societal risks, increasing global stability and improving the security of nation-state actors on a multilateral basis.

 

10 Comments

  1. I bought Engines of Creation when it first came out in the 80’s and was fascinated by the concept of nanotech and sure this was an avenue that humans would go down. (And that it will branch off eventually to two paths -the good use and the bad use of nano tech) Remember, at the time the book came out the internet was a decade away from being a public tool and computers were still VERY early in their development and processing capabilities. The book talks about how there would be a need of evolutionary proportions in computing to bring about nanotech. We are now at that first level (in such a short time!) where we are building things on a nano scale – gears, tubes, switches and much more that have already shown promise in use in self replicating nano systems and nanomachines in the future. Interesting to see Drexler’s first steps to full nanotech have, over 25 years, been very much realized. I have no doubt that human’s desire to make both themselves and the world better, while making lots of money in the process and the realization that this tech can make game changing differences to humans in a good and bad way will make this a genie out of the bottle technology to keep an close eye on for centuries to come.

  2. Looked at Locklin’s blog – a real hoot, I’ve bookmarked it for regular revisit. He’s got a point – a quarter of a century and billions later, where’s the (nano)beef? Jus sayin’

    • I can remember what we used to call stories set in a year like 2012. We called them “science fiction.”

      Now that the real year 2012 has nearly arrived, how about clearing our minds of a lot of futurist bullshit?

      Consider that we live in “the future of”:

      Artificial intelligence

      Space colonization

      “Life extension” and “anti-aging” (yeah, right)

      Fusion power

      And even, Nanotechnology

      Notice how many of these visions have turned into mirages or ashes.

  3. I like the idea of a miniaturized 3d printer or a factory. So let’s go ahead and make one instead of bickering and whining 😀

    Though I suppose that the Mark II Ribosome approach is a bit different than that.

    The way I see it, I think it is likely that some limited kind of constructors could be achieved in a relatively short time scale (2-3 decades).

    @Mark Plus: I disagree with that view. It’s not charlatanry to come up with scientifically plausible speculations. If I thought like that, I would have never embarked on AI subject 15 years ago. The researchers who make no speculations are also the people who cannot make any speculations true! Like, you know, most researchers 🙂

  4. Could someone provide a link to anything confirming this statement “Researchers have already completed atomically precise structures well into the million-atom range”

  5. I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Drexler over there phone in the middle 1980s. I’m glad to see he has lost none of his intellectual fire.

    victor s.

  6. As I posted on Locklin’s blog:

    I suspect this sort of wishful thinking will sound increasingly desperate & crazy if the Great Stagnation drags on for another generation. However, I noticed that the Extropian movement more or less fell apart about a decade ago as middle-aged reality set in, and I predict similar dissipations of the transhumanist & singularity cults in a few more years as their current young members approach 40.

    • Cults don’t engage in constant self-critical scepticism. Pick your words carefully if you want to be considered worthy of respect as a contributor to the debate.

  7. For another view of Drexler’s career, read Nano-nonsense: 25 years of charlatanry, by Scott Locklin:

    http://scottlocklin.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/nano-nonsense-25-years-of-charlatanry/

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