How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization
K. Eric Drexler 2013 Beaverton 303.483 DRE
I'm at the impatient, grumpy stage of life where I look at promised miracles (including my own) and ask "what is wrong with this?"
No idea is too good for opposition. Hard nanotechnology (atomic precision manufacturing, APM) in the abstract is an attractive idea. But in the particular, there are many unanswered questions, and many chemistry and biology specialists whose job it is to ask them. I was impressed by Eric's "Engines of Creation" in 1986; that raised many questions, most of which remain unanswered 30 years later. There have been many advances at the molecular scale, but also many new questions. "Soft Machines" by Richard Jones (2008) asks some new questions about APM in an engaging way, though 60% of the criticisms in that book are about the breathless hyperbolization of Eric's work by the unscientific popular press.
I have my own ideas to repair; spending time comtemplating nanotechnology won't help me debug them. I am a little surprised that I hadn't heard about Eric's (now 5 years old) book "Radical Abundance" until I found it in the library. The subtitle "How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization" describes it; the book assumes APM as described in "Nanosystems" and re-explores some of the implications.
The exploration of consequences in "Radical Abundance" is more complete and better written than "Engines of Creation". Sadly, the open questions raised by non-hostile researchers like Richard Jones are not addressed. Is APM possible in a world of entropy, thermodynamics, imperfection and impurity?
Perhaps millions of taxpayer dollars should have been spent on APM rather than other "nanotechnologies", and some of my questions may be answered in an alternate universe where APM was properly explored. But taxpayer dollars are almost always misspent; Eric's ideas have not been properly tested, but proper tests are not what politicians spend money on.
Moore's Law is trotted out, briefly. Moore's exponential scaling law is coupled to half-exponentially increasing development spending (Moore's Second Law). Imaging with 90 eV photons degrades photomasks. Whoda thunkit?
If the actual scaling trends are followed, the extrapolated cost of creating subnanometer scale "hard" devices would be in the trillions, and so would the cost of failing to ever do so.
Engineers solve problems. If there aren't problems, engineers make them. After a few chapters of this book, I stopped linear reading and headed for the index; where are the answers to my problem-solving skepticisms? Where are the answers to the problems raised by others? What are the cheapest problems to solve, and what can we accomplish on the way? Where is Eric's engineering self-skepticism? I did not find what I hoped for in this book.
So - I wish Eric the best of luck, but I have other problems to engage my attention. The approach taken in "Radical" will attract attention and acolytes, but not the skeptical problem-fixers, and the optimism may not pay for important answers within his or my lifetimes.