Eric K. Drexler, “Radical Abundance”

book, 2013


Eric Drexler catalyzed the nanotechnology craze in the 1980s with his popular book “Engines of Creation” and numerous lectures around the world, promising that the limits to growth predicted in the 1970s could be overcome, and society transformed, by a nanotech revolution (see here). By the 2000s, nanotechnology was being funded by governments around the world to the tune of billions of dollars and was on the verge of taking off as a major industry. But by that time Drexler was marginalized as a peddler of science fiction, an outsider whose concepts were out of touch with scientific and technological reality. Indeed, despite many advances in the field, none of the radical new technologies envisioned by Drexler have appeared in the intervening 28 years. In 2013, Drexler has finally published another futurist account of the (still) coming nanotech revolution. How has his vision changed?

Drexler still claims that an era of “radical abundance” will be ushered in by a breakthrough in nanotechnology at some point. But this latest book is decidedly less starry-eyed than his first. He dials back many of his predictions, and seems more concerned to show that his vision of nanotechnology is scientifically possible than to awe the reader with the cornucopia of benefits that will flow from these future technologies. In other words, Drexler is on the defensive here, attempting to hold on to as much ground as possible in his speculative empire, already vastly reduced from those heady early days when whole continents could seemingly be claimed in the name of a future techno-utopia.

“Radical Abundance” serves as an attempted corrective in two ways: On one hand, it revises some key concepts and formulations that Drexler now thinks are wrongheaded, or have incited negative reaction against him. On the other hand, it also attempts to correct the historical record on the development of nanotechnology so far. Drexler’s version of nanotech history is one of political betrayal of his project. We shall take both of these strategies in turn.

Drexler has refined his methodology, devoting several chapters to explaining what he is doing as a thinker and writer: namely, “exploratory engineering.” This is different from science, he is at paints to point out, but also different from engineering. He is concerned not with pushing the boundaries of knowledge (as is science), nor with building actual devices (engineering). Rather, “Exploratory engineering exploits available physical knowledge and engineering methods to explore the potential of physical technologies” (135). He also claims that this is not futurism, in that it doesn’t make precise predictions about what will happen or when, but only general claims about what could happen. Exploratory engineering explores the possibility space of a speculative technology. Drexler claims that he has been unfairly maligned and widely misunderstood by scientists, because he is asking different questions and adheres to different criteria for success. Scientists want to explain why something occurs, what laws make it so. To them, multiple explanations are uncertain and problematic. To engineers, these aren’t problems, and may even be advantages: multiple potential solutions to a given problem, for example. These are good points, and go some way toward explaining why scientists have been as hostile toward Drexler as they have. However, it isn’t immediately clear either that this distinction between science and engineering can hold for nanotechnology, which Alfred Nordmann and others have called the quintessential technoscience, or if it is defensible, that it extends to speculative engineering as opposed to ordinary engineering.

Drexler originally claimed that the nanotechnology revolution would occur with an “assembler breakthrough,” which would involve self-assembling nano-machines rapidly producing many other such machines that could then produce consumer goods with very little energy or capital expenditure. Drexler has backed away from this formulation, and now describes the breakthrough as being something like a traditional factory, with very tiny machines creating basic building blocks and then passing them on to slightly larger machines, which pass their products on to slightly larger machines, until finally ordinary-sized robots assemble the parts just like any other consumer good of today. Drexler’s use of the factory trope renders the concept of nano-enabled manufacturing in Fordist terms familiar to industrialists. Nanotechnology will create an ultra-efficient assembly line from cheap materials. (Energy costs seems to have dramatically increased in this new formulation.) This “warmer, friendlier” vision of nanotechnology (at least for capitalists) is called “atomically precise manufacturing” rather than “mechanosythesis,” and the “factory” has replaced the “assembler.”

Drexler’s original book devoted a lot of space to the potential dangers of nanotech, including out-of-control assemblers that could reduce the entire planet to “gray goo,” and would require the deployment of nano-cops, etc. All of that is conspicuously absent here. In making his technology more familiar and less radical, he has also hoped to erase nano-security concerns.

Originally, Drexler listed a myriad of exotic technologies that would dramatically transform civilization, pushing it out into the stars. Now, he focuses on basic consumer goods, produced cheaply and with common elements, rather than the rare elements currently mined today. In the original book nanotechnology would magically eliminate environmental problems by re-forming the environment and removing everything toxic. Now, he claims that nanotech will help to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reduce the toxicity of industrial materials, but admits that it won’t be a magical solution. He emphasizes that nanotechnology will allow us to build cheap and flexible solar panels. Indeed, this is happening now, albeit using far more mundane nanotech processes.

Finally, Drexler wants to set the record straight: The National Nanotechnology Initiative, funded by the U.S. Congress in 2000, betrayed its own mandate and Drexler’s nanotech vision. In great detail, he combs through a number of key NNI documents and sees a radical shift in their definition of nanotechnology. Whereas the original plan for the NNI defined nanotechnology as atomically precise technology, its later implementation plan defined nanotechnology in terms of scale, greatly enlarging the range of techniques that could be funded under its auspices. For Drexler, this amounted to a betrayal on multiple levels:

In Washington the promoters of a federal nanotechnology program sold a broad initiative to Congress in 2000 and then promptly redefined its mission to exclude the molecular sciences, the fields that comprise the very core of progress in atomic precision. Thus, the word “nanotechnology” had been redefined to omit (and in practice, exclude) what matters most to achieving the vision that launched the field. (xiii)

To correct this and usher in the age of radical abundance, Drexler believes that we need not more science, but more political will and engineering leadership. In other words, we need something like the NNI that has a different mandate: focusing not on diffuse technologies and processes that further our knowledge of the nanoscale, but rather a focused effort to produce Atomically Precise Manufacturing. Drexler’s strategy is to argue that (a) contrary to the claims of many scientists, such nano-scale factories are theoretically possible to make and control, (b) that the NNI will never achieve this because its mandate is too broad and it is too focused on science, and therefore (c) a new effort lead by engineering managers is necessary. Drexler more or less takes for granted that (1) exploratory engineering, if funded, can produce actual products in this case, (2) that the mechanical devices he imagines would actually produce the material abundance he imagines, (3) that the environment would not be degraded even further when we can manufacture even more products faster and at even cheaper prices, (4) that industrial capitalism is the best model of production, and that (5) a world economy controlled by a single branch of technology that would lead to massive unemployment would be socially beneficial.

Overall, Drexler makes some generative points about political and scientific shortsightedness, but seems oblivious to techno-capitalist short-sightedness. He has usefully scaled back his speculative ambitions, making them less, not more, radical. The notion of “abundance,” however, seems in this follow-up to be equally naïve.


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