Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me

Next week – on the 26th March – I’m participating in a discussion event sponsored by the thinktank Policy Exchange at NESTA, in London. Also on the panel is K. Eric Drexler, the originator of the idea of nanotechnology in its most expansive form, as an emerging technology which, when fully developed, will have truly transformational effects. It will, in this view, allow us to make pretty much any material, device or artefact for little or no cost, we will be able to extend human lifespans almost indefinitely using cell-by-cell surgery, and we will create computers so powerful that they will host artificial intelligences greatly superior to those of humans. Drexler has a new book coming out in May – Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization. I think this view overstates the potential of the technology, and (it shocks me to realise), I have been arguing this in some technical detail for nearly ten years. Although I have met Drexler, and corresponded with him, this is the first time I will have shared a platform with him. To mark this occasion I have gone through my blog’s archives to make this anthology of my writings about Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology and my arguments with some of its adherents (who should not, of course, automatically be assumed to speak for Drexler himself).

To begin with, one should understand Drexler’s position by reading his own words. His first publication on the subject was a short paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1981, Molecular engineering: An approach to the development of general capabilities for molecular manipulation. This paper demonstrated the possibility of artificial molecular machines by analogy with the protein-based molecular machines of biology, and argued that protein engineering is the natural route by which a second generation of artificial molecular machines, more powerful than their natural precursors could be made.

Drexler’s next publication was perhaps his most influential; this was his 1986 popular science book Engines of Creation: the coming era of nanotechnology. This explored the consequences of the molecular assemblers that he argued could be made from the second generation molecular machines, able to make virtually anything consistent with the basic laws of physics, atom-by-atom, with atomic precision. One consequence would be cell repair machines able to halt and reverse the effects of ageing and disease, leading to indefinite human lifespans.

Engines of Creation was not a technical book, so it did not include much more in the way of detail of how these universal assemblers would be made. This detail was provided in Drexler’s 1992 book, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. It’s difficult to imagine a book more different to Engines of Creation than Nanosystems. It’s almost gratuitously dry and technical, a textbook for a yet-to-be-developed technology, based on the principle that “molecular manufacturing applies the principles of mechanical engineering to chemistry”.

My own thinking on nanotechnology – summarised initially in my 2004 book Soft machines: nanotechnology and life – was at the same time inspired by Drexler’s work and a reaction against it. Like Drexler, I was fascinated by the example that cell biology provided of intricate, molecular scale machines. But I was also struck by the insights that the new single molecule biophysics was providing (using the new tools of nanoscience) – insights that stressed that the principles used by the molecular machines were not the principles of mechanical engineering, but a quite alien set of design principles optimised for the peculiar physics of the warm, wet, nanoscale world – the principles of soft nanotechnology.

I dealt with the question of what nanotechnology should learn from biology in this blog post – What biology does and doesn’t prove about nanotechnology – which was a riposte to some heated discussions on the blogs of the time. I came back to this question with a more reflective discussion of the same themes in my column in Nature Nanotechnology –
Right and wrong lessons from biology.

Moving to my criticisms to the vision of nanotechnology presented in Nanosystems, the context can be found in this piece: Molecular nanotechnology, Drexler and Nanosystems – where I stand. In making and doing I argued that matter is not digital, responding to quite extensive discussion of that post in bits and atoms. I outlined some specific technical issues in Six challenges for molecular nanotechnology.

My most widely circulated critique was published in the US magazine IEEE Spectrum – Rupturing the nanotech rapture. By this time Drexler’s vision of radical nanotechnology had become a central part of the belief package of transhumanists and proponents of the secular eschatology of the technological singularity, as most notably and influentially popularised by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near. My article was part of a special issue exploring, mostly from a critical perspective, this idea (misguided as it is, in my opinion). Nanobots, nanomedicine, Kurzweil, Freitas and Merkle was a response to criticisms of the IEEE Spectrum article.

Lately, Drexler has been writing on his own blog Metamodern. From there it is clear that we agree about some things – the importance of the “soft” route to radical nanotechnology in the near future, the achievements and potential of DNA nanotechnology, for example – and remain in disagreement about others. I look forward to discussing these issues with him on Tuesday.

7 thoughts on “Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler and me”

  1. Hi Richard,

    I was wondering if there will be a video or audio release of your recent discussion panel!

    Thanks in advance


  2. I find the best heuristic for learning is to start off with a broad theoretic perspective, and then specialize. And assess. And either go broad if no ROI, or continue to specialize or go off in a specialized tangent. And I don’t think many in this community have the emotional maturity to accept a sub-par ROI and recalibrate. I just read an A.deGray autobiography, and I agree with his suggestion for some telomere R+D, but he is very dismissive of much biomedical research that is tangential and friendly to his longevity aims. Auto-immune diseases (allergic reactions) aren’t even forewarded as a reason why we don’t attempt many of his aggressive proposals. And diamond surface science has changed alot in two decades. And I don’t see anyone in the futurist community becoming an SPM designer/researcher, like Moriarty. I guess they have education value, but their Silicon Valley foundation is Libertopian, so they lobby against things that they are trying on another level to promote. Whereas, UK has a strong public health foundation via Chivalry and gentleman etiquette. About to read you book.

  3. For those of you wondering, here are videos of the event.

    Part 1 (Drexler):

    Part 2 (Knowles):

    Part 3 (Jones):

    Part 4 (Contera):

    Part 5 (Q&A):

    Altogether, it’s about an hour long. I wish the Q&A session was longer, with a freewheeling discussion among the panelists, like in this 2005 debate:

  4. enoonsti, thanks for the links.

    Tremendous commentary from Professor Jones. I was intrigued by the reference to quantum computing as being the “really big prize”. I am left to wonder if the theoretical homerun of quantum information processing may perhaps become the chimera that is the greatest danger as the pressure of commercialization rears its ugly head.

  5. …even in DeGrey’s 10 page 2010 scieintific paper, he is still wasting time attacking other friendly biotech research areas. He mentioned mitochondria would not be amicable to gene therapy, I assume because of the high mutation environment from free radicals or other damage?
    I didn’t read your book yet. I figure I can define a stable set of technologies and institutions that will give us (our grandchildren) longevity and enough security from threats without and within, to learn how to best handle risky low probability technologies and events. Nanotechnology is more of a means than an end…if we are in danger of becoming brainwashed zombies, we might not want to research modifying our pituatary glands, but if the danger is from WWIII, we might want drugged out world leaders. If longevity is key, stem cell treatments, but if the danger is pandemics, maybe not and maybe an Orwellian world. If we need to colonize space, aerospace technologies, and if we need ways of killing boredom, we might want to feed the poor and get more philosophers. This plateau will be at least safer than anything since 1938.

  6. Thanks for putting the links up, enoonsti. I agree, I wish the discussion period had been longer too.

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