“Eons of evolution and millennia of history have prepared this challenge and quietly presented it to our generation. The coming years will bring the greatest turning point in the history of life on Earth. To guide life and civilization through this transition is the great task of our time.”
-K. Eric Drexler, “Engines of Creation”
During the history of civilization, manufacturing consisted of the art of arranging a very large number of atoms in meaningful, useful patterns. By carving up macro amounts of atoms in creative ways, our artisans and fabricators have produced millions of different types of products for our use and enjoyment.
These methods are comparatively crude as seen from the molecular level. Casting, planting, grinding, potting, boring, weaving, milling, harvesting, and welding processing techniques lop off and shape atoms in great thundering statistical herds. It’s like trying to make things out of Lego blocks with boxing gloves on you hands (only worse). Yes, you can push the Lego blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can’t really snap them together precisely the way you’d like.
Even under such limitations, humans have made great technological progress in the last two hundred years. Each generation of machinists have built upon their predecessors ability to manipulate smaller and smaller amounts of matter precisely and duplicate what they’ve created. Think about the development of interchangeable parts around the time of the Civil War. Miniaturization, precision, and replication. These are the keys to technological progress in constructing anything, anything at all.
If we had the technology to arrange carbon atoms loosely, we would create coal. If we could arrange them tightly in a three-dimensional grid, we would create a diamond. But, if we could arrange them in very complex patterns along with other elements, we would create something as complex as food, any kind of food.
We have already learned how to arrange microscopic amounts of silicon (found in sand), add a few other meaningful trace elements, and build computer chips.
Miniaturization, precision, and replication: These keys have led to the development of microtechnology in the past thirty years, which allows us to handle tiny artifacts a thousandth of a meter long. Microtechnology produces useful microparticles such as “encapsulated water” (rub some white powder and it will wet your hands), polymer and pigment coatings that paint very smoothly, and tiny beads used in cosmetics or non-stick, spray-on food products.
These trends are now leading us down into the realm of the very tiny into the world of cells and molecules. Advances in miniaturization, precision, and replication are beginning to enable us to construct tools as tiny as a billionth of a meter across-a nanometer-hence the name, “nanotechnology.” Nanotechnology is such an advanced concept for fabrication that it was considered to be merely the dross of airy dreams of science fiction writers just a few years ago.
Nanoparticles are so small; their properties differ at the nano level from those they exhibit at the macro level. Engineers are discovering ways of fabricating polymer sheets one atom thick that are at once conductive and non-conductive, possibly at room temperature. Computer chip manufacturers dream vivid dreams of what they could do with such material. Engineers are already working on techniques enabling them to grow longer and longer nanotubes, exceedingly light, thin, strong strings of carbon material that may make futuristic construction projects, such as space elevators, structurally feasible.
Ultimately as the Nanotechnology Revolution matures, instead of conventional machining processes directed from the macro level downward, nanotechnology will get right in there, “growing” products from the bottom up, building up the shapes desired, molecule by molecule, atom by atom.
This is merely the first generation of nanotech products. Eric Drexler, the first scientist to envision the development of nanotechnology and author of “Engines of Creation,” in which he laid out a very detailed version of his vision of nanotechnology for the general publics consideration, is convinced that the development of nanotechnology will lead to nothing short of a new industrial revolution with the potential for even more far-reaching societal changes than those produced by Industrial Revolution, Version 1.1.
He also believes that the Nanotechnology Revolution will do its work in mere years, not in decades or centuries. Once, the Nanotechnology Revolution takes hold, its growth curve will steepen drastically. In short, if Drexler is even close to being right, the 21st century will see a dramatic increase in the rate of technological development in America and around the world.
I read the book in the late 1980s. What convinced me of the likelihood of the Nanotechnology Revolution happening in my lifetime was Drexler’s comparison of nanotechnology to biology. Organisms manipulate molecules taken from their environment in order to preserve and replicate themselves. They also replicate the instructions on how to replicate themselves. This is precisely what the mature form of nanotechnology will do.
Inventors have mimicked and improved upon “natural technologies”-the aerodynamics of birds, the sharp claws of tigers, the protective covering of fur, and the sleekness of sharks-to further ensure human survival and comfort. I believe that our nanotech engineers will soon be doing (if not already) what the best inventors did when they created airplanes, knives, clothing, and submarines. They will be mimicking and improving on the most basic technology of all: life itself. With nanotechnology, we will be able to do what biology does so well now, only better.
Think of tiny machines, the first of which may be made out of protein molecules, and later out of tougher material. Envision Drexler’s “nanoscopic” machines, with billions of their fellows, programmed to build things, anything, by manipulating individual molecules and atoms, bonding them together like Tinker Toys. Drexler calls these machines “assemblers.” Catch his vivid description of how they cooperate in vastly complex configurations in the “growing” of a futuristic rocket engine within a large, transparent vat. Assemblers and raw materials are piped in for assembly and washed out after the work is done. The description alone is well worth the price of the book. The activity of these assemblers is directed by tiny, powerful computers called “nanocomputers,” embedded throughout the construction site.
Drexler then goes on to describes how, after much serious R & D work with assemblers and nanocomputers, powerful “replicators” will be developed. These-again cooperating in large numbers-are able to break down any object to its constituent molecules and atoms, record their respective positions while doing so, and then reproduce the object, making absolutely identical copies, down to the scratches and smudge marks on the original, if desired. Or, if the user would like it in mint condition, the copy would be cleaned up. The recordings are preserved, if desired, in the form of software program “recipes,” so that they may be easily stored and shared. What would be the first thing I’d replicate in a kitchen vat? Pure milk chocolate from the finest chocolatier. Imagine, an unending supply. Yum.
Replicators can also make true copies of themselves and all the knowledge they’ve gained about the art of replication. Therein lay the true power of this technology. Not only is everything that is learned preserved, that learning itself is put to work in learning how to replicate more and more complex objects, including food, chocolate especially. And with the replicators replicating themselves, the economic growth factor would be roughly equivalent to that of compound interest, but at a much, much faster growth rate than that offered by banks. The first replicators would be horrendously expensive. The next and the next and the next would drop in price quickly, becoming dirt cheap-literally. Think of the implications of Star Trek-type replicators being put to work in every American kitchen and garage! And not just in America.
Let’s push our analysis even further. The impact of nanotechnology-especially when we get replicators-on human society will be overwhelming. “Revolutionary” has been so often overused and ill-used as a descriptor that it can’t do justice to the utter transformation nanotechnology will bring to our everyday lives. Most of the work done in agricultural, industrial, and service-oriented economic sectors involves making copies, copies of plants and animals, consumer products, and reports. Any technology that can replicate things more quickly and cheaply than every technology we use today, not to mention doing so far more precisely and consistently than human effort alone could ever hope to achieve, and is itself replicable, is bound to have a profound impact on every human economic system existent, all of which having been based up to now on the allocation of scarce energy resources, raw material, machines, and labor.
Nanotechnology makes everything a resource and makes products literally dirt cheap or garbage cheap. The ultimate recycling system. Your garbage would no longer be garbage. It would become valuable feedstock for your nanotech vats. Don’t throw it away! The same goes for your toilet effluent and your chimney emissions. The logic of nanotechnology will demand reuse of every atom, rather then dumping them unwanted in landfills, rivers, and the atmosphere. Just think of it as high-tech compost. Seen rightly, the Nanotechnology Revolution is an environmentalist’s dream.
I predict that when nanotechnology reaches maturity, no existing economic system will survive in its present configuration-including the American economy. Individuals and families will be able to own their own production facilities and may, if they choose, return to subsistence living, but on a much grander scale of productivity and comfort than our pioneer ancestors could have imagined.
Say good-bye to fishing, farming, mining, manufacturing, almost all trade in physical goods, and almost all existing information businesses, unless you enjoy indulging in those kinds of activities as a hobby. As nanotechnology takes over more and more of the production of goods and services (very) locally, starting with the easiest and moving towards the most complex, and as it minimizes and eases the need to engage in administrative work (filing reports on shipping, production, managing budgets and payroll, as well as supervising the work of subordinates), work itself will either disappear or become so completely redefined it essentially becomes something wholly new, perhaps something like play.
So, what will we do with all our free time? What does the 800-pound gorilla do? Whatever he wants. We’ll do fun stuff, in whatever way each of us defines that term. Imagine a society so individualistic and wealthy it makes present-day America seem positively medieval by comparison!
Governments will radically downsize as they find most of their duties and obligations subsumed by strong, independent individuals and families running small nanotech businesses or living high off the hog in nanotech subsistence home-based economies.
Say good-bye to welfare, Social Security, social work of every kind, health care (as nanobots are put to work preserving our health and youth on a cellular level), formal education (I predict that home schooling will become ubiquitous. Why send the youngsters to school when they can learn everything they need to know and are interested in learning in highly individualized settings at home?), and government subsidies of all kinds. Almost all of the entities now receiving subsidies will have been made technologically obsolete and would have folded by then. How many corporations will survive the nanotech tsunami of change? Not many, if any.
Most regulatory agencies, too, will become obsolete. The only type of regulation that could possibly work in the very small and fast, fast, fast realm of nanotech is regulation crafted and enforced by nanotech itself.
What about the bread and butter of government contract work the construction and maintenance of transportation and communications infrastructure? At some point during the nanotechnology revolution, that activity too would be subsumed by the assemblers. Imagine busy assemblers rebuilding every road and bridge in America, and embedding all kinds of useful electrical, cable, phone networks, Wii networks, solar power photovoltaics, and computer networks, and their connective, repair, and maintenance infrastructure in many layers from the roadbed up, during construction. As a result, for instance, there would be enough nanotech photovoltaics embedded in those roads to power America.
The only things left in government’s bailiwick would be police work and national defense-remaining as a result of the nasty little quirks of human nature. But that work too will have to be farmed out (in large part) to the assemblers and replicators. The cop on the beat won’t be in a position to enforce violations of proper replication protocols. And defense will become largely the province of nano-weaponry. I suspect that the comparatively few cops and soldiers remaining will wind up becoming highly trained conflict resolution specialists backed up by a very potent arsenal of nanotech enforcers.
In short, everything you now know, everything you do, and everything you love will be transformed in ways hard to fully envision now. The age of nanotechnology; coming soon to a nano vat near you. Get ready, cause here it comes.
I read the original “Engines of Creation: Challenges and Choices of the Last Technological Revolution” by K. Eric Drexler, published in 1986 by Anchor Press/Doubleday in Garden City, New York.
A new edition was published online, “Engines of Creation 2.0: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology” in February 2007) by WOWIO Books. You can pay a nominal fee and download it or read it for free at this web site:
Here are some excellent web sites for updates on what’s happening in the wonderful world of nanotechnology: