Drexler redux: nanotech

Blog: noun, abbrev. Etymology: Web log.

A year ago, I logged a note to revisit Hanson & Drexler. One day, I was at The Strand, actually remembered and ended up picking up K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation (I now see there's a new edition that's even available as an e-book, but I didn't know that at the time, and just got the original edition). Incidentally, that event proves this blog is serving it's purpose! If it wasn't for this blog, my faint connection to that book might have gradually faded into the past. I also picked up Black Swan, which I ended up really enjoying but I digress...

Engines of Creation is pretty cool. First surprise: It is perhaps the seminal work in Nanotechnology. In fact, Drexler coined the term. I didn't know that. I found Drexler interesting because of a paper he wrote with Bernardo Huberman on agent/market-based computing systems. But it turns out he is the Godfather of nanotechnology. Wow indeed. Second observation: considering it's a book about future technology published in 1986, just the fact that I was able to read most of it says a lot. Usually non-fiction books about future technology don't age well: either they were right and so what they contain is now obvious, or they were wrong and are now useless, except for a few predictions that live on as comedy. But not this one. It is still absolutely readable. It does waste a bit too many words on appeasing fears of doomsday scenarios, and has a bit too much juvenile moralization. Just a bit. But the 2/3rds or so that I did read closely was fascinating stuff which hasn't aged a bit. It's great, the first time I got some clue about how nanotechnology might work.

Indeed, I had always had a hard time bridging the gap between the fictional nanotech that I found so brilliant in Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson, and anything I knew about science or technology. Not surprising since it's sci-fi, you might say, but my point is that "nanotech" exists in real science yet I don't see no microscopic helicopters and infinite-dimensional interactive books being talked about in the newspaper. What you hear about is relatively mundane "nanotech" ideas. Relatively of course, because by normal standards, even "boring" nanotech's promises are huge ... Microscopic "hard disks", or carbon nanotubes that conduct electricity much better than wires, or can support structures that are impossible with steel like space elevators!

But the Drexler vision is much bigger than better construction materials. He imagines actual nano-machines that build stuff, actual mechanical assembly of atoms and molecules. If you accept that premise, it leads to gigantic consequences, essentially limitless food, energy, all our material needs becoming ... immaterial, so to speak. This is a big idea. And it turns out Mr Drexler has made it the work of his life.

Which brings us to the question... So how come his book is not obsolete? After twenty years f being the breakthrough birth of a new field, why are those ideas still not well known to the general public, when the buzzword they created seems to now mean something much less. Well it turns out Wired magazine has answered this question in a 2004 article on K. Eric Drexler entitled "The Incredible Shrinking Man". You can read the details in the article, but in short there's a great ideological divide in nanotech, and it looks like the "incrementalists" who focus on new nano-materials and so on won the research politics battles over Drexler who wants to build nano-machines.

Now I feel for Drexler in a different way. Not just as a fascinating guy who I should follow-up on but as a human story too. Could he be like Edwin Armstrong, who invented FM radio and many other great things, but lost all the crucial battles in his life? Or is it going to be a classic story of early brilliance, fall from grace, long struggle, and ultimate righteous triumph... Hmm I think that's classic but I can't think of any examples right now. Anyway here's a possible triumphant ending: nanobots win the prize for removing carbon from the atmosphere. Imagine a little machine made of a few atoms of X that uses solar power to move around and grab CO2 from the air, and then attaches the C to some part of itself, releases the O2, and then falls to earth as XC dust. It could even be called something cool, like photosynthesis.. haha. Who knows, if X is right, that XC might even be a source of fuel! So in the end, our hero stops global warming and saves the world! Good night kids.