TOP 500 REVIEWERon 4 May 2013
Radical Abundance is a dictionary example of prestalgia. We know atomically precise manufacturing (APM) is coming. We know what it will look like. We know it will solve huge problems and make life for us and for the planet infinitely better. We want it yesterday. But we have to wait for the details to be sorted out. Hurry up guys. We're waiting for the good old days.
Nanotechnology took a bad rap for theoretically ushering in an era of microscopic robots that will report on you, burrow into your brain, and wreak havoc in the food chain for their own nefarious purposes. Drexler has been fighting this image pretty much since he coined the term in the mid 80s. What nanotechnology and APM are really about is a quantum leap in manufacturing efficiencies and pollution reduction and abatement. The upside is incalculable.
Put simply, he says, what computer systems did for processing information, APM will do for processing matter. Just as we no longer use pencil and paper to run a financial model, we will no longer assemble automobiles in a football stadium of a factory. All the equipment needed will fit in a garage. Cars will be turned out to order, in minutes. Factories can therefore make anything and be anywhere. No need for anything to be manufactured across the planet and shipped by boat, rail and truck. This will save on fuel, on packaging, on raw materials, and make everything less expensive. And factories can produce other factories just as easily as cars.
It will be done by adding atoms to atoms, molecules to molecules and microblocks to microblocks, fast and effortlessly - millions or billions per minute and per microblock. Effortlessly because they can self assemble using thermal motion. At the atomic level, objects have different properties, and picking the right ones for the right job means they self attract, and make themselves into seamless objects, with far fewer parts, as well as much lighter and stronger. There is almost no waste, as there is nothing to cut out, nothing to treat, nothing to solder, mould, drill or hammer. It also means the end of scarcity, because the most common elements on earth have all the properties needed to put anything together. The huge expense of rare (not to mention toxic) commodities goes away. Mining them becomes unimportant. Stockpiles become silly. It's a new world of radical abundance as we stop raping the planet.
And make it one you can breathe on. Nanotechnology has the potential to clean and compress the extra CO2 in the atmosphere in a matter of a decade. It will make purifying ocean water far more efficient and inexpensive. Less global shipping means less new pollution. So do lighter cars, better air conditioning, fewer smokestacks...
But getting there is the problem. We can see it, but we can't touch it. Like this book, it's a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. On page 28 Drexler gives us a lovely, succinct description of how scientists differ from engineers. "Scientists study physical things, then describe them; engineers describe physical things, then build them." Great line. Brilliant and clear. But then he spends over a hundred pages describing this (and not nanotechnology) in detail, in examples, in diagrams, in flow charts and in analogies. I guess this means Drexler is more scientist than engineer.
Back on topic, Drexler takes us well beyond manufacturing. Nanoscale elements have novel electronic properties, too. Carbon nanotubes with walls one atom thick can replace copper wires. Nanomechanical motors can convert chemical and mechanical energy, becoming super storage batteries - zero emission devices with the energy density of a tank of gasoline. He says there is essentially nothing in your home, office or street that could not be improved by APM.
Then, unfortunately, Drexler goes off on another tangent. This time he shows astounding naiveté of the real world. President Clinton's National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was a billion dollar gift to the nascent field. To no one's surprise except Drexler's, it immediately got corrupted to include "small" as well as atomic. In fact, the word atomic disappeared completely. This opened up the grant money to all kinds of non-nano applicants. Drexler actually thinks it came from a misunderstanding over a talk given by Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems. But there was no misunderstanding. There was a billion dollars on the table, and lobbyists got to work carving it up for themselves. They elbowed their way in, and elbowed him out. For Drexler to believe otherwise is shocking.
Then he plunges into pure fantasy. Drexler thinks nanotechnology will means lethal weapons will be less necessary, as there is less need to protect resources. Anyway, zillions of microdrones will protect us. (Of course, just the opposite is true, as drones are the new lethal weapon of choice.) APM will be free and open and available to all. But he ignores the facts of life, particularly in his native land, where patents, copyrights, embargoes and the ever present menace of "national security" will keep a lid on the spread of APM. The United States will move heaven and earth to protect vested interests. That is its history and its M.O. It will see the planet fry before allowing everyone to benefit from innovation that will hurt its steelmakers, miners and shippers. The same forces that undermined the NNI will keep APM from spreading fairly.
Drexler's at his best when he focuses on nano, not society. This other stuff is all just scope creep. It makes Radical Abundance a rocky read. It needs an APM makeover; it needs to do much more with much less, making it lighter and stronger.