[Server-sky] Fwd: [tt] TLS 5774: Steven Yearly: Small scales

Michael Turner michael.eugene.turner at gmail.com
Mon Dec 9 10:20:34 UTC 2013


Michael Turner
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"Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward
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---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Frank Forman <checker at panix.com>
Date: Mon, Dec 9, 2013 at 7:06 PM
Subject: [tt] TLS 5774: Steven Yearly: Small scales
To: Transhuman Tech <tt at postbiota.org>

TLS 5774: Steven Yearly: Small scales
Published: 29 November 2013

K. Eric Drexler
How a revolution in nanotechnology will change civilization
340pp. Public Affairs. £19.99 (US $28.99). 978 1 61039 113 9

In the title Radical Abundance, K. Eric Drexler distils his whole argument
into Just two words. His book asserts and tries to explain how we can look
forward to lives of abundance founded on smart, well-distributed
nanotechnology. The maJority of analyses of science, technology and
engineering in society these days have a sober air; they are concerned
with risks and fears or, at best, trade-offs. The technological frontier
is typically complicated and, as is the case with fracking or
geoengineering or internet surveillance, our imagined futures are imbued
with anxieties. But Drexler's future is a far more benign place where we
can make all the things we need or want cheaply and efficiently.

In many ways this story is familiar. Indeed, Drexler himself has been here
before, most famously in his book Engines of Creation (1986), in which he
effectively introduced the world to the nanotechnology label. Now,
twenty-seven years later, the future looks surprisingly unchanged. Rather
than announce that the future is already here, the new book has more
mundane obJectives: to clear up some misconceptions around what
nanotechnology, in the Drexlerian sense, really is, to reflect on some of
the impediments to nanotechnology's development (particularly from
mistakes in research policy), and to examine the societal implications of
its widespread adoption.

As one would expect, Drexler is very good at imagining the nano-world. He
points out, for example, that we are now familiar with lots of very small
things: with DNA and atoms, with simple molecules such as carbon dioxide,
or blood cells and tiny microelectronics. No doubt we talk about these
things more fluently than we did in 1986. But in everyday discourse it is
easy to overlook the difference in scale of these submicroscopic things. A
nanometre is one billionth of a metre, and atoms and simple molecules are
readily measured in nanometres. To help us visualize this, Drexler
suggests that we multiply everything by 10 million. At that rate each
nanometre would equate to one centimetre.

A small atom would now measure less than half a centimetre and the DNA
molecule would be a few centimetres across. However, on the same scale
someone's white blood cell would fill a sports stadium. The DNA in a
single human chromosome fully unwound would run for well over a hundred
kilometres; masters of origami, chromosomes can fold and twist their DNA
into minute packages but these would still be dozens of metres long.
Evidently, some very tiny things are much more "nano" than others.

In this context Drexler is keen to be precise about what he is espousing.
For him the promise of nanotechnology is really about "atomically precise
manufacturing" - APM as he calls it. Of course, biological systems have
been making things at or around the nano-scale for well over a billion
years, but Drexler doesn't want to go down that route. Biology is
(literally) wet and floppy. With APM, he is interested in adapting
engineering practices to construct things atom by atom in hard, solid
forms. Not even microelectronics holds much appeal for Drexler's
nanotechnology, since the smallest microelectronic devices still look
"clunky" at nanometre resolution. In any case, electronics start behaving
a little oddly near the atomic scale. He also wants to avoid running into
quantum effects. His vision is for a form of mechanical engineering that
Just happens to be extremely tiny. If you choose your materials carefully,
the nano- and the macroworlds are astonishingly similar and follow the
same fundamental engineering principles. Perhaps the chief attraction of
this approach is that size and time scale up and down together; if you
build a piece of APM kit that is 10 million times smaller than a
regular-sized one, then it will work 10 million times faster. APM would
result in nano-factories that would be like wonderfully sophisticated 3-D
printers, speedily creating bespoke manufactured items in (mostly)
garage-sized workshops. Furthermore, APM would also allow us to overcome
shortages in raw materials by taking advantage of the amazing properties
of abundant materials when exquisitely re-engineered in atomically precise

Eric Drexler plainly has a smart, original and highly ambitious vision.
But his book is not easy and it falls short of the hopes he clearly has
for it. It has an odd tone, switching from the over-technical to the
elementary and back again. For all the insights it offers, there are long
stretches where he is bogged down in historical analogies or wasting time
complaining about others' mistakes, excessively indignant (for example)
with those who confuse scientists with engineers. He uses ideas from the
history and philosophy of engineering and of science to make claims about
what is holding APM back, but this is done in a non-systematic way.
Finally, this is evidently a personal book, intended to energize us with
the author's vision, but it includes too much about the author himself
that is unrelated to his image of an APMenabled future. Drexlerian
nanotechnology may be on its way, but this book will, I suspect, do little
to hasten its arrival.
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