Book review: Radical Abundance by K. Eric Drexler

  • Posted on: 8 July 2013
  • By: Jay Oyster

Radical Abundance, or How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization by K. Eric DrexlerReview of "Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology will Change Civilization" by K. Eric Drexler. Reviewed on July 8th, 2013. 

Back in the 1980s, Eric Drexler coined the term and popularized the concept of what we now call 'nanotechnology'.  This book is a sort of 'So where are we now?' update on the state of the art and the concepts. I found the book alternatingly mind-blowing and tedious.  That's somewhat hard to do, yet that was my experience with Radical Abundance.

I think the reason for that reaction is that the author's intent in writing this books is somewhat schyzophrenic.  He wants to popularize his ideas, but he saw what happened to them back in the 90s and early 2000s, and is afraid that that will happen again. He sees in the history of this technology that it went wildly awry from his intentions, but for political reasons dealing with human nature rather than anything technical. He wants us to be excited, but not overly excited.  That latter part is where the tedium comes in. He attempts to undermine the 'gee-whiz' aspects of the ideas as much as he can, because he doesn't want accolytes. He wants thinking engineers to make it come true.  But this dual focus can cause him to be a bit repetitive and a bit of a worrywart.

I believe the author is thinking about a very particular audience for this. Although the technical details are not overwhelming to the casual reader, not everyone will be interested in these topics. He's trying to talk to the people who are already performing some of these activities, the chemists and engineers and scientists. He's trying to get them to see that they're all working on the same problem.  The audience? If you like watching the Science channel show 'How It's Made', showing the inner workings of various factories, and if you have a Maker personality, then this is the book for you.  Especially if you also work in the materials sciences, mechanical engineering, protein chemistry, molecular engineering, or molecular software modelling industries.

But what is the message he's trying to tell? It really comes down to about six or seven points:

  • Stop thinking about microscopic robots. If you hear 'nanotechnology' and think about Wesley Crusher and nanites, I do believe that this author would seek you out just to punch you in the face.  ESPECIALLY if you start TALKING about such things.
  • In fact, stop calling it nanotechnology. That term has been usurped by thousands of industries just to grab federal dollars. He wants us instead to think about his real topic . . .  which is APM. APM stands for 'Atomically Precise Manufacturing.'
  • His field is exploratory engineering, so stop asking him for specific products that will result. As he very colorfully explains it, he is working in the same way that Konstantin Tsialkovsky did in 1890s Russia. Tsialkovsky did thought experiments about what could be done with rockets. What if you made them bigger? What could you do with them? It would have been foolish to ask Tsiolkovsky to describe a SpaceX Falcon 9. The exploratory engineering in this book is about how atomically precise manufacturing could be used and might affect the world.
  • How will APM affect the world? It will change it completely.  (This is the most mind blowing section of the book). Drexler gives a wonderful sense of the scales involved here by describing an atom as something that could sit in the palm of your hand like a BB from a BB gun.  On this scale, a blood cell would fill a soccer stadium, and a beach ball is as big as the entire Earth. If you think about being able to place atoms in exact locations, building objects the same way we build pictures out of pixels . . . . everything changes.
  • It's all about materials. And almost everything we make today, everything in our offices or around our homes, or in our factories, or out on our highways, can be made better. Materils will be lighter, stronger, and a lot cheaper if we take the APM concept to its logical next step. Everything that we make will be better . . .and not just a little better, but thousands or hundreds of thousands of times better.
  • Everything we know about building normal factories will translate when we decide to build atomic-level ones, as long as we keep a few unique traits of atomic interactions in mind (the way molecular binding works, the 'lumpiness' of materials at this scale), but everything will workat a much higher speed, pretty much directly inverse to the scale involved.  Distances are small, so the time to travel from station to station in our assembly line will be atomically small as well.
  • It's already happening, but it's happening in thousands of individual industries, and with almost no relation to the 'formal' nanotechnology research going on in universities and government labs. But it's happening randomly, driven by market forces and curiosity.   (I saw a report today on how U.S. solar energy module companies are doing much better now that they've managed to make their assembly lines more efficient. These are thin film assembly lines. And they are driving for more efficiencies. The expensive components, the gallium and siliicon, will eventually be placed down on their substraits in films that are only 10s of atoms thick, and perhaps even thinner. That is already happening, driven by market forces.)
  • If we all let the hype overwhelm the real practicalities of the matter, it can be derailed again. So try not to get too excited about all of this.

That's really it. Those points are the gyst of his argument. He says it over and over again . . .there is no science or technology chasm between where we are now and this vision of an APM future. But in the world of APM, right now we have tools that are at the level of hammers and anvils. The tools we need, and which he's convinced me will arrive fairly quickly, are the equivalent of a modern robotic automotive plant. . . . in a box . . . . that sits on the corner of your desk.  Drexler talks about what it will be like to build objects at the atomic scale. It will function differently at three different scales: The atomic, the 'microblock', and the macro scale.

At the atomic scale, he describes the creation of atomic parts, like tiny gears and rods and conveyor belts, that are produced by the millions. This will start out by etching or somehow creating a pattern for the parts on a flat substrate. The etching will create spots where new parts will form. Then you pour on the atoms and let them fill the voids. Disolve the sustrait and release the millions of parts into a liquid, such as a drop of pure water.  Then, we use the random motion of the fluid (i.e. Brownian motion) to naturally present the parts to the start of an atomic-level assembly line. Sort of like taking a bin full of ball-bearings in a hopper and letting them drop down into a slot where they are moved into position with other parts to become captured roller bearings. The image I kept coming back to was a Lego set that's put together to make a giant machine. Something like this. The Lego concept kept coming to mind because since we are operating at the atomic scale, there are some features that cannot be smoothed out. The blocks themselves MUST be lumpy, because the individual atoms that compose the parts are visible . . . little round nubs that protrude from every surface . . . like Lego blocks. But imagine Lego blocks that are stronger than steel, but as light as air, and that stick together when touched in the right way as if super-glued.  But instead of balls, the machine pushes small groups of atoms. Drexler calls these assemblages of 10s to 1000s of atoms 'microblocks'.  

After you have the microblocks assembled to make about all of the thousands of parts you need, you are approaching the macro scale, where we live. At this point, perhaps, we use microscopic versions of the one arm production robots of today's factories. The arms grab parts off of the assembly line, and build the devices that are one step up the chain in size. Drexler's image of an auto assembly 'room' is astonishing in its audacity. It's fractal engineering, with one end of the room divided into a box grid, each with its own smaller boxes, each with their own smaller boxes, each with a smaller and smaller robot in them, assembling the parts up from the atomic scale . . . until a car is built in front of you, in a matter of minutes.

I've recommended this book to several friends and described some of the concepts at friendly gatherings. It's clear that the ideas are a little hard to comprehend . . . at least in the scope of changes they will cause. And even harder to accept.

In a time of gloom and doom about the future of the human race, this book is a startlingly clear-eyed ray of not only hope, but trust, that we are all going to be all right. We are going to figure this out. We still have big improvements to make to human civilization that will not only improve our lives, but fix some of the problems we've inadvertently caused (like Global Climate Change.)  It does. It gives one hope.

Now, these changes won't occur without conflict, mind you . . . the whole section that talks about the impact of APM on labor and markets, and the section on how this will impact the defense industry and how nations interact with one another is, frankly,  terrifying.  (Think about how Tsialkovsky, a humble country teacher, would have reacted to today's modern ICBMs, robot drones, and smart bombs, and the way we police the world for nuclear materials.)  But the positives will far outweigh the negatives, if we can find our way through the changing times.

The ideas in this book, as presented, sound almost mundane in the author's matter-of fact statements, but breath-taking in their implications.   I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes to thinkabout the big picture and about how the future of humanity might evolve.