Any book by Eric Drexler must be taken seriously since his Engines of Creation (1986) launched global debates about the field of nanotechnology (assembling objects atom by atom) and the many controversies engendered. These controversies over the intervening decades ranged from the terrifying vision of Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems in WIRED, April 2000, of the future of robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology and how they might lead to the extinction of the human races. Bill Joy had read Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation and called for an outright aban on nanotechnology research.
The debate that followed on TV and other media among politicians and the public led Drexler to retreat to his current haven in Britain at Oxford University. The Oxford Martin School studies 21st century challenges to humanity and invited Drexler to join its Program on the Impacts of Future Technology and occasioned his discussions with the Oxford Uehiro Center for Practical Ethics. Drexler's new book, Radical Abundance, reconfirms his faith that the next industrial revolution will be about combining our knowledge from the IT sector (CAD, CAM and 3D printing) with advances in bioengineering, molecular assembly and advanced medical applications. This goes far beyond today's misunderstanding and trivializations of products containing nanoparticles to actual atom by atom scale nanotechnology of Atomically Precise Manufacturing (APM).
As a science policy wonk in Washington, DC, from 1974 - 1980, I was fascinated by Drexler's account of how his and others' vision of nanotechnology was subverted. Drexler recounts how research was and distorted by academics seeking grants, grandstanding politicians and other conflicts during the 1990s over billions of taxpayer-funding of the National Nanotechnology Institute (([NNI)). I had witnessed many similar conflicts while witnessing intellectual mercenaries and their corporate patrons and academic institutes fight over new technologies disruptive of their legacy industries and incumbent interest groups. I saw how electric vehicles were sidelined by the automobile industry; public transit dismantled and defunded and how solar, wind, geothermal and efficiency advances were killed by the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies.
So, Drexler has performed a service in making the distortions of the optimal path to this APM vision so clear. All advanced countries experience similar policy pitfalls as their competing technology sectors duke it out with newcomers over public subsidies, tax breaks and capturing regulators, politicians and media attention.
Drexler's thesis in Radical Abundance is that APM will arrive one way or another as the successor of industrial manufacturing's metal-bashing, heating and using often toxic, polluting methods, using ever-scarcer raw materials from copper to rare earths. Drexler leads us through the intricacies of the science and experimental molecular engineering needed to bring about this ultimate manufacturing revolution. His chapters on current science and bioengineering and computing advances are difficult reading - even for experts in related disciplines. Drexler's vision of APM requires systemic roadmaps and goal-setting, wide interdisciplinary collaboration and research.
Thus, APM will not be put in place easily and will bring new social concerns over job losses, massive social re-organization, retooling or destroying whole industries and redesigning societies. Material production of most goods is seen as cheap, local, non-polluting and uses common Earth elements: hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, silicon instead of iron, zinc, lead, tin, manganese, chromium, nickel, cobalt as well as coal, petroleum, gas, uranium and virtually all the currently valuable commodities in world trade. APM will be based on super-efficient collection and use of solar energy, massive efficiency gains over biological photosynthesis and new food production processes.
The implications for current financial markets are hardly discussed, even though today we see warnings in the new risks to "stranded assets" in fossil fuel reserve valuation, as well as nuclear power and centralized electric utilities.
Thus, I advise asset managers and strategic planners, institutional investors and insurance companies to read Radical Abundance. A recent webinar hosted by Clean Edge and Autodesk, a leading provider of CAD, CAM an advanced computerized design applications, discussed today's precursors of AP in new 3D printing technologies. This webinar wisely invited Biomimicry 3.8 founder Janine Benyus to assess the burgeoning field of 3D printing and the new feedstocks beyond ink and plastics that now include metals, wood and other ingredients. Whether these 3D printers bring us closer to Drexler's vision of APM-driven abundance or just to home-printed guns and toys remains to be seen.