The next technological revolution?

15 Nov 2011

The key to tackling some of our planet’s greatest challenges may be found in the laws of physics and methods of engineering, as opposed to any specific technological innovation.

Speaking at the inaugural public lecture of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, Dr Eric Drexler said there is a compelling case for the viability of atomically precise manufacturing. This is the process of building structures, tools and machines starting at the molecular level, with atomic precision, to address challenges such as rising greenhouse gases and energy production for our growing population.

In a talk entitled “Exploring a Timeless Landscape: Physical Law and the Future of Nanotechnology”, pioneering nanotechnology researcher Dr. Drexler invited the audience to consider the intriguing possibility of nano-level manufacture of macro-level products. Such a process, if achieved, would be the next great revolution in the material basis of civilization, offering high-performance components, materials or systems and accelerated productivity.

Starting from the premise that the potential of technology has remained constant throughout history because it is governed by the laws of physics, Dr Drexler sketched out a model of development in which a “possibility space” exists between known physical limits (the speed of light, gravity, quantum mechanics) and existing technology.

He demonstrated the power of atomically precise manufacturing, using the fabrication processes of ribosomes as an example. We are only beginning to be able to manufacture at this level, but, he argued,but, a physics-based analysis shows that the possibilities offered by nanomanufacturing could be immense: desktop computers with 1 billion processors or materials 100 times stronger than steel.

The audience for this intriguing lecture included experts in a variety of related fields (including professors in condensed matter physics, astronomy, nanotechnology, biochemistry and electronics). This was reflected in a rigorous intellectual discussion following Drexler’s presentation on topics including pathways to atomically precise machinery, effects that might be had on global employment, and the ever-present risks attached to the development of technology of such potential power.

The lecture will be available online at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology Programme website.