Writing ahead of his appearance at NESTA's FutureFest (28-29 September), Dr Eric Drexler considers whether a radical alternative to industrial-era technologies can help resolve the conflict between securing economic growth and addressing climate change.
Today’s expectations for the 21st century rest on the implicit assumption that industrial-era technologies will continue to dominate the material side of human civilization, driving the ongoing collision between global economic development, limited resources, and climate change. The principles of physics and engineering, however, suggest an alternative to industrial-era technologies, and it is increasingly urgent that we evaluate what those principles tell us about the potential for a different kind of human future.
In the early 20th century, the principles of physics, viewed through the lens of engineering analysis, informed attentive thinkers of the possibility of rocket-based spaceflight. In the decades that followed, steady progress in a set of key technologies opened a path to Earth orbit and beyond. Today, our far greater knowledge of physics and engineering shows that line of technological development stands open, a path that leads beyond industrial technologies to a radically different kind of production technology and very different kind of future.
This technology, high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing (APM), promises a revolution in material technology that parallels today’s revolution in information technology. The basis for today’s information technology is nanoscale electronic devices that form complex patterns of data by organizing bits and bytes; the basis for APM is nanoscale mechanical devices that form complex material structures by organizing patterns of atoms and molecules. Just as arrays of billions of nanoscale electronic devices desktop computers enable high-throughput information processing, arrays of trillions of nanoscale mechanical devices in desktop factories can enable high-throughput material processing.
APM resembles 3D printing, but operating with lower cost, greater speed, and enormously greater scope. 3D printing today produces coarse-grained structures of plastic and metal; APM will provide the ability to make atomically precise structures that range from billion-processor tablet computers, consumer goods, and aerospace components, to high-performance thin film photovoltaics, delivered in rolls of tough material suitable for resurfacing roads and rooftops.
Global material economic development is in the end a problem of making things, a problem of manufacturing. The scope, resource frugality, and cost structure of APM can make global wealth accessible within the constraints of Earth’s limits.
To reverse (not merely slow) the rise in atmospheric CO2 is an immense task that seems beyond the capabilities of the industrial technologies that created the problem. The productive capacity of APM, however — access to terawatts of low-cost solar power and means for efficient CO2 capture — could eventually enable draw-down of excess greenhouse gas levels on a decadal time scale.
In light of the inertia of spontaneous geophysical processes, there may be no alternative way to restore Earth’s climatic balance in less than centuries.
The path to APM-level technologies will not be short, but can be seen as a natural outgrowth of progress in atomically precise fabrication, a line of development that reaches from dozen-atom-scale structures a century ago to million-atom-scale structures today, the fruits of ongoing research in the molecular sciences.
Today, the greatest challenges on the road to APM aren’t technical or scientific, but institutional and informational. Although the physical principles are clear and preliminary assessments (by, for example, the US National Academy of Sciences) are favourable, there remains a daunting task of, first, evaluating and disseminating knowledge about the prospects for APM, and then acting on that knowledge.
Revolutionary results will not come quickly, yet it is increasingly urgent for research programs to turn focused attention to new objectives and for studies of global governance to explore unfamiliar prospects for the decades ahead. And this begins with a change in our conversation about the future, asking different questions and expecting unexpected answers.
- Book your tickets to see Dr Eric Drexler speaking on 'Bio/Nano: the huge consequences of controlling the very small' at FutureFest on Saturday 28 October.
This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.