ENGINES of CREATION 2.0 | Letter from the Author

March 1, 2007
author |
K. Eric Drexler
year published |

Originally published in Engines of Creation 2.0, WOWIO Books, February 2007.

Engines of Creation in 1986 inspired an explosion of interest in  nanotechnology. Version 2.0 updates this classic book, including new concepts for molecular manufacturing and new uses for nanotech, such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and compressing it to liquid density for long-term storage.

The vision I portrayed in Engines of Creation in 1986 inspired a generation of students to direct their careers toward nanotechnology. Perhaps because it explores consequences of physics and broad principles, rather than tracking then-current technologies and trends, Engines continues to sell briskly as a book on the future of technology.

It would be difficult to understand where nanotechnology is today without understanding how we got here. Today’s pattern of research and opinion bears the imprint of ideas in Engines of Creation, in part directly, but in large part through reactions, misconceptions, reactions to misconceptions, and the peculiar dance of politics, technologies, and funding that followed. I’d like to offer a sketch of this process as it looked from my perspective, then a brief view looking forward.

A Sketch of the History, 1986-2006

Engines of Creation envisioned a new landscape of future nanotechnologies, and within a few years of its publication many regarded the term “nanotechnology” as synonymous with the highest of high technologies. Many researchers were already studying the science and technology of nanoscale things (large molecules, thin coatings, advanced transistors, small particles, thin fibers, etc.) and they found that interest in their work multiplied when they described it as “nanotechnology”. Partly through relabeling, partly though new initiatives, research in nanotechnologies became more coherent and grew explosively. Conferences sprang up, and companies, and government programs. Old fields found fresh vigor, and new capabilities multiplied. In 2001, the U.S. launched a multi-billion dollar National Nanotechnology Initiative (the NNI), and parallel efforts emerged across Europe and Asia, where nanotechnologies were at a similar level. The new nanotechnology establishment in government and industry projected a trillion dollar market within ten years. Critics reacted, warning that nanotechnology was opening a “Pandora’s box”.

From a distance, it seemed that the vision presented in Engines of Creation had broadened and grown, inspiring leaders to direct vast resources toward a revolution in manufacturing, toward developing nanoscale machinery, guided by digital data, that would join molecular building blocks to make products with atomic precision and unprecedented capabilities. A closer look showed a different reality: In the U.S., at least, molecular manufacturing became a taboo subject for a decade. The cause was a reaction to a public misconception that had gotten its start from a misreading of Engines.

In Engines of Creation, I pictured molecular manufacturing using “replicating assemblers” to build things, including more machines like themselves. I explained why sensibly designed machines of this sort would use and require specially prepared materials and be “useful but harmless”. Further study showed that this approach would be needlessly complex and inefficient. There is simply no need to build tiny self-replicating machines. In a detailed, technical book, I described and analyzed desktop-scale molecular manufacturing systems that would be far simpler and more efficient. (If you like math-intensive books, I recommend it: Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, Wiley/Interscience, 1992). But meanwhile, the earlier ideas from Engines had spread into popular culture—science fiction, movies, and video games—and taken on a life of their own. The ideas that spread fastest simplified, transmogrified, and sensationalized. Soon, “nanotechnology” was all about making so-called “nanobots”—self-replicating bug-like things that could work miracles, but would inevitably run amok, eat the world, and turn it into “gray goo.” And these monster nanobugs were, of course, said to be my idea.

How did the spread of these fantasies affect policy within U.S. government circles? Not well. Not well at all. The new nanotechnologists, working with particles, coatings, and the like, couldn’t deliver the promise of nanotechnology as understood by the public, and they certainly weren’t about to unleash swarms of ravenous nanobugs. Quite naturally, they didn’t like the popularized version of advanced nanotechnology, especially in its absurd, mutant forms, and they blamed me. From where they sat, “it” (that Drexler stuff) was a single blob of inflammatory ideas. The popular culture images were genuinely full of nonsense, and when they responded with a simple message—that “it” was all nonsense—they had some success in getting rid of false expectations and fears. This convenient idea became a consensus among the funders and elders of the burgeoning nanotechnology community.

And so it came to pass that the founding organizers of the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative took care to invite not one speaker, spend not one dime, have not one word on their website that might suggest that the idea molecular manufacturing should even be considered. Indeed, as you can see from the exchange reprinted in Appendix C, a leading establishment spokesman, Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley, denounced the idea. He insisted that molecular manufacturing was all about making things called “nanobots”—self-replicating, monstrous, bug-like things that would inevitably run amok. He of course said that they were my idea. And impossible.

My 2003 exchange with Prof. Smalley marked a milestone on the return to realism. Before it appeared in print, the establishment said that he had refuted the molecular physics of molecular manufacturing. After, it became plain that he had refuted only absurd ideas from the popular press, and had nothing persuasive to say about the actual technical concepts. Vocal rejection fell out of fashion and young researchers found a new freedom to speak of ambitious objectives.

A second milestone came in 2006: an independent, high-level, scientifically grounded report on the subject. Congress had directed the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences to review the performance of the NNI. A committee including experts in physics, chemistry, and engineering met, invited and questioned experts on molecular manufacturing, and subjected the concepts and analysis in Nanosystems to careful, technical review. They examined current understanding of atomistic control, error rates, speed of operation, thermodynamic efficiency, and so on, and note that these “can be calculated in theory, but not predicted with confidence.” The report closes with a call for funding “experimental demonstrations that link to abstract models and guide long-term vision.”

Finally, after 20 years, a competent committee had examined the evidence, considered the science, and offered an informed judgment.

During these years, despite U.S.-centered confusion, a tide of nanotechnologies has continued to rise. There have been many results: Microelectronics became nanoelectronics. Computer power has grown 10,000 fold, enabling ever larger and more accurate design and modeling of molecular systems. Biological molecular machines have been studied and harnessed; simple artificial molecular machines have been designed and synthesized; advanced molecular machines have been designed and simulated. Designing and making new proteins developed from an idea to a task that can be completed in weeks. DNA strands have been designed that fold and link to form million-atom, three-dimensional structures that can be designed and made in a single workday.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union fell, Europe expanded, China awoke, and the US stood as the unchallenged military power, while a few decades-old spacecraft continued their endless fall into interstellar space. Revolutionary advances in space continued to await a revolution in spacecraft fabrication. Revolutionary advances in machine intelligence continued to await new ideas. As for social intelligence, institutions that aid factual judgment (on climate change, molecular manufacturing, etc.) lagged far behind mass media that treat dispute as a sport. Computers, once rare (Engines began with a typewriter and was delivered on paper) multiplied and linked through networks to form a new world of worlds. A hypertext publishing system—the World Wide Web—emerged, growing explosively in size and abilities, reshaping society. But they continued to lack what Engines describes as crucial: readers of a controversial document can’t easily see the best-rated criticisms, and so critics can’t respond where it would matter most. And so the Web presents knowledge and nonsense almost as equals, and amplifies both. At both the surface and depths of the computational world, there’s a need for new structures.

Looking Forward

Progress in nanotechnologies has created many powerful capabilities, and I think that the time is ripe to combine them to move molecular engineering to a new level. DNA engineering builds precise, million-atom frameworks; engineered proteins can bind to precise locations on these frameworks; and proteins can bind other components—strong and stiff, electrically or chemically active—and biology shows that proteins themselves can serve as construction machinery.

Taken together, these developments have opened the door to a new domain of engineering, and through it to a path that leads, step by useful step, to advanced molecular manufacturing.

Technical studies indicate that nanofactories, ranging to desktop scale and larger, will be able to convert simple chemical feedstocks into large, atomically precise products cleanly, inexpensively, and with moderate energy consumption. They indicate that a 10 kilogram factory will be able to produce 10 kilograms of products in hours or less—a stack of billion-processor laptops, a package containing a trillion cell-sized medical devices, or a roll containing hundreds of square meters of tough, flexible stuff that converts sunlight to electric power. It seems that raw materials will be the main cost of production. At a dollar per kilogram (a typical price for industrial feedstocks today) the solar-electric material would cost about one cent per square meter, and the computers would cost about a dime. Shipping and handling extra.

It may be surprising that a nanofactory could make so wide a range of products. Manufacturing machines today are specialized: plastic-molding machines shape particular kinds of plastic, metal-cutting machines shape particular kinds of metal, and so on. But imagine what people 50 years ago would have thought if someone said that a single machine could replace a typewriter, a television, a drawing board, a calculator, a darkroom, a record-player, a pinball machine, and a library. This notion wouldn’t have passed the laugh test then, but today we call these machines “computers”. They can do all this because their tiny, fast-cycling parts can be directed to form complex patterns of the elementary building blocks of information, bits. Likewise, molecular manufacturing systems will use tiny, fast-cycling parts, but these can be directed to form complex patterns of the elementary building blocks of matter. As with computers, the effects on the world will be far beyond what anyone can now imagine.

I’d like to describe one that Engines didn’t mention, a system that could address global warming. Molecular machinery can be used to sort gas molecules to extract carbon dioxide from air. This requires substantial energy—the process compresses a gas—but it can be done with good thermodynamic efficiency. To remove 100 parts per million of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as a whole, compressing it to liquid density for long-term storage, would require several terawatts of power for 10 years. This could be provided by solar arrays with the total area of a square roughly 200 kilometers on a side. By providing the necessary molecular machinery and dropping the cost of the arrays, molecular manufacturing can make it affordable to remove and store the excess carbon dioxide that has accumulated since the first industrial revolution.

Abilities of this magnitude may arrive sooner than most would expect. The last 50 years have shown the incredible dynamism of technologies in the microworld. While cars, aircraft, houses, and furniture have changed only moderately in their capabilities and costs, DNA and microelectronic technologies have exploded, expanding their basic capabilities by factors of more than a billion. The developments leading to molecular manufacturing are of a similar sort and will share this dynamism. Past a certain threshold, however, these developments will burst forth from the microworld to transform technologies on a human and even planetary scale. No realistic view of the future can omit this prospect.

Two of the new chapters in Engines of Creation 2.0:

Ray Kurzweil’s Analysis of the Drexler-Smalley Debate
Richard Feynman’s There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom

From Engines of Creation 1.0 (these remain the same in the 2.0 version):

© 2007 K. Eric Drexler