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Radical Abundance:

How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization

by K. Eric Drexler

After finishing this book in October of 2023, I wrote:

"The next 10-20 years will eclipse all the unprecedented changes I've already witnessed in my lifetime. Read my notes below to get one glimpse into this astounding future."

 

My clippings below collapse a 368-page book into 6 pages, measured by using 12-point type in Microsoft Word.

See all my book recommendations.  

Here are the selections I made:

NOT SO LONG AGO, if you wanted to bring the sound of a violin into your home, you would have needed a violin and a violinist to play the instrument.

 

And if you wanted to bring the sound of a symphony orchestra into your home, you would have needed a palace and the wealth of a king.

 

Today, a small box can fill a room in your home with the sound of a violin or of a symphony orchestra—drawing on a library of sound to provide symphony and song in radical abundance, an abundance of music delivered by a very different kind of instrument.

 

NOT SO LONG AGO, when I was in school, research required a trip to a library stocked with bundles of printed paper—an inconvenient undertaking when the nearest good library was miles away. Today, affordable machines can deliver the content of a library’s journals to your lap in an instant—and behind this modern wonder we again find silicon chips with digital devices.

 

Mail that arrives in an instant, not carried by trucks or delivered by hand? Movies at home that arrive in an instant, without film or a theater? Conversations with friends thousands of miles away, without wizards or magic?

 

Imagine yourself in pre-industrial times and consider how implausible each of these recent advances would have seemed. To an artisan skilled in the crafting of violins, an iPod would seem frankly preposterous. To a worker in a print shop in the seventeenth century, the power and outward simplicity of a desktop printer would be beyond imagining.

 

The agricultural way of life eroded both leisure and health. Stature decreased and teeth decayed as human beings’ previously eclectic diet became reliant on the few crops they could produce in bulk.

 

Advances since the takeoff of industrial society (which took hold in Britain around 1800) have multiplied the developed world’s productive capacity by a factor of one hundred or more, if one can compare products as different as wagons and aircraft, or books and computers.

 

one finds that those familiar products are made with the aid of machines built by means of machines that were built by means of yet other machines—tools used to build tools in an unbroken chain that leads first to distant factories, and then deep into time.

 

The Industrial Revolution had its most profound effect on human life by enabling food production to outpace population growth.

 

The Agricultural Revolution dates from prehistory, while the Industrial Revolution began to gain steam not long before yesterday. A single lifetime, however, is enough to span the whole of the Information Revolution, from its barest beginnings with racks of vacuum tubes to its role in today’s unfathomable acceleration of global change.

 

The first stored-program computers were built in the United Kingdom in 1948 and 1949 at the Universities of Manchester and Cambridge. These early machines used vacuum tubes to build digital systems; the first fully transistorized computer went operational in 1955, the year I was born.

 

In 1971, Intel (co-founded by Gordon Moore, of Moore’s Law fame) shipped the first machine that compressed all the components of a computer processor onto a single chip, the 4004, and it outperformed machines of the kind that decades before had weighed tons.

 

On its information side, however, the Information Revolution provides humanity’s first example of radical abundance and how it can step beyond the usual economic framework.

 

How much are Wikipedia’s services worth? Many billions of dollars per year, by any reasonable measure. Yet how much revenue does Wikipedia get, as an organization, and what is its dollar contribution to a nation’s GDP?

 

Both are zero, or nearly enough. Likewise for all the free content found on the Web and the entire world of open source data and software.

 

If the use of free products reduces GDP per capita, then so much the worse for the idea that GDP measures value.

 

Developing the mechanisms required for advanced APM will involve translating the functional patterns of macroscale machinery into the nanoscale world.

 

The functions of rigid metallic structures, like the gears and shafts of an engine, can be performed by rigid, atomically precise nanoscale structures, albeit with several key differences.

 

There’s an engineering principle here, by the way: Phenomena that can’t be observed—despite the most strenuous efforts—are extremely unlikely to either impede or enable accessible technologies.

 

The Human Genome Project, in effect, began with an elephant, while Apollo began with a conceptual system design. One succeeded through almost independent inquiry; the other demanded the tightest project integration that the world had ever seen.

 

The essence of science is inquiry; the essence of engineering is design. Scientific inquiry expands the scope of human perception and understanding; engineering design expands the scope of human plans and results.

 

Thus, in scientific inquiry, knowledge flows from bottom to top:        

•  Through observation and study, physical systems shape concrete descriptions.        

•  By suggesting ideas and then testing them, concrete descriptions shape scientific theories.

 

In scientific inquiry information flows from matter to mind, but in engineering design information flows from mind to matter:        

•  Inquiry extracts information through instruments; design applies information through tools.        

•  Inquiry shapes its descriptions to fit the physical world; design shapes the physical world to fit its descriptions.

 

Scientists seek unique, correct theories, and if several theories seem plausible, all but one must be wrong, while engineers seek options for working designs, and if several options will work, success is assured.        

•  Scientists seek theories that apply across the widest possible range (the Standard Model applies to everything), while engineers seek concepts well-suited to particular domains (liquid-cooled nozzles for engines in liquid-fueled rockets).      

•  Scientists seek theories that make precise, hence brittle predictions (like Newton’s), while engineers seek designs that provide a robust margin of safety.        

•  In science a single failed prediction can disprove a theory, no matter how many previous tests it has passed, while in engineering one successful design can validate a concept, no matter how many previous versions have failed. 

 

The view from the top of scientific inquiry is widely understood, in a general way. Theorists seek and test precise explanations of observations of the natural world, and successful theories are, in a sense, predetermined by nature. The view from the top of engineering design is radically different and less often discussed. When engineers architect systems, they make abstract choices constrained by natural law, yet not fully specified and in no sense predetermined by nature.

 

Systems-level engineering is a discipline radically different from science, though it must conform to the same physical reality.

 

Scientific inquiry faces toward the unknown, and this shapes the structure of scientific thought; although scientists apply established knowledge, the purpose of science demands that they look beyond it.

 

The moral of the story: When considering an engineering problem, beware of letting related unknowns distract attention from well-understood solutions.

 

Might predictions be wrong by as much as 10 percent, and for poorly understood reasons? The reasons may pose a difficult scientific puzzle, yet an engineer might see no problem at all. Add a 50 percent margin of safety, and move on.

 

Accuracy can only be judged with respect to a purpose and engineers often can choose to ask questions for which models give good-enough answers.

 

In logical terms, a universal physical theory corresponds to a universally quantified statement: “For all potential physical systems . . .,” while an engineering design corresponds to an existentially quantified statement: “There exists a potential physical system. . . .” One counterexample can disprove the first, while one positive example can prove the second.

 

SCIENCE ASKS, “How can we discover new knowledge?” Engineering asks, “How can we deliver new products?”

 

Exploratory engineering, however, asks a different, less familiar question: “How can we apply existing knowledge to explore the scope of potential products that cannot yet be delivered?”

 

Exploratory engineering is the art of applying scientific knowledge and engineering methods to explore the potential of future technologies. Three rules describe its essential methods:              

 

• Rule 1: Explore systems of kinds that current tools can’t build.              

 

• Rule 2: Ask only questions that current science can answer.              

 

• Rule 3: Think like an engineer.

 

Conventional engineering aims to provide competitive products, exploratory engineering aims to provide confident knowledge, and these radically different objectives call for different methods.

 

ASKING THREE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS “What can be made?” “What can it do?” “How much will it cost to produce?”

 

The bottom line: Most raw materials needed for APM products are common and inexpensive, costing less than one dollar per kilogram. With an adjustment for reductions in mass, this gives a cost equivalent to about ten cents per kilogram, a cost per “effective kilogram.”

 

The bottom line: By comparison to current industrial systems, the land area required for APM-based production is negligible.

 

The bottom line: The labor required for APM is external to the production process, with no labor cost incurred by the process itself.

 

The bottom line: Advanced production systems need not produce noxious emissions, greenhouse gases, or toxic wastes, and could meet zero-tolerance emission regulations at little cost.

 

The bottom line: APM-based production systems would naturally tend to be safer than current industrial plants, and stringent safety regulations could be easily met.

 

The bottom line: In physical terms, the cost of production equipment adds an almost negligible increment to product cost. Indeed, the physical cost of capital per unit output would remain affordable even for equipment used at 1 percent of capacity, like a home washing machine used for just a few hours a week.

 

Adding Up Costs Summing the two major costs above—raw materials and energy—while absorbing the smaller costs into the large rounding error yields a typical, estimated, physical cost of about twenty cents per effective, structural mass–adjusted kilogram.

 

Besides carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, these useful abundant elements include silicon and aluminum, both common in the Earth’s crust.

 

Studies of Earth’s chemical and geophysical cycles indicate that temperatures and CO2 levels would remain high for centuries even if emissions were cut to zero today; thus, it seems that only atmospheric carbon capture technologies can provide a large enough drain to lower CO2 levels quickly and deeply.

 

We’ve seen the emergence of a gift economy in digital products such as software, text, images, and video; the natural course of events would see this pattern extend to APM product-design files, leading (aside from the cost of input materials) to a gift economy in physical objects (but within what mandated constraints?).

 

Today, a radical abundance of symphony and song—and words, and images, and more—has brought luxuries that once had required the wealth of a king to the ears and eyes of ordinary people in billions of households. It seems that our future holds a comparable technology-driven transformation, enabled by nanoscale devices, but this time with atoms in place of bits. The revolution that follows can bring a radical abundance beyond the dreams of any king, a post-industrial material abundance that reaches the ends of the Earth and lightens its burden.

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