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Home > Nanotechnology Columns > Eric Drexler > Interview with Dr. Eric Drexler

Brian Lundquist
Nanotechnology Now

Interview with Dr. Eric Drexler during his recent book tour for Radical Abundance (PublicAffairs, 2013).

December 26th, 2013

Interview with Dr. Eric Drexler

What do you consider the top 5 problems in the world that nanotechnology will help solve and how will it help?

To begin with, it's important to understand that the prospects I describe involve something more than nanotechnology in the present sense they involve developments that are outside the fields of material science and much simple nanoscale devices. The long-range revolutionary potential of developments at the nanoscale will come from atomically precise manufacturing, a technology analogous to digital information technologies or 3D printing: a general-purpose way to make intricate patterns of something, in this case, patterns of advanced materials that form advanced products of all kinds. An engineering analysis shows that costs of production can be extraordinarily low in terms of labor, materials, energy, and environmental impact, while product performance can be at or beyond today's state of the art.

Regarding the question of what problems atomically precise manufacturing help to solve, the answer is problems that involve physical production, problems that include transitioning to a solar-energy based economy, providing fresh water, boosting the productivity of agriculture, reducing resource depletion, and removing excess CO2 from Earth's atmosphere. All of these problems can be solved much more easily if the right products can be made with high enough efficiency and at low enough costs.

These technologies the state of progress, the technological prospects, and their applications are discussed in my new book, Radical Abundance.

Are you satisfied with the process by which university research is making its way into business and industry? How can that be improved?

In this area, what is needed is a focus on particular engineering objectives that build on today's rapid progress in atomically precise fabrication. This progress comes out of the molecular sciences, however, and research in the most relevant areas tends to be directed toward more traditional and immediate goals, for example, in biology and medicine. In these areas, transfer from academic research to applications works reasonably well, but what is missing is the development of applications on paths that lead more directly toward atomically precise manufacturing.

This work will involve exploiting self assembly methods to build devices that aid self assembly by directing building blocks to particular sites. This will require nanoscale positioning mechanisms that resemble 3D printers, with relatively rigid frameworks and externally activated stepper motors. The required molecular components are already known, and the challenge is to develop specific components that fit together in a physical and functional sense.

The oil industry sees alternative energy as a threat to its business model and actively discourages competition. Is there a parallel in the development and implementation of nanotechnology?

Today, I think that this problem isn't significant, but it may become important later, as technologies reach levels that enable broader industrial applications.

Federal money for scientific research in the U.S. seems to be a low priority for Congress. What are the implications for that? Should we be concerned for America falling behind in research, or is it more important to focus on international R&D?

Today, basic research in atomically precise fabrication is extraordinarily international, with great strengths not only in the US, but in Europe, Japan, and China. Falling behind is still a concern. There will be great advantages to maintaining close collaboration as the field moves forward.

How do we tap into the potential brainpower that we know exists in third-world countries? Little Einsteins are growing up barefoot and illiterate in villages in Bangladesh and Kenya.

Open courseware is a major step. Open competition to solve problems is another prize money is especially effective in poor countries.

Is there one major breakthrough in nanotech that will precipitate a rapid shift in making current technologies obsolete?

In current areas of nanotechnology, even the most important advances are by nature incremental and application-specific. Eventually, however, we will see a technology transition of a kind that we've already seen: The best analogy may be the change-over in information technologies (photography, printing, audio recording, and so on) that happened as a result of the digital information revolution. Atomically precise manufacturing, when it eventually emerges, will have a similar relationship to conventional manufacturing processes (cutting metal, molding plastic, semiconductor lithography, and so on). In both instances, specialized "analog" technologies will face competition from technologies based on large arrays of high-frequency nanoscale components that work with the smallest building blocks in their domain. In electronics, the building blocks are bits and bytes; in manufacturing, the ultimate building blocks are atoms and molecules.

The key to this is nothing exotic. What will be needed is a series of progressively better ways to guide the motion of reactive molecules, bringing them together to make larger building blocks. The natural system-level architectures for organizing these patterns of motion have a striking resemblance to systems of factory machinery, but much more compact, and packaged in devices that can resemble 3D printers.

What are the downsides of rapid obsolescence?

Economic disruption and the temptation to slide into an unpredictable arms race are the ones that I worry about. Greater capabilities for physical production can have an enormous impact in improving human life, but to achieve this result will require preparation well-grounded, reality-based discussion that leads to an understanding of what needs to be done. I wrote Radial Abundance to help start that discussion.

Dr. Eric Drexler, often described as "the founding father of nanotechnology," introduced this concept to the scientific community through a seminal 1981 paper and a book-length, physics-based analysis, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation. His 1986 book, Engines of Creation, introduced prospects for advanced nanotechnologies to a global audience, setting in motion a shift in both scientific research directions and popular visions of the future. His most recent book, Radical Abundance (PublicAffairs, 2013) explores prospects for advanced, atomically precise nanotechnologies that will transform the physical basis of technological civilization, with implications in areas that range from medicine to global economic development and climate change. Eric is currently with the Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology at the Oxford Martin School, Oxford University.

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