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Drexler Keynote

One of the best talks at the Emerging Technology conference was a keynote presentation given by K. Eric Drexler, who coined the term "nanotechnology" and has been thinking about its implications for about twenty years.

Nanotechnology has been suffering from a mild buzzword hangover recently, caught in that awkward void between early hype and actual tangible existence. Having Michael Crichton write a novel about it certainly didn't help, since now all the cool kids have to move on to something new. But Drexler's work transcends the hype, and his talk was an uncomfortable reminder that taking a passive attitude to nanotech is not an option, at least if we want to remain a free society.

The crux of the argument is this: sometime soon, within perhaps the next fifty years, it will become possible to create machines that can manipulate atoms on the molecular scale, creating a kind of universal assembler - a machine that can build anything. Pour in the raw materials, and out comes a hammer, or a wristwatch, or an ice cream soda. Or , for that matter, another universal assembler. As Drexler put it, via my own leaky memory:

Imagine a machine about the size of a photocopier - a beige box with a little screen, and four rubber feet. Like every other electronic appliance these days, the box has a little fan mounted into the side. At the top of the box is a small hole, like a bottle neck, next to a large lid. Now imagine you go up to this machine, enter some numbers on a keypad, and pour a pint or two of liquid into the hole at the top. The machine makes productive little noises for a few minutes, the fan whirrs, and eventually the lid pops open and out comes a familiar looking little beige box. You take this second box, and extend it to its full width, and height, and depth, and lo and behold you now have two identical beige boxes, each with little rubber feet, and a little fan mounted in the side.

What makes a universal assembler different from any other technology in history is that we only have to build a single one. It may take a terrifying amount of money, effort, and research to build the first crude prototype (in fact, Drexler hopes it does, for reasons discussed below). But once a single assembler is built, you can have it make copies of itself - or improved versions, now that you are able to manipulate the molecules directly. Perhaps the original assembler was the size of a factory, since you only had macro tools with which to make it, but now those limitations are gone.

Computer scientists joke about the ultimate computer being a big beige box with just one button, marked "do what I mean". The device Drexler describes is the mechanical equivalent. The key thing about it is that there are no theoretical obstacles to building it - just engineering obstacles, of the kind that we have repeatedly overcome during the past century.

And nce you make a machine that can assemble molecules together like Legos, everything changes.

A world with working molecular assemblers is a radical world. Tangible objects suddenly lose all their value. We've seen what happened to the music industry when the Internet gave people a way to exchange music as data, rather than as physical records or CD's. Imagine (and it's impossible to imagine) the same thing happening with cars, shoes, electronics, furniture and everything else. What does that do to the economy? What does that do to our culture, or how we choose to spend our time?

A lot of what the Foresight Institute ( of which Drexler is the head) does is try to think about these kinds of questions. Unfortunately, the social and economic implications of working molecular assemblers are the least of our worries. The other risks nanotech poses will be more existential, especially during the initial experimentation period when people don't quite know how to handle the stuff. As Drexler memorably puts it,

"We cannot afford certain kinds of accidents with replicating assemblers"

Where "accident" can mean a depressingly wide number of things. Many people have heard of the "gray goo" problem (wonderful technical analysis here),where a tiny nanobot, released into the wild by accident or through malicious intent, devours and replicates its way through the entire biosphere. It's equally easy to think of any number of equally undesirable outcomes.

On the more mundane level, a box that can assemble anything at all can easily assemble a hand grenade, or Ebola virus, or a thermonuclear bomb, as long as you can provide it with the proper instructions.

The longer we wait to develop molecular assemblers, the more dangerous they will be ( lower expense)


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