My Critique Of Drexler

My last post quoted Drexler on science vs. engineering. Here he is on exploratory engineering:

Exploring, not the time-bound consequences of human actions, but the timeless implications of known physical law. …. Call it “exploratory engineering”; as applied by Tsiolkovsky a century ago, this method of study showed that rocket technology could open a world beyond the bounds of the Earth. Applied today, this method shows that atomically precise technologies can open a world beyond the bounds of the Industrial Revolution.

Drexler’s most famous book was his ’86 Engines of Creation, but his best was his ’92 Nanosystems, which explored nanotech engineering. The book shows impressive courage, venturing far beyond familiar intellectual shores, impressive breadth, requiring mastery of a wide range of science and engineering, and impressive accomplishment, as little in there is likely to be very wrong. This makes Drexler one of my heroes, and an inspiration in my current efforts to think through the social implications of ems.

Alas, Drexler also deserves some criticism. His latest book, Radical Abundance, like several prior books, goes well beyond physical science and engineering to discuss social implications at length. Alas, though his impressive breadth doesn’t extend much into social science, like most “hard” sci/tech folks Drexler seems mostly unaware of this. He seems to toss together his own seat-of-the-pants social reasoning as he can, and then figure that anything he can’t work out must be unknown to all. Sometimes this goes badly.

Drexler is absolutely right that physical law allows a full nanotech manufacturing capacity that can make physical devices with vastly improved abilities, efficiencies, and costs. Even limiting ourselves to planet Earth, the ultimate limits to our productive capacities exist but are many orders of magnitude beyond today’s capacities. Drexler is also probably right that this manufacturing tech would eventually:

  1. reduce relative demand for rare elements,
  2. make fractionally less waste in production,
  3. shorten supply chains and thus cut long distance physical trade,
  4. have factories not much bigger than the products they make,
  5. usually have marginal costs near that of required energy, cooling, and raw materials, implying far less variation in such costs per-pound,
  6. allow rates of production and retooling far faster than today, and
  7. have lower fixed costs of manufacturing capital (implied by 5&6).

These conclusions are non-trivial and useful for estimating social implications. Bravo.

Note that Drexler’s basic tool of exploring the engineering consequences of basic physical laws says little about how fast we will acquire these capacities. He describes a wide landscape of intermediate capabilities, across which we have now traveled a limited distance, so the question is how fast we will venture across the rest of that lanscape.

For example, Drexler’s basic conclusions are consistent with current rates of tech growth continuing steadily on for another few centuries, before finally running up against nanotech limits (at least on Earth). They are also consistent with rates of tech growth falling by a factor of ten and then continuing steadily on for millennia, with per capita income falling to and then staying at subsistence levels.

I’d guess that in the 27 years since Drexler’s first book we’ve come ~10-30% of the way toward full nanotech, with no noticeable acceleration, suggesting we have one to three centuries still to go. I’d love to hear more expert estimates on this.

Contrary to steady growth scenarios, much of Drexler’s further analysis seems to assume that full nanotech will appear rather suddenly, perhaps soon:

Progress has gone surprisingly fast and far, with no barriers in sight. … A Version 2.0 of world civilization, a change as profound as the Industrial Revolution, but unfolding at Internet speeds. … Change in a [nanotech] era could be swift indeed— not stretched out over millennia, like the spread of agriculture, nor over centuries, like the rise of industry, nor even over decades, like the spread of the Internet’s physical infrastructure. … [Nanotech] holds the potential for a physical revolution that, if unconstrained, could unfold at the speed of new digital media. … We can expect to see an accelerating upward spiral of capabilities, with [nanotech]-level technologies as a natural destination.

[Drexler prefers the awkward phrase “atomically precise manufacturing”; I’ve substituted [nanotech] in the quotes.]

Such suddenness is akin to landscape hikers being picked up by a helicopter and transported to a distant valley. It has Drexler worry about sudden big military power imbalances:

The history of technological competition, whether in nuclear weapons, satellites, computer chips, or stealth aircraft, shows that competitors typically reach technology thresholds at times that differ by years or more. What is different in the realm of [nanotech]-based technology is the potential speed of advanced-stage development and scale up, which could dramatically heighten the resulting disparities in capabilities.

And terrorists:

Unconstrained access to an unconstrained range of [nanotech]-level technologies would place unpredictable capabilities in the hands of hostile non-state actors, leading to unacceptable and unpredictable risks. Preventing unconstrained applications … is thus a vital national interest … and a potential driver for increased worldwide cooperation.

Though Drexler takes great pains to carefully argue that advanced nanotech is possible, he offers no argument for why we should expect sudden nanotech, beyond the fact that with full nanotech one can do lots of things quickly. But the fact that industrial jet planes can circle the world fast today hardly implied that the first nation with any industry could take over the world. As the saying goes, one shouldn’t confuse a clear vision with a short distance.

A sudden appearance of advanced nanotech would imply a vast increase in per person income, at least until population levels could catch up. Drexler thinks most would feel this new income to be “enough,” and so care little about income differences, and have little reason to conflict:

The global prospect would be, not scarcity, but unprecedented abundance— radical, transformative, and sustainable abundance. … First and foremost, broad international access to appropriate [nanotech]-level production capabilities would decrease pressures to compete for access to markets and natural resources simply because there can be no vital interest in resources that are no longer scarce or important, nor a vital interest in export markets once imports and trade balances are no longer essential to material well-being. …

[Nanotech]-based production, however, can enable the material plenty needed for human development while breaking the link between human development and material economic progress. … Today, lack of material development and human development can reinforce one another in a circle that perpetuates poverty. … [Nanotech]-based production will encapsulate complexity in a form that users have no need to examine. The complexity of a cell phone’s computer chip is enormous, yet self-contained; its complexity is beyond the full comprehension of any person alive, yet to use it requires little skill or investment in learning.

As I posted before on Krugman and Keynes, most economists have long since given up on the idea that humans will be satiated when they finally get “enough.” Post-sudden-nanotech folks being lots richer gives us little reason to expect that they won’t work hard to get even more. People and nations with less access to energy, raw materials, and better designs, would still be poor by comparison, and struggle to escape that status.

While Drexler is admirably careful and expert in his exploratory engineering of the capacities of advanced nanotech, when he moves outside his tech expertise he succumbs to seriously wishful thinking in expecting nanotech to come soon and suddenly, and to think that people would feel they had “enough.”

One last nitpick. Drexler says:

For [nanotech]-based production, like information technologies, the crucial labor consists of creative work.

Info tech work is complex and requires high levels of knowledge, experience, and intelligence. That hardly means most of it is “creative”, however. Schools that train people for such careers tend to try to drill the creativity out of them for good reason – people are otherwise inclined to be more creative than is helpful.

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  • IMASBA

    “when he moves outside his tech expertise he succumbs to seriously wishful thinking in expecting nanotech to come soon and SUDDENLY”

    I wouldn’t rule it out completely: technically nanotech progress may not be very sudden but once certain barriers (like grid parity for solar panels) get passed a technology may suddenly become very profitable almost overnight and then all the funding shifts to that technology so the field as a whole still doesn’t progress very fast but that one application does.

    “Post-sudden-nanotech folks being lots richer gives us little reason to expect that they won’t work hard to get even more. People and nations with less access to energy, raw materials, and better designs, would still be poor by comparison, and struggle to escape that status.”

    Yes, relative poverty will always motivate people to bring change. People will always demand a fair distribution of everything technology has to offer. But it is not clear from the quote that Drexler is actually saying people won’t care about relative poverty anymore, it sounds more like he’s saying people won’t find anymore over trade routes or some rare resource that can only be found in some locations because nanotech can work with abundant materials.

    • IMASBA

      Correction: … people won’t FIGHT anymore over…

  • John

    “I’d guess that in the 27 years since Drexler’s first book we’ve come ~10-30% of the way toward full nanotech, with no noticeable acceleration, suggesting we have one to three centuries still to go.”

    I doubt anyone imagined the capabilities of present day computers 27 before that trend became apparent. I think it was Ray Kurzweil who said that people underestimate the speed of change in an exponential trend eg. http://www.kurzweilai.net/the-law-of-accelerating-returns

    “Post-sudden-nanotech folks being lots richer gives us little reason to expect that they won’t work hard to get even more…”

    I’m with IMASBA, I don’t think that Drexler was suggesting poverty will be eliminated in the relative sense. But rather, just as the industrial improved the average quality of life of humanity, so will the nanotech revolution.

    • free_agent

      Microelectronics is one of the fastest technologies in history. A less extreme comparison might be aircraft. In 1900, there were predictions that it might be 100 years before flying was economically useful, and we’ve done much better than that. And commercial aviation has made a significant difference in the culture of the world. But it hasn’t been earth-shattering, or discontinuously disruptive at any point.

  • Dave Lindbergh

    I don’t think any of what you quoted is new – Drexler was saying this in 1986 (and before).

    For 30-odd years he’s been pointing out a potential gotcha – if nanotech (APM) is driven by AI, it could indeed come suddenly. I don’t think it’s fated, but it seems possible.

    If that happens, whoever gets it first will have war making capabilities many orders of magnitude more effective than everyone else. And that would seem to lead to bad things if the first-mover is anything but a saint.

    I’ve long thought this is one of the more likely explanations for the Fermi paradox – eventually somebody gets nanotech first and then everyone dies in a giant war.

    This is the worry that has driven Drexler to talk about “blue goo” and similar ideas for decades. He hasn’t gotten any traction with that; perhaps that’s just as well (but I don’t have any better idea).

    As to perceived abundance – people (and animals generally) pay much more attention to changes than to steady states.

  • free_agent

    Your list of the 7 Drexler results is correct, but what I notice is missing is low *capital* costs. In this case, the capital cost is likely to be in generating the knowledge base of nanotech manufacturing and the specific knowledge needed to make any particular nanotech product. Given the history of microelectronics (which has been very quick and successful by historical standards), capital costs are likely to be enormous. (An even more pessimistic comparison can be made with advanced pharmaceutical development — “The first pill costs a billion dollars; the second pill costs 50 cents.”)

    Historically, the rate of development of an industry seems to be determined by the price-sensitivity of its applications. There is a feedback loop “decresaing unit prices -> increasing sales volume -> decreasing manufacturing costs”, and the speed whith which this feedback takes effect drives the rate at which the industry affects the world. It’s hard to predict the price-sensitivity of nanotech applications: microelectronics has done very well by this, but advanced pharmaceuticals have not.

    As for abundance, the fact that the major health risk to the US’s poor hasn’t prevented social conflict nor kept the US out of wars. (Though ironically, it’s not the poor who create social conflict these days, but recent college graduates complaining about the very affluent.)

  • Peter McCluskey

    One way in which we might estimate progress toward nanotech is the complexity of atomically precise structures. I estimate that DNA origami techniques have caused an order of magnitude increase in complexity in the past decade (using a loose meaning of atomically precise), and that the trend looks more exponential than linear.

    Another measure might be the variety of new protein shapes that can be engineered. Drexler’s view implies that this is growing exponentially. My guess is that that is happening, but I don’t know enough to be confident.

    Improvements in tools to observe the results of atomically precise construction seem to be slow, probably less than exponential growth. This puts some limits on how fast nanotech can develop, but if other factors are improving at an exponential rate, this isn’t likely to delay progress by more than a decade.

    Integration of independently developed features into a large system is another area where trends might say something, but Drexler clearly expects a change in this trend (and I expect he’ll be right about that when VCs think 5 years of corporate R&D will produce commercial products).

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      So are you willing to estimate a fractional progress so far, even if on a log scale?

  • Philip Goetz

    “A sudden appearance of advanced nanotech would imply a vast increase in per person income…”

    We have already performed this experiment. Total productivity of the United States increased many-fold since 1970, and total wealth of individuals in the United States has increased even more dramatically–by a factor of about 100, if I recall correctly. Yet the median inflation-adjusted income has fallen since 1970. The typical person not only gets no income benefit from technological advance; the wealthy have learned how to use the social slippage induced by each technological advance to turn the screws tighter.

    • free_agent

      Using the inflation calculator at http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare, I think you’re incorrect that median real income has fallen since 1970, even the “unskilled wage” is ahead of the “GDP deflator”. And it would take you only a minute to realize that you’d rather live at the current level of material wealth than the 1970 level.

      But more importantly (and less obviously), significantly more of the average person’s income is from investments (vs. labor) than it used to be. Most of that investment income is invisible on a day-to-day basis, as it’s in capital gains from owning a house and various retirement schemes. And some of that money is what we’re likely to inherit from our parents, not what we’re getting ourselves.

      • Philip Goetz

        Check and make sure you’re using income per person, not per household. You can find various figures, but none of them conclude that income has risen much.

        >And it would take you only a minute to realize that you’d rather live at the current level of material wealth than the 1970 level.

        Incorrect. If I’d gone to college in 1970, I could have gone to Harvard, and my entire life would have been much better. I could own a house. We have cheap consumer goods, but land and education are much more expensive, and more important to me.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Robin Hanson, I would’ve appreciated reading your views, in depth, regarding the following quote. What is your view regarding social science pertaining to the impact of rapid, or not, technological change?

    “Alas, though his impressive breadth doesn’t extend much into social science, like most “hard” sci/tech folks Drexler seems mostly unaware of this. He seems to toss together his own seat-of-the-pants social reasoning as he can, and then figure that anything he can’t work out must be unknown to all. Sometimes this goes badly.”

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I’ve written and talked lots about the social impacts of brain emulations.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Drexler Responds

  • DeOr

    I think your estimates of 1-2 centuries before reaching mature nanotechnologies is accurate if we assume that it’s human minds doing the work. However, if sophisticated machine intelligence plays large role in developing these technologies, then the expectation of an acceleration in nanotech seems perfectly reasonable.