Radical Abundance by K. Eric Drexler (2013) – Book Review
Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, a work authored by the founding father of nanotechnology K. Eric Drexler, posits some stimulating questions about the impact of atomically precise manufacturing (APM) on civilization. This includes clarifying just what APM really is, and then addressing the kind of social and economic consequences.
The message of Radical Abundance is especially useful in that its questions are just as relevant to other emerging technologies such as biotechnology and 3D printing. We ought to see these as being similarly “disruptive” to the norms of the professions and international relations that let the world work in its present form.
In the foreword, Drexler’s book asks us to “imagine a world where the gadgets and goods that run our society are produced not in far-flung supply chains of industrial facilities, but in compact, even desktop-scale, machines.” Unfortunately, this realist interpretation of nanotechnology finds itself popularly marginalized by science fiction, uninformed guesses, “Impossibly high expectations”, and the confusion of terminology (p. ix-xiv, 30-33, 194-212, 273-281).
The main purpose of Drexler’s book is simply to clear away distractions and ask the more important questions about this technology’s possibilities. In my own view, by changing or altogether negating the current global division of labor as specified by Drexler, emerging manufacturing technologies like APM can at least begin to overcome the severe disparities of power and wealth in the world. These disparities have historically been legitimized and kept in place by the very nature of factories, aggressive supply chain management, and unequal exchange between advantaged and disadvantaged countries. Hence it is reasonable to expect “desktop-scale” manufacturing to threaten these disparities and usher new guarantees of dignity for every person or country, no matter how small.
In some ways, nanotechnology has seemed to elude public understanding. To bring nanotechnology out of the science fiction realm and down to Earth, the book points out that atomically precise instruments are already in a state of revolution and have helped in biotechnology. Nanotechnology is progressing in the lab, and its research successes are recognized in engineering fields. As the public are not really connected to these fields, however, there is an unfortunate tendency towards unrealistic expectations, hype or paranoia that may make people perceive nanotechnology as some obscure futuristic project that is struggling to materialize (p. 177-212). In other words, the current tradeoffs of nanotechnology research are great – but great in a way that advances science rather than leading to incredible changes in manufacturing yet.
Drexler helps the reader to understand what nanotechnology represents without being carried away by science fiction promises. To do this, he provides an analogy to an already well-known technology in business and daily life: information technology. These technologies are directly analogous. As Drexler explains, “digital information processing technologies employ nanoscale electronic devices that operate at high frequencies and produce patterns of bits.” By analogy, “APM-based materials processing technologies employ nanoscale mechanical devices that operate at high frequencies and produce patterns of atoms” (p. 7).
In addition to what has already been quoted, Drexler points out that chemistry and molecular biology also qualify as “building things with atomic precision” (22-30, 72-73), and APM only aims to do something on that same scale but mechanical in nature. Further parts of the book describe APM in vivid detail (p. 147-158). This allows the reader to visualize what is really meant by APM machines, rather than leaving these machines to be anticipated as sinister nebulas or pixie dust (p. 55-71). Biological molecular “machines” (p. 80-82) and chemical synthesis (p 82-84) are further compared with APM systems to give the reader an understanding of the plausibility of advanced nanomachines.
A fascinating philosophical point is made by Drexler when he states that universal laws have already determined every technology that exists, will exist or could exist. This realm of the possible is called “possibility space” by Drexler (p. 90-92). This is an especially beautiful point to make, because it sums up why it is noble for scientists to pursue an understanding of all that is possible within the universe. The confirmation of what can be done is the best work to enhance the potential and survivability of the species. To achieve this, the pursuit of all that can be known or done deserves to be encouraged on both nano and macro scales. APM can broaden the human reach into the “possibility space” of civilization, expanding the region of the possible (p. 105-106).
The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth influenced Drexler, depicting the Earth as a closed system where overconsumption would lead to the depletion of resources and civilizational collapse. Drexler saw “space development” as a new frontier to beat this pessimistic end (p. 13-21). As such, his interpretation has been that the present form of civilization can sustain itself by overcoming the most hostile and resource-scarce environments with the help of APM technology.
However, nanotechnology will also lead to profound social change away from the current model of civilization because it will affect the mode of production. The resulting social change will be as significant as the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions before the APM revolution (p. 39-54). According to Drexler, 3D printing and the RepRap community already offer glimpses into “what APM systems will enable and a hint of how human communities may share information that can be translated into physical, functional forms.” Hence, APM and 3D printing guarantee even more social impacts than the information revolution because these are set to reshape the material basis of society (p. 76-77).
Among the most important points in Radical Abundance, Drexler writes:
“Producing patterns of atoms using APM-based technologies once again resembles producing patterns of bits using information technologies. Rapid production based on multipurpose, scalable platforms; independence from long, specialized supply chains; the potential for rapid decentralization; the pivotal role of software and online data; new products without costly new physical capital; low marginal costs of production and distribution; the potential for rapid, global deployment of new products” (p. 225-226).
Construction, transportation, water and agriculture should all become easier and more beneficial to the greatest number globally as a result of the APM revolution (p. 228-232). Not only would APM slash the level of carbon emissions and waste industrial byproducts massively by the very nature of its efficiency, but it would also allow for more effective cleanup of existing waste in the environment (p. 233-234).
Because of the potential acceleration of atomically precise manufacturing technologies, it is important to think about how to manage the change now (p. 213-220). The democratization of products and technologies due to the emergence of desktop-scale factories, while good for answering human needs in the long term, would nevertheless lead to disruptive trade problems that may result in “suffering and scarcity in the midst of abundance” (p. 34-35.) Is has to be agreed, therefore, that the economic disruptions caused by emerging technologies of abundance (including but not limited to APM) should be mitigated by very prudent political frameworks to ease the international community into a new kind of economy. In Drexler’s own prediction, these frameworks must mitigate disruptions in supply chains, trade, dependence, and the revaluation of assets (p. 240-258). The disruptions that should be anticipated are “falling demand for conventional labor, resources, and capital in physical production, with the potential for cascading disruptive effects throughout the global economy” (p. 282).
In addition to the economic disruptions caused by APM, security disruptions are also likely. These include a massive increase in surveillance capabilities (p. 235) and the threat of a potential APM arms race (p. 260-261). An arms race is a very real possibility. Imagine if states gain the ability to exponentially boost their weapon stockpiles in secret. Fearing that others have already started, it is possible that the major military powers (US, China and Russia) will exponentially stockpile drones and other automated weapons platforms as soon as they find that the difficulty and cost of manufacturing these devices has plummeted. This could soon unfold using 3D printers, if fleets of drones can be printed at low cost in decentralized facilities. The APM arms race may not begin in the US or Russia. Iran has also shown an intense interest in drone manufacturing, and would not balk at the chance to obtain new conveyors to make even more of them.
Drexler writes that non-lethal force might become more and more applicable by states, as a result of APM systems being able to cheaply manufacture non-lethal weapons and munitions in vast quantities (p. 261-262), but his reasoning for this is not very convincing. Drexler sees the use of lethal force by armies as a choice determined by cost, with it being normally cheaper to apply lethal force than non-lethal force. In his opinion, cheaper availability of nonlethal weapons will make them the preferred weapons of war. His logic may apply in future security and policing operations in some tamer parts of the world, but not in modern warfare or Middle Eastern insurgencies. Consider that the lethal force in modern warfare is deliberate and aimed at incapacitating an organized and armed political adversary as quickly as possible. If you do not use lethal force, this organized enemy will simply have less life-threatening wounds to divert resources towards healing, and they will also have fewer reasons to be suppressed or retreat under fire. As a result, a determined adversary would only exploit his enemy’s non-lethal weapons as a weakness. Non-lethal warfare would also entail personnel endangering their lives on the ground and getting mired as they try to take targets into custody – a situation avoided by inflicting lethal injuries on targets instead.
In another political prediction, Drexler sees nation-states having less need to compete as a result of APM, meaning they can use their resources better (p. 266-269). Contrasting with this, I would instead predict that the nation-state may come to be seen as malignant if there is no longer any need to compete for resources and trade, and if with APM individual households become sufficient to thrive and survive without the need for myths of national security. Hence delegitimization of the nation-state could be unavoidable. Because of this likely consequence, I would anticipate that states will someday react to APM with fear and a desire to prevent it from empowering people’s lives – as with the internet.
APM could be one of several catalysts for the transition from the current “capitalist” mode of production – that is, a mode of production dictated by the exclusive priority of the endless accumulation of capital – towards a more egalitarian and democratic mode of production. A lot of chaos and threats to the legitimacy of nation-states ought to be expected as a political consequence. Nation-states, we must remember, are simply exclusive vessels designed to cope with scarcity by privileging citizens and rejecting outsiders. Such regimes would inevitably come to be seen as corrupt and arbitrary in a world of abundance, where borders need not exist and small communities are rendered sovereign by the new dignity supplied to them by democratic emerging technologies.
The conclusion of Drexler’s book is excellent, stating “as perceptions change, possibilities and politics change with them, while new media are transforming the discourse that shapes those perceptions.” What we are witnessing can be called the “quickening rapids of history” (p. 286-287), as the social and technological changes occurring at our juncture of modern history are taking place faster and more pervasively than anything preceding them and our input is more consequential than ever in the past.