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The coming era of atomically precise manufacturing and its implications for space

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K. Eric Drexler, the author of Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986), has published a new book, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization. Drexler is considered the father of nanotechnology, a field that is receiving billions of dollars in research funding worldwide and that promises to transform manufacturing so that products can be produced with atomic precision. The consequence is that much better products could be produced far less expensively from generally available materials, such as carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, rather than rarer materials like copper and rare earth minerals. Cars could be assembled in factories the size of garages, while smaller products could be produced with desktop units much like the replicator in Star Trek movies. This would eliminate the need for most mining and large central power plants as well as for the complex global supply chains required by today’s industrial civilization. With the end of globalization would come a new era of abundance and political realignment and economic disruption.

With the end of globalization would come a new era of abundance and political realignment and economic disruption.

In the 1970s, Eric Drexler was an early supporter of space colonization as a solution to the stresses caused by environmental degradation and resource constraints eloquently argued in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth. This book used Systems Dynamics modeling to demonstrate that, with increasing population and resource consumption, the world would inevitably reach limits to oil and other natural resources with resulting environmental and economic collapse. Drexler discovered Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, whose vision of space colonization offered solutions to the problems posed by The Limits to Growth and presented papers at the early space manufacturing conferences organized by O’Neill’s Space Studies Institute. Drexler also designed a solar sail for space propulsion that required fabrication of extremely thin aluminum sheets. This and other work, particularly the insights of Richard Feynman’s 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” led to ideas underlying the field of nanotechnology.

In Radical Abundance, Drexler offers an approach to the development of a roadmap for the achievement of atomically precise manufacturing (APM). He points out that, due to the confusion regarding the definition of nanotechnology as atomically precise manufacturing underlying the US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), engineering approaches have not generally been applied to nanotechnology, so a roadmap cannot emerge. On one level the book is an argument for the development of an APM roadmap and how this can be accomplished. Drexler outlines the historical evolution of nanotechnology from the coining of the term in Engines of Creation to the subsequent confusion of the definition of nanotechnology through the politics of funding the multibillion-dollar NNI. Initially, NNI was funded to address atomically precise manufacturing, but by 2004 all reference to APM was removed from the NNI strategic plan and replaced instead by a concentration on phenomena at the nanoscale. Drexler argues persuasively that this misdirection of NNI cost the US, and the countries that followed the US lead, considerable progress through a misallocation of large amounts of research funding based on the criterion of minute size rather than progress towards APM. Merely concentrating on the size of phenomena offers no tools for exploratory engineering to define how to actually build things with atomic precision, as is done through the biological processes pointed out by Drexler.

APM will also make space colonization imperative, but for different reasons than for Eric Drexler’s original quest to find a solution to the impending global crisis posed by The Limits to Growth.

Drexler also discusses the considerable progress that his been made towards APM and draws the conclusion that the nanotechnology revolution is getting underway and that nanotechnology will effect disruptive change in the production of products and energy systems. If nanotechnology delivers on the promise of APM, then climate change can be addressed with technological solutions and the world could stop its dependence on oil. This will create great opportunity, but will also create global disruptive change. This book is a must read for those already involved in nanotechnology: the entrepreneurs, scientists, and venture capitalists investing their time and money to make a new world possible. The book is also important for decision makers at all levels in government, industry, education, and research.

APM is not a fantasy. APM is possible and APM can transform the world. APM will also make space colonization imperative, but for different reasons than for Eric Drexler’s original quest to find a solution to the impending global crisis posed by The Limits to Growth. What will the millions of people now involved in mining, manufacturing, distribution, retailing, transportation, and other services do if much less of these services will be required and most of them could be performed by robots? How will people earn a living if they can buy a desktop factory—something like a super 3D printer—and can produce most of what they need at home and no longer need to shop at Wal-Mart or Amazon? If people aren’t working and earning a good income they will no longer be able to buy stuff. Henry Ford recognized the problem and chose to pay his people well so that they could afford to buy his cars. By choosing to industrialize the Moon and colonize space, thousands and ultimately millions can be put to work earning a good income.

The issue will no longer be to decide whether to send more and more sophisticated robots to Mars, but instead how to transform Mars into a frontier for human colonization. Thousands of years ago the pharaohs of Egypt built pyramids. Thousands of people were put to work during times when seasonal agricultural work did not absorb the energies of the population. Space colonization offers the ultimate opportunity for absorbing the energies of vast numbers of people in creative endeavors that challenge their skills and creative potential.