The term “nanotechnology” was first introduced by Eric Drexler in a 1981 paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He is therefore also sometimes called the “founding father of nanotechnology.” In his 1981 paper, he established the principles of molecular engineering and outlined development paths to advanced nanotechnologies; you can find a reproduction of it here. He defines nanotechnology as “manufacturing using machinery based on nanoscale devices, and products built with atomic precision” (1986).
He wrote several books that popularized the idea of nanotechnology. (Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, 1986, or Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation, 1992.) The general idea behind nanotechnology is the attempt to create machines from the ground up by reaching down to the molecular level. By learning from nature and simulating natural mechanisms, we can revolutionize technology and overcome the mechanistic paradigm that lurks within the idea of a “machine” itself. This will lead to a much deeper mutual penetration between nature and technology, and potentially heal the damaging effects of civilization on nature.
In his newest book, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization, 2013, he tells the history of nanotechnology from its beginnings to today, and then he turns towards the future: What can we expect from the accelerating breakthroughs generated by nano-technological research? Will it benefit humanity, or cause us harm? He is very optimistic, and his answer is given in the title: We are going to experience radical abundance based on these technological breakthroughs. Here is a quote:
“Imagine what the world might be like if we were really good at making things — better things — cleanly, inexpensively, and on a global scale. … The global prospect would be, not scarcity, but unprecedented abundance — radical, transformative, and sustainable abundance. We would be able to produce radically more of what people want and at a radically lower cost — in every sense of the word, both economic and environmental.
What if industrial production as we know it can be changed beyond recognition? The consequences would change almost everything else, and this new industrial revolution is visible on the horizon. Imagine a world where the gadgets and goods that run our society are produced not in a far-flung supply chain of industrial facilities, but in compact, even desktop-scale machines.
Imagine replacing an enormous automobile factory and all of its multi-million dollar equipment with a garage-sized facility that can assemble cars from inexpensive, microscopic parts, with production times measured in minutes. Then imagine that the technologies that can make these visions real are emerging — under many names, behind the scenes, with a long road still ahead, yet moving surprisingly fast.”
We already have three-dimensional printing; in the future, these machines will become much more capable. They will use product files (like pdf’s) that will enable the desktop recreation of most things we need using common elements like carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and silicon. 3D printers are still top-down production devices, just with smaller footprints and more advanced technology. Nanotechnology will use nature differently. It will enable the creation of things from the bottom up, utilizing “atomically precise manufacturing,” or APM. APM rests on well-understood scientific and engineering principles that will support large-scale, low-cost production of advanced products.
Technology operating on nano-scale dimensions will use much less energy; it will also revolutionize energy storage and energy consumption. Some of the problems we face today, like rising CO2 levels, will simply disappear, and the fallout of these 20th century problems will also be fixable. It will radically change the need for material supply chains and transportation costs, since almost anything can now be produced locally. Large-scale energy systems like power grids will become superfluous, and the burning of fossil fuels will of course end.
The availability of technology on nano-scale levels will further revolutionize computing, information storage, medicine, and biology. It will have profound social effects: Poverty as we know it can finally be abolished, and economic market mechanisms that are based on the distribution of scarce items are not longer necessary. the social utility of money itself may become outdated.
This utopian outlook is tempting, but hard to accept for philosophers or social scientists who contemplate the darkness of the human soul. The question is not only if nature will simply allow us to move into this kind of paradise on earth, but also what the social cost will be. What can (and will) we do to each other with these new tools and possibilities?