A chat with Eric Drexler

Paul Raven @ 08-12-2011

Not over coffee and cakes, sadly, but you take what you can get in this crazy world, AMIRITEZ?

So when I got the chance to email Eric Drexler – yup, the nanotech guy – with some follow-up questions responding to his inaugural lecture at Oxford Martin College last month, I jumped in with both feet… and you can see the results over H+ Magazine, who very kindly ran the piece despite a bout of rather unprofessional behaviour on my part, for which I publicly extend further apologies. (No big story, beyond yours truly acting like a precious and short-tempered dick. Who’d have thought, eh?)

So, yeah – been a bit quiet here of late, hasn’t it? That’s rather unavoidable, as my workload at the moment is every shade of insane, but things should settle down a bit in the next few months. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can’t find some interesting people to take the mic every now and again; if you think you should be one of them, use the form on the contact page to let me know why!

Stay well, folks…


Intelligent design vs. natural selection

Tom James @ 26-08-2009

flowerEric Drexler has written a paper entitled Biological and Nanomechanical Systems: Contrasts in Evolutionary Capacity that explores the differences between biological organisms and artificial machines, specifically why some products of intelligent design (i.e. design by humans) could never be created by natural selection. Drexler has written a short preface summarising his argument here:

The basic argument is as follows:

  • Evolvable systems must be able, with some regularity, to tolerate (and occasionally benefit from) significant, incremental uncoordinated structural changes.This is a stringent contraint because, in an evolutionary context, “tolerate” means that they must function — and remain competitive — after each such change.
  • Biological systems must satify this condition, and how they do so has pervasive and sometimes surprising consequences for how they are organized and how they develop.
  • Designed systems need not (and generally do not) satify this condition, and this permits them to change more freely (evolving in a non-biological sense), through design. In a design process, structural changes can be widespread and coordinated, and intermediate designs can be fertile as concepts, even if they do not work well as physical systems.

As I read it (and I could be wrong) the basic notion underlying Drexler’s argument is that the kind of mechanical precision demanded by human engineers is not present in the products of natural evolution. Artificial technologies are not yet fungible. If you remove any part of your CPU it will not work. If you remove some parts of someone’s brain then it still works. If you make a small alteration to an organism’s genome it may still work.

In order for evolution to work the replicator needs to function even when it has some small mutation. Artificial technologies generally don’t work when there is some small error in the manufacturing process.

[from Eric Drexler on Metamodern][image from bbjee on flickr]


Predicting future technologies with Eric Drexler

Tom James @ 07-07-2009

chipEric Drexler describes how you can apply scientific methods to assess the lower bounds of the capabilities of future technologies:

A subset of the potential capabilities of future levels of technology can be understood by means of a design process that can be described as exploratory engineering. This process resembles the first phase of standard design engineering (termed conceptual engineering, or conceptual design), but it serves a different purpose

In the early 20th century, a missing fabrication technology was the combination of engineering expertise and metalworking techniques (among others) that were required to build large aerospace vehicles. The physics of rocket propulsion, however, were well understood, and the strength and weight of large, well-made aluminum structures could be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

On the basis of exploratory engineering applied to this kind of knowledge, engineers who studied the matter were confident that orbital flight could be achieved by means of multistage chemically fueled rockets.

This was an element of Drexler’s Engines of Creation I found especially compelling: that we should base our ideas of future technologies not on what we already have, but what lies within the bounds of what is possible by physical laws as we understand them.

[image from quapan on flickr]


Science vs. engineering: Drexler waxes philosophical

Tom James @ 17-06-2009

engineering_scienceEric Drexler discusses the hinterland between two of the great pillars of human endeavour – science and engineering – and what they are:

Inquiry and design are seldom separate, so how can it be meaningful to call some activities “science”, and others “engineering”? I think it’s best to look beyond the mixture of inquiry and design in a project, and to consider instead its purpose. If the intended result is knowledge — a better model of what exists in the world and how it works — I think of it as science. If the intended result is a new product, process, or design methodology, I think of it as engineering.

This epistemiological discussion is with a serious goal in mind, to consider how emergent nanotechnological developments might be engineered to create products and processes we can all use:

Unlike high-energy particle physics or space science, nanotechnology springs from fields (surface science, materials science, chemistry, biology) that have no tradition of developing conceptual designs for complex systems, debating the knowns, unknowns, costs, benefits, alternative objectives, alternative solutions, and so forth, to eventually converge on objectives that coordinate the work of hundreds or thousands for a decade or more.

Without a tradition of this sort, large opportunities can go unrecognized — and in part because they are large. This will change, but I doubt that the change will be led from within.

It’s an interesting point. At what point does scientific research transfer into engineering development, and thence into entrepreneurial opportunity?

[image from jenny downing on flickr]


Drexler on our mysterious cellular vaults

Tom James @ 23-02-2009

vaultEric Drexler discusses “vaults” – tiny structures present in the cells of every plant and animal:

Like ribosomes, they’re atomically precise self-assembled structures made of protein and RNA, but they’re big and hollow, large enough to pack many ribosomes inside.

Looking forward, this information could help protein engineers develop methodologies for designing large self-assembling structures.

Vaults are unusual in many ways, but what I find most surprising about them is this:

To this day, no one knows what they do.

Mmm. A nanoscopic biological structure of unknown purpose and potential technological utility: I smell MacGuffin

[image from Eric Drexler’s blog]


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