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Eric Drexler – an unauthorized biography

April 7, 2007

Since the ancient roman philosopher Demokrit introduced the concept of atoms as the fundament of matter, mankind has sought to control and manipulate the environment. The later alchemical ideas of the elements “earth, wind, water and fire” and the transmutation of metal into gold shows early interest in the complexity of nature. The evolution of the sciences cumulated with the academic disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology. Drexler fuses all these disciplines into the multi-disciplinary field of molecular manufacturing and nanotechnology.

“If you want to know
what molecular nanotechnology is,
look yourself in the mirror”

– Eric Drexler

K. Eric Drexler was born in Oakland, California in 1955 and grew up in the lush west-coast state of Oregon. His brilliant mind brought him to the east-coast ivory league Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1970’s. Inter-disciplinary interests lead him to molecular biology, biochemistry and computer science. Reflecting over the consequences of the ability to design and control structures at the size of cells and molecules, Drexler headed down the nanometer path.

The academic atmosphere of these early years of Drexlers academic career provided the intellectual stimulus that would fuel a technological visionary. Drexler’s interest in propulsion technology resultet in technical papers on solar sails and later a patent using thin metal films for solar sail technology. Space exploration and colonization was topics covered in his paper “Solar Sailing ” from 1976.

Drexler’s studies at MIT resulted in the first ever scientific article on molecular manufacturing published in 1981. Although many consider Richard Feynman speech “There is plenty of room at the bottom ” from 1959 to be the first technical approach to nanotechnology in it’s broadest sense, Drexler defines the possibilities with even greater detail. The article introduce the basic nomenclature of molecular manufacturing and propose a theory of replicating the protein folding mechanism of the DNA. Biochemistry had shown Drexler how the self-assembly of biochemical structures can be copied and used to build larger strucutures. This is what later would be called “wet” nanotechnology where micro- and nano-mechanical structures are built bottom-up using existing biological mechanisms found in nature.

The growing fields of space technology, computer science and artificial intelligence introduced Drexler to Marvin Minsky. Minksy is the author of the best-seller “The Society of Mind ” from 1987 which is considered by many to be the definitive AI classic. The cornerstone of Minsky’s theory is the conception of minds as collections of enormous numbers of semi-autonomous, intricately connected agents that are themselves mindless. Drexler show how molecular nanotechnology will be essential for sufficient computing power for hard artificial intelligence. Minsky was also Drexler’s supervisor during his Ph.D in molecular nanotechnology.

ETHOS FOR A NEW TECHNOLOGICAL PARADIGM.

Science-ficition is often laughed at by those who conjure up images of 1950’s space-rockets, robots, and ray-guns. Sci-fi, the genre widely used in totalitarian regimes to covertly relay messages of dissidence has always been in the forefront of futuristic concepts. The technological wonders illustrated in Popular Science and sci-novels of the 1950’s turned into reality with the introduction of personal computers, satellites and mobile phones. Nanotechnology had it’s practical breakthrough with the invention of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) in 1986. Since then it has been the instrument of choice for three dimensional measurements at the atomic scale.

With the publication of Engines of Creation Drexler took his ideas further and transformed what earlier had been found in obscure science-fiction into a manifesto for a new technological revolution. Neither academia or the scientific community had seen so many radical ideas presented with such scientific precision. Who could imagine machines the size of molecules while the PC was considered a technological marvel?

THE CRITICAL TECHNOLOGICAL OPTIMIST

With Engines of Creation Drexler kills the myth of the Mad Scientist. The influence from Vannevar Bush post-war speech “As We May Think ” may have helped form the social consciousness of Drexler. Engines of Creation is not a naive praise of technology but a thoughtful analysis of the consequence of nanotechnology on industry, energy and war. Drexler was one of the first who understood the implications of nanotechnology and chose to inform the public about the enormous challenges posed by this breakthrough technology.

Some of the most horrific applications of nanotechnology made Drexler consider his position as a technological whistle-blower. Would the population be able to rationally comprehend the prospect of infite material wealth, invisible surveillance drones and immortality? Concluding this state of deep contemplation Drexler was convinced that technological progress is inevitable, regardless of popular opinion and majority rule.

Medical regenerative molecular nanotechnology could reanimate cryonically stored dead people. To secure the credibility of nanotechnology Drexler is said to have chosen not to be cryonically suspended post mortem. While preserving the scientific objectivity of nanotechnology Drexler would became a martyr.

To further strengthen the credibilty of his work Drexler publish Nanosystems in 1992. The book is based on the 1991 Ph.D and clarify and expand on the theories propsed in Engines of Creation. Nanosystems is considered to be the best introduction to nanotechnology to date and wins the annual Association of American Publishers award for best computer science book the same year.

NANOTECHNOLOGY SCEPTICS.

Like the genius of Wilhelm Reich and Nicolas Tesla, Drexler produce theories for technologies that threaten the established scientific order. With the publication of the article “Trends in Nanotechnology: Waiting for Breakthroughs ” Scientific American tried to discredit Drexler and molecular manufacturing. The article results in a series of arguments about the feasability of molecular manufacturing. With Drexler’s humorous wit the article was dismantled and shown to lack the distinction between general nanotechnology and molecular manufacturing.

Next in line to attack Drexler was Jeremy Rifkin, author of dystopian books like “The End of Work” dealing with aging and the automation and subsequent slashing of the workforce. “Entropy” explains the end of the world caused by the exhaustion of natural resources by economic growth. Rifkins complains about Drexlers lacking consideration of larger global changes that would out-weigh the progress within nanotechnology.

Eric Drexler have no respect for the fear-mongering of Rifkin and comments “Why flog the carcass of Rifkin’s Entropy? Simply because today’s information systems often present even stillborn ideas as if they were alive. By encouraging false hopes, false fears, and misguided action, these ideas can waste the efforts of people actively concerned about long-range world problems.”

The current ethical discussion over human repoductive cloning and regenerative use of stem cells calls for a new socio-ethical compass and Drexler help us dissiminate the widespread techoangst and long dead religious moral codes as obsolete. This leaves us with the question about how we relate to and approach the future. Should the Rifkinesqe visions of global collaps or Drexlers ideas of a society of abundance inspire our evolutionary path?

THE DREXELIAN REALITY

Fast-forward a few years, to the 21st century of today, and nanotechnology is considered an emerging technology with specialized scientific publications, media outlets and venture capital groups. Drexler’s work for the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing and the Foresight Insitute has contiously shaped the developement of nanotechnology as a scientific discipline.

Products using nanotechnology is hitting the market while Drexler ponders the next small thing that will change the world. The estimated growth in nanotechnology related industry is beyond comparison and may fuel the next economic boom. The ideas first proposed by Drexler is rapidly changing production methods in industries across the globe. From microelectromechanical systems to medical nanotechnology Drexlers ideas is put to practice.

With the maturation of nanotechnology and nanoscience Drexler’s name will be remembered as one of the very first and finest visionaries of a coming technogical revolution and it’s impact on society. The intelligensia of today needs more visionary genius that can help us navigate through this increasingly turbulant world.

“First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they attack.
Then you win.”
Drexler, quoting Gandhi, from one of his latest speeches at the Foresight Institute.

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