Robin Hanson critiques Radical Abundance

by Eric Drexler on 2013/07/05

My friend Robin Hanson, who eventually ran off and become a professor of economics at George Mason University, recently critiqued my new book, Radical Abundance. Since Robin has a notorious love of controversy, I offer the following open letter:


Hi Robin,

While criticism is great, I was surprised by the specifics of your recent critique of my new book, Radical Abundance. The book centers on prospects for high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing, and because it raises some urgent questions, I would very much like for its message to be understood.

As I see it, your review primarily criticizes me for saying something I didn’t (and wouldn’t) say about material wealth and human satisfaction, and for not explaining what I did in fact explain regarding the likely pace of particular technological advances given a particular set of technological preconditions.

Regarding what I didn’t say, your post states that

Drexler thinks most would feel this new income to be “enough,” and so care little about income differences, and have little reason to conflict…

and in support of this, quotes my statement that

[Particular conditions] would decrease pressures to compete for access to markets and natural resources simply because there can be no vital interest in resources that are no longer scarce or important, nor a vital interest in export markets once imports and trade balances are no longer essential to material well-being. [emphasis added]

I made this remark in the context of international conflict, where “vital [national] interests” are something quite different from individual human desires. Since my vocabulary includes the term “positional goods”, it would be hard for me to make the mistake of thinking that “most would feel this new income to be ‘enough’” (and note that “enough” shouldn’t be in quotes here).

Regarding scenarios that involve a sharp acceleration of progress in the wake of a relatively accessible technology threshold, I’ve already attempted to address the concerns you raise. In particular, to extrapolate from progress to date in “nanotechnology” is to mistake a marketing label for a research program. Work funded under that label has been directed overwhelmingly to materials science, and for peculiar historical reasons that I describe in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future… ”, US programs were quietly but deliberately directed away from atomically precise manufacturing. Thus, extrapolations from from past progress in “nanotechnology” are misleading, a bit like trying to project passenger aircraft capabilities from progress in catapult technology.

What is far more relevant is the enormous, largely unrecognized, and hence surprising progress in atomically precise fabrication through research in the molecular sciences. From the time when I wrote Engines of Creation, the scale of three-dimensional atomically precise fabrication has expanded from hundreds of atoms to many millions. Barriers to more rapid exploitation of these capabilities are largely conceptual and institutional.

Your post says that “when [Drexler] moves outside his tech expertise he succumbs to seriously wishful thinking in expecting [what had been called] nanotech to come soon and suddenly”. When I discuss the the pace of progress, I am careful to speak in terms of potential rather than prediction, and I am careful to distinguish between physics-based engineering analysis and speculations regarding future human actions. The potential for sharply accelerating progress, given particular technological preconditions, has a concrete, technical basis that is discussed in the main text and further explored in Appendix II. As for timing of all this (soon?), I don’t recall stating an expectation — again, I only describe potential.

I look forward to seeing you again on your next visit to Oxford, when we can have another go at hashing out some of these important questions.

With my best regards,

— Eric

P.S. If you’d like to cross post this letter on Overcoming Bias, I’d be delighted.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

David Belliveau July 6, 2013 at 3:49 am UTC

By replacing the term “Atomically Precise Manufacturing” with the word nanotech, it appears that Mr. Hanson is trying to provoke you intentionally.

I can’t imagine anyone reading the entire text of Radically Abundant and not realizing that the major point is that Atomically Precise Manufacturing is not what is popularly regarded as nanotech.

My complaint about Radically Abundant is that you turned the term “Atomically Precise Manufacturing” into an acronym. If I were trying to drive home the point that the distinction is important, I wouldn’t have used the AP and APM acronyms at all.

DiamondoidForever July 6, 2013 at 4:47 pm UTC

I generally tend to use the term molecular manufacturing to distinguish atomic-precision manufacturing from nanoparticle and related technologies. But, even that can be considered vague by some people. You can also use assembler or assembler based systems, as long as by assemblers you are not referring to free-floating “nanorobots”. I like the term Nano-Factory to refer to a system of atomically precise engineered fabrication units that are attached to a rigid framework under computer control. I would also say a nano factory is different from say medical nano systems that are non replicating.

DiamondoidForever July 6, 2013 at 4:48 pm UTC

Also, I like the term “Mechanosynthesis” or “Mechanical Chemistry”, and also “Positional Chemistry”.

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