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