Hydrophobia, Buckypaper, Prestalgia, and Bothersome Technopolitics

While hydrophobic coatings have their uses, it’s buckypaper that looks to be most useful.
A proper TL 14-15 material!

It’s been a while since I read Engines of Creation: Eric Drexler’s more recent book Radical Abundance focuses less on the pure range of possibilities, and more on the ‘soon-to-come’ benefits.

Snippets from a good Amazon review of Radical Abundance:

Radical Abundance is a dictionary example of prestalgia. We know atomically precise manufacturing (APM) is coming. We know what it will look like. We know it will solve huge problems and make life for us and for the planet infinitely better. We want it yesterday. But we have to wait for the details to be sorted out. Hurry up guys. We’re waiting for the good old days.

“Good morning! Do you have time to talk about how recent developments in LENR will transform the world?” says the techno-missionary side of my personality…

Nanotechnology took a bad rap for theoretically ushering in an era of microscopic robots that will report on you, burrow into your brain, and wreak havoc in the food chain for their own nefarious purposes. Drexler has been fighting this image pretty much since he coined the term in the mid 80s.

Now that’s a high-tech world to develop! And there is always the image of a scientist developing an idea for a year, casually publishes it, and then spends the rest of his life trying to shove back into Pandora’s Box. An interesting NPC/PC!

Put simply, he says, what computer systems did for processing information, APM will do for processing matter. Just as we no longer use pencil and paper to run a financial model, we will no longer assemble automobiles in a football stadium of a factory. All the equipment needed will fit in a garage. Cars will be turned out to order, in minutes. Factories can therefore make anything and be anywhere. No need for anything to be manufactured across the planet and shipped by boat, rail and truck. This will save on fuel, on packaging, on raw materials, and make everything less expensive. And factories can produce other factories just as easily as cars.

It’s good to see something that puts 3D printing in the shade. But then again, 3D printing is here, now: I’m still waiting impatiently for my widespread nanotech. (Flying cars can wait… especially since, by the time they get here, only computers will be permitted to fly them in the civilian market.)

It will be done by adding atoms to atoms, molecules to molecules and microblocks to microblocks, fast and effortlessly – millions or billions per minute and per microblock. Effortlessly because they can self assemble using thermal motion. At the atomic level, objects have different properties, and picking the right ones for the right job means they self attract, and make themselves into seamless objects, with far fewer parts, as well as much lighter and stronger. There is almost no waste, as there is nothing to cut out, nothing to treat, nothing to solder, mould, drill or hammer. It also means the end of scarcity, because the most common elements on earth have all the properties needed to put anything together. The huge expense of rare (not to mention toxic) commodities goes away. Mining them becomes unimportant. Stockpiles become silly. It’s a new world of radical abundance as we stop raping the planet.

As a beneficial side-effect, this tech should give us the tools to remove the toxins we have already dumped on the earth.

On page 28 Drexler gives us a lovely, succinct description of how scientists differ from engineers. “Scientists study physical things, then describe them; engineers describe physical things, then build them.” Great line. Brilliant and clear. But then he spends over a hundred pages describing this (and not nanotechnology) in detail, in examples, in diagrams, in flow charts and in analogies. I guess this means Drexler is more scientist than engineer.

We need both, and I like new technology, so no harm done so far as I’m concerned.

Now, the problem of real-world politics when it knocks back visionary techno-futures like a Mack truck:

Then, unfortunately, Drexler goes off on another tangent. This time he shows astounding naiveté of the real world. President Clinton’s National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) was a billion dollar gift to the nascent field. To no one’s surprise except Drexler’s, it immediately got corrupted to include “small” as well as atomic. In fact, the word atomic disappeared completely. This opened up the grant money to all kinds of non-nano applicants. Drexler actually thinks it came from a misunderstanding over a talk given by Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems. But there was no misunderstanding. There was a billion dollars on the table, and lobbyists got to work carving it up for themselves. They elbowed their way in, and elbowed him out. For Drexler to believe otherwise is shocking.

Then he plunges into pure fantasy. Drexler thinks nanotechnology will means lethal weapons will be less necessary, as there is less need to protect resources. Anyway, zillions of microdrones will protect us. (Of course, just the opposite is true, as drones are the new lethal weapon of choice.) APM will be free and open and available to all. But he ignores the facts of life, particularly in his native land, where patents, copyrights, embargoes and the ever present menace of “national security” will keep a lid on the spread of APM. The same forces that undermined the NNI will keep APM from spreading fairly.

So, as William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

<Insert: Long-winded rant on how some narrow-minded Establishment figures kicked back LENR/Cold Fusion development a good 15-20 years>

Over the next 15 years, as high-bandwidth Internet (and $50 smartphones) spread to the deepest jungles, most rugged mountains, and most barren deserts, there will be a drastic increase in human creativity and development. (Hopefully boosted by cheap energy and cheap manufacturing.)

I will be glad to see Buckypaper as part of this future!

About Alvin Plummer

I'm working to build a better world, a world that blesses Christ and is blessed by Him. I hope that you're doing the same!
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