Engines of Creation

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book cover (1986)

Engines of Creation (EoC) written by K. Eric Drexler and published in 1986 is the book that brought the idea of atomically precise manufacturing (APM) to a wider non technical audience (mostly limited to the english speaking world). Back then it still was an early idea (not what APM is today) and it was still called "nanotechnology".

Strong recommendation: If you're going to read the old classic Engines of Creation it is best to read the new Radical Abundance too. Otherwise you're left with an outdated misleading picture including only the past.

Critique targeting the "molecular assemblers" concept

EoC introduced the (now outdated) concept of molecular assemblers.
The author himself abandoned the concept of molecular assemblers long before getting strongly criticized for it in the course of the infamous Drexler–Smalley debate that started in 2001.

Strong evidence for that is that in the technical book Nanosystems (published in 1992) molecular assemblers where not mentioned at all. Instead the newer concept of nanofactories where the main focus. Nanosystems was written a full nine years before the debate started (The draft, Eric Drexler’s MIT dissertation, even sooner 1991).

For why exactly the author considers molecular assemblers obsolete since before 1991 check the details on the main page about molecular assemblers. It has nothing to do with Richard E. Smally being right and assemblers being fundamentally impossible. Erik K. Drexler still considers molecular assemblers not fundamentally impossible but he considers them lacking in practicability, accessibility and desirability, and with the discovery of a better alternative (nanofactories) he now considers the assembler concept as old and obsolete.

The criticism targeting the assembler concept (and what had become of it outside the field of influence of the author) just drove the author to voice the obsolescence of molecular assemblers much louder. Most notably with his newest book Radical Abundance and his following public appearances. (wiki-TODO: Find and link the talk where E.Drexler voices that the idea of molecular assemblers is outdated more than 20 years now and that we should please finally "shelve it")

Other core experts (Ralph Merkle, Robert Freitas, ...) seem to have held on longer to the molecular assembler concept (See: "Pathway controversy"). There are signs that they moved on to the nanofactroy concept but the situation seems not entirely clear.

As of this writing (2017) in public perception molecular assemblers are still by far the dominant idea still haunting around as very resilient undead specter while the nanofactory-concept is barely known.

"Nanotechnology"

See main article: The term "Nanotechnology" and the article: History

In EoC the term "nanotechnology" was introduced. The term also appeared earlier by a different author discussing a different topic but this was not the source of the term "nanotechnology" in EoC. Its not entirely clear but it seems the term "nanotechnology" mostly spread from EoC and not the earlier introduction (TODO: some investigation is needed to actually answer that question - only of historical relevance - low importance.).

With passing time the term "nanotechnology" (and related ones) evolved (outside the control of the author).

  • On the one side it evolved into the jelly soft SciFi regime with even more extraordinary claims (both extremely positive and extremely negative).
  • On the other hand the term "nanotechnology" slowly but steadily got annexed by quite mundane non AP "nanotechnologies" (with little to no relation to APM like outlined in Nanosystems).
  • The original "nanotechnology" (now advanced APM) that was made more concrete and serious in Nanosystems had fallen by the wayside.
  • (Side-note: There are even more sides to this omitted here for clarity. See: "The many kinds of nanotechnology")

The annexation of the term "nanotechnology" was (more or less consciously) motivated by leeching on extraordinary promises while (again more or less consciously) repressing awareness of the horrific doomsday fairytale that came with it too. There was no malicious stealing intent. This just was probably a pretty much predetermined course of history.

When awareness for "nanotechnology" (however interpreted) reached a critical point the media and public perception began to superficially associate mundane near term science with the extraordinary SciFi claims (claims in no relation to Nanosystems that by now became invisible in relative publicity terms).

The tipping point was the article: "Why the future does not need us".
The results likely where:

  • fear of regulations and funding cuts based on things that are not done and never will
  • anger towards those spreading claims that never will be archived and are not worked on (or vice versa)

This discharged in the infamous debate.
Since the "claimspreaders" where (and are) numerous and gave no good target the whole thing was traced back to EoC fully disregarding newer much more grounded work (like Nanosystems).

So what the debate actually was about was:

  • fighting for the brand name "nanotechnology" - fighting for keeping publicity positive only
  • or as an analogy: attacking the victim of theft for being bitten by the stolen Trojan horse called "nanotechnology"

In a non-factual public relations sense the debate was clearly won by R. Smalley. This can be seen by the results like:

  • redefinition of "nanotechnology" excluding manipulation of atoms
  • "Cleaning" NNI report from manipulation of atoms
  • inducing fear based self censorship - precautious active distancing - "groupthink"

This of course was burying actual serious APM related work like Nanosystems (and lots of other material) further. A typical case of throwing out the baby with the bathing water.

Taking a step back one can see that the conflict originated from the fight over the term "nanotechnology" introduced in EoC. The new book Radical Abundance tries to solve the problem by avoiding it. It introduces the new more specific term: "Atomically precise manufacturing".

The positive news: By now there are some signs of recovery like:

  • the NNI acknowledging Nanosystems as worth further investigation (wiki-TODO: find and add link)
  • a Nobel prize for molecular machines
  • rapid advances in foldamer R&D
  • ...

Reception of EoC outside the english speaking world

In short: barely any. (This and the following refers to the current date 2017)

At least in the German speaking world the idea has not reached the non technical audience. EoC still hasn't even been translated to German. Generally the idea of APM (both in its early form presented in EoC and in its newer form) still remains mostly limited to the English speaking world.

In the non-English-speaking technical audience there is a little bit more of awareness. It trifles over with a significant time lag. what makes a great difference is that the events overseas happened somewhat in reverse. There things started with a boost in non AP material science "nanotechnology" (a topic pretty far away from APM) And only later with it information about the debate and EoC came in. One might speculate that overseas a lack of serious APM related work combined with negative news may have here too build a bit of a wall deterring from the reception of the "newer" material presented in (Nanosystems and Radical Abundance) making it pretty much unknown.

Related


  • Some of the common misconceptions about APM are listed in the first chapters of EoC. Those are still valid.

External links