This book heralds the arriving of nanotechnology in the future and tries to show the endless possibilities that could exist, once we have mastered atomic manufacturing. It proposes to build structures out of carbon, so that they have extremely strong bonds, like diamond or graphene, yet are electrically conductive and useful. The idea of being able to control materials at an atomic level, and at scale, gives rise to things that seem like magic to us now, yet aren't as far away as we think they are.
Once that future is here, the only constraint will be design of awesome things, since everything can be manufactured essentially for free, once the first nanotech, self reproducing printer is build. Feed in a pattern and the material and get out the thing you wanted, for the cost of only the raw materials. Considering how little these materials cost (carbon is super abundant) everything becomes available almost for free.
In the Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson paints a beautiful and alive picture of what such a world would look like.
Nanotechnology is quite awesome. And once it replaces current methods of manufacturing the world will be a completely different place. The possibilities that new nanomaterials offer, seem like wizardry and magic to us nowadays. And yet, these possibilities seem to be nearer in the future than we might think.
Still there needs to be a concerted effort towards that future and Eric Drexler is advertising for that effort. Devising ideas and methods of how we could go from where we are, right now, to a future where Nanotechnology is a thing that has widespread use.
Thinking about miniature machines, smaller than our cells, but made of diamond like materials, hard, predictable, rigid and efficient, is what this book is all about.
The engineering possibilities that such machines give us are endless. Drexler gives a few examples of things that would be possible, given that this vision of the future comes true:
- Rocket engines that can expand and move, to regulate the pressure in the combustion chamber in real time, yet are harder than steel, but also flexible.
- Hemoglobin like molecules in the human blood stream that could carry 10-folds the amount of oxygen then what our hemoglobin can carry, and therefore improving our breathhold times by an order of magnitude.
- Instant repair of any kind of tissue damage, be that cancer, or even something like a severed limb.
- Machines that can print any kind of shape that we want, and other machines that can "digest" any kind of material that we want and repurpose it for something else.
The final and grand vision is that of a fog of nanorobots, that change reality around us in real time to make any experience possible in a special "chamber" filled with that stuff. Basically a room that can be whatever you want it to be. Tools that can shapeshift and change their shapes. Materials that can re-assemble into anything that you want them to be.
More ideas are extreme supercomputers, moving bits and bytes around in novel ways, approaching the limits of true computronium. All of these things are also discussed and imagined in another book I quite like: The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil.
I personally find the idea of nanotechnology like this absolutely fascinating, yet I think that it might be further away than true general AI. At least it seems that way now. Once true general AI is there, nanotechnology will very likely come for free as a byproduct of its intelligence.