How Exploratory Engineering Will Lead to Future Nanotechnologies

Eric Drexler outlines methodology for developing revolutionary technologies, including advanced nanotechnology


There is no one more convincing or credible on the subject of advanced nanotechnologies than Eric Drexler.

Not surprisingly since the publishing of his works Engines of Creation and later Nanosystems—which together launched the concept of advanced nanotechnologies—the author has not always shared the views of his colleagues and acolytes.  And while attempting to clarify his views on molecular manufacturing, he has also been hard at work at establishing a roadmap for atomically precise manufacturing (APM), which when it was being formulated acknowledged that it may only be feasibly realized by abandoning the notion of universal assemblers.

With the APM roadmap published, it would seem that Dr. Drexler has taken up a new a book project that we get a glimpse into in the hour-long lecture he recently gave to inaugurate the new Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology.

In the lecture he gives himself the charge of developing a new kind of predictive mechanism for determining where the future of technology, and, in particular, nanotechnology will take us. Dr. Drexler provides us with an intriguing methodology that fundamentally depends on looking at how the laws of physics determine future engineering.

He further outlines the concept of “exploratory engineering”, which one could see as a hybrid of sorts between science and engineering. To give you an example of how exploratory engineering diverges from the conventional variety, in conventional engineering the basic constraint is manufacturing while in exploratory engineering it’s valid modeling.

In predicting technological change, a great deal of energy is always expended determining when the change will occur. As Dr. Drexler explains near the end of the lecture, this is where the methodology needs to abandon physics and get into the far more problematic field of human behavior.

Despite this indeterminate variable, Dr. Drexler remains optimistic that the potential of advanced nanotechnologies for addressing issues like climate change (you’ll have to watch the video) remains within our grasp given the right dose of will.

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IEEE Spectrum’s nanotechnology blog, featuring news and analysis about the development, applications, and future of science and technology at the nanoscale.