7. Towards abundant materials

This page contains the opening portion of Chapter 7 from
Sustainable Superabundance: A universal transhumanist invitation

tam graphic 7

7. Towards abundant materials

One key task that lies ahead is the development and refinement of technologies capable of providing everyone with sufficient material goods for a life of sustainable superabundance.

Central to this task is the area of technology known as nanotechnology. Nanotechnology has particularly far-reaching implications – including new methods of manufacturing, new methods of repair, and new methods of recycling. These methods will boost the vitality and resilience, not only of individual humans, but of the material infrastructure within which we all operate. As a result, we’ll all be better protected. We’ll no longer need to worry about shortages, or about materials corroding, warping, or disintegrating. Thanks to nanotechnology, we’ll have plenty for all our needs.

Approaching nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is the deliberate systematic mechanical manipulation of matter at the nanoscale, that is, at dimensions of around one to a hundred nanometres. A nanometre (nm) is a billionth of a metre, that is, a millionth of a millimetre. For comparison, a human red blood cell is about 8000 nm in diameter. A small bacterium has width around 200 nm, whilst a small virus is around 30 nm. An individual amino acid is just under one nanometre in width, and a water molecule is around a quarter of a nanometre. Accordingly, nanotechnology operates at the scale of individual molecules. In particular, nanotechnology creates and utilises a rich set of nanoscale levers, shafts, conveyor belts, gears, pulleys, motors, and more.

One type of nanotechnology has been taking place inside biological cells for billions of years. In this “natural nanotechnology”, a marvellous dance of chemical reactions reliably assembles various different proteins, molecule by molecule, following codes stored in DNA and RNA. The vision of “synthetic nanotechnology” is that specially designed nanofactories will be able, in a broadly similar way, to utilise atomically precise engineering to construct numerous kinds of new material products, molecule by molecule. But whereas natural nanotechnology involves processes that evolved by blind evolution, synthetic nanotechnology will involve processes intelligently designed by human scientists. These scientists will take inspiration from biological templates, but they look forward to reaching results far transcending those of nature.

The revolutionary potential of nanotechnology was popularised by Eric Drexler in his 1986 book “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology”. That book fired the imagination of a surge of readers around the world. Since that time, however, progress with many of the ideas Drexler envisioned has proven disappointingly slow.

Transhumanists anticipate that the long period in which progress has been disappointingly slow can soon give way to a period of much swifter accomplishment. However, there is nothing inevitable about such a transition. It is the responsibility of transhumanists to make the case for greater funding for the field, so that the many remarkable potential benefits of nanotechnology will be realised more quickly, accelerating the attainment of the era of sustainable superabundance.

Tools that improve tools

The story of human progress can be expressed as the story of improving tools. Tools magnify our capabilities. The more powerful our tools become, the greater is our ability to reshape our environment – and ourselves.

At the dawn of humanity, our tools were rudimentary. As millennia passed, our tools gradually became more refined, as humanity gained greater prowess in manipulating stones, twine, wood, feathers, fur, bones, leather, and more. These tools helped, not only in hunting, fishing, and farming – and not only in the creation and maintenance of clothing and shelter – but in the production of yet more tools. Better tools made it possible, given time and ingenuity, to create even better tools.

In this way, as the stone age gave way to the bronze age and then to the iron age, basic tools helped to improve the process of mining and smelting new metals, which could in turn be incorporated in the next generation of tools.

The positive feedback cycle of tools creating better tools gathered pace with the industrial revolution, as steam engines amplified and complemented human muscle power. Within a couple of centuries, additional impetus was available from electrical motors, factory assembly lines, and computer-based manufacturing. Rudimentary computers played key roles in the design and assembly of next generation computers. Rudimentary software tools played key roles in the design and assembly of next generation software tools. And the cycles continued.

In parallel, chemists gradually grew more capable of causing compounds to react, and of synthesising new chemicals. Each new chemical could become part, not just of a new item of clothing or shelter, etc, but of yet another reactive pathway. New chemicals led to the production of yet more new chemicals.

These positive feedback cycles resulted, not only in tools with greater strength, but in tools with greater precision. Aided first by magnifying glasses, and then by wave after wave of improved microscopes and other imaging appliances, humanity understood the composition of matter on smaller and smaller scales. What’s more, by controlling the environment in ever more ingenious ways, humanity also gained the power to alter matter on smaller and smaller scales – causing molecules to combine together in ways that were not previously possible.

Some thinkers used to suppose that there was a sharp dividing line between the processes of living organisms (organic chemistry) and those of lifeless materials, such as metals and rocks (inorganic chemistry). This “vitalist” dogma was overturned in 1828 when German chemist Friedrich Wöhler demonstrated the creation of the biological compound urea from the inorganic material ammonium cyanate. Further developments led to the biochemical innovations covered in the previous chapter, such as the Haber-Bosch process that revolutionised how crops are fertilised: synthetic fertiliser could replace the fertilisers that had come from biological sources (animal and bird manure).

This chapter concerns the overturning of another dogma – the dogma that atomically precise manufacturing can only take place in biological contexts. Working inside living cells, ribosomes can assemble lengthy chains of amino acids into proteins. The vision of nanotechnology is that nanoscale devices, designed by human ingenuity, can build lots of other products with similar atomic precision. These products can include ultra-efficient solar energy arrays, materials that combine ultra-resilience with extraordinary strength, fabrics that never need to be cleaned, and swarms of nanobots that can roam in the bloodstream to identify and eliminate cancer cells.

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RAFT 2035 – a new initiative for a new decade

The need for a better politics is more pressing than ever.

Since its formation, Transpolitica has run a number of different projects aimed at building momentum behind a technoprogressive vision for a better politics. For a new decade, it’s time to take a different approach, to build on previous initiatives.

The planned new vehicle has the name “RAFT 2035”.

RAFT is an acronym:

  • Roadmap (‘R’) – not just a lofty aspiration, but specific steps and interim targets
  • towards Abundance (‘A’) for all – beyond a world of scarcity and conflict
  • enabling Flourishing (‘F’) as never before – with life containing not just possessions, but enriched experiences, creativity, and meaning
  • via Transcendence (‘T’) – since we won’t be able to make progress by staying as we are.

RAFT is also a metaphor. Here’s a copy of the explanation:

When turbulent waters are bearing down fast, it’s very helpful to have a sturdy raft at hand.

The fifteen years from 2020 to 2035 could be the most turbulent of human history. Revolutions are gathering pace in four overlapping fields of technology: nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognotech, or NBIC for short. In combination, these NBIC revolutions offer enormous new possibilities – enormous opportunities and enormous risks:…

Rapid technological change tends to provoke a turbulent social reaction. Old certainties fade. New winners arrive on the scene, flaunting their power, and upturning previous networks of relationships. Within the general public, a sense of alienation and disruption mingles with a sense of profound possibility. Fear and hope jostle each other. Whilst some social metrics indicate major progress, others indicate major setbacks. The claim “You’ve never had it so good” coexists with the counterclaim “It’s going to be worse than ever”. To add to the bewilderment, there seems to be lots of evidence confirming both views.

The greater the pace of change, the more intense the dislocation. Due to the increased scale, speed, and global nature of the ongoing NBIC revolutions, the disruptions that followed in the wake of previous industrial revolutions – seismic though they were – are likely to be dwarfed in comparison to what lies ahead.

Turbulent times require a space for shelter and reflection, clear navigational vision despite the mists of uncertainty, and a powerful engine for us to pursue our own direction, rather than just being carried along by forces outside our control. In short, turbulent times require a powerful “raft” – a roadmap to a future in which the extraordinary powers latent in NBIC technologies are used to raise humanity to new levels of flourishing, rather than driving us over some dreadful precipice.

The words just quoted come from the opening page of a short book that is envisioned to be published in January 2020. The chapters of this book are reworked versions of the scripts used in the recent “Technoprogressive roadmap” series of videos.

Over the next couple of weeks, all the chapters of this proposed book will be made available for review and comment:

  • As pages on the Transpolitica website, starting here
  • As shared Google documents, starting here, where comments and suggestions are welcome.

RAFT Cover 21

All being well, RAFT 2035 will also become a conference, held sometime around the middle of 2020.

You may note that, in that way that RAFT 2035 is presented to the world,

  • The word “transhumanist” has moved into the background – since that word tends to provoke many hostile reactions
  • The word “technoprogressive” also takes a backseat – since, again, that word has negative connotations in at least some circles.

If you like the basic idea of what’s being proposed, here’s how you can help:

  • Read some of the content that is already available, and provide comments
    • If you notice something that seems mistaken, or difficult to understand
    • If you think there is a gap that should be addressed
    • If you think there’s a better way to express something.

Thanks in anticipation!

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