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