In 1986, Drexler predicted (in Engines of Creation) that we’d have molecular assemblers in 30 years. They would roughly act as fast, atomically precise 3-d printers. That was the standard meaning of nanotech for the next decade, until more mainstream authorities co-opted the term.
What went wrong with that forecast?
In my review of Where Is My Flying Car? I wrote:
Josh describes the mainstream reaction to nanotech fairly well, but that’s not the whole story. Why didn’t the military fund nanotech? Nanotech would likely exist today if we had credible fears of Al Qaeda researching it in 2001.
I recently changed my mind about that last sentence, partly because of what I recently read about the Manhattan Project, and partly due to the world’s response to COVID.
Drexler’s vision, in Engines of Creation, was based on the assumption that at least one government was able to do projects such as Manhattan and Apollo.
I’ve now decided that there was something quite unusual about the US ability to put the best and the brightest in charge of that many resources. The US had it from something like 1940 through 1969.
At some point in the 1970s, people stopped worrying that the Soviet Union had such an ability (I’m guessing the Soviets never had that ability, althought they occasionally came close). Without an enemy that people believed was capable of conquering us, politics as usual crept back into all large projects.
I’m suggesting that Drexlerian nanotech needs the kind of competence that the Manhattan Project demonstrated. That likely overestimates the difficulty of nanotech today, unless we impose a requirement that it be done on a 3 year schedule. I’m unsure whether that’s enough of an overestimate to alter the analysis.
Nanotech requires a significant amount of basic research on tools, and on finding an affordable path that’s feasible given the tools we can produce.
That research could in principle be rewarded by academic fame. Academia seems uninterested so far in the kind of vision that would produce such fame. The military risks of nanotech might make that an appropriate default. And even if academia were promoting nanotech research, I doubt it would be sufficiently results-oriented to fulfill Drexler’s forecast.
That research is unlikely to be financed by VCs or big companies. They’re deterred by a combination of long time horizons (maybe 10-20 years on a typical budget?) and the difficulty of capturing profits from the research. The first general-purpose assemblers will be used in part to produce better assemblers (easier to program, less likely to break down, less demanding of pure feedstocks, etc.). I expect it will resemble how early work on operating systems didn’t give IBM, Bell Labs, and DEC much of an advantage over Microsoft and Apple.
Al Qaeda could in principle have been the kind of enemy that caused the US to become more united. It takes a good deal of imagination to generate a scenario under which Al Qaeda could plausibly have conquered the US. But I’ll assume such a scenario for the sake of my argument.
The US was less close in 2001 than in 1940 to being the kind of nation that could support a Manhattan Project.
The 1930s had some key political divisions between traditional libertarianism, technocratic nationalism, and technocratic Marxism. But I get the impression that those divisions were more focused than are today’s political divisions on disputes about what strategies would best achieve the commonly agreed on goals.
Christian culture in the 1930s provided a unifying force that sometimes enabled the US to transcend those political divisions.
What happened to that unifying force?
My main guess: Science grabbed a bit more prestige than it had earned. Science used that prestige to weaken support for religion. It seems theoretically possible to weaken belief in the supernatural without weakening the culture associated with belief in the supernatural. But few influential people had enough foresight to aim for that.
What we got instead was reduced support for Christianity, without reducing the basic desires that led people to become religious. So Christianity was partly replaced with new religions (such as Green fundamentalism) that were optimized more for looking scientific than for improving society.
Christianity produced a high-trust society in part by ensuring a good deal of overlap between the goals of most people in that society. So weakening Christianity reduced trust, for reasons that were mostly independent of what replaced it.
I’m unsure how much that explains the changes since the 1940s. There’s less expectation of progress today. That might be a separate contributor.
The US still has some heroes. A number of competent people quickly prepared to handle COVID-19. Those heroes were unambiguously defeated, by forces other than the virus.
That’s rather different from the project that eradicated smallpox. Those heroes were able to route around bureaucracy and break rules when that was needed.
What projects might we have seen if the 2010s were like the 1940s? If climate change were as much of an emergency as WWII was, I’d guess we’d see a major effort for fusion power. We might also have AGI, a cure for cancer, the eradication of more infectious diseases, etc.
I don’t know whether it’s good or bad that nanotech has been delayed. Nanotech offers plenty of improvements to normal life, but also some risk of destabilizing military changes.
The inability to accomplish such major projects has happened for lousy reasons, but won’t necessarily cause much harm. Maybe nearly all of the competent people have gone to startups. I think I’ve seen a somewhat steady increase in competent companies that are 1% as ambitious as the Manhattan Project. Maybe we’re going to get fusion soon. We’re probably a bit safer for not having an arms race attitude toward AGI. But I wish medicine had something a bit closer to a Manhattan Project.