K. Eric Drexler is a visionary scientist and engineer thought of as one of the “Founding fathers of nanotechnology”, the science of engineering on a molecular level. He is most known for being the driving force behind the concept of molecular nanotechnology (MNT) and its potential benefits for humans.
His life and work
Kim Eric Drexler was born on 25th April, 1955. In 1991 he published his doctoral thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the following year it was turned into a book “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery Manufacturing and Computation”. The book was a comprehensive overview of how molecular manufacturing will make products by using nanoscale (billionths of a meter) mechanical and robotic technologies to guide the placement of molecules and atoms. It received the Best Computer Science Book award for 1992 from the Association of American Publishers.
Drexler is what you might call “an MIT loyalist” and holds three degrees from the institution. He received his B.S. in Interdisciplinary Sciences in 1977 and his M.S. in Astro/Aerospace Engineering in 1979. In 1991 he obtained his doctorate from the auspices of the MIT Media Lab.
In the 1970s Drexler first became influenced by ideas listed in the 1972 report “Limits to Growth” which looked at population growth and the finite supply of resources. At his first year at MIT, he came into contact with Dr. Gerard O’Neill, a physicist at Princeton University, who was conducting work on extra-terrestrial resources and was known for having a very strong interest on particle accelerations and for his work on concepts of colonies in space.
In the summers of 1975 and 1976, Drexler studied with NASA and during that time he learned about space colonies and helped fabricate revolutionary metal films a few tens of nanometers thick on wax base, to show the potential of using solar sails.
Drexler also spent time devising mass driver prototypes and delivering papers to the first three Space manufacturing conferences in Princeton.
In 1977 and 1979, Drexler and Keith Hendon co-authored papers on vapor phase fabrication and space radiators; both papers were given patents.
In the late 70’s Drexler began to develop ideas of molecular nanotechnology (MNT). This is technology which is used for engineering the mechanical or functional machines at a molecular scale. He was influenced a provocative 1959 lecture given originally by Richard Feynman “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” where he considered the manipulation of individual atom.
Drexler’s 1986 book “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology”, details the use of nano-scale assemblers that have the ability and capacity to build copies of itself and where tiny machines that can build objects atom by atom. He also coined the “grey goo” term which he used to describe what happens if molecular nanotechnology was to go amiss.
He published “Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization” in 2013 predicting that due to atomically precise manufacturing, societies will soon have the power to produce radically more of what people want, and at a lower cost.
Drexler and his then-wife Christine Peterson helped found the Foresight Institute in 1986; its main goal was to prepare for the eventual manufacturing and use of nanotechnology. In 2002 the husband and wife team ended their marriage of 21 years. Drexler joined Nanorex in 2005, a company that specializes in molecular engineering software as chief technical advisor. A year later, he married former investment banker, Rosa Wang.
It is safe to say that K. Eric Drexler is passionate about molecular nanotechnology (MNT) however Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley wasn’t convinced with the idea and criticize Drexler’s views. In Smalley’s 2001 article in the Scientific American, he argued that “fat fingers” were the reason why MNT was impossible. He went on to argue that the nano machines everyone envisioned would have to be more like chemical enzymes and not the assemblers Drexler imagined and even then, they would only work on water.
Smalley may not believe in what Drexler has to propose but Science fiction writers and fans all over the world have fallen in love with the idea of nanotechnology and an example is “The Diamond Age”, a 1995 sci-fi book that is about society in the future that makes use of nanotechnology almost every day.
Kim Eric Drexler now lives in Los Altos, California and he lives comfortably knowing that his visionary studies have made progress in the field of nanotechnology.