Feynman was excited by nanotechnology before it was cool, and way before it stopped being cool. In 1959 he gave a lecture that’s come to be known by it’s main argument – “there’s plenty of room at the bottom”.
He wanted to exploit the disorienting fact that things get smaller faster than you zoom in on them. What I mean is this. It was feasible, before we could probe below the atomic, that when we zoomed in to view what the world was made off, the component parts would appear bigger to us as we zoomed in on them. Most things we’re familiar act like this. Under this assumption they would appear to get bigger and take up a whole lot, or even all, of the space. It was more than feasible, it was expected. A solid thing like stone was presumably made of solid stuff. But lo the closer we did look, the smaller the things we saw got. In even the smallest atom, hydrogen, the nucleus has 1 thousandth the radius of its entire atomic radius, and the electron on the outside is, as far as we know a “point particle” of zero extent, meaning no number of them will never “fill” anything.
And so down at the bottom, at the component level of reality, there is indeed mostly empty space and plenty of room. So as long as you’re clever enough to work the forces between the particles it is in principle possible to cram in billions of atoms into a space still too small to be visible to the human eye and arrange them into a functioning machine.
We’d essentially have an invisible technology capable of transforming the world. While nanotechnology turns out to be trickier than we thought, the principle is sound. We can exploit the porosity of the physical world to realise infinite potential in something smaller than we can see.
What I’d like you to consider is:
- Is the microscopic the only scale where there’s plenty of room?
- And is physical space the only important kind of room?
Let’s go big. How “full” is the entire universe? Well, as we zoom out we see the same (opposite??) effect at work. The further out we zoom the smaller things get. Once staggering stars shrink away and entire galaxies themselves get pinched into points by the growing irrepressible void.
So yes there’s plenty of room at the top too. And how.
But please realise there is no scale of the universe that is even remotely full.
It is true even of the immediate world we inhabit, the Anthropocene. Despite generations of Malthusian pessimism, cities continue to find more space outwards, upwards and inwards as things become denser and things get minaturised. What everyone assumed would take up space as we expanded actually physically compressed faster than we grew.
But we have even more clever ways to fit stuff in. At the same time as we were becoming more clever with space we got more efficient at moving things and resources between spaces. Just in time delivery was pulled out of the Ether, Uberisation innovated sharing itself and new technologies like 3D printing are eliminating the need for distribution at all.
Just as the ancients lacked the imagination to envisage empty space in rocks so too most barriers to growth are actually mirages.
If miniaturisation is the first order of compression, and distribution is the second, then computation is the third and it’s the one with most potential. Here’s an example from the past. Keeping accounts is a great way to make processes more efficient. And after centuries of bookkeeping we gradually learnt that the benefits of the rather blocky process of having humans consuming old sunlight through the metabolisation of plants for chemical energy, scraping burnt carbon against dead trees to stored in flammable heavy bricks we worked out that double entry-bookkeeping was mostly empty. Turns out the person, the pen, the paper, the book are all irrelevant to the benefit. In fact the entire process can be collapsed into an algorithm which can be encoded into code that has no extent and if you want to store it for later it’ll fit on something microscopic. Imagine telling an 18th century Venetian trader that the room of people would eventually disappear while becoming faster and more accurate.
Computation can be seen as the breakthrough that physical processes can be as empty as atoms. Computers were wholesale collapsing physical processes into nothing faster than we could miniaturise them. These things that took resources and energy across time and space have fallen away to become “point processes”. We see automation and density as side effects but these are the spoils.
We have to ask, could this go any further? Computation was only really started getting utilised in the 40s. 80 years ago people were ignorant to an entire category of compression. What other category might we be ignorant of? How much will it shrink thinks faster than we grow? This is how infinite growth is possible on a finite planet.
The next time you sit in a team of humans trying to do something, be aware that there is plenty of room at the everywhere. The room you sit in might as well be the size of an entire galaxy for all the computation power it could fit. And our technology might as well be the size of an atom for the leverage it can give you as an individual to move the world.