Hi everyone. I'm Ben Reinhardt, a technologist trying to enable more amazing science fiction to become reality. Professionally, I'm the CEO of Speculative Technologies, a nonprofit research organization that's working towards an abundant, wonder-filled future by unlocking powerful materials and manufacturing technologies that don't have a home in other institutions. In the past, I've helped people start companies in Singapore, worked in Silicon Valley at a unicorn startup, a VC firm, and my own failed startup; hung out at NASA while doing a PhD in Space Robotics; and got a bachelor of science in history. Some of my more well-known writing concerns how DARPA works, private ARPAs, and energy abundance

Ask me anything! I will be here Tuesday, February 21st. Use the comments below to add questions, and upvote any questions you'd like to see me answer.

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What is the roadmap, as far as we can see it, to the kind of nanotech envisioned in J. Storrs Hall's books (Where Is My Flying Car? and earlier Nanofuture)? What are the big unsolved problems? What are the most promising approaches or near-term goals?

I think the problem is that we don't have a clear roadmap -- if we did it would be much easier to execute on it.  In the limit, what Hall (and Drexler before him) describes is physically possible but transients matter and nobody has done a great job describing the intermediate technologies. 

Throat clearing aside, here are some of my personal hunches (I don't think there are any clear consensuses):

  • Use a combination of our existing tools for manipulating matter with nanoscale precision to start building multi-component and approach nanoscale systems that we can interface with from the macroscale: lithography, DNA origami, proteins, molecular machines. [Dropping a placeholder to include a link to Drexlers paper from the 90s combining proteins and AFM tips, and Tuberfelds work on DNA origami 3D printers]
  • Use these systems to at first start modifying macroscale objects: maybe making extremely precise edges to turbine blades, or something that can't be done any other way 
  • Eventually expand to making things full cloth with them, with increasing scope and precision. 

There are so many big unsolved problems! Frankly I think the biggest ones are some combination of experiments taking a long time to do and then measure what happened and then trust those measurements, the difficulty of simulating what will happen in lieu of experiments, both of which lead to extreme difficulty building any sort of intuition for the affordances of nanoscale systems, which makes it hard for people to build systems. That's a rather abstract answer, but beyond "creating covalent bonds exactly where we want them" I'm not even sure we know what the right concrete unsolved problems are.

Two approaches I'm personally excited about: 

  1. Using something like DNA origami to template nanoscale building blocks (that could be proteins or other things) -- you can get atomic precision on very small "pieces" and then if you can put those pieces together in a deterministic way, you could get larger pieces with the same precision. If you could then functionalize those pieces, you could very ambitiously have a nanoscale "factory" that does several steps of a reaction or something similar. (I am talking my own book to some extent here: we're running a program to tackle this approach at Spectech)
  2. Interfacing silicon and proteins. Photolithography is great at going from  m to  m and proteins are a great way of going from  to  m. By bridging the two we could potentially have something that enables you to directly interface with single atoms via a keyboard at scale. 

 

I think the actual approach is going to involve jumping up and down between many length scales

How would you allocate $1-10m personally towards maximising progress? Would a FRO or PARPA be the right choice over say angel investing in startups or funding smaller research projects?

After a lot of research, I think that one of the most effective ways of allocating order one-$100M towards progress is to enable materials and manufacturing technology research that could shift paradigms but doesn't have a home in current institutions. Those conclusions come from a couple of observations:

  • A ton of progress is driven by the second order effects of technologies: haber bosch, intended to remove german dependence on south american guano contributed a huge amount to solving overpopulation, etc.
  • The technologies that most often have those second order effects are how we make things and the stuff we make those things from (ie. materials and manufacturing)
  • These technologies require systems research, which in turn needs more coordination than academic incentives provide but is still too uncertain for startups.

Unsurprisingly, that's the strategy we're pursuing at Speculative Technologies.  

That being said, I'm not a fan of some sort of global prioritization of funding. While in practice everybody must make it, I think that the best thing for one person to spend towards might not be the same as for another person. 

I do think on the margin additional money towards startups or small projects (<$100k) isn't as helpful as pooling money together with other people to enable a discretely larger or longer project. That could take the form of giving one person ~10 years of guaranteed funding, enabling a team of ~5 people over two or three years, or building a serious piece of infrastructure for a group of weirdos. 

How much pressure is currently being applied to Congress to break some of the bottlenecks on energy abundance? How much more is needed?

Not an expert, but as far as I can tell, nowhere near enough! There's some rumbling about making it easier to build nuclear and folks like Jamie Beard and Eli Dourado are doing admirable work to make it easier to drill geothermal, but for the most part people don't even think seriously about the counterfactual that we could have orders of magnitude more energy and what that would unlock. 

What's your theory of management going in to Speculative Technologies?

What advances in material science would have to occur for it to be as exciting to investors and average people as software? i.e. is the world of bits going to remain the dominant arena of novel creations for the next century?

If by "investors" you mean venture capitalists, I'm not sure that material science will ever be as exciting as software -- the margins on software are too high and the timescales are so short. Maybe if someone cracked truly automated generative materials. 

But there are other kinds of investors -- I could imagine a number of valuable companies eventually being built around some general-purpose materials platforms: if someone figured out how to make steel with truly tunable properties, hierarchical materials, extremely efficient thermoelectrics, arbitrarily long carbon nanotubes, etc.

If you forced me begrudgingly to make generalizations about average people, I'd point to the fact that people get excited when advances touch their lives: you could imagine everything from drastically cheaper electricity from room temperature superconductors, self-cleaning surfaces, items made from wood with drastically different properties ... 

What are your 3 favorite things that are coming soon in materials?

In no particular order (and for flexible definitions of "coming" and "soon" -- things always take longer than we expect and aren't inevitable): 

  • Plastics made from atmospheric carbon (if Casey Handmer et al are right about cratering solar panel prices)
  • I think? Varda is making fiber optic materials in space.
  • The science things we can learn from messing around with graphene (not sure it will make a useful product anytime soon)
  • (Maybe) Ceramic airplane engines

What are some research areas you think are important but wish someone else would work on?

 

Besides institutions for science, what other types of organizations do you think the world needs?

When you succeed tremendously with Speculative Technologies what are the most exciting changes a normal person just living their lives will see?

How will we experience the world differently in 2051? What will our homes look like? Our daily experience of work and going places? Our leisure activities? ... or anything else that will be enabled by the new materials and technologies that are beyond the cutting edge now. 

Or, put differently, why should people far outside the progress and tech communities be excited about this work? 

How likely is it that commercial products will be manufactured in the next one or two decades in space, making use of the zero-G environment?

Not an expert but I suspect it's unlikely that commercial products will be manufactured in space beyond expensive novelty items (do theraputics count as commercial?) 

 

Reason being that commercial usually implies large scale, which I suspect will be limited in things in space that are going to come to earth.

 

Predicting the future is hard -- I hope I'm wrong!

Is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing using different materials / composites, a viable alternative to manufacturing processes today? Or will the cost curve & material integrity never be as good when compared to high volume standardized manufacturing?

I suspect that for situations where you want millions of the exact same thing, 3D printing will never replace high volume standardized manufacturing. 

However, you could imagine a world where additive manufacturing does become much cheaper and faster to the point where many more things are made with subtle customizations, or made on premise, etc. New paradigms almost never replace the old thing directly, but take over by changing the way things are done and measured. 

Love seeing the experimentation in research models, as well as nanotech projects specifically! I was very excited to see the announcement, and will be looking forward to seeing what you come up with. I'm late to the party, but a couple of questions if you get to them:

I'm guessing the work most of your projects will be doing will (if successful) generate some patent output. Is that correct, and if so do you have a concrete plan for those?

You mentioned experimenting with new ways of managing research. Do you have ideas for management experiments you're excited to try, or is that primarily in attempting a private ARPA-style project (which is certainly a huge project on its own!)?

P.S. -- Just realized this morning that you're the same Ben Reinhardt I went to high school with for two trimesters (before I got mono and fell off the face of the earth). Small world -- wish I'd gotten to know you better then! Great to see you working on such cool stuff!

Will Speculative Technologies offer internships this summer? If so, will they be limited to purely STEM students or is there space for generalist interns within your exciting organisation?

(Found out about SpecTech from Matt Clifford of ARIA/Entrepreneur First)

Regardless, best of luck.

Is the new industrial policy for semiconductor manufacturing going to result in new materials and manufacturing innovations, or is it mainly about bringing existing know-how to US from Asia? Will it spur any research, or result mainly in execution of known industry methods? 

Will the industrial policy jobs be of interest to the types of people you would like to bring into private ARPA, or will it only create non-R&D jobs? 

which types of new materials / manufacturing technologies  will have the most economic impact ? what are you most excited about being built with these new materials / technologies ?

Is Speculative Technologies part of the upstream process of creating alternatives to plastics? (alternatives that don't have the "persistent pollutant" or microplastic/nanoplastic decomposition problems)

What startup opportunities do you think exist now in the manufacturing sector in the United States? 

A while ago there was a kickstarter project called Origami Bag. They basically have a material that has for most purposes a smooth purpose but at the same time behaves like velcro. 

While the product itself is not that interesting the material itself seems interesting. Naively, I would expect that it would find applications in which velcro is currently used like shoes because it seems much nicer.

To me, there's an open question of why a new material like this didn't find adoption. The fact that it didn't seems also to have applications that might be hard for other new materials to find adoption. Do you have an idea here?

Industry 4.0 is a popular marketing slogan for, broadly, the future of manufacturing. What's your take on the harder science / tech underpinning this positioning? Anything you're particularly excited about?

What is the outlook for graphene? I saw that there is this new process called flash graphene, but don't know what to make of it.