Exploratory Engineering

Eric Drexler created the term, “exploratory engineering” to describe a process of extrapolation in engineering. Drexler maintains that logical boundaries of scope can be defined based on performance from physically possible classes of devices. Using physical laws to draw the boundaries makes it possible to create hypothetical scenarios and accomplish modeling that have higher probabilities of developing actualities. He has also called this “theoretical applied science” and says it is a way to study things we understand but can’t build yet.

Exploratory Engineering – [metamodern.com]

In the early 20th century, a missing fabrication technology was the combination of engineering expertise and metalworking techniques (among others) that were required to build large aerospace vehicles. The physics of rocket propulsion, however, were well understood, and the strength and weight of large, well-made aluminum structures could be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

On the basis of exploratory engineering applied to this kind of knowledge, engineers who studied the matter were confident that orbital flight could be achieved by means of multistage chemically fueled rockets. By the 1940s, a study by the British Interplanetary Society had filled in considerable detail and given a good estimate of the size of a vehicle that could reach the Moon.

Those who hadn’t studied the matter were sometimes confident of the opposite.

Science vs. engineering vs. theoretical applied nanotechnology – [nanotech-now.com]

Drexler presents theoretical applied science as a way of studying things we can’t build yet. In the last section, he ascribes to it a very limited aim: “to describe lower bounds to the performance achievable with physically possible classes of devices.” And a limited role: “In an ideal world, theoretical applied science would consume only a tiny fraction of the effort devoted to pure theoretical science, to experimentation, or to engineering.” But here I think he’s being too modest. Theoretical applied science is really the only rigorous way for the products of science to escape back to the real world by inspiring and instructing engineers.

Dialog, Exploratory Engineering, Bioarchive – [foresight.org]

Exploratory engineering has limits, but there is much to be achieved within those limits. Successful exploratory engineering can be of great value from a variety of perspectives. For the technophile, it can reveal directions for research that promise great benefit, increasing the returns on society’s investment. For the technophobe, it can reveal some of the dangers for which we must prepare, helping us handle new abilities with greater safety. Success in exploratory engineering, and in heeding its results, may be a matter of life and death. If so, then it seems we should make some effort to get good at it.

The first step is to recognize and criticize it. No field can flourish unless it is recognized as having intellectual standards to uphold; to have a discipline, one must have discipline. Exploratory engineering has too often been seen as not-science and not-(standard)-engineering, and hence lumped together with scientific speculation and science fiction. Since speculation and fiction make no pretence of solidity, they are not subject to rigorous criticism to separate the solid from the erroneous. Exploratory engineering is different, and should be criticized on the basis of its aims. Those aims, again, are not to prophesy new scientific knowledge, not to prognosticate the details of the competitive designs of the future, but to make a solid case for the feasibility of certain classes of future technology.

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