THE NANOTECHNOLOGY AGENDA:

MOLECULAR MACHINES AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION

IN THE 21st CENTURY

By Ed Merta
Health Sciences Center Library
University of New Mexico
emerta@salud.unm.edu

Note: the views in this paper are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the University of New Mexico or the UNM Health Sciences Center Libary

I. Things to Come: Technology in the 21st Century

It began long ago on the windswept plains of an Earth no one will see again. Sometime within the last 150,000 years, modern humans first evolved and technology as we know it arose shortly thereafter. The two events are inseparable. The earliest Homo sapiens were different than the apes who came before. Their large, sophisticated brains and their ability for conscious thought set them apart and made them our kin. Blood of our blood, flesh of our flesh. In their brains lurked the potential to comprehend the world around them to an unprecedented degree, discern its inner mechanisms, and manipulate nature to serve human ends. Our earliest ancestors, however strange their primitive existence may seem to us, nevertheless had minds built by natural selection to make technology.[1]

The environment they lived in forced them to develop that potential. The existence and progress of technology were, as a result, inevitable. Wind, sun, cold, and rain drove the earliest humans to start fires and build homes. The threat of starvation drove them to plant crops and tame the other animals. Fear of their own kind compelled them to make weapons. The pressure of their growing numbers herded them into cities. The flourishing of cities led to roads linking the urban centers together. The wealth accumulating in the cities and their trade spurred the growth of record keeping, literacy, and science. Science yielded new tools to understand and manipulate nature. These tools led to still more knowledge and more tools, in a spiral of technological progress leading ever upward, at an ever accelerating rate.[2]

This process has been unfolding for 150,000 years as an integral part of the human experience. In the last two centuries its pace has continued to quicken until today it seems impossible to follow. We can’t help but ask: where will the advance of technology go from here?

Trying to answer that question invites ridicule. No one can really know what the future will bring. The flow of history is too vast, too mind-boggling in its complexity for anyone to claim they know for certain where it will end up. It’s a storm-swept river as wide as the ocean and we humans are too caught up in its tumult to see where it’s ultimately going. But if we can’t precisely predict the totality of history’s future course in all its details, we can at least try to sketch what a few of the details might look like if certain scenarios come to pass. We can’t have certainty, but we can try to see possibilities. We can fashion small pictures for our minds to lock onto out of an inconceivably greater whole.[3]

We will spend the years ahead in the 21st century since the birth of Christianity. We know, in the most general sense, that technology will play a fundamental part in determining how this century will unfold. We know that certain kinds of technology seem likely to be of especially critical importance. Computing, robotics, and biotechnology have been among the favorite candidates for such a role.[4]

Recently another has emerged. It’s called nanotechnology, and it envisions the building of tiny, molecule-sized machines able to manipulate matter at the atomic level. Nanotechnology is a field still in its infancy, probably years away from practical applications. But a fervent, increasingly influential community of researchers is trying not only to make it a technical reality but a force for social transformation as well. The leaders of the nanotechnology community believe their work will give humanity technological capabilities previously unimaginable – and those capabilities, they contend, can effectively put an end to all the worst forms of human suffering.

Until the future imagined by nanotechnologists actually exists, no one can know for certain whether they’re right. But looking at the visions they hold can give us a glimpse of future possibilities. A sense, however imprecise, of the issues that will shape the twenty first century and what the lives of our children might be like.

II. Overview of Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is a field of science and engineering whose ultimate aim is to build robots smaller than living cells with the ability to arrange individual atoms into any physically possible pattern. Put another way, the aim is total control of the structure of matter, rearranging it at will via molecule-sized machines to suit human purposes.[5]

To understand this goal, we must understand the extremely small scale at which nanotechnology would operate. Large-scale objects like human bodies are measured in meters. Humans and all other life on Earth are made of membrane-enclosed building blocks called cells. A typical human body has about 100 trillion cells. Cells are measured in units called nanometers (nm); one nanometer is equal to one billionth of a meter. A typical cell measures anywhere from 1,000 to 100,000 nanometers in diameter. A virus – a sub-microscopic parasite that preys on cells – is typically 50 to 100 nanometers long. The building blocks of cells and viruses are molecules – tiny chemical structures that do biologically useful tasks for organisms. Examples include carbohydrates, nucleic acids, and proteins. These molecules vary widely in size, but a typical protein molecule might measure, say, five to twenty nanometers in size. Lay 100 million of them end to end and you'd equal the height of an average human being. Molecules, in turn, are made of atoms, which average about 0.1 nanometers in size.[6]

Nanomachines – the tiny robots that nanotechnology seeks to build – would measure anywhere from 200 to 5000 or so nanometers in size. Engineers would build them out of carbon atoms arranged so as to form diamond. These diamond nano-robots would be smaller than most living cells, able to enter such cells if their designers wished. They could be equipped with arms able to grasp, manipulate, and lock in place individual atoms. Nanomachines would, in effect, resemble extremely small unmanned submarines. In addition to their external arms, they would have a basic structural frame to contain internal instrumentation, including an engine for propulsion, an onboard computer for information processing, and a communications system for links with other nanorobots. If the nanomachine’s builders wished, the device could be programmed to build an exact duplicate out itself out of materials in the environment. These two machines could then make additional copies of themselves in an exponential progression.[7]

The idea of building nanomachines first came from the famous physicist Dr. Richard Feynman in a 1959 theoretical paper.[8] The concept of a self- replicating molecule-sized robot has been explored and developed at great length in the 1980s and 90s by the MIT-trained engineer Dr. Eric Drexler. Drexler published his first paper on the subject as a graduate student in 1981[9] and has since become the world’s leading expert in the field. He is co-founder, president, and, with his wife Chris Peterson, a key figure in the Foresight Institute, a non-profit nanotechnology think-tank based in Palo Alto, California.[10]

At first Drexler’s ideas met with skepticism and ridicule from the scientific community, but research over the last twenty years has steadily built support for the idea of nanotechnology’s feasibility. Scientists have used scanning-tunneling microscopes and atomic force microscopes to move and position individual atoms in increasingly sophisticated structures, as proposed by Feynman and Drexler. Biologists and chemists have successfully designed and built artificial molecules, further suggesting that the design of complex structures on a nanoscopic scale is possible.[11] In the last few years, researchers have actually begun to construct primitive analogs of components that would be needed to build a functioning nanomachine. Examples include carbon structural frames, nano-scale grasping tools, molecule-sized motors, and logic gates that could serve as the basis for molecular-scale computers. [12] Recent progress in nanotechnology has been sufficient to spur the Clinton administration to propose in early 2000 a $500 million Federal research initiative in the field.[13] Businesses such as Xerox, IBM, Motorola and Hewlett Packard are pursuing their own work, as are major academic institutions like Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington.

As progress in the field accelerates, the first sign of controversy over its potential has appeared. Bill Joy, the chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, Inc., wrote an article in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine warning that abuses of nanotechnology, along with genetics and robotics, could lead to the extinction of the human race before the 21st century is out.[14]

When will the first nanomachine actually be built? Making a prediction like this is notoriously difficult, but the nanotechnology community is optimistic. Forecasts among experts in the field generally envision the first working nanomachine being built no later than 2020 and perhaps as soon as 2010.[15]

III. Applications of Nanotechnology

If nanotechnology really could be used to build molecule-sized machines, then what good would such machines be? What would one actually do with them? Nanotechnology advocates readily offer an abundance of answers. They envision a fantastic array of uses for their anticipated inventions in computing, manufacturing, medicine, consumer goods, energy, and transportation.

Nanotechnology could, for example, find early applications in the computer industry. The basis of today’s computers are silicon microchips – tiny wafers holding millions of transistors, each of which acts as a “logic gate” that switches between “open” and “closed” states when electrons pass through it. The more transistor logic gates one can cram onto a silicon microchip, the more information it can process and the more powerful the computer using it will be. The problem is that the laws of physics limit how small a transistor can be, and thus the number of transistors we can fit into a given volume of space. The smallest conceivable transistor is probably about 200 nanometers in diameter. Analysts in the microprocessor industry expect chip manufacturing techniques to reach this physical limit sometime before 2020. At that point, the exponential growth in computing power we have seen since the 1940s will come to an end – unless some alternative to transistor-based information processing can be found. [16]

Nanotechnologists working on ways to manipulate matter at extremely small size scales hope to do just that. Their theoretical papers point toward the use of molecules only about 1 nm in diameter as a replacement for silicon transistors. For example, nanoscopic, rod shaped molecules made of only a few carbon atoms could switch between an “open” and “closed” state while occupying far less space than silicon transistors. Recent experiments have actually constructed crude approximations of such molecular logic gates, as they are called. Using individual molecules as the basis for information processing, nanotechnologists foresee an explosive increase in computing power. A computer chip that holds a few million transistor-based logic circuits today could hold hundreds of billions of molecular logic circuits in a nanotechnology future. Such capabilities could permit the building of fully functioning computers smaller than the nucleus of a human cell but possessing the information processing power of mainframe computers in the 1990s.[17]

The building of molecular computers, when and if it occurs, could pave the way for other nano-scale devices – with biomedical science among the earliest likely applications. The ability to construct machines operating at a molecular level could, according to researches in the infant field of nanomedicine, revolutionize the field of medical imaging and diagnostics. Instead of using x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging, biopsies, or exploratory surgery to diagnose a patient’s condition, doctors would inject the patient with a fluid containing trillions of molecule-sized nanomachines. Each one would be equipped with light or sound-based imaging systems to scan the patient’s physiological and biochemical processes down to the level of individual lipids, proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids within cells. The nanomachines would then transmit this information to a computer outside the patient’s body for viewing and analysis by health care personnel. Nanomedicine advocates such as Dr. Robert Freitas, M.D., believe such information would be far more detailed and precise than anything provided by today’s diagnostic equipment. It would, say Freitas and his colleagues, provide something we can’t obtain today – complete characterization of all cellular and biochemical processes occurring within the human body. Much of the guesswork of medical diagnosis would, in theory, be eliminated.[18]

Nanotechnology researchers like Freitas and Eric Drexler, founder of the field, envision other medical applications of their work. They call for nanomachines that could serve as dispensers of important biochemicals that are lacking in some individuals, for example. Nano-scale devices implanted in a human body might dispense insulin to diabetics or neurotransmitters (the chemicals that serve as the basis of brain function) to victims of Alzheimer’s disease.[19] Nanorobots in the body could serve a wide array of other functions. They could enter arteries and remove fat deposits clogging the cardiovascular system. They could function as artificial red blood cells, delivering additional oxygen to body tissues and increasing gas exchange in the lungs. A human body with these devices implanted could hold its breath underwater for hours at a time or run 15 minutes without taking a breath. [20]

Nanorobots could also serve as artificial immune devices, attacking the viruses and bacteria that cause so many human health problems. Their onboard computers could be programmed to seek out and destroy the plaque causing tooth decay, the virus causing AIDS, or the tumors associated with cancer. They could do so with far deadlier accuracy than any drug or other treatment option available today, because they would do something today’s methods can’t. Drug molecules and radiation particles presently used to treat disease are “dumb” – they bounce around the body randomly until they hit a disease organism, frequently failing to kill that organism or killing healthy, benign cells instead. Anti-disease nanomachines, in contrast, would be “smart” devices, able to recognize specific microbes or cells and then target them for destruction with close to absolute, one hundred percent precision. That precision would allow them to avoid damage to healthy body tissues. It’s the difference between a howitzer shell that kills indiscriminately and a high powered rifle with a telescopic sight that kills only a specific target. [21]

The “holy grail” of nanomedicine is to construct general purpose cell repair nanomachines. Thousands of them would be stationed at each of the body’s 100 trillion or so cells. Their onboard computers would hold databases containing information on exactly what each of a healthy human body’s cells should look like. Whenever a nanomachine detected a molecule that didn’t fit the profile of a healthy human cell, the nanomachine would seize the flawed molecule and either repair it or destroy it. In this way, nanotechnologists hope their work will one day allow human beings to remain healthy indefinitely. Once an individual accepts cell repair nanomachines into his or her body, the nanotechnology community believes, any kind of disease or dysfunction in that person would become physically impossible – including aging.[22]

The same technology potentially providing molecular machines for medicine also seems to open new possibilities in manufacturing. Nanotechnologists such as Eric Drexler and Ralph Merkle, a researcher at the nanotechnology firm Zyvex LLC, see molecular manufacturing as their field’s most exciting potential application. In a nutshell, this application involves swarms of molecule-sized, self-reproducing nanomachines rearranging carbon atoms so as to produce just about any physical object desired by human beings at negligible cost.[23]

Here’s how the manufacturing process works today. Let’s say a company is in the business of building rocket engines using current manufacturing techniques. This business requires the extraction from the ground, in huge quantities and at great expense, of raw materials containing key elements like iron and titanium. These raw materials are transported at great expense (for labor, land, equipment, and so forth) by boat, train, or truck to the site of a refining facility where they are converted into a form suitable for industrial processes. The refined materials are then shipped by boat, train, or truck at great expense to the scattered sites of the factories that produce components for rocket engines. Here they are processed at great expense in a vast assembly line into subsystems and components for a rocket engine. Next they are shipped from their separate locations at great expense to a single factory where they will at last be assembled at great expense into a complete, fully functional rocket engine. The process has involved a huge, costly network of elaborate vehicles and facilities staffed by thousands of people.

The nanotechnology manufacturing process, as depicted in Drexler’s writings, would work like this. A company is in the business of building rocket engines. It sets up one large vat in a single warehouse-sized building watched over by a handful of employees. They fill the vat with water. They add a large volume of carbon compounds to the water – the compounds cost about 50 cents per kilogram[24] and are available anywhere on Earth from the soil or the atmosphere. The employees overseeing the process release a few billion nanorobots into the water-carbon mixture of the vat. The nanorobots are programmed, via their onboard computers, to build a rocket engine. They begin reproducing themselves, using the carbon atoms as raw material, until within a few minutes they number in the hundreds of thousands of trillions. This multitude of nanorobots then begins rearranging the huge number of carbon atoms still in the vat, linking them together in ever more complex structures. As the minutes go by, the complex structures form the outlines of a single, coherent object, soon recognizable as a rocket engine. In less than an hour, the vat is drained of water and a completed, fully functioning rocket engine stands ready, at a tiny fraction of the time and cost involved in pre-nanotechnology manufacturing.[25]

This rocket engine, or any other object manufactured by nanotechnology, is dramatically superior to anything made by the old methods. It’s made of carbon atoms arranged in a latticework – meaning it’s made of diamond. It therefore is incredibly durable. Because it is made with only the minimum number of necessary atoms, it's extremely lightweight. Because every single atom in the rocket engine is precisely positioned, it is extremely resistant to wear, tear, and breakdown. Because nanotechnology allows molecule-sized computers to be built, the rocket engine is also “smart” – trillions of computers can be woven throughout its components and reprogrammed at will. These computers can send instructions to the engine’s components and tell them to alter their configuration. Man-made devices like the rocket engine, in other words, can change their shape and performance as desired by the user. [26]

The molecular manufacturing process used to make this rocket engine, Drexler and his colleagues argue, could be applied to make any physically possible device out of readily available carbon atoms at negligible time and cost, with almost no human labor. Self-replicating nanorobots that rearrange matter at will could open up enormous possibilities, the nanotechnologists say. Drexler has drawn up plans for a home manufacturing device about the size of a microwave oven that, with the right carbon raw materials, could produce any household item able to fit inside its dimensions – anything from food to garden tools to clothing to the medical nanorobots discussed earlier.[27] Like the rocket engine, these items would be durable, lightweight, reliable, and “smart,” able to change into a wide variety of shapes and performance specifications. Homes themselves could be built out of nanoengineered materials. Walls and furniture could shift color, shape, or position on command, altering their nanocomputer-controlled molecular structure on command.[28]

By permitting complete control over the structure of matter, nanotechnologists contend, molecular manufacturing will enable previously unthinkable advances in energy, environmental, and transportation systems. Molecule sized solar collectors and batteries, for example, could be woven directly into the structure of every manufactured object on Earth, providing an effectively limitless source of clean energy for technological civilization.[29] Swarms of nanorobots could be released into the Earth’s environment to break down and neutralize pollutant materials in the ground, air, and water.[30] And space travel could at last be made cheap and easily accessible to the entire population. Drexler has postulated a nanoengineered rocket about the size of a sports car that would carry a single person into orbit while weighing about 60 kilograms, absent passengers and fuel.[31] The lightness and minimal fuel requirements of such vehicles means they would be cheap to manufacture and operate, allowing large numbers of people ready access to Earth orbit and the regions beyond. Molecular manufacturing in space would be as cheap and quick as on Earth, thus allowing economical construction of the large, complex vehicles and facilities necessary for colonization of the solar system. The nanotechnology era, its enthusiasts predict, will finally see massive human expansion into the final frontier. [32]

Believers in nanotechnology’s potential depict a future filled with breath-taking technological marvels. But even the most ardent among them are careful to point out the hurdles to be overcome before the anticipated age of wonders arrives. The first functioning nanomachine, they expect, will be built sometime in the first two decades of the twentieth century. But few nanotech researchers believe this watershed will lead overnight to cell repair machines, rocket engines grown in water tanks, morphable nanoengineered houses, or bustling space colonies. The first nanorobot, like any new invention, will be crude, prone to breakdown, in need of drastic improvement by means of endlessly repeated trial and error testing.[33] Nanomedicine will face a long series of clinical tests before being authorized for use in human subjects. [34] Constructing cell repair machines will require feats of data gathering and computational number crunching that make the Apollo program trivial in comparison. True molecular manufacturing, whether in garage-sized vats or microwave sized boxes, will require highly robust, reliable nanomachines – which we currently have no idea how to build. It will also demand computerized coordination among hundreds of trillions of interdependent nanorobots in the atom-by-atom construction of complicated physical objects. The unspeakably immense computing power and monumentally complicated software to do that do not currently exist.[35]

Despite these barriers, nanotechnologists cite several reasons for long range hope that they can exploit the full range of their field’s possibilities. First, nothing in the laws of physics prevents the construction of nanomachines doing exactly the tasks they describe. The theoretical calculations of Feynman and Drexler, together with laboratory experiments to date, support this contention.[36] Second, nanotechnology already exists in one form – namely, the life forms of Earth’s biosphere. The molecules serving as the basis of all life are, nanotechnologists argue, nano-scale machines to construct extraordinarily complex, dynamic, macro-scale devices – that is, living organisms. Biomolecules do this job using a molecular level manufacturing process precisely analogous to nanotechnology. DNA functions as a nanoscale computer that sends instructions to nanoscopic assembly units within the cells known as ribosomes. The ribosomes then manufacture proteins, which function as tiny nanomachines building sub- units of biological cells, which in turn form whole cells, which in turn form living creatures.[37] The hope of nanotech researchers is to copy life’s molecular manufacturing process in a more refined and improved way. Just as the mere existence of birds once showed pre-Wright Brothers inventors that heavier than air flight by humans was possible, the existence of natural processes for molecular manufacturing is thought to show the eventual feasibility of human-controlled nanotechnology.[38]

IV. The Social Dimensions of Nanotechnology

As they apply their skills to breaking through engineering barriers, nanotechnology researchers are making a conscious effort to think through the general implications of their work for human societies, not only in science and engineering but in economics, politics, and culture. Nanotechnologists like Eric Drexler, Ralph Merkle, and Robert Freitas do not fit the stereotypical mold of mad scientists working feverishly in their isolated laboratories, heedless to the effect their inventions might have on the larger world. Far from it. They believe their efforts could have immense social repercussions in the decades to come. They have tried to understand what those repercussions might be and to develop thoughtful positions on the uses to which nanotechnology should be put. Drexler founded his Foresight Institute, in fact, not only to promote nanotechnology but to foster discussion of its broad social impact.[39]

The result of such discussion has been the development of a general consensus among nanotech researchers regarding the best way to apply nanotechnology for human benefit. They have moved from the realm of pure science to that of public policy; from the question of “Can we?” to the issue of “Should we?” The essence of their consensus is this: nanotechnology should be used, with appropriate safeguards against accident and abuse, to bring deliberate, fundamental changes in aspects of human experience previously regarded as painful but also permanent facts of life. Put another way, nanotechnologists seek to abolish the worst forms of evil and suffering from human life while removing most or all natural limits on the expansion of human freedom.

Biological sources of human suffering and human limitations, according to this perspective, can and should be eradicated. For example, nanotechnology advocates believe nanomedicine must be used in the long run to eliminate human vulnerability to disease. Fully developed nanorobots, in their view, will be able to correct any damage to DNA, eliminate any tumors or infections, and repair most structural damage to the body. Such technology can, in principle, make disease via inheritance or infection a thing of the past if society so chooses. Nanotechnologists support such a choice.[40]

The same technology, they say, can be used to prevent aging. Since aging is simply a breakdown in the biochemical processes of cells over time, and nanorobots can eventually be used to prevent any such breakdown, human cells and the bodies they form can be preserved in a healthy condition indefinitely. Inherent limits on the human lifespan need no longer exist in the nanotechnology era, and so they should be removed. Drexler and his colleagues thus favor the possibility of centuries-long life spans for any individual as a deliberate objective of human societies.[41]

According to their worldview, the use of nanotechnology to preserve health and youth can and should enable the elimination of all weakness, infirmity, and limits on human ability. Any cellular or physiological process that exists in nature will, in all likelihood, be amenable to duplication and improvement by nanoscale devices. The resulting capability for full control of human cell structure and physiology will mean that handicaps like blindness, deafness, and paralysis need no longer exist. Artificial nanotech cells, organs, and limbs will permit elimination of age-old limits on strength, endurance, and agility. Bones could be made of diamond, for instance, or lungs rebuilt to breathe poisonous atmospheres. Brain enhancements by means of artificial, improved neurons will mean that limits on memory and intelligence need no longer exist. A single artificial neuron could store the entire Library of Congress, accessible to an individual on demand. Brains could have the ability to link directly via nanoengineered devices with computers, with other brains, or with the Internet. All persons, the nanotechnologist social agenda posits, should have access to physical and mental performance enhancements that seem, after extensive research, safe and beneficial.[42]

While nanotechnology alters the basics of human biology, nanotechnologists maintain, molecular manufacturing should be used to eliminate scarcity and poverty from society. In Drexler’s vision, self-replicating nanorobots able to reshape matter at will promise to bring abundance, prosperity, and comfort to the whole human population for the first time since humans arrived on Earth. In the age of nanotechnology, households inhabited by immortal, healthy, energetic enhanced humans could come equipped with home manufacturing devices able to provide all the basic necessities of life for very little cost. This low cost will result from three factors. First, the basic raw material of all manufacturing will become carbon, an element that the Earth’s environment provides in virtually limitless abundance. Second, the nanorobots that do the manufacturing will be self-replicating. You only need to build one – it will then copy itself as needed, for free, without human labor, so long as carbon raw materials are available. Third, Drexler predicates his vision on the argument that molecular manufacturing will ultimately be controlled by automated, artificial intelligence systems capable of operating largely without human direction. Such systems will be made possible, he contends, by nanomedical research into the structure and workings of the human brain. Self replication, abundant carbon, and artificial intelligence will, it is hoped, eliminate the scarcity of labor, raw materials and other resources that once limited the availability of products. Human material needs will be fulfilled simply by asking an automated manufacturing facility to make a desired object – whether it be food, a rocket engine, medical nanorobots, a kitchen knife, clothing, or a house.[43]

On the issue of nanotech solutions to scarcity, the nanotechnologists’ argument again goes: since we can, we should. To them, the self evident desirability of eradicating poverty and ensuring a healthy, prosperous life for all human beings outweigh, on balance, any potential objections to nanotechnology. Confronting fears that greatly lengthened life spans would lead to even greater overpopulation than exists today, the nanotech visionaries respond that nano-driven material abundance would provide for the population’s needs while nano-enabled space travel would provide greatly expanded living space. The entire solar system, and perhaps beyond, would become the home of humanity. Individual mobility, freedom, opportunity, and prosperity would be available to an unprecedented extent. The science and technology community would be morally remiss, Eric Drexler writes, if it failed to pursue this opportunity to build a decent life for the whole human family and put an end to the most ancient forms of human suffering.[44]

Drexler and his cohorts are not blind, however, to the dangers that nanotechnology could pose. Nanorobots able to kill bacteria could also destroy healthy human cells, becoming a trans-biological plague in their own right. Self-replicating nanomachines intended for molecular manufacturing could be programmed to break matter apart instead of putting it together. A horde of multiplying nanomachines released into the environment, programmed to devour the matter around them and use it as raw material to build copies of themselves, could in principle become a planetary cancer dwarfing nuclear weapons in their capacity for destruction. Malignant nanorobots could be designed to putrefy human bodies and mutate in response to countermeasures. They could be programmed to destroy crops and plant life. They could be ordered to trigger destructive chemical reactions in water or the atmosphere, such as obliterating ozone or poisoning aquifers. They could build themselves into artificial life forms, such as super-tough cybernetic plants intended to drive their biological predecessors into extinction. The theoretical potential of all these nightmare weapons to replicate themselves without human control is what makes them uniquely horrible. Nuclear bombs are bad enough, Bill Joy points out, but at least they can’t multiply out of control like a virus.[45]

The prospect of nanoengineered artificial intelligence (AI), as discussed by Drexler, magnifies such dangers even further. Drexler forecasts that molecular manufacturing will eventually be directed by AIs derived from nanoscale modeling of the human brain. The likelihood that molecular computing will provide immense computing capacity, far in excess of the information processing power in our own brains, suggests to most nanotech advocates that AIs might become conscious. That is, they might become fully autonomous and aware personalities in the same sense that human beings think themselves to be -- with free will, emotions, intellect, morals, and all the other existential baggage that comes with sentience. No one knows how an intelligent entity vastly smarter and more capable than humans would behave. Nanotechnology boosters generally agree that the prospect of both superhuman life forms and self- replicating super-weapons coexisting with the human race is not necessarily a pleasant one.[46]

Since its inception, the Foresight Institute has led an effort to confront the potentially apocalyptic dimensions of nanotechnology and develop viable responses. Drexler and others have developed strategies that they believe will permit the exploitation of nanotechnology’s potential while minimizing its dangers. To prevent an accidental disaster, for example, self-replicating nanomachines could be manufactured to function only in the presence of a specially engineered fuel or a signal broadcast by a human controller. Replicating nanodevices could also be built to have a limited lifespan, preventing the possibility that they would multiply endlessly if accidentally released into the environment.[47] While these measures prevent accidents, fleets of defensive nanomachines could patrol the Earth’s biosphere guarding against deliberate attack from hostile, self-replicating nanoweapons. This “active shield,” as Drexler calls it, would hunt down malignant nanomachines and destroy them in much the same way that the body’s immune system quells an infection. [48] AIs would be kept in carefully controlled environments or designed with behavioral controls to prevent them from taking aggressive action. [49]

Nanotechnologists have devoted a great deal of attention to physical dangers like nanotech accidents, super-weapons, and rogue AIs. They have been far less concerned with the potential social conflict their technology could trigger. Although citizens of the developed world inhabit a culture committed to indefinite, technology-driven economic growth, many of them nevertheless feel uneasy about the ultimate implications of science and technology. In the United States, religious fundamentalism and New Age spirituality reject scientific world views in favor of the supernatural, even as their adherents enjoy the luxuries of twenty first century industry and mass consumption.[50] Environmentalists call, in varying degrees, for limits on technological development.[51] Religious leaders and ethicists question the wisdom of technologies like biotech agriculture and human genetic engineering.[52] Dissident groups launch violent protests in Seattle, Washington, and Prague against economic globalization and the technology that drives it.[53]

A unifying theme in this undercurrent of anxiety toward technology is the belief that certain aspects of the human condition are fixed, inherent, or “natural.” According to this perspective, trying to change the constants that have shaped human experience, trying to go beyond the boundaries said to be drawn by nature, is to commit an immoral act. The act is immoral because it changes the conditions that made us human and thus risks bringing our humanity to an end. For example, human beings have never before had the power to change the genetic basis of their thoughts and abilities. This limitation has been an inherent part of what it means to be human, and therefore removing it via genetic engineering is morally wrong. In the same way, human beings heretofore lacked the ability to inflict wholesale alterations on the Earth’s air, water, and land. The sanctity of those realms has until modern times been an integral part of the human condition. To violate that sanctity by deforestation, toxic dumping, and carbon emission is therefore immoral.[54]

If the visions of the nanotechnologists come to pass, the impact on society would likely be even more profound than the changes wrought by previous advances in technology. Strange and alien notions like biotech agriculture, in vitro fertilization, cloning, hand-held computers, and the Internet would pale next to machine life forms, nano-enhanced superhumans, virtual immortality, overwhelming material abundance, and interplanetary colonization. A world where these capabilities were real might, over time, become unrecognizable to people alive today – lacking in all the familiar landmarks of everyday experience and common sense. The normal rules of social interaction wouldn’t apply when humans share the solar system with non-human life forms of unspeakable power. How, for example, would human rules of behavior and etiquette fare in a future where nanomachines allowed the direct linkage of minds? Customs revolving around the normal cycles of birth, growth, maturity, and death would be obsolete when intelligent beings live for hundreds or thousands of years or longer. The traditional human process of working for a living would become irrelevant if material goods materialized on demand out of vast, living swarms of nanomachines. Of what use would arts, skills, and crafts become in a world where anything one desired materialized by magic?

If the nanotechnology agenda seeks to unleash technological changes incomparably more immense than any seen before, it stands to reason that the social turmoil they unleash could be correspondingly greater as well. How will the old religions, ideologies, and values of the world react when everything they’ve ever known begins to crumble before their eyes? When the word “human” becomes an empty, obsolete expression? We can’t know for sure, but history suggests we can’t discount the possibility of violent convulsions as old institutions and values collapse. The end of feudalism, the birth of Protestantism, and the expansion of industrial capitalism all witnessed violent resistance from the defenders of an old order being swept away. The building of the first nanorobot, if it occurs, will usher in the same kind of transition period, during which the meaning and future of nanotechnology will hang in the balance. Even in its infancy, in fact, the field has already sparked opposition, with left wing groups calling nanotechnology a symbol of scientific arrogance and the harbinger of a techno-dystopia.[55] If the visions of Eric Drexler ever begin to approach reality, it seems unlikely that everyone will go willingly into a future so utterly alien.

Nanotechnologists don’t fully comprehend this, for all their visionary qualities and creative thinking. To those who raise questions about rapid technological progress or make arguments about tampering with the basic conditions of nature, some nanotechnologists respond with an attitude that borders on contempt. There is nothing “natural” or fixed or inherent about anything in the human condition, fumes nanomedicine luminary Robert Freitas. Past technological advances, he points out, brought denunciations for tampering with the established order of nature or society but later became accepted and commonplace. Modern sterilization protocols and medical treatments often violate custom or tradition. They seem alien, impersonal, a violation of an eternal order sanctioned from above. These objections, Freitas argues, are rightfully forgotten when medicine improves the quality of life.[56] Sentimentalism properly gives way to progress, to human control of the forces that cause suffering and limit freedom. Nanotechnology would simply take this process to its inevitable conclusion, expanding human control of the environment “to the limits set by natural law,” as Drexler puts it. [57]

The nanotechnologists have logic on their side. The “naturalists” they criticize are on shaky intellectual ground when they try to define any given state of affairs as natural and inviolate. Why? Because drawing that line is always arbitrary. And because nanotechnology defenders are right to say that human beings have been manipulating nature for as long as humanity has existed. The science of evolutionary biology suggests that humans have an innate drive, imparted by the evolution of conscious thought, to alter their surroundings for their own ends. It’s supremely logical, then, to say that there’s nothing more “natural” than technology. Nano or otherwise.

But human beings don’t operate by logic alone. Evolution has also made them creatures of feeling and faith.[58] These capacities will shape the future of technology as well, no matter how intellectually impregnable the position of the nanotechnologists might seem. Even if their fantastic inventions ultimately prove unattainable, their ambitions will have an effect. Their program to initiate a post-human era on Earth will provoke resistance, and that resistance will draw on powers that might be greater than reason alone.

V. Implications

It’s possible that all the marvels and terrors discussed in this paper could turn out to be complete fantasy. There are no nanomachines yet. We don’t know how to make them. Maybe we never will. Even if we build them, maybe they’ll be much more limited in their abilities than the dreams of true believers imagine. There’s no shortage in history of visionary predictions and apocalyptic nightmares that never came true. Fusion power supporters have been promising cheap, clean, unlimited energy since the 1950s, and we’re still waiting. Artificial intelligence researchers of the Fifties thought we’d have thinking computers by the year 2000, but they exist only in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. We have yet to see not only the HAL 9000 but also moon colonies and regular commercial space flights. Jules Verne and other 19th century dreamers imagined a new millenium dominated by armadas of dirigibles. The list of failed predictions could go on and on.[59]

But for all the misses, we can build an equally long list of successful forecasts and of critics who prematurely dismissed technologies soon to change the world. Congressional hearings of the 1870s scoffed at the notion that electricity would power the nation’s economy. Let me get this straight, the politicians of yesteryear said, you want a network of giant towers crisscrossing the country, strung together by millions of miles of metal wire? It would bankrupt the whole country hundreds of times over to build any such thing.[60] As the Wright Brothers were flying primitive aircraft over Dayton, Ohio, earnest physicists intoned that the laws of nature wouldn’t permit any such contraption to carry more than one or two people.[61] Ever. HG Wells wrote quaint imaginary tales about absurdities like atomic bombs and land-roving metal war machines one day to be called “tanks.”[62] Bill Gates supposedly once said no one would ever need more than 640K of computer memory.[63]

So where does that leave us? Only with the seemingly unhelpful notion that predicting the future with precision is extremely hard. All we can do is try to get a sense of what is possible, of different paths that history might take, and then prepare as best we can. Birds showed that heavier than air flight is possible. Informed speculation about flight in the early twentieth century led to scenarios both ludicrous and prescient. Some people saw personal airplanes replacing trains and automobiles. They saw fleets of airplanes forming a new social caste of aerial scientists and warriors to keep order in the world. Others, more pragmatically, simply saw the birth of a new economic sector to provide a new kind of service to government, industry and consumers. It was these people who founded the companies that eventually evolved into TWA, United Airlines, Boeing, and McDonnell-Douglas.[64]

Nanotechnology in some form is possible. It seems safe to say that much, because nanotechnology already exists in nature in the form of genetics and molecular biology. Does this mean that the bizarre post-human world foreseen by Eric Drexler and company is possible? Drexler would argue that the answer is “yes.” Admittedly, nothing in his vision contradicts known physical laws. Thus, the strangeness of his predictions is not a valid argument against them. But no one knows how long it might take to solve the engineering problems encountered along the road to artificial intelligence, immortal superhumans, and hyper-productive molecular manufacturing. The Foresight Institute believes such changes will arrive in less than a hundred years, probably less than fifty. Maybe it will take centuries. All we know right now is that leading figures in the nanotechnology community believe a post-human world is possible, they are working systematically and deliberately to create one, and they enjoy increasing support from the most powerful institutions in society – governments, military establishments, universities, and global corporations.

Given this information, what does one do with it? How is it relevant today, for people working in technology-related fields or for anyone else? Naturally, we want precise, detailed, practical answers to these questions. We want to know what stocks to invest in, what papers to write, what projects to initiate in our work place, what budget priorities to reassess. The only way knowledge of the future can be useful, we assume, is if it puts us in a position to gain some sort of immediate advantage in our daily lives.

In the case of nanotechnology, providing that kind of knowledge is difficult. The first functioning nanomachine is probably between ten and twenty years away, maybe more. The first practical applications of that machine in medicine or industry might not materialize for decades after that. How can knowledge of the technology’s long range potential be immediately relevant, here and now? The honest answer is that it probably can’t. Maybe someone who reads about nanotechnology at a young age can change his or her educational plans so as to enter the field while it’s still young. Maybe scientists can change the focus of their research or look for different jobs. Maybe someone hearing about nanotechnology for the first time can choose to read different articles in the Wall Street Journal. In general, though, the average person trying to feed a family and get through the latest crisis at work isn’t likely to benefit right away from knowing that a bunch of people in labs are trying to build tiny robots that might one day take over the world.

Perhaps, though, knowledge of the nanotechnology agenda can be useful in a different way. Not all information needs to be precise and predictive to have value. Not all knowledge of possible futures needs to convey a distinct short-term advantage to be worth having. If we cannot gain from the nanotechnologists a definite picture of the one, true future , maybe we can better understand a more general issue – the values at stake in today's debate over what the human future should be.

Whether the nanotechnologists ever realize their wildest dreams or not, we know they will try. Their ambitions illustrate in a pure and vivid form the core values of science and the civilization it has built over the last 500 years. In the nanotechnology agenda we see at its most extreme the scientific imperative to explore and understand, to advance and change, to dominate and control.[65] The values behind the nanotechnology vision reflect the values of the scientific establishment that gave birth to it. We can be reasonably sure that the constellation of corporate, government, and academic interests supporting technological progress in general will continue to promote nanotechnology in particular. While the specifics are impossible to know, we can reasonably anticipate that this endeavor will continue to extend human influence over nature, push the boundaries of what it means to be human, and have consequences that no one imagined.

We can also reasonably expect that the advance of nanotechnology and the institutions driving it will meet resistance, because they already have. Whether that resistance will be effective is impossible to know. Perhaps not. Perhaps the global mega- machinery of science and economic globalization will overpower any opposition. Maybe they’ll simply leave opposition behind as an isolated, impotent relic. Or perhaps a powerful new revolutionary force will make war against twenty first century super-technology, just as Marxism rose to fight capitalism in the nineteenth century and hold sway over millions in the twentieth. If so, the first century of the third millenium will witness a great clash between two antagonistic views of the world and humanity. In this scenario, one ideology would favor the absolute primacy of super-science, the dominance of colossal institutions to sustain technology, and the pursuit of a post-human existence. The other would emphasize emotion and spirituality, the breaking apart of giant institutions, and the preservation of humanity in its age old form. Or perhaps history will dictate a coexistence between these two strains of thought rather than a conflict, in recognition that both stem from the mysterious thing called human nature.[66]

Today’s nanotechnology agenda, whatever else it may represent, offers a glimpse of what will likely be a defining issue of the twenty first century – the proper role between humans and their machines when technology promises unprecedented changes in the human condition. Every person who inhabits a technological society will face this question in one form or another. Maybe it will be on election day, choosing between candidates with different stances on a given technology. Maybe it will be in the choice of consumer goods – do I buy the latest wonder gizmo, or would my life be simpler and freer without it? Maybe it will be in matters of faith – should I defy the teachings of my religion if new reproductive medicine can give my children greater health and intelligence? Maybe it will be at work. If I’m a technology professional, does my work really make life better for myself and others? Can workers in general keep up with technology well enough to keep their jobs? Will the benefits of awesome new technologies flow equally to everyone in the economy?

The nanotechnology agenda offers one vision of how the future should be and the role technology should play. We can’t know for sure whether that future will happen, but we can make judgments about whether it should. We can decide to what extent we’re for or against the values that gave birth to it. We can propose different kinds of futures, based on different values and priorities. And we can act on our beliefs if we choose. For better or worse, what happens after that is something we can’t control and will know only if we live to see it.


[1]For an introduction to human evolution, see Richard Leakey, The Origin of Humankind (NewYork: BasicBooks, 1994). On the evolution of human consciousness, see Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).

[2]On the growth of technology, see David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (London: Cambridge University Press, 1969); R.A. Buchanan, The Power of the Machine: The Impact of Technology From 1700 to the Present (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

[3] A huge body of literature exists on forecasting in governmental or business settings. See, for example, Kenneth C. Land and David H. Sneider, eds., Forecasting in the Social and Natural Sciences (Dodrecht, The Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1987); George Wright and Peter Ayton, eds., Judgmental Forecasting (Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 1987); Michael Marien and Lane Jennings, eds., What I Have Learned: Thinking About the Future Then and Now (New York: Greenwood Press: 1987). On the art of scenario writing, see www.wired.com/wired/scenarios/build.html. For a list of organizations involved in the forecasting business, see www.coatesandjarret.com/resources.htm.

[4]See, for example, the forecasts in Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century (New York: Anchor Books, 1997).

[5]For a basic overview of the core concepts of nanotechnology, see nanotech.rutgers.edu/nanotech/FAQ.html.

[6]On the scale at which nanotechnology would operate, see B.C. Crandall, “Molecular Engineering,” in B.C. Crandall, ed., Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 2-6.

[7]For a description of basic nanomachines and how they would operate, see www.zyvex.com/nanotech/selfRepJBIS.html.

[8]Richard P. Feynman, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” Engineering and Science 23 (February 1960), 22. Reprinted in H.D. Gilbert, ed., Miniaturization (New York: Reinhold, 1961).

[9]K. Eric Drexler, “Molecular Engineering: An Approach to the Development of General Capabilities for Molecular Manipulation,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 78 (September 1981), 5275-5278.

[10]The Foresight Institute web site is at http://www.foresight.org/.

[11]For an entertaining layperson’s overview of these developments, see Ed Regis, Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1995).

[12]Good overviews of recent technical advances in nanotechnology can be found in regular reports from the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, a nanotechnology research foundation. See, for example, “IMM Report Number 14,” at www.imm.org/Reports/Rep014.html, “IMM Report Number 13,” at www.imm.org/Reports/Rep013.html, “IMM Report Number 11,” at www.imm.org/Reports/Rep011.html. See also the regular technical progress reports from the Foresight Institute, “News: Preparing for Nanotechnology,” at www.foresight.org/hotnews/index.html.

[13]The web site of the National Nanotechnology Initiative is at http://www.nano.gov/.

[14]Bill Joy, “Why The Future Doesn’t Needs Us,” Wired 8:4 (April 2000), 238-262. Online at www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html.

[15]On the timeframe for development of nanotechnology, see www.zyvex.com/nanotech/howlong.html.

[16]A general introduction to the history and basic principles of computer science is “Special Issue/1997: The Solid State Century,” Scientific American 8:1 (1997).

[17]On molecular computing, see Philip Ball, “It’s a Small, Kinky World,” Nature Science Update (Friday, 12 November 1999), online at helix.nature.com/nsu/991118/991118-1.html; Chappell Brown, “Chemical Researchers Design Molecular Comuter,” EETimes.com, (November 15, 1999), online at http://www.eet.com/story/OEG19991109S0036"; David Rotman, “Molecular Computing,” Technology Review 103 (May/June 2000), online at www.techreview.com/articles/may00/rotman.htm. For a skeptical view of this technology, see G. Paul Zachary, “Nano-hype,” Technology Review 103 (January/February 2000), 39, online at www.techreview.com/articles/jan00/zachary.htm.

[18]For a basic overview of nanomedicine, see Robert A. Freitas, Jr., “Nanomedicine FAQ,” at www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/NanomedFAQ.html. The most in depth technical treatment of the subject is Robert A. Freitas, Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities(Austin, TX: Landes Bioscience, 1999). For an idea of current nanomedicine research topics, see www.masimax.com/becon/index.html.

[19]See, for example, David Voss, “Nanomedicine Nears the Clinic,” Technology Review 103 (January/February 2000), 60-63. Online at www.techreview.com/articles/jan00/voss.html.

[20]On medical nanorobots as artery cleaners and artificial red blood cells, see Robert A. Freitas, Jr., “Nanomedicine FAQ,” www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/NanoMedFAQ.html.

[21]On nano-immune devices, see Ralph C. Merkle, “Nanotechnology and Medicine,” at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nanotech/AndMedicine.html.

[22]See K. Eric Drexler, Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution, Chapter 10, “Nanomedicine,” at www.foresight.org/UTF/Unbound_LBW/chapt_10.html; Mike Wisz, “Cell Repair,” at www.nanocentral.com/NanoWorld/NanoMedicine/MikeWisz/CellRepair.html.

[23]For a good summary of the molecular manufacturing concept, see Ralph C. Merkle, “Self-Replicating Systems and Molecular Manufacturing,” at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/selfRepJBIS.html.

[24]K. Eric Drexler, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992), 434.

[25]This illustration of molecular manufacturing appears in K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Chapter 4, “Engines of Abundance,” at www.foresight.org/EOC/EOC_Chapter_4.html.

[26]On the properties of objects produced by molecular manufacturing, see Harry Chesley, “Early Applications,” in B.C. Crandall, ed., Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 89-105.

[27]K. Eric Drexler, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992), 421-428.

[28]J. Storrs Hall, “Utility Fog: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made,” in B.C. Crandall, ed., Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 161-184.

[29]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Press, 1986), 94.

[30]Ibid., 120-123.

[31]K. Eric Drexler, “Molecular Manufacturing For Space Systems: An Overview,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 45 (1992), 401-405.

[32]Tihamer Togh-Fejel and Tom McKendree, “NSS Position Paper on Space and Molecular Nanotechnology,” for the Molecular Manufacturing Shortcut Group of the National Space Society, online at www.islandone.org/MMSG/NSSNanoPosition.html.

[33]On this point, see Ted Kaehler, “In Vivo Nanoscope and the Two Week Revolution,” in B.C. Crandall, ed., Nanotechnology: Molecular Speculations on Global Abundance (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 52-60.

[34]If we consider the problems that have beset the use of much-hyped but highly experimental gene therapy in human patients, for example, it seems plausible that nanomedicine will run into the same sorts of hurdles. See David Voss, “Nanomedicine Nears the Clinic,” Technology Review 103 (January/February 2000), 60-63. Online at www.techreview.com/articles/jan00/voss.html.

[35]On the sometimes acrimonious debate over nanotechnology’s long- range feasibility, see Ralph c. Merkle, “Nanocritics,” online at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nanocritics.html; “Foresight Debate With Scientific American,” online at www.islandone.org/Foresight/SciAmDebate/Round3.html; Corey S. Powell, “Molecular Machines,” online at www.sciam.com/exhibit/052796exhibit.html. On the engineering barriers to molecular manufacturing, see www.nanocentral.com/published/ostman/MidnightEngineering/goals/goals_me.html; Glenn MacDonald, “Let’s Get Small,” Business 2.0 (February 1, 1999), online at www.business2.com/content/magazine/vision/1999/02/01/13303.

[36]Drexler and Feynman have persuasively shown, for example, that quantum uncertainty and thermal vibration at the atomic level would not prevent the construction of molecular machines. See K. Eric Drexler, Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992), 23-248.

[37]On the relationship of molecular biology to nanotechnology, see ibid., 7-9, 445-448.

[38]The example of birds illustrating the feasibility of flight appears in Ralph C. Merkle, “Self replication and nanotechnology,” at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/selfRep.html.

[39]Ed Regis, Nano: The Emerging Science of Nanotechnology (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1995), 159-162.

.

[40]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Chapter 7, “Engines of Healing,” online at www.foresight.org/EOC/EOC_Chapter_7.html; Robert A. Freitas, Jr., “Nanomedicine FAQ,” online at www.foresight.org/Nanomedicine/NanoMedFAQ.html; Ralph C. Merkle, “Nanotechnology and Medicine,” online at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/nanotechAndMedicine.html.

[41]On longer lifespans via nanotechnology, see ibid.

[42]On nanotechnological enhancements of human capabilities, see ibid.

[43]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Chapter 7, “Engines of Abundance,” online at www.foresight.org/EOC/EOC_Chapter_4.html; Ralph Merkle, “Self-replicating systems and low-cost manufacturing,” online at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/selfRepNATO.html.

[44]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, Chapter 15, “Worlds Enough, and Time,” online at www.foresight.org/EOC/EOC_Chapter_15.html. See also Ralph C. Merkle, text of prepared remarks at Stanford University symposium, Will Spiritual Robots Replace Humanity by 2100? April 1, 2000, online at www.zyvex.com/nanotech/talks/stanford000401.html. The nanotech vision of the future described here is not confined to Drexler, Freitas, and Merkle. Nanotech activists in general support long-range goals like the end of aging, perpetually healthy enhanced humans, superhuman AI, vast material abundance, and massive space colonization. See, for example, www.foresight.org/SrAssoc/spring2000/topics.html.

[45]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), 171-190; Bill Joy, "Why The Future Doesn't Needs Us," Wired 8:4 (April 2000), 238-262. Online at www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html. Leading nanotechnologists believe the destructive potential of nanoweapons, while awesome in principle, is not unlimited. See Robert A. Freitas, Jr., “Some Limits to Global Ecophagy by Biovorous Nanoreplicators, with Public Policy Recommendations,” online at www.foresight.org/NanoRev/Ecophagy.html.

[46]On the prospects for true artificial intelligence, see K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), 64-82; Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spirtual Machines (New York: Viking, 1999).

[47]“Foresight Guidelines on Molecular Nanotechnology,” online at www.foresight.org/guidelines/current.html.

[48]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), 187-189.

[49]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), 180-181. For further comments by a nanotechnology advocate on human control of prospective superhuman AI, see hanson.gmu.edu/vc.html#hanson.

[50]Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House), 1995; Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Preoccupations of Our Time (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997).

[51]See, for example, Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion (Tulsa, OK: Council Oak Books, 1993); Alan Durning, How Much is Enough? The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).

[52]Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (New York: J.P. Tarcher, 1998).

[53]For a sample of the thinking motivating many such dissidets, see Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, eds., The Case Against the Global Economy, and For a Turn Toward the Local (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996).

[54]Such warnings against the transgression of limits set by nature are developed at length in David C. Korten, The Post-Corporate World: Life After Capitalism (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers and West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1999.

[55]See the website of the Turning Point Project at http://www.turnpoint.org/. Nanotechnology is mentioned in the section entitled “Techno-Utopianism.” See also Katherine Mieszkowski, “Techno-dystopia,” Salon.com (September 20, 2000), at www.salon.com/tech/feature/2000/09/20/technoutopia/index.html.

[56]Robert A. Freitas, Jr., Nanomedicine Volume I: Basic Capabilities,(Austin, TX: Landes Bioscience, 1999), 35-37.

[57]K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (New York: Anchor Books, 1986), 81.

[58]Pascal Boyer, The Naturalness of Religious Ideas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Michael Shermer, How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 2000).

[59]On the difficulties encountered by would-be forecasters throughout history, see I.F. Clarke, The Pattern of Expectation, 1644-2001 (London: Cape, 1979).

[60]On the early history of the electric power industry, see Thomas Parke Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983).

[61]The most prominent critic of the “aeroplane’s” practical applications in the early 20th century was a physicist named Simon Newcomb. See, for example, his article, “The Prospect of Aerial Navigation,” North American Review 187 (March 1908), 337-347.

[62]Brian W. Aldiss, Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (New York: Avon Books, 1986).

[63]This alleged quote from Gates is widely and gleefully repeated in computing publications. See, for example, Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines (New York: Viking, 1999), 170.

[64]On early speculations over the future uses of aircraft, see Roger E. Bilstein, Flight in America: From the Wrights to the Astronauts, revised edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).

[65]The classic work on the history and philosophy of science is Thomas H. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Kuhn portrayed science not simply as a process of intellectual inquiry building models of natural phenomena but as a social institution driven by the subjective value systems of its members.

[66]For a sense of what an ideological war between defenders and critics of technological progress might be like, see Virginia I. Postrel, The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (New York: Free Press, 1998).