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Nanotechnology has been a familiar concept to Analog readers for about a decade now. K. Eric Drexler's book Engines of Creation was published in 1986. In case you didn't find it on your own, I called your attention to it in my November 1987 editorial, "Great Oaks from Little Atoms." The basic idea, that molecular-scale robots called "assemblers" might be able to build virtually anything that can exist, atom by atom, is so full of potential consequences for humanity's future that many science fiction writers have been quick to seize on exploring them.
A few recognizably nanotech-based stories, such as Greg Bear's "Blood Music," appeared even earlier, but in the last decade nanotechnology has become as pervasive a theme of science fiction as space travel or robots. The ramifications authors have explored span a spectrum from Kevin J. Anderson and Doug Beason's ominous Assemblers of Infinity, to Michael F. Flynn's whimsical "Soul of the City," to Marc Stiegler's expansively hopeful "The Gentle Seduction."
Which pretty well reflects the real range of promise and threat if the potentials of nanotechnology are as Drexler envisions them--and if real scientists and engineers achieve them.
So what's been happening in the real world?
Well, you might try to find out from Gary Stix's article "Waiting for Breakthroughs" in the April 1996 Scientific American--but, in my opinion, that would be a mistake. It pains me to have to say so, because I have long thought of Scientific American as a good layman's source of fairly in-depth information about what's going on in many fields of research, but this article seems to me to contain far too much opinion presented as factual reporting--and ultimately to give an impression that may be dangerously wrong.
On the face of it, the article is a factual account of the 1995 Foresight Conference in Palo Alto. The Foresight Institute is an organization established by Drexler and colleagues to promote the study of nanotechnology and its implications, and ways we might best prepare to take advantage of its potential benefits while avoiding its pitfalls. That's a kind of "foresight" we will very much need if those potentials develop as they might, and as fast as they might. The Institute has been hosting annual conferences at which scientists and engineers working in fields laying the groundwork for nanotechnology talk about their findings.
One might expect that a Scientific American report on such a conference would focus on the scientific and technological content of those presentations. Thus it was a bit jarring to find it opening by quoting a dentist pointing at Drexler and saying, "That's the messiah." Unfortunately, that pretty much sets the tone for the whole piece. Yes, it does occasionally quote some of the speakers at the conference--but the quotes are brief and less often about the substance of their work than about their philosophical disagreements with Eric Drexler.
Stix's bias is quite clear in both his selection of quotes and his personal comments. He seems to be trying his best to make Drexler look like a wild visionary whose "fanciful scenarios" far exceed anything that will actually happen, and strongly (but without supporting data) suggests that more reputable scientists and technologists agree with him than with Drexler. Heavily stressing the difficulties of detail being encountered by experimentalists, he largely ignores the significance of the fact that many of them thought enough of the subject to do the work and to go to this conference. He concludes by comparing aspirations toward general assemblers to what Richard P. Feynman called "cargo cult science."
Needless to say, folks at the Foresight Institute were not amused. They published a brief critique, in my opinion right on target, in Foresight Update No. 24--mentioning, among other things, that Feynman's son, Carl Feynman, "has written a letter to Scientific American objecting to their misuse of his father's essay." They have also posted an in-depth rebuttal by Ralph Merkle on the World Wide Web at http://www.foresight.org/SciAmResponse.html (though of course I can't be sure whether it will still be there by the time you read this).
Disturbing as some of us find the nature and tone of the Scientific American piece, that is not my main concern at the moment. What I want to comment on is the kind of controversy that exists about the extent to which nanotechnology is achievable. Controversy does exist, of course; Stix at least got that right, even though I am unconvinced by his portrayal of its nature and extent. Such controversy always exists in a radically new field of study.
And there are always difficulties with the details. Stix says, "What inspires actual researchers at the nanoscale is infinitely more mundane than molecular robots--but also more pragmatic." Skipping over the misuse of the term "actual researchers" (if it really only meant lab types, we'd have to exclude a lot of exceedingly important researchers, such as Einstein and Fermi), I'll say only, "Of course it is." This field is very new and, as the old saw says, you have to walk before you can run.
The fact that researchers are having trouble doing much simpler things than Drexler's long-term vision of a radically transformed future in no way proves that vision invalid. It may simply mean that we're not yet ready for any but the simplest parts of it--and that, for reasons that Drexler spelled out quite clearly in Engines of Creation, could easily change much faster than the workers in any one field might expect. (It could, of course, conceivably turn out that there are obstacles that can't be overcome--but that has by no means been proved so far.)
It's hardly surprising that the people doing the hands-on work on a frontier are likely to be much more conscious of the immediate difficulties than the long-term possibilities. I seriously doubt that many early American frontiersmen and women were thinking about anything resembling modern American civilization, with its interstates, internet, and jet airplanes. They were much too busy trying to survive in a wilderness. But each generation made a little advance here and a little advance there, and since each could build on the gains of its predecessors, the process moved faster and faster. So, hard as our great-great-grandparents might have found it to imagine, we did get where we are now--and we haven't stopped.
Scientific research is not exactly like settling a physical frontier, of course, any more than settling one frontier is exactly like settling any other. But there are similarities. The people who made the first vacuum tubes, early in this century, had plenty of trouble just getting them to work in quite simple circuits, and felt justifiable pride whenever they found a way to make them work a little better. At each stage, an experimenter with an idea might see one improvement he could reasonably aspire to making with the time and resources he had available. If you had described to him the tiny, powerful, ubiquitous computers of the late twentieth century, or the huge, sophisticated communications networks of the same period, he probably would have found it hard to believe you were serious. If you were his boss and told him he had to build one of those computers, he would have had little choice but to give up in despair. He would have had no idea how to do it, and no reasonable chance of learning. But he could take small steps on which others could build, and still others could build on those, and in mere decades those computers and networks were not only real, but taken for granted by millions of people.
Similarly, I doubt that the Wright brothers or many of their contemporaries imagined just how far their pioneering steps in aviation might lead. If you had described the Concorde supersonic transport and told Orville and Wilbur to build one, they probably would have told you it was impossible. It was--for them. But it was--eventually--quite reasonable for the industry that grew from the seed they planted.
And such things grow much faster now than they used to, because of the number of people working in fields that can help each other synergistically, and because of the enormously increased ease and speed with which those people can now talk to each other.
Gary Stix is undoubtedly right that there are some experimenters working on embryonic nanotech projects who have trouble imagining that the field will ever progress to anything like the state Drexler and Merkle describe. But I have a strong hunch--though of course I can't prove it--that they are modern-day counterparts of turn-of-the-century bicycle repairmen trying to build the first crude flying machines. Unlike those bicycle repairmen, somebody has described to them in considerable detail what an SST can be--and they find it hard to believe.
But they're still taking those first halting steps--and some of them do understand that what eventually develops may go far beyond what they can presently imagine in detail.
Somebody once said something like, "If an old, respected scientist tells you something is possible, he's almost certainly right. But if an old, respected scientist tells you something is impossible, he's very likely wrong." History is full of highly regarded scientists either saying that such things as airplanes, spaceships, telephones, and home computers either were impossible, or that they would have no commercial importance.
[Editor's note: For examples, see the collection of erroneous predictions taken from a Congressional Research Report.]
Surely that's something to bear in mind in listening to debates about how far nanotechnology can go. Let's just hope that everybody doesn't get so discouraged by the immediate difficulties at each early step that they give up on the ultimate goal.
And let's hope that the Foresight Institute keeps trying to look ahead at what this stuff can do for and to us--and what we can do about it. We just may need that knowledge a lot sooner than some of us think.
Copyright © 1996 by Dell Magazines, a division of Crosstown Publications. Used by permission of the author and his agents, Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency, Inc., New York, New York. Not to be reproduced or redistributed without permission of the author.