Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology


(Chapter 15)

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.



I HAVE DESCRIBED how advances in chemistry and biotechnology will lead to assemblers, which will bring nanocomputers, replicators, and cell repair machines. I have described how advances in software will lead to automated engineering and artificial intelligence. Together, these advances will make possible a future rich in possibilities, one of which is our own destruction. If we use fact forums and hypertext to strengthen our foresight, we may nonetheless avoid annihilation and move forward - but toward what?

Toward a worldwide transformation which can, if we succeed, bring abundance and long life to all who wish them. And this is a prospect that quite naturally stirs dreams of utopia.

A standard-issue utopia, as everyone knows, would be static, boring, and dreadful - in fact, it would be no utopia at all. Yet again and again utopian dreams have changed history, whether for good or ill. Dangerous dreams have led people to kill in the name of love, and to enslave in the name of brotherhood. All too often the dream has been impossible and the attempt to achieve it has been disastrous.

We need useful dreams to guide our actions. A useful dream must show us a possible, desirable goal, and steps toward that goal must bring positive results. To help us cooperate in guiding the technology race, we will need goals that appeal to people with differing dreams - but what goals could serve? It seems that they must hold room for diversity. Likewise, what goals chosen today, so near the dawn of intelligence, could prove worthy of the future's potential? It seems that they must hold room for progress.

Only one sort of future seems broad enough to have broad appeal: an open future of liberty, diversity, and peace. With room for the pursuit of many different dreams, an open future will appeal to many different people. Grander schemes, such as establishing a uniform world order, seem more dangerous. If "one world, or none" means imposing a single social system on a world of hostile nuclear powers, then it seems a recipe for disaster. "Many worlds, or none" seems our real choice, if we can develop active shields to secure peace.

We may be able to do so. Using automated engineering systems of the sort described in Chapter 5, we will be able to explore the limits of the possible at a million times human speed. We will thus be able to outline the ultimate limits to the technology race, including the arms race. With shields based on that knowledge, it seems that we would be able to secure a stable, durable peace.

Advancing technology need not push the world into any single mold. Many people once feared that ever larger machines and ever larger organizations would dominate our future, crushing diversity and human choice. Indeed, machines can grow bigger, and some may. Organizations can grow bigger, and some may. But stinking, clanking machines and huge bureaucracies have already begun to seem old-fashioned compared to microcircuits, biotechnology, and fluid organizations.

We now can see the outlines of a higher technology on a human scale, of a world with machines that don't clank, chemical plants that don't stink, and production systems that don't use people as cogs. Nanotechnology shows that advances can bring a different style of technology. Assemblers and AI will let us create complex products without complex organizations. Active shields will let us secure peace without a massive military-industrial complex. These technologies will broaden our choices by loosening our constraints, making room for greater diversity and independence. Establishing an era of universal wealth will require only that the vast, unclaimed resources of space someday be divided in a way that gives everyone a significant share.

In the next few sections, I will survey some extreme possibilities that new resources and new engines of creation will open for us - extremes that range from science-fiction to stone-age ways of life. Think of these extremes as intense primary colors, then mix your own palette to paint a future you like.

Nanotechnology and Daily Life

Advancing technology may end or extend life, but it can also change its quality. Products based on nanotechnology will permeate the daily lives of people who choose to use them. Some consequences will be trivial; others may be profound.

Some products will have effects as ordinary as simplifying housekeeping (and as substantial as reducing the causes of domestic quarrels). It should be no great trick, for example, to make everything from dishes to carpets self-cleaning, and household air permanently fresh. For properly designed nanomachines, dirt would be food.

Other systems based on nanotechnology could produce fresh food - genuine meat, grain, vegetables, and so forth - in the home, year round. These foods result from cells growing in certain patterns in plants and animals; cells can be coaxed to grow in these same patterns elsewhere. Home food growers will let people eat ordinary diets without killing anything. The animal rights movement (the forerunner of a movement to protect all conscious, feeling entities?) will be strengthened accordingly.

Nanotechnology will make possible high-resolution screens that project different images to each eye; the result will be three-dimensional television so real that the screen seems like a window into another world. Screens of this sort could line the helmet of a suit much like the spacesuit described in Chapter 6. The suit itself, rather than being programmed to transmit forces and textures from outside, could instead apply to the skin forces and textures defined by a complex, interactive program. A suit and helmet combination of this sort could simulate most of the sights and sensations of an entire environment, whether real or imaginary. Nanotechnology will make possible vivid art forms and fantasy worlds far more absorbing than any book, game, or movie.

Advanced technologies will make possible a whole world of products that make modern conveniences seem inconvenient and dangerous. Why shouldn't objects be light, flexible, durable, and cooperative? Why shouldn't walls look like whatever we want, and transmit only the sounds we want to hear? And why should buildings and cars ever crush or roast their occupants? For those who wish, the environment of daily life can resemble some of the wilder descriptions found in science fiction.

Other Science Fiction Dreams

Toward many extremes lie science fiction dreams, for those who want to live them. They range from homes that cooperate with us for our comfort to opportunities for toil on distant planets. Science fiction authors have imagined many things, some possible and others in flat contradiction to known natural law. Some dreamed of spaceflight, and spaceflight came. Some dreamed of robots, and robots came. Some dreamed of cheap spaceflight and intelligent robots, and these too are coming. Other dreams seem possible.

Authors have written of the direct sharing of thoughts and emotions from mind to mind. Nanotechnology seems likely to make possible some form of this by linking neural structures via transducers and electromagnetic signals. Though limited to the speed of light, this sort of telepathy seems as possible as telephony.

Starships, space settlements, and intelligent machines will all become possible. All this lies outside the skin, yet authors have written also of transformations within the skin; these, too, will become possible. Becoming completely healthy in body and brain is one form of change, yet some people will want more. They will seek changes on a level deeper than mere health and wealth. Some will seek fulfillment in the world of the spirit; though that quest lies beyond the scope of crude material technology, new physical possibilities will provide new starting points and time enough to try. The technology underlying cell repair systems will allow people to change their bodies in ways that range from the trivial to the amazing to the bizarre. Such changes have few obvious limits. Some people may shed human form as a caterpillar transforms itself to take to the air; others may bring plain humanity to a new perfection. Some people will simply cure their warts, ignore the new butterflies, and go fishing.

Authors have dreamed of time travel into the past, but nature seems uncooperative. Yet biostasis opens travel into the future, since it can make years pass in an eye blink. The jaded may seek the novelties of a more distant future, perhaps awaiting slowly maturing developments in the arts or society, or the mapping of the worlds of the galaxy. If so, they will choose sleep, passing from age to age in search of a time that suits them.

Strange futures lie open, holding worlds beyond our imagining.

Advanced Simplicity

E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, wrote: "I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and therefore small is beautiful." Schumacher was not writing of nanotechnology, but could such an advanced technology be part of a simpler life on a human scale?

In prehistoric times, people used two sorts of materials: the products of natural bulk processes (such as stone, water, air, and clay) and the products of natural molecular machinery (such as bone, wood, hide, and wool). Today we use these same materials and complex bulk processes to make the products of our global industrial civilization. If technological systems have grown past human scale, our bulk technology and stupid machines are largely to blame: to make systems complex, we have had to make them big. To make them capable, we have had to fill them with people. The resulting system now sprawls across continents, entangling people in a global web. It has offered escape from the toil of subsistence farming, lengthening lives and bringing wealth, but at a cost that some consider too high.

Nanotechnology will open new choices. Self-replicating systems will be able to provide food, health care, shelter, and other necessities. They will accomplish this without bureaucracies or large factories. Small, self-sufficient communities can reap the benefits.

One test of the freedom a technology offers is whether it frees people to return to primitive ways of life. Modern technology fails this test; molecular technology succeeds. As a test case, imagine returning to a stone-age style of life - not by simply ignoring molecular technology, but while using it.

Stone-age villagers lacking modern education wouldn't understand molecular machinery, but this matters little. Since ancient times, villagers have used the molecular machinery of yeast, seeds, and goats without molecular-level understanding. If such complex and unruly things as goats suit primitive ways of life, then other forms of molecular machinery will surely qualify. Living things show that the machinery inside a self-replicating system can be ignored in a way that the machinery inside an automobile cannot. Thus a group could raise novel "plants" and "animals" to ease the harsh edges of existence, and yet live a basically stone-age life. They could even limit themselves to ordinary plants and animals, engineered only by millennia of selective breeding.

With possibilities so broad, some people may even choose to live as we do today: with traffic noise, smells, and danger; with pitted teeth and whining drills; with aching joints and sagging skin; with joys off-set by fear, toil, and approaching death. But unless they were brainwashed to obliterate their knowledge of better choices, how many people would willingly resign themselves to such lives? Perhaps a few.

Can one imagine living an ordinary life in a space settlement? A settlement would be large, complex, and located in space - but the Earth is also large, complex, and located in space. Worlds in space could be as self-maintaining as the Earth and as big as a continent, flooded with sunlight, filled with air, and holding a biocylinder if not a biosphere.

Worlds in space need not be products of direct human design. Underlying much of the beauty of nature is a certain kind of disorderly order. The veins on a leaf, the branches on a tree, the landforms in a watershed - all these have a freedom of form within patterns that resemble what mathematicians call "fractals." Lands in space need not be modeled on golf courses and suburban lots. Some will be shaped with the aid of computers programmed to reflect a deep knowledge of natural processes, melding human purpose with a natural quality that no human mind and hand can directly produce. Mountains and valleys in lands much like wilderness will mirror the shapes of dream-rock and dream-soil, sculpted by dream-ages of electronic water. Worlds in space will be worlds.

Room Enough for Dreams

This, then, is the size of the future's promise. Though limits to growth will remain, we will be able to harvest solar power a trillion times greater than all the power now put to human use. From the resources of our solar system, we will be able to create land area a million times that of Earth. With assemblers, automated engineering, and the resources of space we can rapidly gain wealth of a quantity and quality beyond past dreams. Ultimate limits to lifespan will remain, but cell repair technology will make perfect health and indefinitely long lives possible for everyone. These advances will bring new engines of destruction, but they will also make possible active shields and arms control systems able to stabilize peace.

In short, we have a chance at a future with room enough for many worlds and many choices, and with time enough to explore them. A tamed technology can stretch our limits, making the shape of technology pinch the shape of humanity less. In an open future of wealth, room, and diversity, groups will be free to form almost any society they wish, free to fail or set a shining example for the world. Unless your dreams demand that you dominate everyone else, chances are that other people will wish to share them. If so, then you and those others may choose to get together to shape a new world. If a promising start fails - if it solves too many problems or too few-then you will be able to try again. Our problem today is not to plan or build utopias but to seek a chance to try.


We may fail. Replicating assemblers and AI will bring problems of unprecedented complexity, and they threaten to arrive with unprecedented abruptness. We cannot wait for a fatal error and then decide what to do about it; we must use these new technologies to build active shields before the threats are loosed.

Fortunately for our chances, the approaching breakthroughs will become steadily more obvious. They will eventually seize public attention, guaranteeing at least a measure of foresight. But the earlier we start planning, the better our chances. The world will soon become hospitable to memes that purport to describe sound policy for the assembler and AI breakthroughs. Such memes will then spread and become entrenched, whether they deserve to be or not. Our chances will be better if, when that time comes, a sound set of ideas has been hammered out and has begun to spread - public opinion and public policy will then be more likely to jump in a sensible direction when the crisis nears. This situation makes careful discussion and public education important right now. Guiding technology will also require new institutions, and institutions do not evolve overnight. This makes work on hypertext and fact forums important right now. If they are ready to use, then they too will grow more popular as the crisis nears.

Despite the broad appeal of an open future, some people will oppose it. The power-hungry, the intolerant idealists, and a handful of sheer people-haters will find the prospect of freedom and diversity repugnant. The question is, will they shape public policy? Governments will inevitably subsidize, delay, classify, manage, bungle, or guide the coming breakthroughs. The cooperating democracies may make a fatal error, but if they do, it will likely be the result of public confusion about which policies will have which consequences.

There will be genuine opposition to an open future, based on differing (and often unstated) values and goals, but there will be far greater disagreements over specific proposals, based on differing beliefs regarding matters of fact. And though many disagreements will stem from differences of judgment, many will inevitably stem from simple ignorance. Even solid, well-established facts will at first remain little known.

Worse, the prospect of technologies as fundamental as assemblers, AI, and cell repair machines must inevitably upset many old, entrenched ideas at once. This will cause conflicts in people's minds (I know; I've experienced some of them). In some minds, these conflicts will trigger the reject-the-new reflex that serves as humankind's most basic mental immune system. This reflex will make ignorance tenacious.

Worse yet, the spread of half-truths will also cause harm. To function properly, some memes must be linked to others. If the idea of nanotechnology were free from the idea of its danger, then nanotechnology would be a greater danger than it already is. But in a world grown wary of technology, this threat seems slight. Yet other idea fragments will spread, sowing misunderstanding and conflict.

The fact forum idea, when discussed without the distinctions among facts, values, and policies, will sound technocratic. Active shields, when proposed without mention of hypertext or fact forums, may seem impossible to trust. The danger and inevitability of nanotechnology, to those ignorant of active shields, will bring despair. The danger of nanotechnology, when its inevitability is not understood, will spur futile local efforts to stop its global advance. Active shields, when not motivated by the eventual requirements for controlling molecular technology, will strike some people as too much trouble. When called "defense projects," without distinction between defense and offense, shields will strike some people as threats to peace.

Likewise the idea of long life, when unaccompanied by the expectation of abundance and new frontiers, will seem perverse. Abundance, when imagined without space development or controlled replicators, will sound environmentally damaging. The idea of biostasis, to those who know nothing about cell repair and confuse expiration with dissolution, will sound absurd.

Unless they are held together by book covers or hypertext links, ideas will tend to split up as they travel. We need to develop and spread an understanding of the future as a whole, as a system of interlocking dangers and opportunities. This calls for the effort of many minds. The incentive to study and spread the needed information will be strong enough: the issues are fascinating and important, and many people will want their friends, families, and colleagues to join in considering what lies ahead. If we push in the right directions - learning, teaching, arguing, shifting directions, and pushing further - then we may yet steer the technology race toward a future with room enough for our dreams.

Eons of evolution and millennia of history have prepared this challenge and quietly presented it to our generation. The coming years will bring the greatest turning point in the history of life on Earth. To guide life and civilization through this transition is the great task of our time.

If we succeed (and if you survive) then you may be honored with endless questions from pesky great-grandchildren: "What was it like when you were a kid, back before the Breakthrough?" and "What was it like growing old?" and "What did you think when you heard the Breakthrough was coming?" and "What did you do then?" By your answers you will tell once more the tale of how the future was won.

© Copyright 1986, K. Eric Drexler, all rights reserved.
Original web version prepared and links added by Russell Whitaker.