The End of Technology As We Know It

Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution by K. Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1993.
Review by Christopher Hunt

Nanotechnology -- or molecular manufacturing -- is fast emerging as tomorrow's technology of choice. Already targeted by Japan's all-powerful Ministry of Industry and Trade as a key area for industrial research, considered inevitable by Scientific American, and the foundation of Neal Stephenson's novel, Diamond Age, nanotechnology promises to be not only the most revolutionary development of our time, but the most revolutionary development in the history of the human race.

That's a big promise. And one that doesn't mean a lot any more. It's a promise advertisers make to us every day. We hear it every time a new video format, computer chip, or wrinkle cream is introduced. We've lived through the Digital Revolution, the Computer Revolution, the Information Revolution, the Communications Revolution, and the Video Revolution. And what about all those other earth-shaking technologies we've been promised? Like genetic engineering, biotechnogy, artificial intelligence...

Nanotechnology is different. It's different because it challenges every one of the assumptions on which we base our lives. It's different because its underlying premise is the exact opposite of any other technology ever developed. In the words of Stewart Brand, nanotechnology "is a set of technologies so fundamental as to amount to a whole new domain of back-to-basics." Nanotechnology is different. It's revolutionary. And it's on its way. Theoretician and author of Engines of Creation -- the first definitive work on nanotech, K. Eric Drexler is nanotech's leading prophet and spokesman. Convinced that nanotechnology will be part of our future, Drexler wants us all to know about it, to understand it, and to start thinking about how we're going to deal with it. To that end, he has written (together with Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit) Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution, a layman's guide to the theory and practice of nanotechnology. In it he explains what nanotechnology is, how it will work, and outlines several scenarios to illustrate the potential -- both good and bad -- of this revolutionary technology.

So what is nanotechnology? Many mistakenly assume that nanotechnology is simply the ultimate in miniaturization. This is incorrect. Although miniaturization technology has been advancing at a rapid pace over the past few decades and will continue to advance for some time to come, there are limits on just how small we can make things. Nanotechnology is not about making big things smaller, it is about making small things bigger. Rather than taking something from nature and cutting, grinding, and shaping it into a form we consider useful, nanotechnology will use molecular machines to process atoms such as carbon (of which our atmosphere has a plentiful supply) into molecular building blocks. These in turn will be used to generate everything from computers and high-speed trains to houses and clothing. The manufacturing process will be virtually invisible. Products will literally grow before our eyes.

Nanotechnlogy promises to be clean, efficient, and infinitely flexible. Ultimately, Drexler predicts, it should also be cheap. Cheap enough to feed, clothe, and house every one of the billions of people inhabiting our planet. Cheap enough to end the cycle of dependence in the Third World. And cheap enough to make inter-planetary -- even interstellar -- travel a practical reality.

It all sounds too good to be true. Just one more technology fix that's bound to create more problems than it solves. Drexler addresses this concern directly, arguing that because nanotechnology is so fundamentally different from existing technology the old assumptions no longer apply. According to Drexler our present "industrial system won't be fixed, it will be junked and recycled." He offers tantalizing scenarios that illustrate how nanotechnology can quickly and efficiently clean up the environment, provide us all with pocket supercomputers, cure incurable diseases, extend the human life span, and restore lost species. He also warns us of nanotechnology's darker side -- a dangerous and unstable arms race, killer nanomites loosed on society by terrorists, deadly accidents. This is a technology far more powerful than nuclear technology and potentially far more dangerous. Which is exactly why Drexler wants us all to know about it now and to start planning for its arrival.

When can we expect nanotechnology? Within our lifetimes. We may not see all the extraordinary benefits Drexler anticipates, but we will see their beginnings. In fact, Drexler is being deliberately conservative. Given the pace of technological development today, the geometric rate of change that has become a permanent fixture of contemporary society, it is likely that things will move very quickly indeed once the initial breakthrough has been made.

That that breakthrough will be made seems certain. Without burdening the reader with jargon or technical terms, Drexler clearly explains the principles of nanotechnology, shows us exactly how it will work, and describes the process of molecular construction. He shows us where we are today and what needs to be accomplished. And he makes it very clear that everything is in place -- "the science is good, the engineering feasible".

If nanotechnology is all it's cracked up to be, its potential is awesome and its philosophical implications immeasurable. More than simply re-making or re-fashioning nature, nanotechnology will give us the power to reproduce it. Not surprisingly, Drexler skirts these issues, leaving it for others to explore the full ramifications of nanotechnology's profound capablities. And explore them we must. Because it is only a matter of time.

For more information on this book and the latest developments in nanotechnology, contact the The Foresight Institute.


Copyright Circuit Traces Communications 1995