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«Unbounding the Future: the Nanotechnology Revolution Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson, with Gayle Pergamit William Morrow and Company, Inc. New York ...»

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Unbounding the Future:

the Nanotechnology Revolution

Eric Drexler and Chris Peterson, with Gayle Pergamit

William Morrow and Company, Inc.

New York

© 1991 by K. Eric Drexler, Chris Peterson, and Gayle Pergamit. All rights reserved.


by Stewart Brand

Nanotechnology. The science is good, the engineering is feasible, the paths of approach are

many, the consequences are revolutionary-times-revolutionary, and the schedule is: in our lifetimes.

But what?

No one knows but what. That's why a book like this is crucial before molecular engineering and the routine transformation of matter arrives. The technology will arrive piecemeal and prominently but the consequences will arrive at a larger scale and often invisibly.

Perspective from within a bursting revolution is always a problem because the long view is obscured by compelling immediacies and the sudden traffic of people new to the subject, some seizing opportunity, some viewing with alarm. Both optimists and pessimists about new technologies are notorious for their tunnel vision.

The temptation always is to focus on a single point of departure or a single feared or desired goal.

Sample point of departure: What if we can make anything out of diamond? Sample feared/desired goal:

What if molecular-scale medicine lets people live for centuries?

We're not accustomed to asking, What would a world be like where many such things are occurring? Nor do we ask, What should such a world be like?

The first word that comes to mind is careful. The second is carnival. Nanotechnology breakthroughs are likely to be self-accelerating and self-proliferating, much as information technology advances have been for the past several decades (and will continue to be, especially as nanotech kicks in). We could get a seething texture of constant innovation and surprise, with desired results and unexpected side-effects colliding in all directions.

How do you have a careful carnival? Unbounding the Future spells out some of the answer.

I've been watching the development of Eric Drexler's ideas since 1975, when he was an MIT undergraduate working on space technologies (space settlements, mass drivers, and solar sailing).

Where I was watching from was the "back-to-basics" world of the Whole Earth Catalog publications, which I edited at the time. In that enclave of environmentalists and world-savers one of our dirty words was technofix. A technofix was deemed always bad because it was a shortcut–an overly focused directing of high tech at a problem with no concern for new and possibly worse problems that the solution might create.

But some technofixes, we began to notice, had the property of changing human perspective in a healthy way. Personal computers empowered individuals and took away centralized control of communication technology. Space satellites–at first rejected by environmentalists–proved to be invaluable environmental surveillance tools, and their images of Earth from space became an engine of the ecology movement.

I think nanotechnology also is a perspective shifter. It is a set of technologies so fundamental as to amount to a whole new domain of back to basics. We must rethink the uses of materials and tools in our lives and civilizations.

Eric showed himself able to think on that scale with his 1986 book, Engines of Creation. In it he proposed that the potential chaos and hazard of nanotech revolutions required serious anticipatory debate, and for an initial forum he and his wife Chris Peterson set up the Foresight Institute. I wrote to Foresight for literature and soon found myself on its board of advisers.

From that vantage point I watched the growing technical challenges to the plausibility of nanotechnology (I also encouraged a few) as people began to take the prospects seriously. The easy challenges were refuted politely. The hard ones changed and improved the body of ideas. None shot it down. Yet.

I also watched the increasing reports from the various technical disciplines of research clearly headed toward nanotech capabilities, mostly by people who had no awareness of each other. I urged Eric and Chris to assemble them at a conference. The First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology took place in 1989 at Stanford University with a good mix of technical and cultural issues addressed.

That convergence quickened the pace of anticipation and research. This book now takes an admirable next step.

As I've learned from the Global Business Network, where I work part-time helping multinational corporations think about their future, all futurists soon discover that correct prediction is impossible.

And forcing the future in a desired direction is also impossible. What does that leave forethought to do?

One of the most valuable tools has proved to be what is called scenario planning in which dramatic, divergent stories of relevant futures are spun out. Divergent strategies to handle them are proposed, and the scenarios and strategies are played against each other until the scenarios are coherent, plausible, surprising, insightful, and checkable against real events as they unfold. "Robust" (adaptable) strategies are supposed to emerge from the process.

This book delivers a rich array of micro-scenarios of nanotechnology at work, some thrilling, some terrifying, all compelling. Probably none represent exactly what will happen, but in aggregate they give a deep sense of the kind of thing that will happen. Strategies of how to stay ahead of the process are proposed, but the ultimate responsibility for the wholesome use and development of nanotechnology falls on every person aware of it. That now includes you.

–Stewart Brand Preface Antibiotics, aircraft, satellites, nuclear weapons, television, mass production, computers, a global petroleum economy–all the familiar revolutions of twentieth-century technology, with their growing consequences for human life and the Earth itself, have emerged within living memory. These revolutions have been enormous, yet the next few decades promise far more. The new prospects aren't as familiar, and can't be: they haven't happened yet. Our aim in this book, though, is to see what we can see, to try to understand not the events of the unknown and unknowable future but distinct, knowable possibilities that will shape what the future can become.

Twentieth-century technology is headed for the junk heap, or perhaps the recycling bins. It has changed life; its replacement will change life again, but differently. This book attempts to trace at least a few of the important consequences of the coming revolution in molecular nanotechnology, including consequences for the environment, medicine, warfare, industry, society, and life on Earth. We'll paint a picture of the technology itself–its parts, processes, and abilities–but the technology will be a detail in a larger whole.

A short summary of what molecular nanotechnology will mean is thorough and inexpensive control of the structure of matter. Pollution, physical disease, and material poverty all stem from poor control of the structure of matter. Strip mines, clear-cutting, refineries, paper mills, and oil wells are some of the crude, twentieth-century technologies that will be replaced. Dental drills and toxic chemotherapies are others.

As always, there is both promise of benefit and danger of abuse. As has become routine, the United States is slipping behind by not looking ahead. As never before, foresight is both vital and possible.

I've made the technical case for the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology elsewhere, and this case has been chewed over by scientists and engineers since the mid-1980s. (The technical bibliography outlines some of the relevant literature.) The idea of molecular nanotechnology is now about as well accepted as was the idea of flying to the Moon in the pre–space age year of 1950, nineteen years before the Apollo 11 landing and seven years before the shock of Sputnik. Those who understand it expect it to happen, but without the cost and uncertainty of a grand national commitment.

Our goal in this book is to describe what molecular nanotechnology will mean in practical terms, so that more people can think more realistically about the future. Decisions on how to develop and control powerful new technologies are too important to be left by default to a handful of specialized researchers, or to a hasty political process that flares into action at the last minute when the Sputnik goes up. With more widespread understanding and longer deliberation, political decisions are more likely to serve the common good.

I would never have written a book like this on my own; I lean in a more



Combined blame and thanks belong to my coauthors, Chris Peterson and Gayle Pergamit, for making this book happen and for clothing the bones of technology in the flesh of human possibilities.

–  –  –

Authors' Note Chapter 1 Looking Forward Chapter 2 The Molecular World Chapter 3 Bottom-Up Technology Chapter 4 Paths, Pioneers, and Progress Chapter 5 The Threshold of Nanotechnology Chapter 6 Working with Nanotechnology Chapter 7 The Spiral of Capability Chapter 8 Providing the Basics, and More Chapter 9 Restoring the Environment Chapter 10 Nanomedicine Chapter 11 Limits and Downsides Chapter 12 Safety, Accidents, and Abuse Chapter 13 Policy and Prospects Afterword: Taking Action Further Reading Technical Bibliography Glossary Acknowledgments Index Chapter 1 Looking Forward The Japanese professor and his American visitor paused in the rain to look at a rising concrete structure on a university campus in the Tokyo suburbs near Higashikoganei Station. "This is for our Nanotechnology Center," Professor Kobayashi said. The professor's guest complimented the work as he wondered to himself, when would an American professor be able to say the same?

This Nanotechnology Center was being built in the spring of 1990, as Eric Drexler was midway through a hectic eight-day trip, giving talks on nanotechnology to researchers and seeing dozens of university and consortium research laboratories. A Japanese research society had sponsored the trip, and the Ministry of International Trade and Industry MITI) had organized a symposium around the visit—a symposium on molecular machines and nanotechnology. Japanese research was forging ahead, aiming to develop "new modes of science and technology in harmony with nature and human society," a new technology for the twenty-first century.

There is a view of the future that doesn't fit with the view in the newspapers. Think of it as an alternative, a turn in the road of future history that leads to a different world. In that world, cancer follows polio, petroleum follows whale oil, and industrial technology follows chipped flint—all healed or replaced. Old problems vanish, new problems appear: down the road are many alternative worlds, some fit to live in, some not. We aim to survey this road and the alternatives, because to arrive at a world fit to live in, we will all need a better view of the open paths.

How does one begin to describe a process that can replace the industrial system of the world?

Physical possibilities, research trends, future technologies, human consequences, political challenges:

this is the logical sequence, but none of these makes a satisfactory starting point. The story might begin with research at places like IBM, Du Pont, and the ERATO projects at Tsukuba and RIKEN, but this would begin with molecules, seemingly remote from human concerns. At the core of the story is a kind of technology—"molecular nanotechnology" or "molecular manufacturing"—that appears destined to replace most of technology as we know it today, but it seems best not to begin in the middle. Instead, it seems best to begin with a little of each topic, briefly sketching consequences, technologies, trends, and principles before diving into whole chapters on one aspect or another. This chapter provides those sketches and sets the stage for what follows.

All this can be read as posing a grand "What if?" question: What if molecular manufacturing and its products replace modern technology? If they don't, then the question merely invites an entertaining and mind-stretching exercise. But if they do, then working out good answers in advance may tip the balance in making decisions that determine the fate of the world. Later chapters will show why we see molecular manufacturing as being almost inevitable, yet for now it will suffice if enough people give enough thought to the question "What if?" A Sketch of Technologies Molecular nanotechnology: Thorough, inexpensive control of the structure of matter based on molecule-by-molecule control of products and byproducts; the products and processes of molecular manufacturing.

Technology-as-we-know-it is a product of industry, of manufacturing and chemical engineering.

Industry-as-we-know-it takes things from nature—ore from mountains, trees from forests—and coerces them into forms that someone considers useful. Trees become lumber, then houses. Mountains become rubble, then molten iron, then steel, then cars. Sand becomes a purified gas, then silicon, then chips.

And so it goes. Each process is crude, based on cutting, stirring, baking, spraying, etching, grinding, and the like.

Trees, though, are not crude: To make wood and leaves, they neither cut, grind, stir, bake, spray, etch, nor grind. Instead, they gather solar energy using molecular electronic devices, the photosynthetic reaction centers of chloroplasts. They use that energy to drive molecular machines—active devices with moving parts of precise, molecular structure—which process carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and molecular building blocks. They use other molecular machines to join these molecular building blocks to form roots, trunks, branches, twigs, solar collectors, and more molecular machinery. Every tree makes leaves, and each leaf is more sophisticated than a spacecraft, more finely patterned than the latest chip from Silicon Valley. They do all this without noise, heat, toxic fumes, or human labor, and they consume pollutants as they go. Viewed this way, trees are high technology. Chips and rockets aren't.

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