Technology has been advancing at the rate of Moore’s Law for the past 200,000 years. That curve finally passed the knee joint and has been going towards vertical for the last 200 years. But heretofore a major thrust of technology has been to make things smaller. You’ve seen the computer fall from room size to iPhone size. That’s true with all electronics. You’ve seen engines go from big, inefficient steam engines to small, highly efficient jet turbines. Miniaturization has been great. It almost always makes things lighter, more efficient, and cheaper.
Nanotechnology, however, takes a totally different approach. Nanotechnology is all about engineering things from a molecular level and making them larger. In essence, it’s the construction of machines, atom by atom, using molecular-sized assemblers, guided by molecular-sized supercomputers. I did a chapter on this in Crisis Investing for the Rest of the ’90s. At the time, not one person in 100 had ever heard of nanotech, or had a clue what it was. In its ultimate form, nanotech – the use of molecular-sized assemblers and supercomputers – will change the character of reality itself. Totally and unrecognizably.
It amounts to pixie dust, making it possible to manipulate the 92 naturally occurring elements into basically anything, cheaply and easily. Imagine an infinitely powerful 3-D printer. But that’s too conservative an image. Better, imagine a pile of dirt that – based on what the assemblers are instructed to do by the supercomputers – self-assembles into anything you can imagine. That’s the ultimate evolution. It’s hard to predict when that will happen. But I suspect that science fiction is way too conservative. Especially in regard to its time horizons.
Looking just at the present and very near future, however, it’s becoming possible to fabricate totally new materials, like carbon nanotubes, that are vastly more capable than any “natural” material.
Progress is being made, albeit slower than I expected. We can – in fact this was first done 30 years ago – manipulate individual atoms and move them around to spell words. Admittedly, that’s something of a sophisticated parlor trick with limited practical applications. But it gives you an idea of what has already been done.
But here’s the point that I’m making. When we arrive at the point where submicroscopic assemblers – guided by submicroscopic supercomputers – can disassemble compounds and reform them into different compounds and then reassemble those into large objects, literally anything becomes possible. We will have created, in effect, pixie dust you’ll be able to throw on the ground. Then, if it’s programmed to, it will pick out atoms of any of the 92 naturally occurring elements, and assemble them into anything that you’d like. It’s literally magic.
That’s the ultimate evolution of nanotechnology. That’s the direction that it’s ultimately headed towards.
For 30 years I ran something called the Eris Society, here in Aspen, Colorado, where I’m talking to you from right now. At those conferences, which were strictly invitation only, we had people that were leading lights in many fields. Everybody from Paul MacCready, the inventor of the Gossamer Condor, and Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne, and Phil Zimmermann, who invented Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), all the way to Sonny Barger, President of the Hells Angels, and Stewart Brand, who founded the Whole Earth Catalog. It was a fairly eclectic group. Lots of famous authors and people who’d done something outstanding, or weird.
We’d hang out for three days, most attendees giving a speech on what they knew about or were doing, and get to know each other. Eric Drexler is, in fact, the godfather of nanotechnology and wrote the seminal book Engines of Creation. He was standing on the shoulders of Richard Feynman, who first explored the concept in a speech he delivered in 1959 called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” As you’d expect, Drexler is a very bright guy. I got to know Eric at Eris, though I haven’t kept up with him since then. But, it was clear to me that this is the way technology would eventually be the ultimate evolution of the material world.
The first big applications will be in material science and biotech. The centerpiece, the star of the show, is the carbon atom. Let me retail a few basic facts. The carbon atom has some unique advantages. It’s a simple atom, with an atomic number of only six, and a light atom, with an atomic weight just over 12. Because of the way it’s structured, it can form extremely large chains with itself, and complex ones with other elements. As I’m sure you know, carbon is central to all life as we know it. Every living thing is built around the carbon atom, and we know of at least 10 million different carbon compounds. That last fact is why carbon and nanotech will be huge in the biotech arena.
One relatively trivial biotech application would be the creation of tiny machines which, released into your bloodstream, would cleanse your arteries of plaque. Or attack cancer cells very precisely and selectively – no more necessity to use surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy. We’ll look back at cutting, burning and poisoning cancers as primitive, the way we now see 19th century medicine.
But perhaps the first mass nanotech application will be with graphene. That material is pure carbon, like graphite or diamond, but in the form of a film only an atom thick. It’s extremely light, but much stronger than steel. How about a bulletproof vest that weighs nothing and is practically invisible?
It will revolutionize construction and architecture because it’s so ultralight. And flight. And spacecraft. It’s going to be huge when it finally comes into its own. It could be one of the biggest things since the start of the Industrial Revolution. The problem, of course, is cost. And making mass production economic. But costs are dropping exponentially. Just give it time.
People’s psychologies are always the ultimate problem, not technology. The aberrations that seem hard-wired in the human mind. It’s almost a replay from H.G. Wells’ book The Time Machine, which was written more than 100 years ago, where the human race has speciated into Morlocks and Eloi. I wonder if a variety of that scenario isn’t happening even now… but that’s a different subject.
Most individuals are tolerably rational in their own lives. But the more of them you put together in a group, it seems the lower the common denominator has to be. The larger the group, the more it acts like a mob, and the more dangerous it is. This is the problem with the global consciousness being fostered by the mass media, social media and the Internet. Humans seem to be mutating into a hive mind. Or various hive minds.
Meanwhile, the technology is advancing, as I said, at the rate of Moore’s Law, and the curve is now going vertical. That’s the good news. Technology is making it possible for humans to do almost anything imaginable.
The bad news is that we’re still basically naked apes. Highly evolved chimpanzees, melding into a hive mind. Unfortunately, our psychological makeup hasn’t changed since the days of monkeys beating each other on the head with sticks. There hasn’t been serious evolution in moral thinking, or philosophical thinking, for many years. In fact, you can argue – just based upon the 20-odd people who want to be the Democratic candidate for President – that the level of philosophical, economic, moral, and political thinking is actually degrading.
This is a gigantic problem. It’s one thing when monkeys can attack each other with sticks. It’s something else when they can attack each other with not just atomic weapons, but things that are much more advanced. Which is going to be the case with nanotechnology.
Naturally, one of the objections to advancing nanotechnology is: What will happen if “bad guys” get control of it, and unleash it? Well, of course that’s a problem. But it’s just a subset of the bigger problem we’ve just discussed. Namely, “What could possibly go wrong if you give nanotech to smart, but ethically primitive chimps?” But here’s an even better question: “What if the assemblers themselves get out of control, on their own?” What if it turns into something like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from the Disney cartoon that everybody’s seen? If the assemblers and computers keep replicating each other at a geometric rate, isn’t that going to turn the whole world into a massive grey goo?
Well, that’s theoretically possible. Probably not practically possible. But who’s to say? Remember, nanotech in its ultimate form is going to be not only the biggest thing that’s ever happened, but perhaps the biggest thing you can imagine. Among other things, it can probably solve the problem of life itself – at least if you assume life is a purely physical phenomenon. That being the case, I’d say any risk is worth taking.
I think about the possibilities because I’m essentially a solipsist. There are many varieties of solipsism. But essentially solipsism holds that anything that you can imagine is possible, and all of reality is basically a creation of your mind. So, yeah, things could get really wild and crazy in the future with technology in general, and nanotechnology in particular.
Although its evolution’s been slower than I expected so far, it too is advancing at the rate of Moore’s Law. It’s going to be magic. Just hopefully not black magic.