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Home > About Nanotechnology > Unbounding the Future

Unbounding the Future:
the Nanotechnology Revolution


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

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