Foresight Update 9

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Technology Fiction (Part II)

by John G. Cramer

This is the conclusion of John Cramer's survey of fiction with themes related to molecular technologies. [See Part I in Update 8.]

Two mid-80s novels, Greg Bear's Blood Music (Arbor House, 1985) and Paul Preuss' Human Error (Tor, 1985), both preceding the 1986 publication of Engines of Creation, deal with the dangers of runaway biotechnology. In both novels, micro-organisms that have been bioengineered for use in computing go out of control. In both novels these organic computers evolve and organize themselves into intelligent systems capable of infecting and "taking over" and/or enhancing human beings. The outcome for humanity, by good luck rather than any result of effort or planning, turns out to be beneficial in both.

Again these scenarios can be taken as warnings that any technology capable of evolution can "run away" in a direction beyond our control. This is a concern that has also been expressed in connection with the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment. The concern is a real one, and nanodevices will have to be designed so that this loss of control cannot occur. On the basis of the pre-design studies that have already been done, this goal is readily achievable. "Counters" that limit the number of device duplications, and encryption schemes for DNA coding sequences are two methods that have been suggested. Probably the danger inherent in nanotechnology lies in its misuse through human malice and stupidity rather than from a runaway of evolving nanomachines.

Perhaps the bravest attempt to write the Great American nanotek (or perhaps biotek) novel and to deal with the impact on a broad front is Leo Frankowski's Copernick's Rebellion (Del Rey, 1987). In Frankowski's novel an international agreement has eliminated all government funding of genetic engineering, thereby nearly killing the field. Martin Guidebo, an erratic genius who escaped Germany in 1940 with the Nazis at his heels, and Heinrich Copernick, his war-orphan nephew who is now a successful 1990s industrialist, decide to develop genetic engineering using their own funds. They have developed such super-tools as an "X-ray resonance microscope", a microscalpel using an X-ray laser, and a supercomputer based bio-simulator which allow them to directly manipulate the DNA programming of organisms and to accurately predict the results of such manipulations. They use this technology to rebuild their own bodies and to rejuvenate themselves. They focus their new technology on the consumer, developing a series of "treehouse" habitats that provide for all the needs of the humans living in them, and they distribute treehouse seeds free to all takers. The economic disruption that results produces a duel between the "stuffed shirts," as Guidebo calls elected officials, and our rebel nanotek heroes. The escalating warfare that ensues, after many thousands of deaths and the calculated sabotage of most pre-organic machines, results in the replacement of our present politico-economic system with an idyllic anarchy.

Frankowski's technocratic vision is a nice try at a possibly impossible task. He avoids many of the problems of a real technology revolution by putting the capabilities exclusively in the hands of just two clever and lucky men who, to the best of Frankowski's abilities, are described as using it wisely. The novel is thought provoking but far from satisfying and unintentionally rather horrifying. By the conclusion, the number of loose ends gives the novel the aspect of a shag rug. The implication of Frankowski's work is that even the rather limited biotechnology he describes, which offers considerably less potential than true nanotechnology, intolerable stresses are placed on our existing slow-moving ill-prepared political system. Even with "good guys" at the controls, the result is military intervention, violence, anarchy, and a large number of dead bodies.

Vernor Vinge, a SF writer of note and a mathematician who understands well the behavior of the exponential function, has focused attention on the implications of our exponentially rising technological capabilities, among which are those implicit in nanotek. In his story collection True Names Vinge discussed his expectation that this techno-explosion will culminate in a few decades in what he calls "The Singularity." His novel Marooned in Realtime describes a group of post-Singularity stragglers living on a depopulated Earth. They have "spaced over" the Singularity, having had the fortune (or misfortune) to be suspended in stasis at the time when it occurred and when the rest of the human population mysteriously vanished. This premise forms the background for an entertaining futuristic murder mystery.

In using this format for his novel, Vinge the writer has himself spaced over the need to describe the Singularity or the events leading up to it, except with a few obscure hints. This is perhaps inevitable, but it provides us with little insight as to what nanotek explosion may be store for us in the coming decades or how we should prepare.

Jeffrey Carver's novel From a Changeling Star (Bantam, 1989) uses nanotechnology as a central plot element and even has a central character named E'rik Daxter. Another character is repeatedly "assassinated" and restored by nanomachines in his body, and intelligent nano-creatures are one of the power groups. However, nanotek has not impacted Carver's civilization as a whole. Rather it is a kind of "magic" possessed in secret by one particular faction. This is an enjoyable book that develops many interesting ideas, but as a guide to how nanotechnology might impact our civilization Changeling Star isn't very helpful.

Greg Bear's short story "Sisters" (Tangents, Warner, 1989) concerns the downside of tinkering with the human genome. Letitia is an NG (natural genome) teenager attending a high school where most of the students are PPCs (pre-planned children) whose genomes have been manipulated for enhanced intelligence, physical beauty, and improved athletic abilities. A latent "bug" in the genetic software of the PPC children becomes evident, a neural instability leading to epileptic seizures and death. Letitia, formerly resentful of her inferiority to the PPC children, loses some of her PPC friends and grows up.

Bear's scenario is all too plausible. Those of us who write computer programs know that the easy part of programming is the writing of the program; the difficult part is the subsequent elimination of all the bugs, the programming mistakes and misconceptions. Surely genetic engineering, which involves a "mainframe" far more complex than a simple digital computer, will have similar problems. How will the nanotek engineers of the future debug design-improvements in the human genome? Simulation? Or trial-and-error?

Gregory Benford's story "Warstory" (IASFM, January 1990) is, at one level, about another genetic engineering accident. The greenhouse effect has raised the levels of the oceans, and southern California has become a new Netherlands, protected from the incursions of the Pacific behind a wall of dikes. The dikes are protected by a living organic coating that prevents corrosion and repels barnacles and other sea life. But the coating mutates and begins to eat the seawall it was designed to protect. Or is this techno-thriller the recreational reading of a stranded pilot fighting a space-war on Ganymede? The reader isn't quite sure.

Poul Anderson's new novel Boat of a Million Years Tor, 1989), is, for most of the book, set in the past. But the immortal protagonists progress through history to the present and beyond, and the last chapters take place in a future in which nanotechnology and a nuclear war have radically altered civilization. The details of the nanotek revolution are never explicitly spelled out, but the sea-changes in economics, aesthetics, and values are everywhere apparent. This is certainly Anderson's best book since Avatar, perhaps his best novel ever. The level of thought and balanced judgement that has gone into this convincing portrayal of a post-nanotek civilization, though a minor part of the overall work, is impressive. The portrait of the nanotek revolution, however, is a low-resolution image deep in the background of a work that is focused elsewhere.

Greg Bear's forthcoming novel Queen of Angels (Warner, 1990) is set in 2047, roughly a decade after the onset of a major nanotek revolution. There is abundant nanotek here. The principal protagonist, a woman police professional, is a "transform" whose body has been restructured and improved by nanotek. A sculptor, his hands scarred by the careless use of nanomachines, is supervising the nanotek restructuring of an old building from the inside out. Concealed in the hollow handle of a hairbrush, a nanomachine "goo" can be used to convert scrap steel and plastic into a fully loaded pistol as needed. An intelligent nanotek-based star probe orbiting an earth-like planet of the Alpha Centauri system is relaying the observations of its nanomachine "children" on the planet's surface. Specialized nanomachines are injected into humans to construct neural interfaces that permit mind-to-mind contact used for therapy. A variant of the mind-therapy technology, the "hellcrown" is the ultimate instrument of torture, used to extract massive retribution from criminals. And so on.

Bear tells a fine story and does the best job in SF so far of portraying the societal impact of nanotek. My instincts say that the real impacts of a real nanotechnology will be even more far-reaching, even more invasive, than those depicted in Queen of Angels. But they are also far more difficult to predict.

Nanotek is a relatively new theme in SF, an new flavor of technical "magic." SF writers are just beginning to explore its potential, to find ways of exploiting its potential and dealing with its intrinsic problems and pitfalls. It will perhaps be decades before the nanotechnological revolution arrives, but in the interim there will be time for SF writers to prepare us for this revolution to come. We live in "interesting times."

John G. Cramer is a Professor of Physics at the University of Washington, Seattle, and author of Twistor, a near-future hard-SF novel published in hardcover by William Morrow & Company in March 1989. His science-fact column, "The Alternate View," is published bi-monthly in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact Magazine.

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents


Books of Note

Books are listed in order of increasing specialization and reading challenge. Your suggestions are welcome. And remember, if a book's price looks too high, your library should be able to get it through interlibrary loans.--Editor

Megamistakes, by Steven P. Schnaars, Free Press (Macmillan), 1989, cloth, $19.95. Useful examination of technology forecasting mistakes and why they happen. Business-oriented; repetitive in spots. Fails to support the subtitle's claim that rapid technological change is a "myth."

Spacefarers, Voyage through the Universe series, Time-Life Books, 1989. Includes pp. 116, 117-121 on proposed uses of nanotechnology in space, much artwork. FI member Stewart Cobb consulted on the project. Contact 800-621-7026.

Hypertext 89 Proceedings, from the Nov. 5-8 Pittsburgh meeting, chairman Rob Akscyn, published by Association for Computing Machinery, paper, $30. Most concentrated source of published information (28 papers) on work being done in the field; highly recommended for those interested in hypertext. ACM order #608891 from ACM Order Dept., PO Box 64145, Baltimore, MD 21264.

MEMS-90, Proceedings of the IEEE Conference on Micro Electro Mechanical Systems, held Feb. 11-14 at Napa, CA, cosponsored by ASME; $28. The "bottom-up" approach to building continues to infiltrate this "top-down" meeting series with coverage of STM work from IBM Watson, Stanford, University of Tokyo, and Matsusita. Most papers on micro structures, sensors, actuators, machines, and robots. IEEE catalog #90CH2832-4; phone 800-678-IEEE.

Molecular Electronic Devices: Proceedings of the Third International Symposium, ed. F.L. Carter, R.E. Siatkowski, and H. Wohltjen, Elsevier/North Holland, 1988, $152.75. Proceedings of the 1986 meeting; primarily for chemists, but does include one paper on mechanical nanocomputers.

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents



The Foresight Institute receives hundreds of letters requesting information and sending ideas. Herewith excerpts:

On behalf of Don Lavoie, Bill Tulloh, myself, and all of us here at the Center for the Study of Market Processes, thanks for the publicity you gave our conference, "Evolutionary Economics: Learning from Computation." It made a big difference to our attendance and the quality of discussions. ... The conference was a big success.

Howard Baetjer
George Mason University

See the article on the conference elsewhere in this issue.--Editor

You have expressed interest in a Soviet publication about Engines of Creation, and before a copy of it I requested from there arrives, I'd like to share with you some information. This was a small monthly periodical in "Radioelectronics and Communications" series, published, together with many other brochures, journals, books, etc. by the Soviet Znanie ("Knowledge") Society--a very large and versatile organization for spreading technological and scientific knowledge.

Popular and serious at the same time, the article was authored by Alexandr Smirnov and titled "Chips, LSI Chips, VLSI Chips..." This seemingly irrelevant title is very characteristic for today's Soviet life, when people do have new freedoms, but have to use traditional organizations, channels, and titles.

Pages 3-16 are devoted to a review of a number of works by V.F. Dorfman (Soviet) on the history of evolution of shape-forming instruments, machines, and methods, as well as his classifications of shape-forming processes and equipment. One of the interesting questions touched is why industrial equipment is bigger, while building machinery is smaller, than the objects they form?

Then, from page 16 to 64, there is a serious, concise (and uncritical) rendering of all chapters of Engines. As I understand, the first part was to put a theoretical foundation under the reader's understanding of the role of nanotechnology in the process of technological evolution.

I liked the whole brochure for both the contents and style and think that the Foresight Institute itself would hardly give a better representation of its ideas.

...This country [USSR], despite its collapsing social structures, is worth working with, considering its large, and mostly unknown to the human world, pool of creative ideas, traditions of long-term and large-scale thinking, and, still, the cheapest intellectuals on the planet.

Alexander Chislenko
(now in Cambridge, MA)

When we receive a copy of this publication and get it translated, at least in part, we'll publish more on the state of nanotechnology information in the USSR.--Editor

Foresight Update 9 - Table of Contents


Media and Journal Coverage

The journal Technology Analysis and Strategic Management published in its December 1989 issue an article on the First Foresight Conference on Nanotechnology. The December 1989 issue of Japan's Journal of Micromachine Society covered the conference on pages 25-29 and perhaps beyond--without a translation we can't tell where it stops. The March 1990 issue of JOM (formerly Journal of Metals) included a one-page review of the conference by David R. Forrest, former president of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group.

The May 8, 1990, issue of Newsday had a two-page article by Kathy Woolard on nanotechnology, an unusually well-done piece and perhaps the only newspaper article to mention the engineering problem of thermal motion and how it is solved. Brava, Kathy.

The June 1990 issue of Ad Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society, featured a four-page article on nanotechnology by FI member (and early member of the MIT Nanotechnology Study Group) Stewart Cobb.

The Summer 1990 issue of the Whole Earth Review published a ten-page writeup of pros (Drexler) and cons (Simson Garfinkel) in the technical case for nanotechnology and a one-page summary of the First Foresight Conference by Steven Levy.

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From Foresight Update 9, originally published 30 June 1990.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 9 to html for this web page.