- Nanotechnology and Daily Life
- Other Science Fiction Dreams
- Advanced Simplicity
- Room Enough for Dreams
- References for Chapter 15
The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the
old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into
every corner of our minds.
- JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES
I HAVE DESCRIBED how advances in chemistry and biotechnology will lead to
assemblers, which will bring nanocomputers,
replicators, and cell repair
machines. I have described how advances in software will lead to automated
engineering and artificial
intelligence. Together, these advances will make possible a future rich
in possibilities, one of which is our own destruction. If we use fact
forums and hypertext
to strengthen our foresight, we may nonetheless avoid annihilation and move
forward - but toward what?
Toward a worldwide transformation which can, if we succeed, bring
abundance and long life to all who wish them. And this is a prospect
that quite naturally stirs dreams of utopia.
A standard-issue utopia, as everyone knows, would be static, boring, and
dreadful - in fact, it would be no utopia at all. Yet again and again utopian
dreams have changed history, whether for good or ill. Dangerous dreams have
led people to kill in the name of love, and to enslave in the name of brotherhood.
All too often the dream has been impossible and the attempt to achieve it
has been disastrous.
We need useful dreams to guide our actions. A useful dream must show us
a possible, desirable goal, and steps toward that goal must bring positive
results. To help us cooperate in guiding the technology race, we will need
goals that appeal to people with differing dreams - but what goals could
serve? It seems that they must hold room for diversity. Likewise, what goals
chosen today, so near the dawn of intelligence, could prove worthy of the
future's potential? It seems that they must hold room for progress.
Only one sort of future seems broad enough to have broad appeal: an open
future of liberty, diversity, and peace. With room for the pursuit of many
different dreams, an open future will appeal to many different people. Grander
schemes, such as establishing a uniform world order, seem more dangerous.
If "one world, or none" means imposing a single social system
on a world of hostile nuclear powers, then it seems a recipe for disaster.
"Many worlds, or none" seems our real choice, if we can develop
active shields to secure peace.
We may be able to do so. Using automated engineering systems of the sort
described in Chapter 5, we will be able
to explore the limits of the possible at a million times human speed. We
will thus be able to outline the ultimate limits to the technology race,
including the arms race. With shields based on that knowledge, it seems
that we would be able to secure a stable,
Advancing technology need not push the world into any single mold. Many
people once feared that ever larger machines and ever larger organizations
would dominate our future, crushing diversity and human choice. Indeed,
machines can grow bigger, and some may. Organizations can grow bigger, and
some may. But stinking, clanking machines and huge bureaucracies have already
begun to seem old-fashioned compared to microcircuits, biotechnology, and
We now can see the outlines of a higher technology on a human scale, of
a world with machines that don't clank, chemical plants that don't stink,
and production systems that don't use people as cogs. Nanotechnology shows
that advances can bring a different style of technology. Assemblers and
AI will let us create complex products without complex organizations. Active
shields will let us secure peace without a massive military-industrial complex.
These technologies will broaden our choices by loosening our constraints,
making room for greater diversity and independence. Establishing an era
of universal wealth will require only that the vast, unclaimed resources
of space someday be divided in a way that gives everyone a significant share.
In the next few sections, I will survey some extreme possibilities that
new resources and new engines of creation will open for us - extremes that
range from science-fiction to stone-age ways of life. Think of these extremes
as intense primary colors, then mix your own palette to paint a future you
Nanotechnology and Daily Life
Advancing technology may end or extend life, but it can also change its
quality. Products based on nanotechnology will permeate the daily lives
of people who choose to use them. Some consequences will be trivial; others
may be profound.
Some products will have effects as ordinary as simplifying housekeeping
(and as substantial as reducing the causes of domestic quarrels). It should
be no great trick, for example, to make everything from dishes to carpets
self-cleaning, and household air permanently fresh. For properly designed
nanomachines, dirt would be food.
Other systems based on nanotechnology could produce fresh food - genuine
meat, grain, vegetables, and so forth - in the home, year round. These foods
result from cells growing in certain patterns in plants and animals; cells
can be coaxed to grow in these same patterns elsewhere. Home food growers
will let people eat ordinary diets without killing anything. The animal
rights movement (the forerunner of a movement to protect all conscious,
feeling entities?) will be strengthened accordingly.
Nanotechnology will make possible high-resolution screens that project different
images to each eye; the result will be three-dimensional television so real
that the screen seems like a window into another world. Screens of this
sort could line the helmet of a suit much like the spacesuit described in
Chapter 6. The suit itself, rather than
being programmed to transmit forces and textures from outside, could instead
apply to the skin forces and textures defined by a complex, interactive
program. A suit and helmet combination of this sort could simulate most
of the sights and sensations of an entire environment, whether real or imaginary.
Nanotechnology will make possible vivid art forms and fantasy worlds far
more absorbing than any book, game, or movie.
Advanced technologies will make possible a whole world of products that
make modern conveniences seem inconvenient and dangerous. Why shouldn't
objects be light, flexible, durable, and cooperative? Why shouldn't walls
look like whatever we want, and transmit only the sounds we want to hear?
And why should buildings and cars ever crush or roast their occupants? For
those who wish, the environment of daily life can resemble some of the wilder
descriptions found in science fiction.
Other Science Fiction Dreams
Toward many extremes lie science fiction dreams, for those who want to live
them. They range from homes that cooperate with us for our comfort to opportunities
for toil on distant planets. Science fiction authors have imagined many
things, some possible and others in flat contradiction to known natural
law. Some dreamed of spaceflight, and spaceflight came. Some dreamed of
robots, and robots came. Some dreamed of cheap spaceflight and intelligent
robots, and these too are coming. Other dreams seem possible.
Authors have written of the direct sharing
of thoughts and emotions from mind to mind. Nanotechnology seems likely
to make possible some form of this by linking neural structures via transducers
and electromagnetic signals. Though limited to the speed of light, this
sort of telepathy seems as possible as telephony.
Starships, space settlements, and intelligent machines will all become possible.
All this lies outside the skin, yet authors have written also of transformations
within the skin; these, too, will become possible. Becoming completely healthy
in body and brain is one form of change, yet some people will want more.
They will seek changes on a level deeper than mere health and wealth. Some
will seek fulfillment in the world of the spirit; though that quest lies
beyond the scope of crude material technology, new physical possibilities
will provide new starting points and time enough to try. The technology
underlying cell repair systems will allow people to change their bodies
in ways that range from the trivial to the amazing to the bizarre. Such
changes have few obvious limits. Some people may shed human form as a caterpillar
transforms itself to take to the air; others may bring plain humanity to
a new perfection. Some people will simply cure their warts, ignore the new
butterflies, and go fishing.
Authors have dreamed of time travel into the past, but
nature seems uncooperative. Yet biostasis
opens travel into the future, since it can make years pass in an eye blink.
The jaded may seek the novelties of a more distant future, perhaps awaiting
slowly maturing developments in the arts or society, or the mapping of the
worlds of the galaxy. If so, they will choose sleep, passing from age to
age in search of a time that suits them.
Strange futures lie open, holding worlds beyond our imagining.
E. F. Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, wrote: "I
have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological
development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man,
and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and
therefore small is beautiful." Schumacher was not writing of nanotechnology,
but could such an advanced technology be part of a simpler life on a human
In prehistoric times, people used two sorts of materials: the products of
natural bulk processes (such as stone, water, air, and clay) and the products
of natural molecular machinery (such as bone, wood, hide, and wool). Today
we use these same materials and complex bulk processes to make the products
of our global industrial civilization. If technological systems have grown
past human scale, our bulk technology
and stupid machines are largely to blame: to make systems complex, we have
had to make them big. To make them capable, we have had to fill them with
people. The resulting system now sprawls across continents, entangling people
in a global web. It has offered escape from the toil of subsistence farming,
lengthening lives and bringing wealth, but at a cost that some consider
Nanotechnology will open new choices. Self-replicating systems will be able
to provide food, health care, shelter, and other necessities. They will
accomplish this without bureaucracies or large factories. Small, self-sufficient
communities can reap the benefits.
One test of the freedom a technology offers is whether it frees people to
return to primitive ways of life. Modern technology fails this test; molecular
technology succeeds. As a test case, imagine returning to a stone-age
style of life - not by simply ignoring molecular technology, but while using
Stone-age villagers lacking modern education wouldn't understand molecular
machinery, but this matters little. Since ancient times, villagers have
used the molecular machinery of yeast, seeds, and goats without molecular-level
understanding. If such complex and unruly things as goats suit primitive
ways of life, then other forms of molecular machinery will surely qualify.
Living things show that the machinery inside a self-replicating system can
be ignored in a way that the machinery inside an automobile cannot. Thus
a group could raise novel "plants" and "animals" to
ease the harsh edges of existence, and yet live a basically stone-age life.
They could even limit themselves to ordinary plants and animals, engineered
only by millennia of selective breeding.
With possibilities so broad, some people may even choose to live as we do
today: with traffic noise, smells, and danger; with pitted teeth and whining
drills; with aching joints and sagging skin; with joys off-set by fear,
toil, and approaching death. But unless they were brainwashed to obliterate
their knowledge of better choices, how many people would willingly resign
themselves to such lives? Perhaps a few.
Can one imagine living an ordinary life in a space settlement? A settlement
would be large, complex, and located in space - but the Earth is also large,
complex, and located in space. Worlds in space could be as self-maintaining
as the Earth and as big as a continent, flooded with sunlight, filled with
air, and holding a biocylinder if not a biosphere.
Worlds in space need not be products of direct human design. Underlying
much of the beauty of nature is a certain kind of disorderly order. The
veins on a leaf, the branches on a tree, the landforms in a watershed -
all these have a freedom of form within patterns
that resemble what mathematicians call "fractals." Lands in
space need not be modeled on golf courses and suburban lots. Some will be
shaped with the aid of computers programmed to reflect a deep knowledge
of natural processes, melding human purpose with a natural quality that
no human mind and hand can directly produce. Mountains and valleys in lands
much like wilderness will mirror the shapes of dream-rock and dream-soil,
sculpted by dream-ages of electronic water. Worlds in space will be worlds.
Room Enough for Dreams
This, then, is the size of the future's promise. Though limits to growth
will remain, we will be able to harvest solar power a trillion times greater
than all the power now put to human use. From the resources of our solar
system, we will be able to create land area a million times that of Earth.
With assemblers, automated engineering, and the resources of space we can
rapidly gain wealth of a quantity and quality beyond past dreams. Ultimate
limits to lifespan will remain, but cell repair technology will make perfect
health and indefinitely long lives possible for everyone. These advances
will bring new engines of destruction, but they will also make possible
active shields and arms control systems able to stabilize peace.
In short, we have a chance at a future with room enough for many worlds
and many choices, and with time enough to explore them. A tamed technology
can stretch our limits, making the shape of technology pinch the shape of
humanity less. In an open future of wealth, room, and diversity, groups
will be free to form almost any society they wish, free to fail or set a
shining example for the world. Unless your dreams demand that you dominate
everyone else, chances are that other people will wish to share them. If
so, then you and those others may choose to get together to shape a new
world. If a promising start fails - if it solves too many problems or too
few-then you will be able to try again. Our problem today is not to plan
or build utopias but to seek a chance to try.
We may fail. Replicating assemblers and AI will bring problems of unprecedented
complexity, and they threaten to arrive with unprecedented abruptness. We
cannot wait for a fatal error and then decide what to do about it; we must
use these new technologies to build active shields before the threats are
Fortunately for our chances, the approaching breakthroughs will become steadily
more obvious. They will eventually seize public attention, guaranteeing
at least a measure of foresight. But the earlier we start planning, the
better our chances. The world will soon become hospitable to memes that
purport to describe sound policy for the assembler and AI breakthroughs.
Such memes will then spread and become entrenched, whether they deserve
to be or not. Our chances will be better if, when that time comes, a sound
set of ideas has been hammered out and has begun to spread - public opinion
and public policy will then be more likely to jump in a sensible direction
when the crisis nears. This situation makes careful discussion and public
education important right now. Guiding technology will also require new
institutions, and institutions do not evolve overnight. This makes work
on hypertext and fact forums important right now. If they are ready to use,
then they too will grow more popular as the crisis nears.
Despite the broad appeal of an open future, some people will oppose it.
The power-hungry, the intolerant idealists, and a handful of sheer people-haters
will find the prospect of freedom and diversity repugnant. The question
is, will they shape public policy? Governments will inevitably subsidize,
delay, classify, manage, bungle, or guide the coming breakthroughs. The
cooperating democracies may make a fatal error, but if they do, it will
likely be the result of public confusion about which policies will have
There will be genuine opposition to an open future, based on differing (and
often unstated) values and goals, but there will be far greater disagreements
over specific proposals, based on differing beliefs regarding matters of
fact. And though many disagreements will stem from differences of judgment,
many will inevitably stem from simple ignorance. Even solid, well-established
facts will at first remain little known.
Worse, the prospect of technologies as fundamental as assemblers, AI, and
cell repair machines must inevitably upset many old, entrenched ideas at
once. This will cause conflicts in people's minds (I know; I've experienced
some of them). In some minds, these conflicts will trigger the reject-the-new
reflex that serves as humankind's most basic mental immune system. This
reflex will make ignorance tenacious.
Worse yet, the spread of half-truths will also cause harm. To function properly,
some memes must be linked to others. If the idea of nanotechnology were
free from the idea of its danger, then nanotechnology would be a greater
danger than it already is. But in a world grown wary of technology, this
threat seems slight. Yet other idea fragments will spread, sowing misunderstanding
The fact forum idea, when discussed without the distinctions among facts,
values, and policies, will sound technocratic. Active shields, when proposed
without mention of hypertext or fact forums, may seem impossible to trust.
The danger and inevitability of nanotechnology, to those ignorant of active
shields, will bring despair. The danger of nanotechnology, when its inevitability
is not understood, will spur futile local efforts to stop its global advance.
Active shields, when not motivated by the eventual requirements for controlling
molecular technology, will strike some people as too much trouble. When
called "defense projects," without distinction between defense
and offense, shields will strike some people as threats to peace.
Likewise the idea of long life, when unaccompanied by the expectation of
abundance and new frontiers, will seem perverse. Abundance, when imagined
without space development or controlled replicators, will sound environmentally
damaging. The idea of biostasis, to those who know nothing about cell repair
and confuse expiration with dissolution,
will sound absurd.
Unless they are held together by book covers or hypertext links, ideas will
tend to split up as they travel. We need to develop and spread an understanding
of the future as a whole, as a system of interlocking dangers and opportunities.
This calls for the effort of many minds. The incentive to study and spread
the needed information will be strong enough: the issues are fascinating
and important, and many people will want their friends, families, and colleagues
to join in considering what lies ahead. If we push in the right directions
- learning, teaching, arguing, shifting directions, and pushing further
- then we may yet steer the technology race toward a future with room enough
for our dreams.
Eons of evolution and millennia
of history have prepared this challenge and quietly presented it to our
generation. The coming years will bring the greatest turning point in the
history of life on Earth. To guide life and civilization through this transition
is the great task of our time.
If we succeed (and if you survive) then you may be honored with endless
questions from pesky great-grandchildren: "What was it like when you
were a kid, back before the Breakthrough?" and "What was it like
growing old?" and "What did you think when you heard
the Breakthrough was coming?" and "What did you do then?"
By your answers you will tell once more the tale of how the future was won.
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© Copyright 1986, K. Eric Drexler. All rights reserved.
Published and maintained by Russell Whitaker.
Last updated: 15 November 1996