From Alchemy to Androids


Engines of Creation, by K. Eric Drexler, Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 298 pages, $17.95

Very few authors can write a book that can be called "seminar"—that is, the visionary first look at a field of human endeavor that someday grows into a major human activity. K. Eric Drexler has written such a seminal book. Drexler would certainly have been labeled a "technological visionary" by the late Dr. Herman Kahn, who was himself a visionary. In Engines of Creation, Drexler identifies a long term trend in technology and, on the basis of recent research data and technological progress, extrapolates where this is likely to lead.

For millennia, mankind has been rearranging molecules and atoms of the raw materials he's found on and in planet earth, making new materials and devices to assist him and to help ensure his survival as an individual and a species. The medieval alchemists tried to go one step beyond this by altering atoms—turning lead into gold is the most oft-quoted example. The alchemists failed, because the technology wasn't there yet. When the pioneer chemists Antoine Lavoisier, John Dalton, and others began to isolate the basic chemical atoms in the 18th century, they ushered in an age of molecular chemistry that wasn't really brought to a useful stage until Leo H. Baekeland developed the first thermoplastic, phenylformaldehyde—"Bakelite"—in the early 20th century.

When we developed nuclear engineering, we finally achieved the alchemists' dream of turning lead into gold by changing atoms from one type to another…but it costs more than the gold is worth. And lead itself isn't cheap these days, either.

We live today in a world of engineered materials: matter composed of molecules assembled in certain ways to produce specific characteristics that are useful to us. Drexler takes this basic concept of "engineered materials" several steps beyond. Although we are now building molecules atom by atom on an industrial and commercial scale, he foresees the ultimate application of this field, which he calls "nanotechnology." Every seminal thinker has the right to put his own nomenclature on the new field he has foreseen. It may not last, because as researchers in the field begin to make progress they have the disturbing tendency to put their own pet labels on things. For right now, however, "nanotechnology" can certainly be used to describe what Drexler is talking about.

Basically, what Drexler means by nanotechnology is the ability to design to specification, to "engineer," both inorganic and organic materials at the very smallest, or atomic, level. Organic materials in this instance mean living cells. We don't yet have a good definition of what "life" or '"living matter" really is, but we can define it by what it does—that is, its characteristics. We are the product of natural nanotechnology.

Drexler points out that we either already have the technology or will shortly have the capability to arrange atoms in any pattern we desire to produce any conceivable substance or device we want. We also have or will have the capability to perform "molecular surgery," to get inside existing materials and fix defects—such as repairing a discontinuity in a crystal or damage on the atomic level inside the living cell.

Genetic engineering and recombinant DNA technology are two of the earliest examples of nanotechnology but are far from the ultimate in designing and building materials atom by atom. Drexler introduces the concept of a nanotechnology "assembler," a protein such as an enzyme that, because of "instructions" placed in its DNA chains, will be able to manipulate atoms, move them from place to place, and attach them at specific locations on a new molecule that is being put together.

Today, engineers make silicon-based computer microchips by plating layers millions of atoms thick onto the microchip they're building; the resulting microchip is large by potential nanotechnology standards and may not work because our technology cannot detect the atomic-sized errors that can be introduced by the gross-plating system. A nanotechnology assembler could fabricate a much smaller and faster electronic microchip ("nanochip") by adding layers atom by atom, and only where it was instructed to do so.

Drexler also introduces the concept of the "disassembler," a protein that can identify certain atoms or combinations of atoms at a specific location in a molecule and remove them.

In short, we will soon be able to bring the most fantastic projections of science fiction to reality. For example, in a 1954 novel I wrote about growing a tree in the desired shape of a house rather than cutting down a tree, sawing it up into lumber, and reassembling it into a dwelling. In 1923 the drama R.U.R, by Czech author Karel Capek has a scientist, Dr. Rossum, discovering a new way to make living organisms and then proceeding to engineer artificial people. R.U.R. was "Rossum's Universal Robots," the company that manufactured Rossum's specialized androids that took the place of servants, farm workers, and assembly and drudgery workers everywhere.

Whether or not we opt to proceed in various areas of nanotechnology remains to be seen. For example, by the time we're capable of producing androids, we may have developed the nanoengineered silicon-based materials of computer technology to the point where we won't need artificial replicas of ourselves. (Why create our own competition? We've got plenty of that among ourselves already!) We may use nanotechnology to improve the specialized physical tools (robots) that extend the power and range of our muscles and sensors not only upward in size into the universe but downward in size to the atomic level. We'll certainly develop nanotechnology to create artificial intelligence—once we define what "intelligence" actually is—or "intelligence amplifiers" to extend and improve our mental capabilities.

Drexler writes about technology, not science. There's a difference. Technology involves learning how to make the universe work for you; science is learning why the universe works. It's possible to have either without the other. Often, inventors develop technology, leaving it to engineers to improve it and scientists to explain why it works in the first place.

And, as we've learned in the last 50 years, science and technology in and of themselves are neither good nor bad; how human beings use technology is either good or bad, and that involves a moral judgment. Drexler points out some of the enormous benefits for humanity in developing nanotechnology. But he also realizes that human beings are still mean, nasty, covetous, jealous, deadly, deceitful, and otherwise possess all the traits one might expect of the finest hunting animal the planet has ever known.

Therefore, some people will use nanotechnology not to gain power over the universe but to achieve power over other people and their minds. These are the "misuses" of nanotechnology. Dangers are involved, and we will have to develop social institutions to prevent abuses.

The biggest danger to nanotechnology's development, however, is that people may take the perceived "easy way out" and allow it to be controlled by government bureaucracies or studied to death by academia; if this happens, the chances of rapid and beneficial progress are slim. If nanotechnology develops in the realm of private enterprise, as the computer technologies largely have, we are far more likely to see widespread and inexpensive benefits sooner.

It is absolutely crucial that we keep the power of nanotechnology, and other future technologies, out of the exclusive control of the Attilas and witch doctors of the world. It will not be easy, because these types of people exploit human fears and other emotions to achieve their power. Which is why individuals who believe in private enterprise should certainly read this book, particularly if we want to head off the collectivists and let nanotechnology move in the free marketplace as it has in the past.

Engines of Creation is a seminal book. It will make people think. Some people find this too bothersome, so read it in order to keep ahead of the nonthinkers.

G. Harry Stine is the author of numerous science fiction books, as well as nonfiction, including most recently The Corporate Survivors.