The ultimate technology

Posted: April 28, 2008 in Futurism

Years ago, I read K. Erik Drexler’s book Engines of Creation: The coming age of nanotechnology. Aside from the cold war paranoia in the book (and there was a lot of it), there was a lot of very intelligent talk about nanotechnology and what it could accomplish.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a few science fiction writers (Tony Ballentine especially) taking on this idea and examining just how effective those little things could be. First, though, let me give a quick overview of nanotech, from my admittedly limited understanding:

Nanotechnology is the technology of very small things. It’s the idea of a machine so small that it could actually manipulate atoms. It would reproduce by changing the material it was attached to into copies of itself, and would then follow the program to build the new thing. That’s a very non-scientific explanation, but it’s the best I could do on short notice, and I think it will satisfy for our purposes.

So sci-fi writers are using these things for very interesting purposes. Ballentine talks about an enemy intelligence that drops one of these things on a planet. These machines aren’t exactly nano-sized, but they have the same purpose. They eventually convert the entire planet into machines, then explode them in all directions. Eventually, these machines will reach other planets and continue the process of converting the entire universe into gray goop, a swarming mass of little machines that turn everything into copies of themselves.

And this is certainly a danger. But not that serious of one. If nano machines are properly designed, they will include an age limit, a maximum number of times they can reproduce. This wouldn’t be unusual. Our human cells have the same thing (we call them Telomeres, and they’re on the ends of our DNA strand. When they’re all gone, the cell stops replicating. We call that aging). So a single nanobot programmed to produce, say, 10 generations would not produce too many copies. The first generation would yield 2 (the original +1), then four (as each copied itself once), then 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 at the end of the cycle. That’s not many when you consider that they are small enough to handle specific atoms.

Now granted, a single drop of these things might contain 100,000,000 or more bots, which means 10 generations would produce 102,400,000,000– a more respectable number, but still not many in the grand scheme of things. Instead of a drop of goop, you might have an entire puddle. But if there were more generations, it would would very quickly produce enough to reckon with. Remember that old question: would you rather be paid $100 dollars a day for a month, or start at 2 pennies and double each day? The better option was the two pennies; eventually, they produced a lot more money. We can see that with each additional generation from that first single bot: 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576–that’s twenty generations. Which, starting with the single drop, gives us 104,857,600,000,000, or about a hundred thousand for every human being.

And what could these bots do? Well, lets start with military applications, and move on from there. If you program these things to convert any metal they find into more of themselves, you could sneak an eyedropper into some US city and reduce it to rubble in a few weeks. You could dismantle the entire navy if you wanted to, all without actually killing anyone. And the defensive capabilities are even more stunning. Nanobots weigh practically nothing, so creating a giant shield around your city wouldn’t be out of the question. If the bots were programmed to pull apart any metal, fuel, or nuclear material, then people could walk through the shield but a missile, bullet, or nuclear weapon would be taken apart before it could do any harm. It would basically be a way to make war one sided, like starting a fight with someone by offering this rule: “How about we fight, but you’re not allowed to hit me. I only get to hit you.” No one would think that was fair, but that’s the way it is if the shield is developed.

Of course, there are non-military applications of it too, some of them far more effective. For one, you cut out the middle man. When we want meat, we use a machine for turning grass into steak–a cow. If you had nanotech, you could build a box that did the same thing: put in some grass, press a button, and soon out comes a steak. Only this time, you don’t have to keep the machine warm at night, you don’t have animal rights activists protesting it, and you really take away just about every reason for vegetarianism. So it’s cheaper and more morally appropriate than using an actual cow.

Then there’s the really dangerous one. If you, as a nation, had nanotechnology, you would never really want for anything. You could build whatever you needed whenever you needed it. No more starvation, no more need for money. But other nations might still need money. So you flood their market with money and drive inflation so high that their money becomes worthless and their economy collapses. Imagine what would happen if someone sent every American citizen and envelope filled with what would currently be considered $10 million worth of diamonds. Our economy would collapse overnight.

Why am I talking about this? Well, for one thing, it’s because I keep thinking about technology. Our government isn’t spending money on nanotech, whileChina is spending trillions of dollars on it. If they get it first, then game over. Maybe this is more of Drexler’s cold war fear, but I think it’s a legitimate one. How could we compete with a country that could produce whatever it needed, could cripple our economy, could take our weapons apart from underneath us, and that we couldn’t successfully attack? Aside from the fact that they could have the complete moral high ground (they could disarm the entire nation and send it back to the technology level of the middle ages without actually killing anyone), we would be as hopelessly behind them as those same middle ages people would be behind us right now. I don’t care how many knights in armor you have, the side with the stealth bombers, nuclear weapons, and machine guns is going to win.

That why I think it’s the ultimate technology. Once we have it, there really won’t be anything physical that we can’t produce. We can replicate whatever we need as many times as we need it. It looks like the pinnacle of technology, the last thing we will ever need to invent.

Of course, it isn’t; we tend to think that we’re at the pinnacle all the time. In 1880, physics professors around the world were advising students to pick other majors, because every important discovery had already been made. And this was a time before quantum physics, before computers, and even before television. It’s perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about New Media: there’s ALWAYS something new. As I’ve said before, the only thing we can be sure of is that the new technology will come about naturally and will seem so obvious as to be a foregone thing (like the technology trees in the conquer-the-galaxy computer games that I love so much).

So what’s the point of all this? Well, nanotech could almost definitely solve the environmental problem. You could release the machines into the air and have them do what plants do- convert CO2 into O2 and pure carbon…maybe diamonds. Why not? Cut down on greenhouse gases, rebuild the ozone (is that even still a problem?) and help cool off the planet a bit. Hell, you could even use them to refreeze the glaciers that have melted and return the world ecology back to what it was before the industrial revolution.

Maybe they are the ultimate technology, maybe they’re just the epoch of our current view of technology, and maybe they’re just another step to something even more wonderful. The point is, those little machines, if anyone can ever figure out how to build them, just might solve the Technology vs. Nature problem that I mentioned in my previous post.

That, and I think they’re neat.

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