Thinking Outside Very Small Boxes

Every few years there comes from the distant Mountains of Science a new technological magic, a Panacea that will cure all ills, a Genie that will grant all wishes, a Silver Bullet that will slay all evils. In the 1950s it was nuclear power; later it was computers; later still the bounty of the Space Age; later still genetics. People still believe the Internet will make everyone fabulously wealthy for free (and yes this is a retread of computers, much as nuclear power was a retread of the idea very early in the twentieth century that Radioactivity is Good For You). And one technomagical fad still going strong in SF is nanotechnology: Teensy-Robots Who Will Turn Us All Into Gods, or Else Kill Us All.

Well, maybe.

First, the dream: Nanotechnology traces back to a 1959 lecture by Richard Feynman, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”; later came K. Eric Drexler’s book The Engines of Creation (1986) which laid out many of our current subtropes for nanotechnology. Drexler envisioned tiny Tinker-Toy™ machines with axles and gears forged at the atomic level, to shove and snip and weld individual molecules. In SF nanotechnology has suggested molecular compilers that can build anything from a handful of dust, as in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (1995), as well as mindless rampaging replicators that convert everything into gray goo, imagined in Michael Crichton’s Prey (2002) and by Bill Joy in his article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.”

Next, the reality: there is indeed an active field of nanotechnology, but it is radically different from the vision of Drexler, or Stephenson, or Crichton. Real in-the-lab nanotech is sophisticated materials science. Past generations of material scientists worried about making very pure alloys or precise and homogeneous doping of semiconductors, but today’s nanotech is about creating inhomogeneities at the nanometer level, typically precise cluster of atoms embedded just right in a substrate to bring about carefully designed structural, electromagnetic, and optical properties. I can easily imagine inexpensive wallpaper that displays images, paint that doubles as a solar cell, a foldable piece of “paper” that acts as a computer keyboard and screen (as imagined in the new SyFy series Caprica), lighter and more powerful batteries, ultra-light, ultra-strong materials for cars, airplanes, and spacecraft.

And tiny robots? Molecular compilers that make anything we desire? I won’t say it’s impossible. And there is no real harm in SF that uses such popular tropes. But on one hand we are not much closer to Drexler’s vision than we were a quarter of a century ago. And on the other hand, we already have self-replicating, molecule-manipulating nanobots, in us and all around us, courtesy of three billions years of engineering.

Ordinary biology.

I’ve seen SF panels on nanotechnology where panelists claimed nanotechnology would ignore quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, surface tension, and the liquid basis of biology would be banished. But I believe this is exactly backwards. Some of the most fascinating scientific papers I’ve read are the ones that investigate how to exploit the nano-enviroment, for example, tiny ratchets that use thermal fluctuations to power nanomachines.

And the most important of all of these is biology. Biology has already solved most of the problems any would-be nano-engineer would face: replication, repair, power, mobility, signaling, and turning processes on and off. It’s one thing to have the chutzpah to imagine we can improve on biology (possible, although any working biologist would tell you it will be very difficult), but to think we can invent it all without peeking at nature’s blueprints–that’s foolishness.

Indeed, if we ever do build Drexlerian nanomachines, I’m willing to bet we use biological tools as an intermediate step at the very least.

So how might real nanotechnology progress? What would be different? One can speculate in many different directions, but I’ll throw one out.


It strikes me that one of the unconscious hopes of nanotechnology is to avoid the ickiness of the body. (This follows a long tradition in Western philosophy, from Plato on down to Descartes to General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, of disdain for the material body and its imperfections and, well, fluids.) Fluids are ubiquitous in biology because they are so useful. All the highways of the body are built on fluids, carrying energy and messages and cries for help.

Rather than imagining nanodevices that work without fluids, what if nanodevices used fluids–but a different one from water? This is a tall order because water is such a perfect solvent and much of biology revolves around hydrophilic and hydrophobic molecules, but for speculative purposes we can imagine it.

Using an immersive medium different from water solves some of the classic SF dilemmas, in particular the killer nanobot plague. If your nanotechnology requires a scarce resource you control, it is unlikely to kill you.

It will also lead to a host of interesting story ideas. You could still use nanotechnology to assemble things in a vat, but medical nanobot may be ruled out. (This is not necessarily a Bad Thing–limitations help to drive SF speculation.) The fluid itself would become a precious resource. Two rival nanotechnology companies might use non-interchangeable fluid–think Microsoft and Apple. And so on.

For these purposes you don’t even have to specify the fluid or its properties; just give it a trade name.

One could go further. A couple of recommendations if you want to write creatively about nanotechnology:

  • Think about some of the typical nanotech “cliches” and try to reverse, twist, and subvert them. For example, one cliché is the “gray goo” of nanotech. What if instead nanotech started producing structured objects–food, mobile phones, bicycles–everywhere? What if medical nanobots started creating extra organs inside of everyone (much like Cordwainer Smith’s story “A Planet Named Sheol”)? What if nanotech could only make things from metal–or silicon–or carbon? How would that constrain the technology and the story?
  • Think about the most fundamental force on biology–natural selection–and how it might apply to nanotechnolgy, especially nanotechnology gone “bad.” To remind you, natural selection is population pressure plus variation in heredity. What sort of population pressures might be exerted on nanobots? Can nanobots evolve and speciate?

  • Combining the previous two suggestions: Another cliché in nanotech, and general among robots, is that artificial lifeforms will seek “perfection” (another holdover from Platonic thought.) But if you think about biology and evolution, perfection is never sought by nature–instead it is reproduction of one’s genes. Rather than perfecting organisms, nanobots might seek to make them more adaptable and flexible. For example, one could reimagine Star Trek’s Borg–although they, too, recite the desire to seek Platonic perfection, they strike as a perfect case for cybernetic adaptation gone wild.

  • Study biology more generally and think: how could this serve as an example–or counter-example–for nanotech? Thing of transcription and epigenetics and signal transduction and on and on and on…

I’ll say again (because I know I’ll get flame posts on the topic): there is no shame in invoking nanobots in SF. But I already find them a tired cliché. I would like to see some more innovative thinking about nanotechnology. Keep in mind that technological progression is seldom what we imagine. Golden Age SF predicted vacations in orbiting space hotels and on the moon by 2010–and that computers would still be room-sized monstrosities. Nanotechnology, or something similar to it, will birth advancements that I haven’t imagined, I’m sure of it. I’m equally sure they won’t be like Drexler or Stephenson imagined either. I dare you to imagine something different.

(My thanks to Athena Andreadis for some helpful suggestions and additions to this essay.)

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.