The following is a transcription of a panel about nanotechnology held at ConFuse 93. The transcription was done by Leif Stensson. The text has been edited by Tommy Persson and Hans Persson to make it more readable. The panel was Nancy Kress, Michael PetersÚn, Magnus Redin and Tommy Persson (moderator).
Tommy Persson: I was going to start to tell you about the basic idea which is that you are going to build machines in the size range of nanometers. The basic part of the machine should be that size. This is taken from the book Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler. The basic idea in this book is that you also have what Drexler calls assemblers that take raw material and put together machines. These machines could be replicators that can replicate themselves, and when you can replicate, you get exponential growth which means that you can build very big things very fast. You also have disassemblers that can take an object apart and scan it and store information about it. Drexler predicts that we are going to have mechanical nanocomputers and since the size is so small, they can be at least a hundred times faster than conventional computers. And if it's possible to build using electrons as building blocks we are going to get computers that are 100000 times faster than conventional computers. If you combine these three components, you are going to be able to do anything like for instance copy a human being. Perhaps we could begin by saying what has been done and what is the current state of today's research. Redin, do you want to say something about this?
Magnus Redin: There are research efforts going on, and the Japanese have sort of begun a great big research effort to develop some kind of nanotechnology. Not as big as the fifth generation project but there is research going on. Unfortunately, I have not read any scientific papers about it so I can only say there is a growing interest in it. The most money is spent on the related field biotechnology which will yield nanotechnology when it's sufficiently advanced. You can use genes and proteins to build machines. And there has also been a famous demonstration using a scanning tunneling microscope where basically, you have an extremely tiny needle, about a single atom wide and hold it over a surface or something and then you have a small current between the needle and the surface and you can then get a picture of the surface. You can also use the needle to manipulate individual atom and a few researchers on IBM made this famous demonstration where they used xenon atoms to write ''IBM''. You can't build things with it yet but it could be another way to build some kind of nanomachines.
Drexler poses three questions: what can be done, what will be done, and what is desired? What can be done is what is theoretically possible to do. What will be done is the question of what limits society is going to impose. The third question is what do we want; do we really want this nanotechnology? How has science fiction authors used this theme? What position has they taken on this questions?
Michael PetersÚn: A good question? Actually, in science fiction, very few novels -- you must correct me if I am wrong here -- has actually gone into the immense changes in society which must come from functional nanotechnology.
Instead, science fiction seems to be fascinated by body and sex changes, by cosmetic changes, like changing the colour of your skin into fluorescencing, putting gills on yourself just for display and so on.
Nancy Kress: There are a lot of writers who's just
discovered this, like me, and therefore we are frantically writing novels
now that will come out in another year. I have to say up front that I don't
have a scientific background. I probably know less than anybody else up
here, less about the actuality of it, but what I do when I read a book like
this -- which I have now done several times -- is not to look at what
is being done but take the farthest possible scenario and look at
what could be done. And when I realised that little tiny nano
assemblers build things from the atoms up and that you could build almost
anything from anything lying around, I thought ''Oh My God!''. And the
reverse side of this, the disassemblers, that you could take anything apart
because disassemblers break the chemical bonds that put atoms into
molecules. Actually disassemblers are closer to be realised than
assemblers, because it's always easier to take things apart than put them
together again -- just ask a two-year-old. When I realised this was a
possibility, the immediate question that came to mind was: ''Who gets to
control this stuff?'' And that's what the book I'm writing right
Drexler presupposes the worst possible scenario called ''the gray goo scenario'' where disassemblers get loose. The disassemblers can literally take anything apart into atoms, and they're self-replicating. And if this were the case, you could reduce the entire planet to gray goo in a very very short time. Now that is the worst case. Now, if nanotechnology is not going to be something that eventually scares the public, we have to answer the question: ''How are we going to control this?''
The book that I'm writing right now, a sequel to my novel Beggars in Spain presupposes a group of super-intelligent people, with high-boosted IQs.
They are born a couple of generations away from the beginning of Beggars in Spain and they invent and deal with nanotechnology. And the question becomes, who will control this stuff? There's really only three answers: either the government, any particular government or world governments together, will put regulations in place and try to suppress it, try to control it and decide who can use it, and for what purposes, as is already happening with genetic engineering at least in the United States; or the scientists will control it, because they're the only ones who can really understand it in the first place, so the scientists and the technos will control it; or the free market economy will control it, because it will develop where someone will pay for it, either legally or illegally. Those were the only three possibilities I could come up with. And in my novel, those three groups are fighting it out and the question -- I don't want to tell you who wins or what the final answer is, because when this book is published you have to run out and read it -- is not an idle question.
And I just want to say one thing that brought home to me how ''unidle'' a question it is. My fellow panelists were talking about the applications to electronics and to those kinds of non-biological sciences. There already are nanomachines, you have a lot of cellular machinery inside your cells that breaks chemical bonds to digest food, or that builds chemical bonds in order for you to grow and to repair cell damage. Enzymes are one of the main class of naturally occurring nanomachines that you already have in your body. And for that reason; what interests me is the possibilities of relating this to genetic engineering which is, of course, also a way of building from the ground up by changing the blueprint, in the same way that nanotechnology would be. And I was on a panel at the WorldCon last year that was about genetic engineering, not about nanotechnology, and I was talking about Jeremy Rifkin. For those of you unacquainted with american popular culture, Jeremy Rifkin is a nut running around Washington -- a very influential nut -- running around Washington, announcing that all genetic engineering is going to lead us to our doom, it is going to ruin the human genotype, it is going to let monsters loose, it's going to destroy the ecology and Congress had better stop this instantly. He is the bane of all biotechnology companies like GeniTech, and he has succeeded in stopping some research projects because congressmen don't really understand this stuff, and so they tend to listen to him. Genetic engineering, specifically on human cells is not legal to pursue in the United States. Well, I was on this panel, we were discussing this, and a young woman came up to me afterwards and she said -- she was a graduate student, a Ph. D. candidate at one of the larger universities in the United States, she didn't tell me which one -- ''I just want you to know that it has already gone underground, that there are already genetic engineering experiments being performed that are outside of government guidelines, because scientists are just too fascinated by this stuff to give it up.'' Because my point on the panel was that if you try to control it
too stringently, it will go underground and I think the same thing will happen to nanotechnology; it's just too interesting to stop, and if the United States gets really nasty about it, it will go off-shore the same way some other things have done. So I think we're going to need to look at this, and the novelistic possibilities for us writers who are less interested in what's going on now other than what could go on in several hundred years are just staggering. So you're not seeing these books yet because we're all frantically writing them, next year you will see them.
Tommy Persson: I think Drexler points out another alternative. He says that you can't suppress information because somebody is going to find it and use it. He also said it's going to be very cheap -- dirt cheap -- to build these things.
Nancy Kress: Eventually, not in the beginning.
Tommy Persson: Yes, eventually but I thought he said that you are not going to have this capitalist society where you have to buy these nanoproducts because everybody can have them, everybody can have good housing and such things.
Michael PetersÚn: I must disagree thoroughly with you. Basically, the actual cost for medicine is ridiculously low, even for the most advanced kind of medicine today it is ridiculously low and even so -- even here in Sweden where we're supposed to have quite a frictionless society with lesser poor and fewer rich people -- there are some people who couldn't possibly pay for the charges of the medicine if they had to go outside the public health care system. There is nothing wrong with a capitalist society -- I like part of it -- but even so, if they can charge for it they will charge for it, as much as they can, and I see no reason why nanotechnology should be spared from this. Of course, if they manage to make nanomachines that could heal you instantly, heal your body even if it is almost totally destroyed, replace your memory even if your brain is destroyed, only the rich will have it.
Nancy Kress: Initially, at least.
Michael PetersÚn: Initially for the first hundred years at least.
Nancy Kress: I think the best analogy here is with the computers. When computers were first put together, during World War II, they were rooms and rooms of vacuum tubes. You could not have one in your garage, it took a large amount of investment because it was so new, it was new technology. In fact, at one point Thomas Watson, head of IBM, said that he envisioned a world market for about five computers, eventually, hopefully. Of course the man was wrong. As the technology evolved now everybody has a PC. I can walk into a supermarket, and I can for 2.98 get a hand calculator that will do all kinds of unbelievable math that the Univac was unable to do back in World War II. I think you're both right; I think it will be very expensive, and only the rich will have it, and we will have a large gap between who can get it and who cannot get it and eventually, a couple of hundred years down, then it becomes dirt cheap, and it's all available, then Eric Drexler is right and it may very well change everything. But, I want to say just one thing about this book. I have read it three times very carefully and he's not only a believer, he's an evangelist, he puts the best and most optimistic face possible on getting this going because he wants it to get going and I think he downplays some of the dangers and some of the difficulty just because he's writing not a scientific book but a persuasive book. He's out to make disciples, and he says "Oh, this won't be a problem, this won't be a problem", the hell it won't! -- I think that it will eventually be a problem and not only that: as a novelist I want it to be a problem, because otherwise how am I going to get a conflict to write a book about.
Michael PersÚn: The structure of society itself is based on the fact that we have money. If you have money you can buy what you want. If you don't have any money, you won't get it. This is the basic structure of society.
Nancy Kress: Unless somebody decides to give it to you for either idealistic or socialistic reasons.
Daniel Pargman: How come CD records are more expensive than old records when they are cheaper to manufacture?
Nancy Kress: CDs are still fairly new, what, ten, twenty years. As more competitors get out there, the prices will fall the same way as it did with computer equipment. In 1974 I went back to graduate school, and my then husband was also in graduate school, and we were both taking statistics at the same time and we decided that given that we were both taking statistics we ought to buy a calculator. Now, this was a major investment for us. We weren't making all that much money, we had two babies and we thought about it for a long time, then we decided we'd spend seventy dollars on a calculator. And again, this was a big step. It didn't even do square roots; so, we bought this calculator that didn't even do square roots and everytime we had to do a statistics problem that involves a lot of multiplying and finding square roots, you do successive divisions and multiplications to get it. Now -- and this is less that twenty years ago -- again, for a dollar ninety-eight you can get a calculator at the supermarket checkout counter that does not only do square roots but cosines and tangents and all these unbelievable things, and the cost has plummeted and I think the same thing probably will happen to CDs eventually, when you get enough competitors out there. There's one difference with CDs, and that is that you sign artists that you can't necessarily replicate. The technology is all pretty much the same; the inside of a calculator and the inside of a calculator. Michael Jackson is one commodity, and when you sign him to a CD then you can charge whatever the traffic can bear for a Michael Jackson CD. But you don't have that artistic element in the kind of technology we're talking about here.
Audience - Ahrvid Engholm Does nanodevices have to be self-replicating? And can you make nanodevices that are self-replicating a certain number of times, and still get the devices you wanted?
Nancy Kress: There are two possibilities: they are not self-replicating, or they're clocked, they only self-replicate a certain number of times, and then they stop and I use both of these in my book.
Magnus Redin: There is a third possibility: making self-replicating nano-machines that can only ''live'' in a certain environment.
Nancy Kress: Yes, or can only build a certain thing, or take apart a certain thing, yes, those are all possibilities.
Audience - Daniel Pargman Or building self-replicating machines with the single task of destroying other self-replicating machines.
Nancy Kress: You can! All of these are possible, but the point is that it's also possible to build indefinitely self-replicating machines that will take apart anything. And as long as that possibility exists, can we be positive that some madmen out there won't do it? Although, when I was a child everybody was sure that nuclear war was going to happen, because since the bomb existed, there was no way the human race could refrain from using it. And here it's been, what, forty more years, and we haven't yet. At least not in the way that takes out New York or Washington, which was what we were talking about when I was in grade school.
Tommy Persson: Drexler says that one leading force is going to develop the nanomachines and his initial solution to this problem is that they are going to build these nanolaboratories that are small thumbnail sized things which are enclosed in explosives so that it is impossible for the nanomachines to get out. There is still an incredible amount of space inside this small laboratory so you can give them to people who design new nanomachines. Then he talks about committees that are going to evaluate these new programs and decide if we are going to release these nanomachines or not.
Nancy Kress: And we all know how effective committees are. Are you familiar with ''kudzu''? Do you know what kudzu is? Kudzu is a plant that grows in Japan, and somebody had the idea that if we brought it to America and planted it, it would make good cattle-feed. They brought a couple of plants, I think it was three. Kudzu has now taken over the American South. It's a strangling vine parasite out of its regular environment, and there are places -- and when I say ''taken over'' it is exactly what I mean -- in North Carolina I've seen where it grows all over the fields, up over trees, over metal railroad tracks if the trains don't keep running, over the houses, and over everything, and it's incredibly fast. I was in Raleigh for a week last summer. When we first got there, we walked every day over this little path to the restaurant where we were in the habit of taking our lunch. There was some kudzu growing beside the path, and by the end of the week, it had crossed the path. The stuff is amazing, and there were three little plants that got into an environment that wasn't naturally prepared to defend against it. I know K. Eric Drexler says we can seal these but all it's gonna take is one.
Michael PetersÚn: A point about these kudzu plants. If I'm not totally misinformed, I think these plants were one of the major influences for David Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr, this alien ecosystem that attacks Earth.
Nancy Kress: Kudzu is frightening, and the only thing is that winter will kill it, so it can only go so far north in the United States. You guys are all safe from kudzu!
Audience - Daniel Pargman I just wanted to say something about a related interdisciplinary science field that almost sounds like science fiction. It is related to nanotechnology, but especially to this question of the ability to self-replicate and it is the field of artificial life. The first conference was held in 1988 in Los Angeles and they've had three conferences in North America and one in Europe. The are exploring what aliveness consists of, what characteristics are special to being alive, and they are trying to recreate life, mostly inside computers, but some of it outside computers.
Nancy Kress: I sat on the plane coming in from New York to Copenhagen next to one of the scientists in the Los Alamos group and I didn't know this was going on until he was explaining it to me in, I'm sure, extremely simple terms, dummying it down a lot for me to be able to follow it and I felt the same kind of ''Wow!'' as when I read this because there are so many implications to that, how we define life.
Audience - Daniel Pargman A popular book that anyone could read if he want to study this field is Artificial Life which came out last year and is written by Steven Levy, who also wrote Hackers.
Audience - Ahrvid Engholm Could nanotech devices evolve? For instance, if you have a self-replicating nanotech device which has some kind of replicant code, and in normal conditions this replicant code would make this device produce exact copies of itself but there could be damages to this replicant code, so it could make distorted copies of itself. Most of these copies wouldn't work, but some copies would work, doing other functions so you could imagine some sort of evolution.
Audience - Daniel Pargman This is exactly what they are discussing in artificial life, and they also look at genetic algorithms.
Magnus Redin: It's a proposed method for learning nanomachines to do the things one wants them to do; to make them able to evolve, to accomplish something.
Nancy Kress: You have stories there!
Audience - Daniel Pargman One of the things Levy claims is that if we impose the three laws of robotics on some creature that is alive, and we put them in a section which it can alter, then the survivability of this organism will improve if it managed to discard one of these laws.
Michael PetersÚn: What would it do to us?
Audience - Daniel Pargman It would probably hold itself in the highest esteem.
Michael PetersÚn: They wouldn't tell us about them.
Audience - Daniel Pargman I also want to say that some of the researchers in artificial life are extremely non-anthropocentric and they say, well, we're just here for a temporary time here on Earth and if they're better fitted than us to survive they are our descendants, the first creatures that are going to be our creatures.
Michael PetersÚn: I do prefer the human race. Actually, one thing that strikes me here is, the entire nanotechnology, assemblers, disassemblers, and self-replicating machines: doesn't that ring a little familiar bell? The von Neuman machines? The probes that were to be sent out to space and reproduce themselves and spread through the universe.
Tommy Persson: If we are going to succeed in building nanomachines we're probably going to have immortality or near immortality. They are talking about downloading, scanning the brain and maybe building a new body or putting it into a computer. But it's probably easier to cure diseases. For example cancer, there you're going to selectively destroy some cells, and maybe this is easy to do. They are also discussing freezing people and if you have nanotechnology, it's going to be easy to succeed in unfreezing them.
Michael PetersÚn: I actually believe that if we do manage to get nanotechnology in the near future, the changes will be enormous. I think that medicine will be the first area where nanotechnology comes true. One of the first things is probably going to be the fight against cancer.
Michael PetersÚn: Actually I think we're going to have a solution to AIDS long before we have a solution to nanotechnology. I hope, for Africa's sake.
Nancy Kress: I have this in my book too, because anything viral; AIDS, chicken pox, the common cold, is gonna be one of the first steps, because viruses already are tiny little nanomachines. They go into your cells and they change part of the DNA code, they splice their own DNA code into the cell's DNA, and then begins to replicate. That's a nanotechnological operation, by taking and splicing a section of their genes into the DNA of your cells they have done a nanotechnological operation and created a different DNA coding and then, of course, the cells replicate. Suppose you have something that goes in and scans all the DNA of various cells and then it destroys anything that does not match your DNA coding. Then anything that is viral, that represents a change in the DNA, is gone. And not only does that keep you healthy from viral kinds of things but also from foreign bacteria, deposits on the artery walls which don't have the same DNA as yours, lead poisoning or other toxic kinds of poisoning. I think I agree with you, that would be one of the first applications which is why in the novel I wrote that is the first thing they built, and they immediately run into problems with the American Medical Association.
Michael PetersÚn: I think one of the second largest things to come up is actually the fight against fatness. I believe a lot of rich, fat people are going to be immensely happy.
Nancy Kress: You'll have to explain how that's gonna go, because the fat cells are the same DNA as the rest of you, so I wanna hear how you're going to do this.
Michael PetersÚn: I don't know that, but I think they're gonna work really hard on it. I think one of the first things to come is body modelling. Body and sex changes, you're gonna see cosmetic changes of the body, who wouldn't like to have a nice set of huge teeth.
Nancy Kress: Perfect skin. You can augument muscles by having nanomachines build more of the same muscle cells you already have without the side effects of steroids. You know what's fascinating: this was all already anticipated, but without the name nanotechnology in Dancers at the End of Time, the Moorcock series. He has a far future when there's not many human beings left on Earth but they are essentially omnipotent, they're gods. They can mold the landscapes into any form they want, they can mold themselves into any form they want, and all that they really lack is information. Their information about what they want to make is a little sketchy. For instance they tried making historical recreations, but they're not exactly sure of what periods of history belong together. So you have Victorian dress in Rome and stuff like that. Moorcock didn't have the concept of nanotechnology and he wisely decided not to explain how this happens, just to focus on his lunatic cast of characters, who makes it happen. But essentially, taken to its ultimate extreme, you would get Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time universe available to all of us which is a truly scary thought.
Michael PetersÚn: What about identity? What if you tried to make three copies of yourself? Who would be you?
Tommy Persson: A classical problem.
Michael PetersÚn: How would you react?
Nancy Kress: I don't know.
Michael PetersÚn: It would be a very strange society. I have two female, one male and a neutrum today.
Nancy Kress: Michael Swanwick does that in Stations of the Tide, one of the few books that does actually use nanotechnology and which is already printed. It won the Nebula a year ago. It's a good novel.
Tommy Persson: I looked up ''nanotechnology'' in the encyclopaedia, and they said it had been popular in SF since 1980, and they mentioned two books. They mentioned Greg Bear's Queen of Angels, and they mentioned Stations of the Tide because Swanwick had said that this was nanotechnology. And in Greg Bear's book the connection to the brain was nanotechnology and the gun and the building of the house. They also said that nanotechnology mostly has been used in hard SF as a fact, as a background. Is this true or false? Opinions?
Michael PetersÚn: Quite true, actually. That's why I started this gripe about not reading any science fiction books that really goes into the immense changes in society. For example, I read Assemblers of Infinity by Doug Beason and Kevin Anderson I think, which nicely managed to side-step the whole problem because nanotechnology is invented during the book, as they meet alien nanotechnology. But even so, this human nanotechnology is basically a scare story about this evil machine getting loose on an arctic station and killing off everybody.
Tommy Persson: Someone mentioned some new book by Michael Flynn who wrote In the Country of the Blind.
Nancy Kress: Yes, it's called The Nanotech Chronicles and is a collection of short stories, each of which uses nanotechnology. But I think Michael often went for the exact opposite of what you were saying, he went for the easy effect rather than talking about the really profound changes to society that could come about. For instance, in one story he has a nanotech coating that you can put on the outside of buildings to prevent graffiti, because anything that you add by painting or with a pencil just dissolves. So no graffiti can stay on the outside of buildings for very long, and he builds a story around that, and that's cute, but it is also not profound in terms of change in society.
Magnus Redin: I think you can assume that raw materials are going to be ridiculously cheap, and simple products will be ridiculously cheap, and almost everything is going to be ridiculously cheap, except information. Nanomachines can also be used to save the environment.
Nancy Kress: Small, tiny little nanomachines in the air to remove all that you don't want to be there Disassemble it. You can have clean air. Remember that you can't take anything lower than the level of elements, because once you start dealing with taking apart atoms you're dealing with the release of so much energy that it's outside the realm of nanotechnology. You can go down to the level of atoms, but not lower than that; not to protons, electrons and all those other strange things.
Audience Something we have not touched upon at all yet is the use of nanotechnology for military purposes; sabotage and such things.
Nancy Kress: That's one of the really nasty scenarios that Eric Drexler doesn't want to look at too closely.
Michael PetersÚn: Nanotechnology doesn't kill people; people do.
Nancy Kress: Well, technically, biological warfare is a crude version of the same thing and although there are certainly places in the world where it's been used, I'm always astonished at how few times it's been used compared to how often it could have been used with devastating results and he's relying on the same kind of restraint internationally.