Ed Regis, “Nano”

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Ed Regis’ book is part historiography, part science popularization, part exuberant futurology, and mostly a biography of Eric Drexler. Ostensibly an exploration of the history and significance of the nanotechnological boom just recently materializing (the book was published in 1995), Regis chooses the story of Drexler and his books as the narrative backbone of his own. This is immediately apparent when the book opens not with early scientific (or even science fictional) achievements that would pave the way for nanotechnology, or indeed with any scientific or engineering achievements at all, but rather with Drexler’s exchange with Al Gore during a 1992 congressional hearing. The real subject of “Nano” is Drexler, here figured as a visionary, leading the human race to a nano-future, and the substance of that vision itself, which Colin Milburn has elsewhere dubbed “Nanovision.” Incidentally, along the way, Regis will digress to cover the basic science of nanotechnology, as well as noteworthy achievements in technology that have advanced the field. Somehow, though, these digressions always seem like appendages to his central narrative; they never quite fit together; a causal link is missing.

A majority of the book is the story of Drexler, who Regis portrays as a genius before his time, a visionary trying to convince a stubborn and short-sighted group of scientists, as well as the general public, that his ideas would change the world. Clearly, this is how Drexler pictures himself as well (see The Engines of Creation). “Nano”‘s problem, then, is that it sinks into hagiography. Bizarrely, Regis even devotes quite a few pages to documenting Drexler’s disappointment at discovering the previous theoretical and practical work that had been accomplished in the field of nanotechnology! Drexler was disappointed—and Regis clearly empathizes with him here—because he had hitherto believed that the entire concept of nanotechnology was his own only; that he was the first to think it up. Not only do we, as readers, question the scholarly methodology of a scientist who fails to research the field in which he is working, but we are potentially turned off at such blatant egotism (clearly not in the best interests of science). Yet Regis doesn’t address either of these points.

Regis’ book, then, much like Drexler’s, is quite narrow in perspective (though not in breadth): just as Drexler can’t seem to understand why so many working scientists don’t take him seriously, Regis can’t believe that the world hasn’t hailed Drexler as a genius. Nonetheless, he advances a few closely-related explanations: Drexler represents a paradigm shift, a change in the way we do science and technology that completely alters the old order; everyone involved in that order thus has a stake in preventing him from from being taken seriously. Yet Regis’ invocation of Thomas Kuhn’s model for scientific revolutions seems to ignore (or at least never addresses within the book) the fact that for Kuhn, paradigm shifts happen in basic science, with regard to explanatory theories. That is, a scientific revolution occurs when the data being collected by scientists working in a particular field begins to strain the currently reigning explanatory theory; the gaps and holes that appear cause some scientists to question the theory itself, leading to the generation of alternative theories, a period of competition between them, and eventually a wholesale switch to that which best fits the experimental data. But this isn’t the case with Drexler or nanotechnology in general: first of all, Drexler isn’t doing basic science. He isn’t putting forth any theories, let alone any that challenge those which currently reign supreme. Rather, in both his popular literature (“The Engines of Creation” being the most prominent example) and his scientific texts (“Nanosystems” and various papers) he presents a vision of the future more than a roadmap to get there. His claim is that existing science allows, at least theoretically, for nano replicators and nano computers to function under the control of humans to produce systems capable of manufacturing any maco-scale item, out of an existing supply of atoms, expending almost no energy, and costing almost nothing. This will lead to a period of superabundance for the human race in which all goods can be had immediately and for no cost, abolishing human labor, the money system, and all forms of inequality, as well as exploding past previous limits to our expansion as a race: we will become a spacefaring civilization, traveling easily and cheaply to other galaxies via nano-fabricated “lightsails,” live forever in a youthful state, etc. There are many grounds upon which to challenge this vision of Drexler’s, a number of which Regis glosses; the main point here, however, is that Drexler is less a scientist than an engineer, and less an engineer than a futurologist: is is not in the business of working with molecules, but rather of predicting what macro-level changes will occur in the future once scientists and nano-engineers figure out how to do the things he’s talking about. It is easy to see, then, why so many practicing nano-scientists find him irrelevant, useless, or even counterproductive to their work: he fails to help them discover anything, do anything, and in fact displaces attention from actual advances in nanotechnology to future dreams of the transformation of the entire world. Regis does a good job of documenting many reactions of prominent nanoscientists to Drexler, though he dismisses most of them as the “chorus of woe” from a cadre of dinosaurs, on the wrong side of an eminent paradigm shift.

Another way to formulate the problem is this: Drexler and his “nanoclan” were approaching technology from the opposite direction that scientists and engineers usually approach their problems: instead of working out basic principles and developing capabilities and then building up from there, he was articulating a vision of future uses for nanotechnology without regard to what was actually possible to do. That is, he describes fully-formed applications, but cannot say how to achieve them. In contrasts, nanotechnologists woking in labs were experimenting to discover what was possible, and only looking toward applications conservatively, on the basis of those building blocks.

Regis captures this discrepancy between working nanotechnologists and Drexler’s “nanoclan” by emphasizing that those working in labs were doing important work, but couldn’t articulate any uses for their achievements, an accusation he extends to Richard Feynman, who originated the field of nanotechnology in his 1959 lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” In Regis’ narrative, Feynman, right up to the end of his life, failed exactly because he lacked Drexler’s vision of the nano-future.

Regis, in lambasting the conservative practitioners of nanotechnology and wholeheartedly endorsing Drexler’s predictions of overwhelming abundance, several times attempts to contend with the social effects of such abundance, an issue Drexler largely leaves to the side. What, Regis asks, will happen when human labor is no longer required? Everyone will be unemployed, new cars will cost only $3.75, and food will all be free. Dave Friedman, son of Milton Friedman, argues that nanotechnology will simply accelerate a trend that technology has long-since initiated: it will make human labor more productive, and thereby lead to increased prosperity and more leisure time. The replicator revolution will simply take this to an extreme. But again, what will people do? Regis initially leaves us with Friedman, who can only shrug his shoulders and admit that “you may feel useless.” (178)

Nonetheless, Regis is at his best in explaining complex nanoscience for a popular audience, and his ancillary narratives involving Brownian motion, quantum mechanics, Scanning Tunneling Microscopes, buckyballs, and nanotubes are both lively and informative; one wishes that Regis didn’t attempt to connect all of nanotechnology back to Drexler’s vision.

At the end of his book, Regis revisits the perpetually nagging question of what people will do in the nanotech future of material abundance. He acknowledges that perhaps scientists aren’t the best-equipped scholars to tackle this problem, and goes on to quote a number of psychologists and philosophers on the question of abundance. Some claim that human happiness is a function of productive activity (not leisure), and that a future in which no one was compelled to work in any capacity would be a future of boredom, despair, and perhaps sheer mischief. Others claim that it is at least possible for the idle to remain productive, occupied, or otherwise happy. Drexler thinks people will become more creative. Regis concludes that it can’t be all that bad, given that people will still have the option to work; they’ll find a way to cope. The ambivalence of this aspect of nanovision is well captured by Oxford philosopher Bernard Williams, who Regis quotes in conversation with Drexler: “It’ll be like Sunday afternoon in the American suburbs.” It will be a future of peace, prosperity, and idleness, with the potential for creativity and yet without any reason to believe that it will emerge. This, then, is the limit of nanovision, the point past which it cannot see: the fate of culture, of will, of creativity.

-ZH

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