K. Eric Drexler, “Engines of Creation”

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Drexler’s now-classic text, which Ray Kurzweil claims (on the back “cover” of etext-only Version 2.0) “established the revolutionary new field of nanotechnology,” presented, upon its first publication in 1986, an astonishingly comprehensive vision of a nanofuture that he claimed would be ushered in by a “replication breakthrough,” forever changing how humans interact with each other and the world at large. Drexler’s book is written for a popular audience, and its clear intent is to help bring about the transformations he envisions. That is, by envisioning them he provides a roadmap, a dream, a nano-imagining that can be transmitted to others, taken up as a cause, worked toward as an enabling (science) fiction.

The breakthrough is technological in nature; it is marked by the moment in which scientists are able to manufacture fully-programmable nano-replication machines; that is, devices capable of reading complex instructions, processed through nano-computers operating via molecular switches, and on the basis of that information assembling complex structures, one atom at a time. Ultimately, such replicators, in complex arrays, would not only manufacture copies of themselves, and other nano-machines, but also macro-scale structures such as buildings, spacecraft, and toothbrushes. The break in the “breakthrough” is in this articulation of technological scale: up to this (hypothetical) point, all of our technology will have been “bulk technology,” Drexler’s slightly disparaging term for machines that function initially and only on our own perceptive scale. “Molecular technology” or “nanotechnology,” on the other hand, affects every scale from the molecular on up. For humans to gain control of atoms in this way is for us to gain control of all matter. The possibilities, Drexler continually reminds us, are multitudinous, and include remaking the world as we know it as well the destruction of our species. His book, then, not only urges us toward this Breakthrough, but prepares us to accept it, to steer a rational course between its possible catastrophes: “A wait-and-see policy would be very expensive―[it could] cost many millions of lives, and perhaps end life on earth.” (17)

Drexler’s book is itself arranged around the twin tropes of “replication” and “evolution,” which of course are tightly related. Replication as a process describes, for Drexler, not only the basic operation of the nanotechnological Breakthrough, but the basic operation of life that it imitates (replicates), and finally the process by which ideas are culturally disseminated. These last he refers to a “memes,” following Richard Dawkins (who coined the term and popularized it among scientific discourse), as a way to subject cultural phenomena to the tenants of evolutionary biology. For Drexler, memes, genes, and nanomachines all replicate and evolve according to a similar process of natural selection.

Drexler wants us to to consider his nanovision for two related reasons: first, that we may take steps toward its enactment, and second, that we may avoid the potential disasters that could otherwise befall us if we act irrationally in this pursuit. The two sides of this coin―fear and promise―are, of course, mutually reinforcing: they both seek to establish nanotechnology as eminent, as something that we can’t avoid thinking about, and thus can’t avoid doing. Thus Drexler invokes the “gray goo problem,” the possibility that nano-replicators run amok could “reduce the biosphere to dust in a matter of days.” (172) His solution is to find ways “to live with thinking machines, to make them law-abiding citizens.” (173). This involves not only building rigorous safeguards into nano-replicators (making those released in the wild “limited assemblers,” or single-purpose devices that cannot be reprogrammed, and ensuring that those which scientists program and test are hermetically sealed in impenetrable diamond-fiber, self-destructing micro-labs), but also altering public understanding of nanotechnology, technology as a whole, and science in general.

Here the memes come into play; Drexler’s main worry is that the general populace is uneducated with regard to science and technology, unwittingly propagating memes that have evolved for maximum replicability but which do not benefit their host organisms―in this case society at large. “Such memes,” claims Drexler, “will then spread and become entrenched, whether they deserve to be or not.” (237) This is often the result of a primitive “mental immune system” that primarily functions as a “reject-the-new reflex.” (238) We must protect, then, against “nonsense” taking root. The proper defense against such nonsense involves the propagation of the scientific method (a “meme system” that minds use “to defend against nonsense”) and, more surprisingly, the promotion of hypertext. When all of our information is available on computer systems and hypertextually linked to all other relevant information, and communities have sprung up around different clusters of information, nonsense will no longer have free reign: critics (read: scientists) will be able to directly attach their critiques to fraudulent information, “clearing it from the intellectual arena… almost as soon as it pops into sight.” (224)

Thus Drexler presciently envisions the hypertext future (which would revolutionize the way we access information less than ten years later in the form of the World Wide Web), while grossly overestimating the scientific community’s ability to prevail in such a battle of memes. His assumption seems to be that our current situation, in which sensationalism grabs the headlines and rules the airwaves, in which academics who posit hard limits on our rate of growth vis-a-vis the Earth’s available resources (a group he heaps particular scorn upon) can publish books and give lectures without getting laughed off the stage, allows unscientific ideas to thrive largely because scientific replies to nonsense are less visible than the texts they are critiquing. Hypertext, for Drexler, would level the playing field so that the best memes would win out; he has no doubt that the best memes are those endorsed by molecular biologists and nano-engineers. Of course, the actual instantiation of hypertext culture has eroded the authority of experts and merely resulted in the overproliferation of information of all sorts, completely overwhelming any attempt―by anyone―to vet it.

Thus while Drexler addresses the urgent need for public narratives that can help guide a nano-future, he reduces this need to the elevation of scientists and engineers into positions of power and visibility; essentially he argues for a cultural shift favorable to the replication of scientific and techno-utopian memes at the expense of the memes of “idealists” and other non-scientific nay-sayers. It is the uninhibited replication of Drexler’s own memes that will lead to the safe replication of nano-assemblers, which will in turn usher in a period of unparalleled prosperity in which goods are produced “without labor,” trade becomes unnecessary, the human race can reverse the aging process and live in perpetuity, expand indefinitely into outer space, and even achieve inexpensive interstellar travel via nano-constructed lightsails. All it takes to start the replication revolution, according to Drexler’s Afterword, is a paper and pen, taken up in the effort to “understand and influence” these developments. Address your letter to The Foresight Institute.

-ZH

Buy the original book on Amazon.com
Read the 20th anniversary version online.

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