Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics, and Artificial Intelligence will Transform our World

Graham H. May (Reviews Editor, Futures Skills graham@mayilkley.freeserve.co.uk)

Foresight

ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 1 June 2003

262

Citation

May, G.H. (2003), "Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics, and Artificial Intelligence will Transform our World", Foresight, Vol. 5 No. 3, pp. 54-55. https://doi.org/10.1108/fs.2003.5.3.54.2

Publisher

:

Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited


Giant tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and asteroid strikes; just some of the more catastrophic natural dangers that face us. But fortunately, according to Douglas Mulhall, we are about to possess the technology, which could, should we take the appropriate steps, save us from extinction by these threats. And it is molecular technology that has this potential.

Our Molecular Future is divided into four sections. Part 1 The Molecular Age sets the scene outlining the singularity the author contends we are approaching. Machines more intelligent than humans and humans enhanced by neural implants are part of a “megamerger of supersciences” involving, genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. The development of nanotechnology or molecular assembly which involves:

  • “Positioning: placing molecules in a predetermined order

  • Self‐replication: molecular systems that duplicate themselves, and

  • Assembly: molecular factories that assemble components into other machines,”

will realise its potential when these conditions are met. We are not there yet but the research effort that is being devoted to the area and the speed with which developments are occurring suggests a molecular assembler of the kind envisaged by Drexler et al. (1991) could be achieved within 20 years.

The rate of development is, of course, not just a matter of technology and Mulhall notes, “Social and economic factors may push such dates forward by five years, or back by 50.” Similar questions to those raised over the development of genetics are already, quite reasonably, being aired about nanotechnology and the positions taken on them will clearly influence the speed at which products become available. The range which they might cover is extensive, and Mulhall lists energy, cars, coatings and surfaces, lubricants, textiles, and robotics among the areas that could be affected.

To provide an idea of the kind of world such technologies could allow us to develop, Mulhall presents a “Retrospective from late in the twenty‐first century.” It includes, bio‐degradable e‐paper, instant translation, sensitive clothing, virtual meetings and travel, nanobots to clean surfaces including your teeth, adhesives that can be switched on and off, guidance systems for aero cars, underground supersonic travel, space elevators and much else. Whether we get there and what it might be like will depend on the actions of a range of organisations including researchers, manufacturers, regulators, venture capitalists, lawyers, and the media who will play a crucial role in influencing public opinion. As always the military uses, “are among the most awesome,” and worrying applications.

Part 2 examines Nature’s Time Bombs like those listed at the start of this review. There is plenty of evidence both in the fossil record and in the cosmos for such potential disasters. One that Mulhall focusses on is the impact of comet Shoemaker‐Levy 9 on Jupiter, which he argues, “punched a hole in the core of environmentalism,” by showing that Earth is not a closed ecosystem but a much more open one than has often been thought. Most environmentalists he suggests do not consider natural extreme events except where human action seems to be making them worse, but to Mulhall they have much the greatest potential for creating havoc and threatening life.

Fortunately, Part 3, Blueprints for a Molecular Defense (sic) provides some hope. Our usual approach to disasters, it is argued, tends to ignore the lessons of history by hastily reconstructing similar structures without thinking about the longer term and concentrating on relief rather than prevention. The mega‐disasters listed here would cost a great deal to avoid but much less than letting them happen. What could be done? Have an asteroid for lunch is one answer. Rather than blowing up an asteroid with nuclear weapons that could shower smaller rocks anywhere, self‐replicating nanobots stripmine it. Similar approaches are offered as protection from the other natural catastrophes.

Not that this technology is without its problems. One of the most significant is nanoecology or the impact of molecular products on the environment. Nature is of course molecular and humans have already had considerable impact on the environment, but the impact of human constructed molecular materials could be even more significant than anything we have done so far.

Part 4, Getting From Here to There, shifts the discussion away from technology to more human concerns. Mulhall argues that there is a need for informed speculation about the future and in particular asking the right questions about technological developments and who has a role to play in determining the outcome. A wide range of interests are involved from governments, the military, and investors to environmentalists, social workers and indigenous peoples. The latter have a role to play in overcoming our cultural amnesia as their cultures and legends may well hold important lessons about natural calamities that have occurred far in the past before our current methods of recording history were developed.

A number of principles are set out to help us find our way through the problems. It is important not to forget the lessons of history nor the potential for harm or the pursuit of sectional interests these new technologies could engender. There is a need for openness and the pursuit of broad public benefit such as a cure for malaria or “software that doesn’t crash,” but the dependence of scientists on government and corporate funding feeds pubic suspicion. In order to deal with the issues we face we need to develop new approaches across a wide range of areas. These include systems of government, where models of democracy will need to incorporate artificial intelligence, and a redefinition of economics, that takes more factors, for example the impact of molecular assemblers and the need to differentiate between wealth and happiness, into account.

Our Molecular Future may, at first sight, appear to be a typical example of technological determinism, indeed the title suggests as much, but it is more than that. It makes clear that although there are many technological developments in the pipeline the future is not inevitable. More than anything else it is a call to face the future and to act in order to avoid some major threats and create a future that will bring benefit to more, whether they be homo sapiens or our successors.

Reference

Drexler, K.E., Petersen, C. and Pergamit, G. (1991), Unbounding the Future: The Nanotechnology Revolution, Quill William Morris, New York, NY.

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