Thursday, February 23, 2012

A New Industrial Revolution

Some people think that nanotechnology will transform the world. Nanotechnology, to these people, is a new technology which is not with us yet, but whose arrival within the next fifty years is absolutely inevitable. Once the technology is mastered, we will learn to make tiny machines that will be able to assemble anything atom by atom, from any kind of raw material.

The consequences, they believe, will be transforming. Material things of any kind will become virtually free, as well as being immeasurably superior in all respects to anything we have available to us now. These tiny machines will be able to repair our bodies from the inside, cell by cell. The threat of disease will be eliminated, and the process of aging will be only a historical memory. In this world, energy will be clean and abundant and the environment will have been repaired to a pristine state. Space travel will be cheap and easy and death will be abolished.

Some pessimists see an alternative future - one transformed by nanotechnology, but infinitely for the worse. They predict that we will learn to make these immensely powerful but tiny robots, but that we will not have the wisdom to control them. To the pessimists, nano technology will allow us to make new kinds of living, intelligent organisms, who may not wish to continue being our servants.

These tiny machines will be able to reproduce, feed and adapt to their environment, in just the same way as living organisms do. But unlike natural organisms, they will be made from tough, synthetic materials and they will have been carefully designed rather than having emerged from the blind lottery of evolution. Whether unleashed on the world by a malicious act, or developing out of control from the experiments of naive scientists, these self replicating nanoscale robots will certainly break out of our custody, and when this happens our doom is assured.

The pessimists think that life itself will have no chance in the struggle for supremacy with these nano robots; they will take over the world, consuming its resources and rendering feebler, carbon based life forms such as ourselves at best irrelevant, and at worst extinct. In this scenario we humans will accidentally, and quite possibly with the best of intentions, use the power of science to destroy humanity.

The above quotes come from the book Soft Machines, Nanotechnology and Life by Richard Jones.