Prey ends with some unbelievable death-defying scenes and,
for the sake of a good yarn, takes this still-infant technology to
implausible extremes. But like the best science fiction writers, the
late Crichton could be remarkably prescient about technological
breakthroughs, if not their human and social impacts, which are always
up for grabs. For example, as I write this, a DARPA-funded company is
showing off a tiny flying gadget, its so-called Nano Hummingbird, complete with spy video camera -- not strictly nano but on the road to it.
A counterbalance to Crichton's dystopian vision is the one given by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku in his new book, Physics of the Future.
Sensitive to the critiques of nanotechnology, he asks if it will
"unleash the fire of enlightenment and knowledge or the winds of chaos?"
Kaku looks on the bright side and opts emphatically for the former
view; it can and will be controlled, he insists. He then takes us
through near, middle and far future scenarios, based on interviews with
working scientists. His examples include super gyroscopes, designer
molecules that hunt down cancer cells, DNA "on a chip" that monitors our health, remote-controlled "nanocars" that patrol our bloodstream for cancers (Fantastic Voyage,
again), carbon nanotubes stronger than steel, non-silicon substrates
for faster chips and computers, shape-shifting and self-healing
structures (think here Terminator II) and the
nanotechnologist's holy grail, the "replicator" that perhaps by 2100
will manufacture everything at the atomic level practically from
nothing, including body organs. The world's major problem will then be
the sociopolitical one of learning how to cope with this limitless
supply of goods.
History tells us that dawning technologies, especially the more
powerful ones, commonly provoke these divergent expectations. In his
fascinating new book, The Information,
James Gleick documents this with technologies from the telegraph and
the telephone to the Internet. Initial euphoria gives way to fear and
anxiety about information overload. But, like Kaku, he puts a positive
spin on his subject with some convincing arguments in its favor.
These divergent visions seem particularly pronounced in the case of
nanotechnology, even though scientists and engineers have barely
scratched the surface of its possibilities. Let me suggest one reason
for this. Unlike any other technology to date, nanotechnology operates
exclusively in the atomic realm. At the level of the ultra-ultra-small,
everything is strange and mysterious. In a 1959 talk titled "There's
Plenty of Room at the Bottom," generally recognized as the founding
vision for nanotechnology without naming it as such, physicist Richard
Feynman described some of the strange, commonsense-defying physics that
comes into play. In addition to very short-range electrical forces that
cause atoms to hew to one another in strange ways, there are the
overriding laws of quantum mechanics that take charge at the nano level.
It's a bizarre world of ultimate uncertainty where particles can be in
two places and two states at once or even disappear and then reappear
someplace else. Feynman once observed that quantum mechanics "describes
nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense." A mysterious world indeed, where it seems anything can happen.