Books : reviews

J. Storrs Hall.
Nanofuture: what's next for nanotechnology.
Prometheus Books. 2005

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 16 March 2009

Nanotech is the technology of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular scale, in sufficient quantities to have effects at the macroscopic scale. It is going to transform the 21st century beyond our wildest imaginations (and I do mean wildest: some of its magical-sounding predictions make most science fiction look tame), if you believe the hype. Or it is going to destroy the world in a mess of gray goo, if you believe the doom-sayers. Or it is completely impossible, if you believe the detractors. Reality, most likely, will lie somewhere away from these extremes, with the occasional leap sideways into the unexpected.

In order to limit the hype, and counteract the detractors, Hall describes the technology and how it works, what it should be capable of, and, importantly, what it won't be able to do (such as matter teleporters). The latter discussions certainly add a degree of reality to the discussion: the calculations provide a boundary between the possible and impossible, which helps make the possible sound plausible.

And those calculations support the "magic" end of the spectrum. Nano-assemblers manufacturing anything material from waste products; plentiful food and energy; flying cars and spaceships; clearance of pollution; artificial intelligence; nanobots wiping disease from our bodies, and curing ageing; and more. He also discusses the grey goo scenario of runaway disassemblers, arguing that it is not a problem if we have embraced the full technology, because then we will also have nanotech defences. However, if we try to ban the technology, problems will then inevitably arise due to rogue developers (the genie has left the bottle), as we will have impaired our ability to counteract the threat.

One point I always latch onto when reading about nanotech: the programming model always seems a little naive to me. We know that "wet"-nanotech, at least, isn't impossible: there are gazillions of counterexamples in the shape of biological organisms. But those organisms have grown under a very specialised and hideously complex developmental program, which we would need to understand if we wanted to do anything analogous. On the other hand, most proponents advocate a more centralised "command-and-control" paradigm, instructing each nano-assembler what to do and where to do it. This approach does not seem to scale. So I think, in the short term, we will have many (software) engineering difficulties to overcome before we get full-blown nanotech. But, all technologies progress more slowly in the short term than predicted. In the long term, things are very different, as exponential growth (explosion) takes over.

Hall paints an optimistic picture of a transforming technology that can enhance the quality of life and freedoms of all, if we only have the will to make it work, and distribute it fairly. But since it is such a disruptive technology, particularly in terms of its economic model, that will be hard. And this was written pre-global economic meltdown. As we witness world leaders desperately attempting to shore up crumbling 20th century institutions and maintain irrelevant 19th century business models, I suspect that the nanotech revolution, like all revolutions, will be painful for those involved.