Nanotechnology in Science Fiction
(and vice versa)

by Eric Drexler on 2009/04/09

Cover of The Diamond Age
The Diamond Age
– or –
A Young Lady’s
Illustrated Primer

by Neal Stevenson

Advanced nanotechnology concepts and science fiction have been intertwined almost from the beginning. In the early years, critics often declared that the idea of molecular manufacturing “Sounds like science fiction” (like Moon rockets, perhaps?). They were right about the similarity, of course, because science fiction writers had pounced on the ideas almost immediately.

There was a little-known reason for this: Soon after the 1986 publication of Engines of Creation, Stanley Schmidt — the influential editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine — advised his stable of writers to read the book and write about the ideas, which at the time constituted the working definition of “nanotechnology”. Quickly, then, advanced nanotechnology came to be seen through the lens of fiction.

Good science fiction is as much about worlds as it is about people, and at its best, it can be wonderfully thought-provoking. I know of no other medium that can explore how a different world might challenge and transform human life. The stories are always flawed, of course, if held to a rigorous standard of realism, yet in attempting to formulate a coherent story in a coherent world, authors can show how all that seems solid in our world might melt and reform as it has again and again on the long road from peasant farming to the internet economy.

I can’t imagine thinking productively about the coming decades without having dipped into a host of different worlds imagined by others. Seeing the omissions and inconsistencies those worlds may erode the pleasure a bit, yet the exercise of thinking about them is also valuable.

As always, though, the medium filters the message, and the medium of fiction demands drama set against a mostly familiar background.

Alas, molecular manufacturing concepts from the 1990s forward aren’t inherently dramatic (big boxes with small conveyor belts, and all that), and so — in fiction and the popular press — modern ideas haven’t displaced the exciting fantasies created by transmogrifying ideas from 1986. This is how “nanotechnology” initially became equated with swarms of nanobugs that bring both miracles and the perils of unleashing mysterious animistic forces. With this fantasy in place, a genre was born, but one that seldom offers help in thinking about the transformative effects of new means of production and a vast expansion in the kinds and quality of products. It has instead diverted and displaced serious thought.

When asked to recommend a science fiction novel about advanced nanotechnologies, I point to The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, by Neal Stephenson. It’s a good read, it portrays a complex and surprising world, it’s not saturated with nanobots, and many details of the Diamond Age world show that Neal didn’t stop after reading Engines of Creation — he read Nanosystems, too.

Chris Phoenix April 9, 2009 at 3:50 pm UTC

An additional reason why the gray goo meme took off: people have an atavistic fear of bugs. Germs, insects, and spy devices are all called bugs. Gray goo certainly fits the category. That gave it a ready-made intellectual and emotional hook: people could understand gray goo with 30 seconds reading and 10 seconds thought. Everything else in nanotech takes several minutes, and much more effort, to understand. So guess what the takeaway message was?

Mikkel Kjær Jensen April 9, 2009 at 4:32 pm UTC

I have heard the bug argument a few times now – and while I can see your point, I was wondering whether there was any concrete evidence to back it up, or whether it is just (well reasoned) conjecture.

When I first heard of the concept of Gray Goo, I didn’t associate it with neither insect, bugs or germs – but rather something more akin to cartoon lava – a slightly fluid substance that turned everything (even you and me) into more of itself – unstoppable and unyielding.

As for depictions in fiction – well, I am not entirely sure what you would think of the intro of Deux Ex 2 – though of course in that universe that is only one of many, many uses that nanotechnolgy has.

Scott Jensen April 9, 2009 at 6:02 pm UTC

I read Diamond Age and wasn’t impressed. It is a world of have’s and have-not’s as if governments and/or corporations (or “clans” as in the story) can control nanites. And then there was the bizarre druggie scene and if that wasn’t bad enough, it ended with what can only be called a pedophile’s dream.

If self-assembly is possible, very shortly after the first nanite is made and released to the public, it will be hacked and made available free to the world. Even if the “nanite” isn’t a nanite but something as big as a microwave or stove, what is to stop hackers from hacking one to make copies of it and then giving them away to all their family and friends … and their friends giving copies away to all their family and friends … and then … well, like to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? Look at the music and motion picture industries and what peer-to-peer networks are doing to them since their products went digital.

Oh and you can forget about patents and copyrights on what nanites can create. Again, merely read up on p2p networks and you’ll see why.

I have been reading sci fi stories about nanotechnology and continue to search for them. Unfortunately, I have yet to find one that takes a second and thinks how a society made up of billions of individuals would manipulate the technology. What gifted anti-establishment hackers (a.k.a. college students) would do with it.

I believe mature nanotechnology will be a society changer.

What if the nanites (or nanotech microwave-size machines) could produce tasty edible food? The agricultural and food industries will be no more. And by food industry I mean all restaurants, grocery stores, and food makers.

What if mature nanotechnology can create objects from furniture to computers to clothes to anything you can currently buy at Wal-Mart? Be them whole or “some assembly required” for the larger objects. Gone are all retail stores and the industries that supply them.

But the change will go even deeper than that. If anything to be easily and quickly made by nanites or in a nanotechnology microwave-size box and then disassembled by nanites or tossed back into the nanotech box, how will the concept of property change? Why collect anything? Sure, there will be the oddball that will distinguish pre-nanotech-made stuff from nanotech-made stuff but I believe the INFINITELY VAST majority of people will view stuff like we view a can of soda pop today. To be used and thrown away. Only then it will be used and told to disassemble or we’ll toss it back into the box for it to disassemble it. Given this, how much stuff would people actually keep with them?

Today, we’re pack rats. “I need more cabinet space!” Or closet space … or storage in my garage. Look at mini-storage industry. But what if you can create what you need when you need it for essentially nothing and know you can create it again whenever you need it again? How much stuff would you then really keep around with you? Would you keep anything with you but your nanites or, if nanites are not possible, the nanotech box? Gone are washers and dryers. Freshly-made clothes every morning with the old ones told to disassemble or tossed back into the box. Gone is the kitchen.

I think an interesting event might be the death of envy. Anything you can have, I can have as well and just as fast.

And what if nanites are possible and can keep you warm or cool you down? Might we all become nudists?

What if the need for sleep could be finally eliminated? There’s actual research pursuing just this goal right now and it is showing promise. Now if you were to add that to mature nanotechnology enabling you to not need protection from the weather and keeping you nicely fed, might we all become naked nomads? What would you need a house for? To watch TV? Already scientists are researching how to send images and sounds directly to the brain. And what about needing to go to the bathroom? What if your nanites could keep your skin clean of dirt, grease, and odor and even recycle your body waste internally? Or, if such nanites are not possible, what if you could take off your nanotech box from your back (you carrying it there in a small backpack) and use it as toilet?

As for power to run your nanites or nanotech box, what’s to stop one from having one’s nanites covering the area around you with solar cell collection technology to meet your power needs? Expanding and contracting as your power needs fluctuate. The only thing you might need to do is stop in place for a second to let them spread out. Then again, what’s to stop the world from being covered by such a solar cell system (done in a way not to impair plant and animal life), storing power below ground, and giving power away to those needing it?

As for raw material for the nanites or nanotech box, think about that for a second. Most novelists don’t think this all the way through. They have their nanites or nanotech box create stuff thus needing elaborate feeder stock pipelines (like what was presented in Diamond Age) but they don’t think what people would then do with the garbage. It wouldn’t be a one-way system. It would be two-way. When something isn’t needed anymore, its told to disassemble or tossed back into the box. Right there is what you can use to make the next thing you want or need. And how much new stuff would you then really need? Need new clothes? Why not just have your nanites or nanotech box disassemble what you’re wearing and assemble it into what you want? Again, how much junk would you really want lug around?

And this thought exercise can be take further and further. What if nanites can repair injuries, cure cancer, fight disease, and stop/reverse aging? Gone are the medical and nursing home industries. What if it can provide us some form of personal protection against physical violence? Already I’ve shown how theft and robbery are a thing of the past, but what if nanites defend you from someone hitting you or causing him more injury in return? Gone is the need for police. In fact, given all the above, what need will there be for government?

The above is what I have been waiting for a good science fiction writer to come along and tackle. I have myself attempted to write such a novel, but my muse has yet to whisper in my ear the right words. Many still-born attempts on paper. No complete novel yet. Thus I continue to search for the mature nanotechnology novel that tackles the above in a way that is believable.

Eric Drexler April 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm UTC

Hmmm. I still don’t know what a “nanite” is. As I understand it , the term comes from Star Trek episode, so it’s a good example of how nanotechnology came to be seen through the lens of fiction.

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