Within fifty to a hundred years, a new class of organisms is likely to emerge. These organisms will be artificial in the sense that they will originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce, and will "evolve" into something other than their original form; they will be "alive" under any reasonable definition of the word. These organisms will evolve in a fundamentally different manner. ... The pace ... will be extremely rapid. ... The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous, larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution. We must take steps now to shape the emergence of artificial organisms. ...
Doyne Farmer and Alletta Belin, 1992
There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology for the future.
K. Eric Drexler, 1992
Artificial Evolution in the Twenty-first Century
The notion that the world around us is continuously evolving is a platitude; we rarely grasp its full implications. We do not ordinarily think, for example, of an epidemic disease changing its character as the epidemic spreads. Nor do we think of evolution in plants and animals as occurring in a matter of days or weeks, though it does. And we do not ordinarily imagine the green world around us as a scene of constant, sophisticated chemical warfare, with plants producing pesticides in response to attack, and insects developing resistance. But that is what happens, too.
If we were to grasp the true nature of nature-if we could comprehend the real meaning of evolution-then we would envision a world in which every living plant, insect, and animal species is changing at every instant, in response to every other living plant, insect, and animal. Whole populations of organisms are rising and falling, shifting and changing. This restless and perpetual change, as inexorable and unstoppable as the waves and tides, implies a world in which all human actions necessarily have uncertain effects. The total system we call the biosphere is so complicated that we cannot know in advance the consequences of anything that we do.That is why even our most enlightened past efforts have had undesirable outcomes-either because we did not understand enough, or because the ever-changing world responded to our actions in unexpected ways. From this standpoint, the history of environmental protection is as discouraging as the history of environmental pollution. Anyone who is willing to argue, for example, that the industrial policy of clear-cutting forests is more damaging than the ecological policy of fire suppression ignores the fact that both policies have been carried out with utter conviction, and both have altered the virgin forest irrevocably. Both provide ample evidence of the obstinate egotism that is a hallmark of human interaction with the environment. The fact that the biosphere responds unpredictably to our actions is not an argument for inaction. It is, however, a powerful argument for caution, and for adopting a tentative attitude toward all we believe, and all we do. Unfortunately, our species has demonstrated a striking lack of caution in the past. It is hard to imagine that we will behave differently in the future. We think we know what we are doing. We have always thought so. We never seem to acknowledge that we have been wrong in the past, and so might be wrong in the future. Instead, each generation writes off earlier errors as the result of bad thinking by less able minds-and then confidently embarks on fresh errors of its own.
We are one of only three species on our planet that can claim to be self-aware,yet self-delusion may be a more significant characteristic of our kind. Sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power. One area where this will occur is in the meeting point of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and computer technology. What all three have in common is the ability to release self-replicating entities into the environment.
We have lived for some years with the first of these self-replicating entities, computer viruses. And we are beginning to have some practical experience with the problems of biotechnology. The recent report that modified maize genes now appear in native maize in Mexico-despite laws against it, and efforts to prevent it-is just the start of what we may expect to be a long and difficult journey to control our technology. At the same time, long-standing beliefs about the fundamental safety of biotechnology-views promoted by the great majority of biologists since the 1970s-now appear less secure. The unintended creation of a devastatingly lethal virus by Australian researchers in 2001 has caused many to rethink old assumptions.Clearly we will not be as casual about this technology in the future as we have been in the past. Nanotechnology is the newest of these three technologies, and in some ways the most radical. It is the quest to build man-made machinery of extremely small size, on the order of 100 nanometers, or a hundred billionths of a meter. Such machines would be about 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Pundits predict these tiny machines will provide everything from miniaturized computer components to new cancer treatments to new weapons of war.
As a concept, nanotechnology dates back to a 1959 speech by Richard Feynman called "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom."Forty years later, the field is still very much in its infancy, despite relentless media hype. Yet practical advances are now being made, and funding has increased dramatically. Major corporations such as IBM, Fujitsu, and Intel are pouring money into research. The U.S. government has spent $1 billion on nanotechnology in the last two years.
Meanwhile, nanotechniques are already being used to make sunscreens, stain-resistant fabrics, and composite materials in cars. Soon they will be used to make computers and storage devices of extremely small size.
And some of the long-anticipated "miracle" products have started to appear as well. In 2002 one company was manufacturing self-cleaning window glass; another made a nanocrystal wound dressing with antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties. At the moment nanotechnology is primarily a materials technology, but its potential goes far beyond that. For decades there has been speculation about self-reproducing machines. In 1980 a NASA paper discussed several methods by which such machines could be made. Ten years ago, two knowledgeable scientists took the matter seriously:
Within fifty to a hundred years, a new class of organisms is likely to emerge. These organisms will be artificial in the sense that they will originally be designed by humans. However, they will reproduce, and will "evolve" into something other than their original form; they will be "alive" under any reasonable definition of the word. ... The pace of evolutionary change will be extremely rapid. ... The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous, larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution. We must take steps now to shape the emergence of artificial organisms. ...
And the chief proponent of nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, expressed related concerns:
There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology for the future. We are talking about changing so many things that the risk of society handling it poorly through lack of preparation is very large.
Even by the most optimistic (or dire) predictions, such organisms are probably decades into our future. We may hope that by the time they emerge, we will have settled upon international controls for self-reproducing technologies. We can expect such controls to be stringently enforced; already we have learned to treat computer virus-makers with a severity unthinkable twenty years ago. We've learned to put hackers in jail. Errant biotechnologists will soon join them.
But of course, it is always possible that we will not establish controls. Or that someone will manage to create artificial, self-reproducing organisms far sooner than anyone expected. If so, it is difficult to anticipate what the consequences might be. That is the subject of the present novel.
LOS ANGELES, 2002