This is an article taken from the Parade Magazine November 24,2002
written by Michael Crichton....
A FLIGHT IN THE FUTURE
COULD TINY MACHINES RULE THE WORLD?
Today’s era of technological power offers enormous promise for the future. But, as the best-selling author of "The Andromeda Strain" and "Jurassic Park" reminds us, enormous dangers also may lie ahead.
From our earliest days as human beings we have advanced our lives with technology. Beginning with tools made of stone and bone, we have moved to metals and then to synthetic materials not found in nature. Some of our technologies are enormous---huge dams, bridges and jet aircraft---and some are microscopically small, like the computer chips so important to nearly every aspect of our lives and the genetically modified bacteria that create new drugs for us.
All together, our history with technology goes back two million years or more. We have reluctantly learned that every technology brings mixed blessings. The jet aircraft draws people closer together; it also erodes national cultures. The automobile offers personal mobility; it also pollutes and locks us in traffic jams. Yet our fascination with new technologies remains undiminished, and we continue to innovate at a rapid rate.
Today, in the 21st century, we are plunging forward into a new era of technological power, one that offers enormous promise for the future and enormous dangers as well.
Imagine a mass of tiny computers, smaller than specks of dust, programmed to travel in a cloud over a country like Iraq and send back pictures. Unlike robot aircraft, this camera can’t be shot down; bullets will pass right through it. Because such tiny computers will deteriorate in time, imagine that they are made to be self-reproducing, to replenish themselves. Imagine that the computers begin to evolve, and the aggregate cloud becomes a death-dealing swarm that threatens man-kind---in effect, a mechanical plague.
FAR-FETCHED? NOT REALLY.
Scientists have worried about a new class of artificial organisms for more than 10 years. As one research paper put it, "These organisms 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."
These organisms will be created by NANOTECHNOLOGY, perhaps the most radical technology in human history: the quest to build man-made machines of extremely small size, on the order of 100 nanometers, or 100/billionths of a meter. Such machines would be 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Experts predict that these tiny machines will provide everything from miniaturized computer components to new medical treatments to new military weapons. In the 21st century, they will change our world totally.
The potential benefits are spectacular; Tiny robots may crawl through your arteries, cutting away atherosclerotic plaque; powerful drugs will be delivered to individual cancer cells, leaving other cells undamaged; teeth will be self-repairing. Cosmetically, you will change your hair color with an injection of nanomachines that circulate through the body, moving melanocytes in hair follicles. Other nanomachines will lighten or darken skin color at will, removing blemishes, birthmarks and liver spots in the process; still others could cleanse the mouth and eliminate bad breath. Non-surgical nanoprocesses could even perform liposuction and body reshaping. They also will repair knees and spines.
Living spaces will be transformed, with self-cleaning dishes and carpets and permanently clean bathrooms. Windows will lighten or darken at will; programmable paint will change color. You can walk through the walls of your house, since they are composed of particle clouds. Your personal computer and your watch will be painted on your arm. Temperature-sensitive clothing will loosen when it gets hot, insulate when it gets cold.nIn this vision of the future, roving nanomachines will convert trash dumps to energy; solar nanomachines will coat your house, generating electricity; flexible nanomachines will provide earthquake protection. It even may be possible to move your house on the backs of millions of nanomachines, creeping across the lawn.nAs a concept, these wonders date back to a 1959 speech by Caltech physicist Richard Feynman titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” Forty years later, nanotechnology 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, Futjitsu and Intel are pouring money into research. The U.S. government is spending more than $600 million on nanotechnology a year.nMeanwhile, nanotechniques already are 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.nSome of the long-anticipated “miracle” products have started to appear as well. One company is now making self-cleaning window glass; another is making 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. Now, at the start of the 21st century, we are close still. Most experts predict that self-reproducing machines are only a decade away. These are the people who say we must prepare now for their arrival.nIt’s worth remembering that we already have some experience with man-made, self-reproducing entities released in the environment. The first of these, of course, were computer viruses. Our history with them is instructive.
The First Viruses were Created as a Game
"Core Wars," a 1960’s battle between mainframe programmers, each releasing a program into the others’ mainframe computer. The game was limited to specialists, but it was not long before hackers began to experiment as well. The growth of computer networking made rapid worldwide transmission possible, and what was originally a specialist’s interest became an international threat to information and global business.
We have lived for some years with the first of these self-replicating entities, computer viruses. And we have learned, with time, to protect our networks more carefully and to treat virus-makers with ever-greater harshness. More recently, we are beginning to see some of the problems of self-replicating biotechnology agents.
The recent report that modifies maize genes now appear in native maize in Mexico—despite laws against it and efforts to prevent it—is only the start of what we may expect to be a long journey to control this new technology. The end result cannot be doubted. We have learned to put hackers in jail. Errant biotechnologists will soon join them
And we may hope that by the time we have the first nanomachines, we will have settled upon international controls to deal with self-reproducing technologies. At the moment, there are essentially no laws dealing with this subject. The failure to look ahead is worrisome to experts in the field. In the words of the chief proponent of nanotechnology, K.Eric Drexler of the Foresight Institute:
"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."
We know these machines are coming. We know we will have to control them when they do. It is not too early to plan how we will treat them, what we will allow in the way of research and what we will forbid. Historically, human beings have a poor record of addressing the hazards of new technologies as they arrive. We generally pass laws after the accidents occur. But in the case of self-reproducing machines, we simply can’t wait.