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CONDUCTED SEPTEMBER 2004
Question 1: Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and how did you initially get interested in molecular nanotechnology?
I graduated from James Madison University (Harrisonburg, VA) in December 1999 with a B.A. in Marketing. My original goal upon entering college was to eventually become a political pollster or work on political campaigns. But while in school, I fell in love with business – especially start-ups in the exciting fields of biotechnology and the life sciences. During my senior year, I read an article about Zyvex in Red Herring magazine. I was instantly fascinated with the idea of molecular nanotechnology, which was new to me. The concept held out the promise of revolutionizing the world of business – lowering (or ending) rejection rates on assembly lines, lowering production and product maintenance costs, staggering reductions in labor cost and raw materials, etc. I initially viewed molecular manufacturing from an efficiency standpoint and the enormous economic benefits such a breakthrough would yield.
But as I thought though the concept, I realized the implications would go far beyond a more efficient economy. I immersed myself in a plethora of books, websites, and magazine articles dealing with the subject. I breezed through Engines of Creation in a few hours. Ever since, I’ve harbored a great interest in molecular nanotechnology.
Question 2: Tell us about your novel, Conquest of Paradise. How realistic is this novel?
I wrote Conquest of Paradise a little over a year ago in an attempt to raise awareness of the potential pitfall of governmental abuse of molecular nanotechnology. I used print-on-demand technology and sent out several hundred copies to book reviewers and people in the field of nanotechnology. Doing so helped create a sort of open source code environment for the book. As a result, I received a lot of valuable feedback from people much smarter than myself. From what I’ve gathered, the book faces a serious problem with realism in respect to the speed with which certain nanomachines self-replicate. Although it has some technical inaccuracies, I think the book paints an overall realistic picture of the prospect of governmental abuse and what will be possible in a post-assembler breakthrough world. A revised edition of Conquest of Paradise is currently in the works, and I hope to have all technical inaccuracies corrected.
Question 3: Your upcoming novel, The Replicator, will also deal with the subject of a national Government inventing a molecular assembler device. How will it differ from Conquest of Paradise?
Conquest of Paradise primarily dealt with the threat of government abuse, especially in the presence of world government, where citizens have no recourse in the event their civil liberties are challenged. The Replicator will tackle the potential threat of a nanotechnology arms race between multiple nations.
I think these are the two great problems we need to tackle in respect to the safe development of molecular nanotechnology – government abuse and a potential arms race. If we can successfully develop a plan to preserve both life and liberty in the age of nanotechnology, the future will be very bright for humanity. Other potential problems, such as nano-litter or displaced employees, are minor in comparison, and with a free populace working together, I feel more than confident that human ingenuity will prevail.
Question 4: Is there any real chance that an assembler breakthrough could come from the private sector instead of the Government?
It’s certainly possible. But I think it highly unlikely. I believe once the assembler breakthrough is economically feasible enough for a crash corporate project, some government in the world will have arrived at the same assessment, and they will devote their much more superior resources to its development. From a risk/reward standpoint, it seems unthinkable that governments would ignore the transformative benefits of molecular nanotechnology development, especially in respect to preservation of their national security and economic interests. It may be that one or more nations in a position to develop MNT may remain ignorant to the benefits of winning the assembler race, but it seems unlikely that all of them will remain ignorant and allow a corporation to win the race.
In addition, I believe that any cost/benefit analysis performed by a potential corporate developer would take into account the likelihood that government regulations might severely limit or outright stifle the corporation’s ability to profit from such a breakthrough. Popular opinion might not reflect favorably on a corporation’s need to profit from such a low-cost, life-saving technology. The uncertainty of a business’s ability to capitalize on such a project if successful might well cancel the idea in the early planning stages.
Question 5: Your novel, Conquest of Paradise, deals with secret Government "Manhattan projects" to develop nanotech weapons based on Drexlerian assemblers. What is the likelihood that the U.S. and foreign Governments are currently working on such a project?
The military implications of molecular nanotechnology make this field of research essential for any nation interested in defending its interests. I’m certain governments such as the US, Russia, China, India, Israel and others are exploring the idea of molecular nanotechnology development at present. However, I doubt such a modern day Manhattan Project is currently underway in the United States or in any other democratic nation. I think we would recognize signs, no matter how subtle, of such a project in the United States or any other Western democratic nation because of the relative openness of our governmental affairs. A closed regime such as China is a different story. The amount of current research in which a totalitarian regime may be involved is difficult to measure. Yet with each passing year, the cost of such a project and the time required to carry it out will decrease exponentially. Eventually, most every government with the ability to develop MNT will recognize the implications of development, instincts of self-preservation will kick in, and molecular nanotechnology will become reality.
Question 6: You state in your book that "By the close of this decade, assemblers will be a reality of our world". Even the Foresight Institute is suggesting that an assembler breakthrough is decades away. Why are you so confident that an assembler breakthrough is imminent?
My belief in the imminent development of MNT is based on the increased proliferation of information and the tendency of developments to accelerate as the risk/reward analysis becomes more favorable. I don’t claim any special insight. My pronouncement is just a guess, but I believe it’s better to be prepared than not.
Back in December 1998, an issue of Time magazine quoted numerous experts from around the world who stated that 2005 would be the earliest date at which we could expect a map of the human genome. Eighteen months later, Celera and the Human Genome Project presented the world with a rough draft. The estimates may have been accurate at the time, but they changed when competition and the profit motive entered into the picture. Similar variables will affect future time projections for molecular nanotechnology’s development.
In summary, I may be incorrect in respect to the developmental timeframe, but the stakes remain the same. If someone made the statement in 1894 that Europe would be at war within ten years, would the fact that it took twenty years render the implications any less serious? The earlier we tackle the issues of safe development of molecular nanotechnology, the better off the whole world will be.
Also, I’d like to point out that the Center For Responsible Nanotechnology holds a similar position on the timeframe issue, believing that development is likely within the next ten years and is probably a certainty within twenty years.
Question 7: Nanotechnology is arguably the most popular subject in science fiction today. But writers grapple with issues of how to portray a society that is utterly transformed by advanced nanotechnologies. What advice would you give to authors wanting to write novels about nanotechnology?
I would tell writers to stretch the limits of imagination. Create a world as realistic and true to your thoughts as possible, but also create a world that current readers can relate to in some way. The more readily a reader can relate to something, the more transformative a writer’s efforts will be. Fiction can be a powerful form of communication, so I believe it should have an end purpose in mind.
Question 8: Many Government researchers have publicly claimed that Eric Drexler's concepts of molecular assemblers are infeasible and unrealistic. Some of the scientists who make these claims are working for the military on nanotechnology projects. How do you react to such negative assessments of molecular assemblers by official Government agencies?
I think people who make such claims might as well argue that they don’t exist (and they very well may not, but that’s more of a philosophical question!) To say that molecular nanotechnology is impossible is to say that life itself is impossible – because all life thrives on the basis of nature’s own molecular machines. Each one of us was once a single fertilized egg which transformed into a fetus, a baby, a toddler, etc. until reaching adult form. No one welded my arm onto my body. No hammers or nails or traditional tools of the industrial revolution were involved in the construction and manufacture of my body. It simply grew into its current state, utilizing the very concepts of molecular nanotechnology that some people now claim are impossible.
It’s sad to say, but I think many such people throw red herrings at Eric Drexler’s claims simply because they want to avoid a public debate of molecular nanotechnology’s implications – a debate that will certainly give rise to demagoguery or misinformed media coverage of the potential pitfalls of molecular manufacturing. I think the overriding fear is that negative public opinion might lead to serious restriction of publicly funded nanotechnology research, or even worse, an outright ban. In their way of thinking, the best way to avoid a potential loss of funding is to avoid the debate altogether. I think their fears are unfounded.
Question 9: You state in your novel that "In the few months following the assembler breakthrough, humanity will experience a greater level of technological advancement than has been experienced from the dawn of time up until the publication of this book". Even the most passionate nanotech advocates might take issue with that statement, and argue that sweeping changes will take years. Won't the requirements of writing complex software for nanoassemblers alone slow the development of nanotech?
Perhaps such an assessment is wrong, perhaps it is not. We’ll soon find out. I think that human progress will increase on an exponential scale in the aftermath of the assembler breakthrough. I base this claim upon a belief that advancements in molecular nanotechnology will closely parallel advancements in artificial intelligence, increasing the development time for such software programs. Massive leaps in the capacity to process information, coupled with the elimination of language barriers, widespread leaps in worldwide productivity and efficiency, and a vast increase in the leisure time allotted to human thought will lead to a rapid transformation of the world in which we live.
Also, such a statement always leaves room for debate. For instance, it inherently requires agreement on how much technological advancement has taken place from the dawn of time until the present day. That idea alone will spark a debate that could last forever, much like saying Barry Sanders was a better running back than Emmett Smith… You’ll never reach an absolute consensus. The underlying point is that massive, volatile change is on the horizon. If we can survive through the early years with human life and liberty intact, then we’ll be in good shape.
Question 10: What about the fields such as genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality? How do you see these fields developing? Could you see yourself writing novels about these subjects, or will your novels focus exclusively on molecular nanotechnology?
I think these fields will develop simultaneously or within a short time period following the development of MNT. Others will contend that any of these developments could be decades apart, and they may well be right. If that’s the case, then we have a lot less to worry about because change will be less rapid.
Any future novels I write will most likely only address these subjects in relation to the development of MNT.
Question 11: Michael Crichton's nanotech thriller Prey will soon be made into a movie. Has Hollywood shown any interest in making Conquest of Paradise into a movie?
So far, I haven’t had any Hollywood film offers.
Question 12: What are your plans for the next decade? Do you plan on dedicating your career to the field of nanotechnology?
Yes. My plan is to write novels pertaining exclusively to the implications of the development of molecular nanotechnology and its near-term effects. Conquest of Paradise is currently a print-on-demand title, but The Replicator will be released by a major publishing house within the next two years. In the interim, I plan to rewrite Conquest of Paradise, taking to heart the numerous comments and criticisms of others in order to make the book the best it can possibly be. I anticipate the revised version to be released by a major publishing house within a year of The Replicator’s release.
In the end, my goal is to present the concepts of molecular nanotechnology as realistically as possible to as broad an audience as possible. If I do my job right, perhaps a few hundred individuals will be inspired to pursue careers in nanotechnology and/or to tackle the formidable pitfalls which may be associated with the safe development of this powerful technology.
This interview was conducted by Sander Olson. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of CRN.
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