PRINT September 1996



IT WOULD HAVE EASILY qualified as Grand Guignol. Timothy Leary, the man who brought psychedelic drugs to the already hallucinatory United States of Disneyland, thereby adding a dimension of cosmic delirium to the hysteria accompanying our migration into hyperreality, was threatening to die on the Net. And then, members of ALCOR, a cryonic preservation company, were going to chop off his head and preserve it. There he’d have waited, not dead (according to his own self-definition) but deanimated, for the arrival of nanotechnology—engineering on the level of molecules. Through nanotechnology, “The Commodore” wouldn’t merely have been reanimated, he’d have been brought back to perfect health by little nanomachines coursing through his bloodstream, fixing things throughout his body.

My, but it would have been a fine media spectacle. And while nearly all of Leary’s friends seemed relieved when he let his subscription with ALCOR lapse and dropped out on this final event—putting his soul on ice—I’m not so sure. What if, 20 years hence, we could have met the young, reanimated Dr. Tim, bellying up to the bar for another scotch and soda? Can we allow ourselves to even entertain the possibility? And if not, why not?

For the thoroughly unconvinced, take a deep breath and let yourself take in the passage below, from science journalist Ed Regis’ Nano:

Nanotechnology will give us complete control over the structure of matter, allowing us to build any substance or structure permitted by the laws of nature.

Placing atoms as if they were bricks, nano-machines could turn grass clippings into prime sirloin. . . . Suitably programmed, the tiny machines could repair all of your body’s ailing cells. . . .

With fleets of molecular assemblers churning out essential commodities without human labor, the world economy would be transformed, famine and poverty banished forever. With cell-repair devices coursing through the body, aging could be halted, common diseases eradicated permanently.

Admittedly, it may all sound like an Omni magazine fantasy. The 20th century is littered with visions of “yesterday’s tomorrows.” According to the futurists of yesteryear, we should all be flying around like Jetsons in cute little personalized flying saucers (possibly on Mars) while robots make us lunch. On the other hand, technological advances from the wiring of the Net to the Human Genome Project to the Hubble telescope are but a few examples of changes that would boggle reasonable minds, had those minds not (nearly) universally crashed from overload.

In a sense, Nano functions as an examination of the very issues of technological capabilities and our refusal to imagine their implications for our lives. The book follows two closely allied trajectories. One discourse traces the process by which scientists and engineers are gaining ever greater knowledge and control over ever smaller particles of matter. The other discourse tracks the life-in-advocacy of K. Eric Drexler, the somewhat self-educated generalist-engineer who conceived the likely end result of this technical process—which he dubbed “nanotechnology”—in the late ’70s. Rather than the usual science story about overoptimistic projections and crash landings, Nano is a tale about discoveries and engineering feats that happen far more quickly than predicted, and that exceed all expectations. It’s a story riddled with the red-faced conversion of nearly every well-respected, skeptical scientist who takes a closer look. And it is therefore also a lesson about our failure to contemplate the possibility of a radical change in the human situation, one that is likely to arrive within a decade or two.

Journeying with Regis through Nano, all but the most committed cynic will come to the same conclusion he does: nanotechnology isn’t just likely, it’s more or less already here. But the road to nanotech has been riddled with doubts and doubters. It all started with a lecture by physics superstar Richard Feynman at the American Physical Society in 1959 titled “There’s Always Room at the Bottom.” Feynman’s talk centered on the question, “Why cannot we write the entire twenty-four volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?” His argument mobilized essentially the same one raised by Drexler a decade and a half later in favor of molecular technology, or the manipulation of atoms: simply put, “if nature can do it, why can’t we?” At the end of his talk, he offered a reward of $1,000 to “the first guy who can take the information on the page of a book and put it on an area 1/25,000 smaller in linear scale in such a manner that it can be read by an electron microscope.” A substantial portion of the audience of scientists thought that either Mr. Feynman had gone daft or that the talk was a put-on.

But the race to “the bottom,” the search for knowledge of and control over tinier particles of matter, continued more and more rapidly across the proceeding decades, the progress toward nanotech being propelled by a series of unexpectedly quick successes. In 1980, Hans Dehmelt, a professor of physics at the University of Washington, stunned the scientific world when he trapped a single atom inside a complex system of lasers. In 1984, Dehmelt trapped a positron. Feynman in fact would live long enough to pay the $1,000 reward and see IBM researchers in 1989 drag 35 individual atoms of xenon across a surface to spell out “IBM.”

The invention that made it possible for these scientists to pocket Feynman’s booty was the scanning tunnel microscope, invented in the early ’80s as a tool to manipulate atoms. In 1987, Todd Gustayson, an 18-year-old Californian, built his own in his father’s workshop. It cost him $200. The specter of garage nanotechnology—nanopunk—is already an issue among the nanoconscious. And if you think that computer viruses are troublesome, imagine a self-replicating material-object generator that can’t be turned off. This is what is known as the “gray goo” problem among nanoheads, the charming idea being that the entire world would quickly be buried underneath, say, self-replicating pie filling.

In addition perhaps to breakthroughs in corporate cheerleading and teen terrorism, other nanotechnological advances mounted in the ’80s. In 1981, when Drexler forecast the synthetic design and construction of proteins as an important future step toward nanotechnology, he predicted that this difficult problem could be decades away from resolution. In 1988, DuPont scientist William DeGrado, explicitly influenced by Drexler’s book The Engines of Creation, did the deed, afterward declaring that protein engineering “will allow us to think about designing molecular devices in the next five to ten years.”

By 1994, in Regis’ words, “the atomic realm had been colonized by a weird assortment of man-made shapes, structures, materials, and devices. There were atomic switches, self-replicating molecules, and molecular shuttles and trains, . . . buckyballs, nanotubes, atomic corrals, nanowires, and molecular propellers and gears. There were deliberately engineered artificial proteins, faux-proteins, and even artificial atoms.” Although Drexler’s molecular machines still await construction, even his harshest critic in the field, a certain ever-courageous “anonymous,” who had earlier called Drexler a flake and described his notions as “science fiction” and “pure hype,” came around to admit the possibilities imaginable under nanotechnology.

Indeed. Reading “Nano Update,” a Web-based publication from Drexler’s Foresight Institute, one is struck by the feeling that a nanotechnological future is almost here. For instance, there’s an item on a piece from the May 1995 issue of Nature, in which R. S. Lokey and B. L. Iverson reported new techniques that would allow greater control over self-organizing molecular structures. (Nanotechnologists had previously assumed that molecular machines would have to follow a mechanical rather than a biological model. Now it seems this may not entirely be the case.) And experiments at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois attempting to combine “recent advances in research with scanning probe microscopes for imaging and pattern delineation, genetic engineering, complex synthetic routes to molecules approaching mesoscopic dimensions, and chemical characterizations capabilities have now evolved to a level permitting the examination of a single molecule.” The quarterly publication continues with example after example of people working with nanoscale technologies.

What the hell does all of this mean? Well, to put it bluntly, it means that we’re probably just a few years away from having goddamned “I Dream of Genie” machines. Nanoheads refer to the time that will follow the advent of nanotech machines as “the singularity,” because it will so radically change the situation that we can’t even talk about what life will be like afterward. Believe me, I’m truly sorry to report such a startling discontinuity in all that we know to be so close at hand. Sure, it makes me sound like a “flake.” We should be skeptical and investigate for ourselves. But why be one of those world-historical assholes who always dismiss novelty? Skepticism doesn’t buy anything without taking a hard look at the evidence. Cynicism, though, doesn’t buy anything, even in the face of the evidence. This is a problem. Because sometimes SHIT actually HAPPENS. And this nanotechnology shit can raise the dead. Are you ready for that?

R. U. Sirius is a regular contributor to Artforum.