Future Perfect?

| 1st May 2003
No more disability. Brain implants to boost intelligence. Ageing counteracted. The next stage of evolution or a nightmare we can never wake up from? Jim Thomas on ‘converging technology’.

We’re getting used to converging technologies these days. Perhaps you can still call a spade a spade but a phone, for example, is no longer just a phone. It also serves as camera, internet browser, answering machine, text communicator, tracking device, personal diary, calculator and alarm clock; and it’s shrinking.

From personal organisers to scanfax photocopiers, our modern technologies are being snapped together into smaller, lighter, all-in-one configurations that erase old functional boundaries. Driving this convergence is the ability to digitally encode and process data – whether visual, audio or text. By reducing diverse forms of information into a single language of zeroes and ones, technologists have established a basic unity that allows different devices to ‘talk’ to each other via the ubiquitous computer processor.

In his acclaimed novel Snow Crash‚ cyberculture writer Neal Stephenson compares this new digital unity to the biblical symbol of human hubris the Tower of Babel. What made the construction of the Tower of Babel possible was that its builders spoke the same language. As God recognised, because people spoke a single language ‘nothing that they proposed to do would be impossible for them’.

In early February, before a Los Angeles audience of high-tech scientists, government officials and corporate decision-makers, Wall Street wunderkind Josh Wolfe of venture capitalist Lux Capital again invoked the Tower of Babel – this time breathlessly describing the new terrain of nanotechnology. Chemists, computer programmers, neuroscientists, biotechnologists and engineers, Wolfe explained, are finding a common language to realise a fundamental and powerful technological convergence that will dwarf today’s digital convergence. Wolfe believes that – unlike the Old Testament Tower of Babel – this convergence will last, and he isn’t the only one willing to bet big money on it. Leading Fortune 100 companies in partnership with the US government are actively accelerating this nano-enabled convergence – an event eagerly awaited by futurists yet viewed with uneasiness by a handful of scientists and civil society organisations.

The key insight about nanotechnology with respect to technological convergence is that it isn’t really a technology; it’s a scale – the nano-scale (one-billionth the size of a metre), at which atoms and molecules, the building blocks of all matter, operate. That simple fact – that all substances are qualitatively the same at the nano-scale, that life and non-life, mind and matter are all made up of atoms arranged in different ways – has caught the imagination of some of the world’s most senior technologists and the world’s most powerful government.

Every big thinker on the coming convergence uses a different acronym for it. Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems and known reverently in California’s Silicon Valley as ‘the other Bill’, worries about the coming together of GNR (genetics, nanotech and robotics). Corporate environmental consultant Douglas Mulhall enthuses about Grain (Genetics, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Nanotech). While Massachussets Institute of Technology artificial intelligence guru Ray Kurzweil simply calls it ‘the singularity’ – the point at which our technologies become the driving force in human evolution.

The US government has come up with its own abbreviation. Dubbed NBIC (Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno), the goal of the 21st century’s version of the Apollo Project is to wire together biotechnology, IT and cognitive neuroscience into one megatechnology by mastering nano-scale engineering. If successful, it will massively enhance the capabilities of existing technologies ranging from genetic modification and nuclear weaponry to pharmaceutical drugs and brain implants, while also enhancing the technological capabilities of the US itself – a strategic bid to bolster military and commercial muscle through technological advantage.

Spearheading the NBIC initiative is Mihail Roco of the US government National Science Foundation (NSF), and promoting it to industry is Newt Gingrich – previous Republican speaker of the House of Representatives and honorary chairman of the industry research and lobbying association the NanoBusiness Alliance. As head of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Roco successfully secured the US’s biggest government commitment to technological research since the space programme, uniting the military, Nasa, leading high-tech companies and the NSF under a single vision.

As Roco emphasises, the logic of NBIC lies in ‘the material unity of the nano-scale.’ Since everything operates from the bottom up (beginning with atoms that combine to form all larger structures), he argues, we can control events on the macro-scale if we can manipulate events at the nano-scale. For example, at the nano-scale scientists can already artificially synthesise DNA molecules. DNA controls the formation of proteins, which may ultimately determine the health and behaviour of entire organisms. The behaviour of individual organisms largely determines collective behaviour and, hence, the behaviour of society itself.

According to this hierarchical view, every substance, and every natural or cultural system is the working out of molecular processes at different levels. By seizing control of the molecular world through nanotechnology, we can affect every other realm of human experience, including natural phenomena. Neurons could be re-engineered so that our minds talk directly to computers or to artificial limbs. Viruses could be re-engineered to act as machines or, potentially, as weapons. Computer networks could be merged with biological networks to develop artificial intelligence or surveillance systems.

Jim Spohrer, chief technology officer at IBM, explains that the coming convergence will allow scientists to simultaneously manipulate the basic units of all NBIC technologies – bits (IT), atoms(nanotechnology), neurons (cognitive science) and genes (biotech). It all adds up to a little Bang (Bits, Atoms, Neurons, Genes) theory enabling a godlike level of control over knowledge, matter, mind and life. But who gets to be master of the universe?

Visions of the future

The US government’s NBIC strategy came to light in June 2002 with the publication of a 400-page document titled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance. The report (the result of a workshop held in Washington in December 2001) was written by 80 leading technology thinkers from the triple helix of industry, academia and the government. These thinkers included representatives from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, Nasa, the US’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the departments of commerce and energy and the NSF.

Workshop participants attempted to explore ways that converging technologies could enhance the physical and cognitive capabilities of humans, both individually and collectively. Punching numbers on a calculator can enhance cognitive ability, for example, but implanting a device that could turn the brain into a calculator would be more effective. A facelift can ‘enhance’ human performance according to the NBICers, but fine-tuning metabolism to stop ageing altogether would take enhancement to a new level.

The benefits of technological convergence were presented in a way that could prove irresistible to a public expected to spend $2.3 billion this year just to get its teeth whiter. No doubt it would be useful to look more closely at the benefits promised by NBIC (doubled life-expectancy, unfailing memory, wrinkle-free ageing, massively expanded intellect, etc) and debate if they are laudable or merely creepy. Though few of us, of course, would insist on the virtues of disease, senility or death.

What is chilling about the possibility of a singular future and what society must debate is the possibility of an ever-widening gulf between the improved and the unimproved. Whatever benefits convergence may bring, they will neither be cheap nor equitably distributed. What will happen to those who remain unimproved? Will physical enhancement become a legally enforceable social imperative?


A recent US court decision allowing prison officials to forcibly medicate a death-row inmate to make him sane enough to execute underlines the complex issues involved in the notion of ‘enhancement’. And US Supreme Court rulings claiming that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to persons with correctable impairments suggest that the rights of the disabled will be further eroded as disability becomes further marginalised as a social concern. So, how long before democratic dissent is viewed as a correctable impairment as well? After singularity makes possible the construction of an even higher Tower of Babel, what happens to diversity?

Jim Thomas is European Programme Manager for the ETC Group – the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration


Three key measurements indicate the speed at which the field of nanotechnology is growing.


Back in the late 1980s, there were about 60 patents that made reference to ‘nano’ in their applications. Nearly 445 nano-related claims were granted during the year 2001; the number of such patents was expected to exceed that level by the end of 2002. Tellingly, among those most aggressively filing for nanotech-related patents are the US Navy and the US Army.


A database of citations provided by ISI Citation Index tracks all references to key words in peer-reviewed English language scientific publications. The scientific literature in 1987 included about 200 ‘nano’ references. In 2001 there were roughly 7,700 nano citations. In just the first six months of 2002 there were over 6,000 nano citations.

Equally importantly, references to nanotechnology have moved beyond the conventional scientific press to popular science and business media. In September 2001, for example, the journal Scientific American devoted its entire issue to nanotech. In December 2001, Chemical and Engineering News also featured nanotechnology as its cover story. Daily newspaper USA Today now has a nanotechnology reporter. And virtually every issue of Technology Review features a nano-science breakthrough. With increasing regularity the business press is talking nano, and centrefold spreads making references to nanotech are commonplace.

State funding

Nanoscientists in the US are described as being ‘giddy’ about the federal commit-ment to nanotechnology. US government spending on nanotechnology totalled $463m in 2001, topped $600m in 2002, and will hit $710m in 2003. In 2002 Japanese government spending on nanotech pulled ahead of the US. The EU comes in a close third. Global government expenditures in 2001 exceeded $1 billion, and more than doubled to almost $2.5 billion in 2002. How this expenditure is being apportioned says a great deal about the future of nanotechnology.



Corporate Nano-Plans

The list of companies involved in nanotechnology includes many of the world’s most powerful multinationals. At the forefront is IBM, which has already committed $100m to research and development on nano-electronics. It is joined by ExxonMobil, chemicals giant Dow, Xerox, US technology corporation 3M, Alcan Aluminum, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard, Lucent, Motorola, pharmaceuticals firms Eli Lilly and Aventis, DuPont, Sony, Toyota, Hitachi Mitsubishi, NEC, Toshiba, Philips, L’Oréal, BASF and Bayer.

The economic and legal might of these companies gives them control over the direction that nanotechnology takes. A case in point is nano-scale plastic catalysts. In the early phases, more than 3,000 patents were granted to a host of companies. However, when all the bargaining and litigation had finished it was Exxon Mobil and Dow that walked away with technological control.

The interest that the giant corporations are showing in nanotechnology is reflected in the growth of investment in the field over recent years:

• US venture capital investment in nanotechnology has grown from a modest $100m per annum in 1999 to $780m in 2001, and will be $1.2 billion in 2003;

• By 2015 the US National Science Foundation predicts: annual sales of $340 billion for nanostructured materials and processes; $600 billion in annual electronics and informatics revenues; sales of about $180 billion in pharmaceutical applications, with half of all pharmaceutical production dependent on nanotechnology; and annual global nanotech-related sales to exceed $1 trillion, with atom technologies the dominant factor in the sectors of electronics (from computers to telecommunications), pharmaceuticals, energy and materials manufacturing.


 The March of the Microbots

‘There are three, although I have a feeling that under some future unified theory they will turn out to be just one. The first is, of course, information technology… The second is biotechnology… And the third is nanotechnology.’ Then-chairman and CEO of Monsanto Robert Shapiro, when asked what he believed were the world’s most promising future technologies

The future is close at hand…

• A researcher at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state is currently stuffing proteins inside carbon nanotubes that will then be incorporated into materials to make them ‘self-healing’. Protein-filled nanotubes may, for example, be incorporated into the plastic that makes up an airplane wing. If the wing becomes damaged and the nanotubes break apart, the released proteins could act as an adhesive and repair the damage.

• A complex working nano-machine with a biological engine has already been built by Carlo Montemagno at Cornell University (Montemagno is now at the University of California at Los Angeles). With his team of researchers, Montemagno extracted a rotary motor protein from a bacteria cell and connected it to a ‘nano-propeller’ – a metallic cylinder 750nm long and 150nm wide. The biomolecular motor was powered by the bacteria’s adenosine triphosphate (the source of chemical energy in cells), and was able to rotate the nano-propeller at an average speed of eight revolutions per second.

• Giant steps are already being taken in the direction of nano-scale robots. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) Bio-instrumentation Laboratory have developed hundreds of three-legged robots, each the size of a thumb. The robots are equipped with onboard computers, bio-sensors and scanning tunnelling microscopes, and are capable of measuring and assembling structures on the molecular scale. Only 32mm high, the microbots (dubbed ‘NanoWalkers’ because they are able to make 4,000nm-sized manoeuvres per second) are designed to respond to infrared signals allowing each of them to act (independently or collectively) on myriad tasks. The tiny machines are capable of executing 48 million instructions per second.

MIT predicts it will soon have over 100 microbots hard at work on separate but related tasks in an enclosed card-table-sized chromium-coated chamber. The chamber’s chromium surface provides an energy source for the robots, which will receive their marching orders from a master computer in the chamber’s ceiling. In the near future MIT scientists anticipate that the micro-army will have the power to manipulate individual molecules and even re-arrange atoms. With an ability to make 200,000 measurements per second, the machines may initially be used to analyse chemicals and to assist in the development of new pharmaceuticals. However, there is no obvious limit to their job description. They can also assemble and repair fellow microbots, and could eventually construct still tinier ‘nanobots’.


This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2003


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