Not too many years ago, I was among those anticipating a rapid acceleration of “progress” in which a future transformed by excitingly exotic new technologies would soon welcome us.
Now, however, I think I see things a bit more clearly. Or maybe I should say a bit less clearly.
Because that’s the point. We can’t see the future clearly at all. When we think we see something bright and shiny just ahead of us, that’s much more likely a reflection of the glow in our eyes.
Not that there is anything wrong with being optimistic and having high expectations. It’s a good thing to look forward to better days ahead, especially if that can motivate us to work diligently in trying to make our vision become reality.
But the road the the future, unfortunately, is not straight, not brightly-lit, and not well-marked. It’s not like this:
Instead, our way forward is almost certain to be filled with obstacles, detours, unexpected turns, and unforeseen events. Like this:
That, however, is not something to be lamented. It’s actually better for us, I think, in the long run.
Because the slow road asks more of us. It is more demanding, more challenging—and because it’s slower, it also provides us with more time to respond to the changes we experience along the way.
This way of looking at the future occurred to me today when I was reading a report about what’s being heralded by some as a “major breakthrough” in nanoscale robotic construction:
Researchers describe a “molecular spider” designed to perform a particular task, in this case walking along a certain, pre-programmed path. While traditional robots would rely on internal memory and processing to orient themselves toward their programmed goals, this spider gathers its commands from an environment that has been precisely defined by the researchers beforehand via nucleotides placed exactly where they want the spider to step.
A specially designed two-dimensional DNA origami landscape dictates the spider’s movements. The spider is made of an inert molecule body and three catalytic legs adapted from a specific DNA enzyme that binds to certain nucleotides…
Using a similar DNA origami tile, three DNA controlled two-state “DNA machines” and a DNA walker (with four feet and three “hands” that carry cargo), researchers aimed to show that by integrating several simple nanobots, we can create more complex nanosystems that can actually build things.
Each DNA machine holds a different gold nanoparticle, which it will either hold onto or let go of depending on whether it receives an “on” or an “off” command from its DNA programming. As the walker traverses the tile, the machines either pass off their cargoes or they do not. Which means at the end of the line, the finished product can be one of eight different products assembled from the gold nanoparticles, depending on which particles were handed to the walker.
Do that over and over, and you’ve got an assembly line. Not only that, but a machine can be manipulated to produce different end results depending on DNA commands, making it as versatile, in theory, as a computer controlled macro scale assembly line.
This is indeed fascinating, cutting-edge science. I hesitate, however, to describe it—as Annalee Newitz does in this article—as “the birth of the next industrial revolution.”
What it might turn out to be, actually, is a small step on a very long road that eventually could lead to something like the Next Industrial Revolution.
By the time we get there, though, it’s quite probable that a lot of other things will have happened that will make what looks like a revolution from here seem fairly commonplace to the people living then and there.
Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over the horizon… For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.
A second point he makes is equally important:
And when these artifacts hit the real world, they will come complete with the myriad insufficiencies and difficulties of real technology.
In other words, the pathway toward transformative tech will not be a smooth ride. It never has been and it never will be.
But that’s good. Because it gives us time to think about where we are going, to consider what the potential pitfalls might be and to prepare contingency plans to deal with them.
I spent six years as the Executive Director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, an organization I co-founded in 2002. Our mission there was to help prepare the world for the possibly rapid and maybe imminent development of molecular manufacturing. We described it, as did others, as the “next industrial revolution.”
But as the years have passed, it has become obvious (to me, at least) that the many steps required until researchers can begin building atomically-precise diamondoid products in desktop nanofactories at exponential rates will take a very long time.
The current excitement about “the first nanobot assembly line” is notable mainly because the technology being extolled is quite far from what some of us once envisioned might be possible by now. It is slow, painstaking, cumbersome, and imprecise. It’s, well, it’s how science works in the real world.
And for that we should be glad. It looks as though emerging technologies will be powerful, will raise vital ethical issues, and will indeed transform the way we live—but not all at once. Not suddenly, and not, we can hope, so disruptively as to prevent us from making judicious adaptations.
The road to the future is not straight. It’s curvy and bumpy and filled with potholes and difficult to negotiate safely. As it should be.