IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Staff > HealthLongevity > Mike Treder > Technoprogressivism > Innovation > SciTech > Resilience
Slow Road to the Future
Mike Treder   May 14, 2010   Ethical Technology  

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.

That’s the point made by Jamais Cascio in his article titled “Your Posthumanism is Boring Me.

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.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


Beware of the temptation to create and believe in Utopias.  Creating these imaginary societies cuts us of from the moment, from listening to the concerns and realities of others.  What Utopias present themselves to us now and how is our attraction to them causing problems rather than solving them?

...the fast road asks more of us, because it forces us to be prepared for rapid events that quickly spiral out of control, and to grapple with a world that lacks most of the science/economics knowledge necessary to see why emerging technologies can have high development costs but low marginal cost per copy. 

It could take a while to get to the first assembler (hopefully a long while), but once we get there, Chris Phoenix has outlined some of reasons why progress to industrial-scale molecular manufacturing could be rapid. 

This is analogous to how the atomic bomb took a while to create, but once it was created, it became possible to mass-produce atomic bombs. 

There will not be much time to think about the coming changes as they occur.  We are going to be caught with our pants down.


You are right to beware of visualising false hopes and dreams, and I do not myself believe in the terms utopia or perfection, yet we should still strive to be better than we are now, and to create more peaceful and prosperous societies. In fact humans have always done this. Where do these dreams come from? Why do humans dream to be better than they actually are? Is it merely because we cannot reconcile our intellect and our origins, and thus seek God?

Some say that humanity needs religions and faiths to believe in the hope of an afterlife because we are all simply afraid of death? I don’t think this is so.

To build a better future for all we need to refine or improve on our philosophies and ethics in a way that leads to the education of all peoples towards the goal of connectedness and harmony. By all means individualism and freedoms should not be repressed, yet existentialism and personal responsibilities should be promoted.

Hopefully one day all humans will understand it is wrong to kill and murder, (all forms of life), and that the root of all evil is “selfishness” and the promotion of one’s own desires over and above and “at the expense of others”? This may be a utopian ideal to some, but to me it is merely common sense to pursue these ideals, and it is up to the individual to pursue this. It is up to the individual to decide to choose the path of peace and harmony and self-understanding or not. It takes a long time, yet in small steps we have emerged from barbarism to where we are now.

Just as the billions of neurons and neural connections form the mind within the brain, the Internet has transformed the human world into a global brain comprised of individual minds all communicating their thoughts and ideas and dreams and spreading education to all. Together we can all change the world and make it a better place than it is now. All it takes is to continue communicating our thoughts and ideas and dreams.

YOUR COMMENT Login or Register to post a comment.

Next entry: Aimee Mullins on Colbert

Previous entry: How Might Our Great-Great-Grandchildren Think (and Will They Still Be Human?)