From the Author
By Richard A.L. Jones
A brief introduction.
Theres probably no technology thats more debated, more discussed and more misunderstood right now than nanotechnology. I wrote Soft Machines to explain just what nanotechnology is now and what it will be in the future. Will it lead to a new form of artificial life thats ultimately going to replace us? Or is it just a new and trendy name for chemistry and materials science?
Nanotechnology, to some people, is the new technology thats going to revolutionize the world. Tiny robots, each no bigger than bacteria, will be able to make anything from any ingredients; theyll end poverty and make the environment pristine again. Enthusiasts imagine tiny submarines, like the one in that 60s science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, able to swim around in our bloodstreams, curing all illnesses, maybe even allowing people to live for ever.
But every utopia has its dark side, and some people fear that if we can make these nanobots, they may get out of our control. Michael Crichtons new thriller "Prey" illustrates this possibility chillingly and when the film is released this autumn Im sure well hear much more about this. The ultimate catastrophe is if the nanobots reproduce out of control, eating everything and turning the world into GREY GOO!
Many scientists, technologists and business people think that both the utopia and the dystopia are just the stuff of science fiction, great for thrillers but nothing to worry about in the real world. To them nanotechnology is a business opportunity. Well be able to control matter on the atomic scale, but rather than making nanobots, well just make better sunscreen, stain resistant trousers and other mundane but lucrative products.
The man who invented nanotechnology, the word nanotechnology, was K. Eric Drexler in a best selling book published some 15 years ago called "Engines of Creation". He argued that we know it must be possible to make nanobots because life itself is made of them all the tiny machines in our cells and in the cells of all living things are working examples of natural nanotechnology. So if we could make artificial versions of these nanomachines we would have nanotechnology. But we would make the machines not from the soft squidgy materials of biology but from hard, strong materials like diamond. So wed be making something like life but stronger and tougher and more durable. Thats why we would have to worry that this new artificial type of life might replace the old, soft and squidgy version.
I think that Drexler is half right. It must be possible to make nanomachines because we know that nature does it. But what if nature uses soft and squidgy stuff because thats what works best? A car might be faster and stronger than a horse, but is it necessarily so that diamond nanobots are tougher than bacteria. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that nature uses squidgy materials because on the tiniest of length scales thats what works best. The physics of small things is different to the physics of big things, and when you design for the nanoscale you need to take that into account.
My book explains why nanoscale machines need to be soft machines, like the machinery of life, rather than the machinery of cogs and gears, of the macroscopic world. It explains why life is the way it is, and that if we want to make nanobots we should copy nature and make them soft. It is this kind of soft nanotechnology that could lead to all sorts of advances, like new life saving and life enhancing treatments in medicine, super-fast computers, and cheap and clean renewable energy from the sun.
And what about grey goo? As we understand just how clever and appropriate natures nanoscale designs are, I think well be a little less cocky about able to design something better ourselves. Soft Machines describes how we might go about copying nature in nanotechnology, but its going to be a very long time before we can surpass nature.