Drexler, E. Engines of Creation

Engines of Creation, Doubleday, New York, 1986

One of the most stimulating and provocative books to appear in recent years is Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation. Here the author makes an impressive attempt to set out an agenda for understanding and regulating the development and applications of a new technology well before it actually exists. The technology in question has been dubbed ‘nanotechnology’ to distinguish it from the ‘bulk technology’ of our time. It is based not on the gross shaping, heating and cutting of conventional materials but on molecular assemblers. These, it is suggested, will allow engineers to make sophisticated new materials and devices from almost anything, thus by-passing many traditional manufacturing problems. According to Drexler, such assemblers will provide a new foundation for technology. When the assemblers become self-replicating, they may enable us to make anything from tiny computers to spaceships at very low cost.

The perspective is stunning: engines will be grown in vats; space suits will be like a second skin but light, flexible and highly versatile; tiny machines will float in human bloodstreams bringing ‘long life in an open world’. It is even possible that the ecology will be restored and advanced cell repair will bring back entire species from extinction. Along with developments in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology may take humankind another step toward ‘the limits of the possible’.

It is tempting to dismiss all this as technophilic fantasy. But there are at least three reasons why such a response would be wrong. First, the author clearly knows what he is talking about. While the book does make enormous leaps, it is firmly based on real science and engineering know-how. Second, and to his credit, he does not try to pull the wool over our eyes. One chapter, called ‘Engines of Destruction’, explores some of the many possible dangers. Third, he has made an essential connection between innovation and foresight. He argues that the benefits of technology and the pressure of competition impel us forward. But as the pace quickens, so the likelihood of a fatal error grows. Since we cannot slow the pace of change, he suggests, we must do more to encourage the growth of foresight. This will enable us to direct the process of technical change in safer directions.

From this beginning Drexler has vigorously taken the initiative and created the Foresight Institute (FI). The policy of this organisation is given in Figure 7.2 of the book. It is a non-profit corporation founded to help prepare for future technologies by research, public education and institutional development. A basic goal of the FI is to help develop several related organisations which will share a common focus on the problems and opportunities posed by nanotechnology. To this end, the FI publishes news, essays and information. It serves as a networking forum and a source of suggestions for projects in a variety of related areas: computer software, media resources, molecular graphics, political action and tertiary teaching, to name but a few. According to the author, the main strength of the Foresight Institute lies in the ideas it proposes about how to make the future work, given the new technologies in view.

Clearly this is a major initiative and an important embodiment of the foresight rationale. In principle Drexler is right: the prospect of such radical and far-reaching changes means that careful foresight work is essential. But there are at least three weaknesses in this particular application of the principle. First, the FI cannot be said to be working solely in the public interest (however defined) because it has chosen an advocacy role. The FI documents I have seen are as concerned to establish the scientific and engineering basis of nanotechnology as they are to encourage debate about it. This represents a confusion of roles which pre-empts some of the most important questions (e.g. do we really need such a radically de-stabilising suite of technologies?). Second, there is a barely-concealed determinism about Drexler’s whole account. He has convinced himself of the ‘inevitability’ of these developments and wants us to become involved in ‘guiding’ their application. He begs the question about this apparent inevitability and takes as his frame of reference an outdated geopolitical view.

Given the long time-frames applied to the technology, this represents a clear failure of imagination: the politics are static, the technology rips ahead. In this view, it does not occur that such a prior commitment actually obscures the kind of reconceptualisation which would make the technology itself more problematic, less inevitable. This falls squarely into one of the traps that detracts from much popular futures work: the technology occupies the high ground but the worldview, with its hidden assumptions, commitments and agendas, is tucked away out of sight, unavailable and unregarded.

Finally, we are enjoined to enter the debate – but strictly under the agenda provided. It seems that with nanotechnology there is a real ‘problem of nonsense’. We are explicitly warned against ‘false ideas’, and against ‘flakes, fanatics, extremists and crazies’. But such attempts to circumscribe what is, by any account, a vital debate, are self-defeating. They betray an underlying weakness which seems to spring from an unresolved conflict of interests. Foresight and advocacy are clearly uncomfortable bedfellows.

The principle rests uneasily upon a technical foundation. It would fare better, perhaps, with an ethical one.

Richard A. Slaughter

Copyright © Richard A. Slaughter.