Nanotech & Self-organizing Systems
Michael Crichton's Novel - PREY

At Caltech over 40 years ago (Dec, 1959) Richard Feynman gave a talk "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" - the challenge of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale. His talk started the ball rolling on the science of creating molecular devices that could compute, assemble and replicate themselves.


Nanotechnology – manipulating matter at the atomic scale – gets its name from the measurement called a nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter, the width of about four individual atoms. When we get down to this size, the classical laws of physics change. Once atoms can be manipulated, it will be possible to produce new materials with desired properties: smaller, stronger, tougher, lighter and more resilient than anything that has ever been made.


An inflection point


Nanotechechnology is the next big revolution, an "inflection point" which will change almost everything! It is developing to the extent that practical applications are coming within the next few years, and certainly with the next decade. NEMS (nano-electro-mechanical mechanical systems) are quickly becoming practical, bringing ultra sensitive sensors and ultra strong actuators that might replace damaged human tissue, or power tiny robots.


The holy grail of nanotechnology is self-assembly, which will soon be an effective nano engineering tool. Self-assembly is nothing new: biology does it all the time; in chemistry molecules team up to form structures. Indeed, the concept of self-assembly grew out of attempts to aggregate molecules spontaneously into specific configurations. Now, nanotech self-assembly is attempting the same.


As Nanotechnology advances into practicality, achievements will transcend and unite such diverse sciences as physics, chemistry, biology and even computer science. The conventional automation business will indeed be revolutionized.


Drexler's warning


In 1986, K. Eric Drexler published "Engines of Creation", the groundbreaking Nanotechnology book. It described ways to stack atoms, assemble machines much smaller than living cells, make materials stronger and lighter than anything dreamed of today. Applications included better "skins" for aircraft and automobiles, tiny devices that can travel along capillaries to enter and repair living cells, the ability to heal disease, reverse the ravages of age, make the human body stronger. The idea was born that we could make machines the size of viruses. We could assemble these myriads of tiny parts into intelligent machines, perhaps based on the use of trillions of nanoscopic parallel-processing devices that would learn from previous experience.


Eric Drexler warned,

"There are many people, including myself, who are quite queasy about the consequences of this technology for the future. We are talking about changing so many things that the risk of society handling it poorly through lack of preparation is very large."


Michael Crichton's new novel


Drexler's warning is included in the introduction to Michael Crichton's new techno-thriller PREY. The author of "Andromeda Strain", "Jurassic Park" and other best sellers, weaves a story about the perils of Nanotechnology. This is combined with a technically realistic account of distributed intelligence, self-organizing systems and emergent behavior – the subjects Dick Morley has been discussing at his Santa Fe Chaos conferences for several years.


PREY brings to mind Bill Joy's well-known Wired article, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." He warned, "Our most powerful 21st-century technologies – robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech – are threatening to make humans an endangered species."


Michael Crichton doesn't allow the reader to relax with the feeling that the danger is fictional – the book includes an introduction to emphasize the direct link to reality. Drexler's warning (above) is included, as well as an extract from a Santa Fe Institute paper by J. Doyne Farmer and Alletta d'A. Belin, "Artificial Life: The Coming Evolution". Here is that quote:


"Within fifty to a hundred years a new class of organisms is likely to emerge. These organisms will be artificial in the sense that humans will originally design them. However, they will reproduce, and will evolve into something other than their initial form; they will be "alive" under any reasonable definition of the word. The pace of evolutionary change will be extremely rapid. The advent of artificial life will be the most significant historical event since the emergence of human beings. The impact on humanity and the biosphere could be enormous, larger than the industrial revolution, nuclear weapons, or environmental pollution. We must take steps now to shape the emergence of artificial organisms; they have potential to be either the ugliest terrestrial disaster, or the most beautiful creation of humanity."


PREY is the story of a cloud of nanoparticles that has escaped from the lab – self-sustaining, self-reproducing micro-robots. The cloud is intelligent and learns from experience. It is "alive" and has been programmed as a predator. Humans are its prey. It defeats efforts to kill it through self-organizing, emergent behavior and genetic algorithms. It evolves swiftly and becoming more deadly with each passing hour. The story is fictitious, but the underlying technology is real.


PREY is a good book - read it!


PREY (a novel) – by Michael Crichton:


Santa Fe Institute abstract: Artificial Life – The coming Evolution:


Eric Drexler's groundbreaking Nanotech book – "Engines of Creation":


Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology entrepreneur, investor and futurist. You can email him at: [email protected]. Or look at his poems, prognostications and predictions on his website: