By Ronald Bailey
"We're accelerating the rate of progress. In fact, we're doubling the rate of progress
every decade," declared Raymond Kurzweil in his keynote speech at the Foresight
Institute's 8th Molecular Nanotechnology Conference held in the Washington D.C.
suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, last weekend. "We are now entering the knee of the
exponential growth curve of progress. Therefore we will see what would be at linear
rates 100 years of progress in the next 20 to 25 years." Kurzweil is a computer guru
who made a pile of money when he founded a leading company in speech recognition
technology. He is also author of The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990) and, most
recently, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human
His predictions of superfast progress received a sympathetic hearing at this gathering
of around 400 nanotechnologists. That's hardly surprising of course: That's exactly
what they are working to achieve. Nanotechnology seeks to make things -- food,
buildings, you name it -- at the molecular level. As Ed Regis explained it to Reason
readers back in 1995, "You'd make things by manipulating individual atoms and
molecules, working with them one at a time, positioning them precisely, lining them
up one by one, repeatedly, until enough of them accumulated to form a large-scale,
usable entity such as a car or spaceship, for example.
All this would be done automatically, effortlessly, without human hands or labor, by a
fleet of tiny, invisible robots. These robots, when they were developed, would do all
the world's work: People could sit back and enjoy themselves, drinking their mint
juleps in peace and quiet." "Progress in the 21st century will be 1,000 times greater
than in the 20th in terms of technical change," said Kurzweil. Technology, he added,
is getting more and more intimate and by the end of the 21st century there will not be
a clear distinction between human and machine.
As evidence of accelerating progress, Kurzweil pointed to the recent success in
sequencing the human genome. "Fifteen years ago it was a fringe project and some
said it would take 10,000 years to finish it. But we went from a cost of $10 to analyze
each DNA base pair to something on the order of a penny per base pair in 10 years,"
he said. Kurzweil also looked at trends in computing, claiming that $1,000 today will
buy you computing power that compares to that found in insect and mouse brains. By
2020, that same amount of money will buy computing power comparable to a human
brain and by 2050, it will purchanse computing power equal to all human brains. "The
21st century will not lack for computing power," Kurzweil declared.
He is equally upbeat about progress in increasing human longevity. According to
Kurzweil, we are adding 120 days to human life expectancy every year now. "Within
10 years, revolutions in genomics, proteomics, therapeutic cloning, and tissue
engineering will be adding more than one year every year to human life expectancy,"
he predicted. "If you can hang in there a few more years, you will actually get to see
how dramatic the 21st century will be."
Kurzweil says computing will disappear by the end of this decade. . Images will be
written directly on people's retinas from eyeglasses and contacts. We will have
wireless access to high bandwidth all the time. Computing will be integreated into our
clothing: no more palmtops and laptops, and going to a Web site will mean to going
to a shared virtual reality environment. Around 2030, we should be able to flood our
brains with nanobots that can be turned off and on and which would function as
"experience beamers" allowing us to experience the full range of other people's
sensory experiences and if we find ordinary experience too boring, we will have
access to archives where more interesting experiences are stored.
Nanobots will also expand human intelligence by factors of thousands or millions. By
2030, nonbiological thinking will be trillions of times more powerful than biological
To be sure, not everyone is looking forward --or brightly -- to this future. Not long
ago, Kurzweil sketched his vision for the 21st century over drinks in a Lake Tahoe bar
for Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy. How did Joy respond? By writing his
infamous article in Wired magazine that humanity must "relinquish" genetic
engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics because they are too dangerous. At the
nanontech confab, Kurzweil dismissed Joy's call for technological stagnation as
"totalitarian." "Relinquishment is utterly infeasible because technological progress is
not one thing. It is the result of the activities of thousands of researchers and
companies which can't be controlled," explained Kurzweil.
After Kurzweil's heady prognostications, the conference got down to the business of
exploring the very technical details of how to fulfill his vision of the future. These
conferences are sponsored by the Silicon Valley-based Foresight Institute, which was
established to promote the concept of nanotechnology as propounded by nanotech
godfather Eric Drexler in his groundbreaking 1986 book, Engines of Creation.
Enormous progress has been in made in miniaturizing technology, especially
computing power. As impressive as that's been, it pales in comparison to
nanotechnologists' dreams of building devices on a scale of molecules or atoms which
are billionth of meter (a nanometer) or less in size.
The technical presentations at the conference outlined many recent achievements, but
they also highlighted the fact that there is a lot more work to be done before nanoscale
devices will be routinely built and deployed. Manipulating atoms and molecules
remains very difficult. Another thing the conference made clear is that biological
nanotechnolgy and electronic nanotechnology are melding into one another. Biology
really is molecular nanotechnology based largely on chemistry. Klaus Schulten, from
the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, gave a lecture on the "Theory and
Modeling of Biological Nanodevices" which looked at using photosynthesis as a way
to power nanomachines. The University of Washington's Henry Hess talked about
"Powering Molecular Shuttles Through an Artificial Light Harvesting System" in
which he showed "movies" of how he and his colleagues have gotten biological
motors called kinesin to move tubulin strands with cargoes substantial distances across
teflon surfaces using UV light as a energy source.
Electronic nanotechnology traces its intellectual lineage to computers and information
theory and offers advantages over nanotechnology that emulates biological systems
because it makes more use of electrical charges and magnetic fields than do most
biological systems. However, even in molecular electronics, biological molecules may
be useful. Mark Ratner from Northwestern University described his work using DNA
molecules as "nano wires." He pointed out that DNA is easy to make and that it can
be especially designed so that it can easily transmit electrical charges.
James Tour of Rice University talked about "Constructing a Computer from
Molecular Components" in which his lab is creating "nanocells" that are densely
populated with 1,800 molecular switches. He claimed that his nanocells can contain
far more switches than silicon chips can. He expects that a prototype nanocell
computer will be operating in about 4 years.
Others dealt with topics like the uses for carbon nanotubes, developing non-natural
amino acids to use as structural elements and in sensors, computer programs used to
design nano gears and motors, and the creation of molecular scale sensors to detect
chemical and biological warfare agents.
"In 1994 a review article was published that questioned whether this field even
existed," said Mark Ratner. Those days are clearly past, according to Klaus Schulten,
who told the audience, "I want to impress on you that we've made great progress." No
doubt. But the fact is that very few practical nanodevices have made it out of the labs
yet. Still, given an inkling of what the future may hold, I suffer not from Future Shock,
but Future Lust.