A question that fans of science fiction need to consider.

So it may not necessarily be molecular nanotechnology itself which makes science fiction a useless type of writing, the increasing speed of advances should make it clear that some point in the future, probably rather soon, any attempt to write a story set more than 10 years or so will seem silly.

Why? Because you can't really write a story that draws readers in without creating some sort of realistic environment. And the speed of change will get to the point where you just can't see far enough to do that.

Much of today's science fiction is harmed by the lack of the existence of nanotechnology, which is lingering in reality just over the horizion. Look at Star Trek, and tell me if you think for a minute that there is any chance of things being like that. Of course not. The (possibly deliberate) ignorance of technological advances such as nanotech, highly extended life spans, and who knows what else, may make for a better storyline that people can comprehend, but makes it impossible to suspend disbelief for someone who sees some of what's coming.

Are we talking science, or are we talking fiction?

I agree, if we are talking about technology, and only a story with realistic hardware, then there's going to be a problem.

The phrase from Coleridge is, I believe, a willing suspension of disbelief, that is, regardless of the absurdity of what is being described, we still want to believe.

If the hardware is all that we're interested in, then we're talking space horse opera. In the westerns, the vision was of a cowboy--and his horse: a horse opera. Without that trusty horse, the cowboy was lost. It was opera because sometimes, the cowboy was a singing cowboy.

Today, instead of the horse, there is that darn spaceship, or even a starship--I like the sound of starship better. There is much of this.

I suppose there will soon be a boy and his nanobots. But this has already been a plot of one of The Outer Limits episodes. (I was quite moved by it.)

I don't believe it is the technology that makes for a willing suspension of disbelief. The operative part is the willing, and what will make us want not to disbelieve.

I know that those who have come of age after Steven Spielberg can't see believe anything except super special effects--now. Do mass audiences ever really care how correct anything is? And even more for those of us who are not part of the mass audience, is not ours an unquenchable thirst for some humanity, regardless of how erroneous the "tech" may be.

I suspect science fiction will be around--its subject is not technology; it is humanity striving to survive amidst technology.

See Gattaca.

An issue here is: Is the kind of nanotech you're talking about even feasible? Even people with much more scientific knowledge than I doubt that.

First: What is this end-all-be-all nanotech that might destroy science fiction? Right. Von Neumann automata a/k/a nanobots, that is, nano-scale devices which

  • reproduce in massive amounts like bacteria,
  • cooperate in groups of several billion,
  • follow instructions,
  • produce their own energy.

Following problems have not yet been solved:

  1. How is a nanobot going to distinguish its products from itself?
  2. How is it going to store and process instructions? Remember you need at least one atom to store one bit.
  3. Will the solution be efficient? A billion of nanobots working on something will consume insane amounts of matter and energy compared to, say, a human with a sledgehammer.
Mawa says that you need one atom to store one bit. With the buildup towards quantum computers and the recent breakthroughs with making the speed of light drop to zero with a gate laser, computers will be able to store information using sub-atomic particles and light.

As for the bigger question, Science Fiction will not be bothered with nanotechnology. Geosynchronous satellites were proposed by Arthur C. Clarke, but Science Fiction was not harmed when they were deployed. Once an item becomes reality, SciFi authors will come up with yet more far-fetched ideas. By the time we have a world with nanotechnology as common as a toaster, we'll be working on new ideas based off of the new sciences. Remember, the computer you're reading this with was a fantasy back in the 1960's, when spacecraft had the new cutting-edge 4K computers. Your digital watch has more computational power than the computers of the late 1950's. In the next ten years, everyone will have a Dick Tracy wrist video-telephone.

Perhaps the better question would be:

What will the dreamers and thinkers come up with when nanotechnology is commonplace?

Nanotech has already destroyed science fiction, at least the science fiction it has touched. Not because of the technology, but because of what it does to stories and plot lines.

To write entertaining and gripping stories, the writer needs tension and drama. How can a writer control their audience and guide them through a story with nanotech on the scene? At any moment, nearly anything can happen. Our Hero can suddenly grow a suit of armor, he can have nanobots in his body that spontaneously destroy the poison he is given, he can open a vial that destroys a planet in days. Our Heroine can be attacked by the air she breathes, be in possesion of killer panty hose, use lipstick as a weapon or have her fingernails morph into stainless steel overnight.

Nobody worries about plausibility any more (such as what happens to the binding energy of atomic bonds when a nano machine either assembles or disassembles atomic structure - energy isn't for free, even at the quantum level - and too little isn't as bad as too much). It's just too easy to wave a hand and say "nanotechnology makes it work". They may as well be saying "prayer makes it work" or "magic makes it work".

To make it work, writers have to create some kind of structure, some rules that give order to their nanotech narrative, else it just disassembles into a hodge-podge of goo. In a normal story, without nanotech, the world has rules and order that keep things sane. Inventing this order and inserting it into a story, without being heavy-handed and clumsy, is more than most writers are up to. At best a few writers, on a few rare occasions, have held the chaos of anything-goes nanotech at bay long enough to turn out a decent story. Not very often, however, and even the writers who have done the best have failed on other occasions. Nanotech, aside from it's real-world capabilities, clearly has the ability to totally consume a plot line.

About the only thing worse for plot lines than nanotech is the holodeck...

If the type of scenario outlined in Michael Crichton's Prey is correct, nanotechnology may indeed destroy science fiction. Crichton's novel (including a foreword by the author purportedly discussing thedangers of new technology) is an attempt -- moderately successful, given the credulity of the general population -- to scare the shits out of its readers with a tale of invisible submicroscopic entities that take over humans, leading in many cases to the customary gruesome death that makes for great box office.

Clearly, Crichton believes that nanotechnology could have devastating consequences because of the potential of nanomachines to alter the structure of matter at the molecular level. And worse, if at some point those unhinged power-crazed scientists decide that the best way to make more effective nanobots is to use self-reproducing and evolving nanotechnology, then it's only a matter of time before the principle of natural selection kicks in and the bots best able to reproduce themselves out of whatever raw material is at hand dominate. Dominate, indeed, to the extent of wiping out whatever other forms of "life" are around, and supposedly ending in the grey goo state when the Earth's surface is composed mostly or entirely of nanobots.

If and when this happens, any science fiction books, authors and readers will have been converted into a swarming mass of nanomachines, thus nanotech will have destroyed science fiction.

However, as usual Crichton's egregious scaremongering has a very tenuous basis in fact or probability. There are strong reasons why a ruinous takeover by nanobots is impossible.

First, conservation of energy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The nanobots have to get free energy from somewhere, and need to get rid of their excess entropy (and waste heat) since in performing their molecular rearrangements they will generate huge amounts of entropy. If one wishes to keep them at bay, the simplest solution is to leave them in a sealed room with the lights turned out. Now of course good enough self-reproducing bots will find a way out sooner or later, but they won't have the energy to fly, jump or crawl anywhere. The problem of energy supply and waste heat disposal is a major one for any substantial application of nanotechnology, as evidenced by the problems of cooling the smallest and fastest CPU's.

Now of course the nanobot (or cluster thereof) with a good survivor manual will drift on the wind until it encounters a source of energy. This will be a source of chemical energy, i.e. a configuration of atoms not in its lowest energy state. Like a bowl of cornflakes or the guy eating them. The next problem is that it needs to start digesting the energy source, since burning is a no-no for its delicate internal constitution. So it needs a reasonable complement of enzymes or other catalysts on board, otherwise (given the known laws of chemistry) it's not going to get anywhere; or, if it's really unfeasibly lucky, it could get by with a way to pervert the metabolism of its victim to its own benefit. But note that this requires an exact adaptation to the particular food source involved.

The requirement of free energy also gives us a sure-fire way of halting the bots in their tracks: use a load of stuff which is already in its lowest energy state. Like sodium chloride or nitrogen gas or silica.

However, it's still going to be difficult to defend against things that are molecule-sized and can't be filtered out: the bots can just survive, if they're robust enough, until they do meet a source of food. Next we meet the problem of raw materials. If the bots are to reproduce they need to find some of the same stuff that they are made of. So this rules out gallium arsenide-based scenarios immediately, the gallium market being what it is. Moreover the energy cost of turning the raw material into the nanobot shouldn't be too large. This rules out silicon-based structures since the source of Si, rock or sand, is very thermodynamically stable. More or less the only bet for a really dangerous bot is organic compounds, since these are around in large quantities and can be rearranged and structured with relatively small expenditure of energy.

However, this brings us to the crunch point: Nanotechnology is biotechnology. We already have nanotechnology of the type I've been describing. It's called viruses and bacteria, and the air, earth and water are saturated with them, metabolizing the heck out of any free energy that's around. Any supposedly-dangerous nanobots released by feckless scientists drunk on their own god-like powers of world domination would have to compete with the fantastically efficient and well-adapted microbiology of the world outside the lab. However much training and evolution they undergo inside, on the outside they would face adversaries with millions of years more experience. The chance that a few scientists would be able to spot and exploit a weakness in the biome, a niche for nanobots, is zero.

So I seem to be arguing that escaped nanotechnology can be no more dangerous than escaped biotechnology. But this doesn't seem particularly comforting: the deadly viruses that have come around in recent years aren't very nice to meet. Three points give us hope: scientists working on biotech already have rigorous codes of conduct and safety procedures designed to prevent any release of potentially dangerous material. Also, the vast majority of mutations of already-existing viruses create less effective viruses: if "something goes horribly wrong" with an experiment, it's overwhelmingly likely that whatever it is will just fizzle out and die. Lastly, the number of mutations that occur in nature will always hugely outnumber the number that can occur in the lab, simply because labs cover such a minute fraction of the Earth. All the dangerous virii so far have come from nature, since that's what nature is -- a vast outdoor laboratory dedicated to developing new and more successful self-replicators.

To conclude: Science fiction will only be destroyed by nanotechnology if its authors can't find a way to write better than Michael Crichton. On the other hand, don't cut funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention...


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