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Will nanobots be soft or hard? It does not matter. They will be.

The worlds that can become are fascinating to me. I am a neophyte transhumanist, futurist, and adherent to the idea of the singularity. When I read about nanotechnology, I am most excited not by trying to guess what form nanobots will take, but by the fact that educated people in some scientific and intellectual circles are taking for granted that they WILL appear on the scene in my lifetime.

If biology can produce a sophisticated nanotechnology based on soft materials like proteins and lipids, singularitarian thinking goes, then how much more powerful our synthetic nanotechnology would be if we could use strong, stiff materials, like diamond. And if biology can produce working motors and assemblers using just the random selections of Darwinian evolution, how much more powerful the devices could be if they were rationally designed using all the insights we’ve learned from macroscopic engineering.

But that reasoning fails to take into account the physical environment in which cell biology takes place, which has nothing in common with the macroscopic world of bridges, engines, and transmissions. In the domain of the cell, water behaves like thick molasses, not the free-flowing liquid that we are familiar with. This is a world dominated by the fluctuations of constant Brownian motion, in which components are ceaselessly bombarded by fast-moving water molecules and flex and stretch randomly. The van der Waals force, which attracts molecules to one another, dominates, causing things in close proximity to stick together. Clingiest of all are protein molecules, whose stickiness underlies a number of undesirable phenomena, such as the rejection of medical implants. What’s to protect a nanobot assailed by particles glomming onto its surface and clogging up its gears?

What is certain is that nanotech will change everything. Who is to say that we won’t have nanomachines and bionano armies competing for dominance? Some believe that humanity will cease to exist with the advent of nano.

Folks like Ray Kurzweil, Bill Joy and Eric Drexler have raised some alarms, but they are too dazzled by the complexity and power of human cybersystems, devices and networks to see it coming. They think the power of our tools lies in their ever-increasing complexity — but they are wrong. The biotech folks just don’t get it either. People like Craig Venter and Leroy Hood are too enthralled with the possibilities inherent in engineering biology to get it. And our “bioethicists,” like Arthur Kaplan, and those who cling to their human DNA like it was the Holy Grail or the original tablets of stone, blathering on like Captain Kirk about what special, sacred things we humans are — they can’t possibly get it. All these people who think (or fear) that technology will ultimately trump biology have missed the cosmic point. They are not even wrong. To begin to get it, one must dispense with artificial boundaries. If you are only thinking about cybersystems and DNA you cant possibly get it. And if you are thinking outside the box, you are still thinking too much like a human being.

Linus Pauling would have gotten it right away. Erwin Schrödinger too, and probably Robert Oppenheimer. Bertrand Russell got it. In fact he named it. What Ray, and Craig, and Eric, and Arthur can’t see is the power of pure chemistry — what Bertrand Russell called “chemical imperialism.” What they don’t get is this — a system does not have to be complex to be transcendently, transformatively powerful. After all, we and everything we have created are nothing but the product of “carbon imperialism” — carbon being the element that all known life is based on. Nothing but the power of pure chemistry. Living and nonliving materials, everything that exists in the physical world of our experience burns with that same electron fire. The fire of the chemical bond.

Me, I burn with the desire for change. Alan H. Goldstein describes how nanotech (which he says will be nanobiotech, and I tend to lean that way) will break down barriers. Bring it on. Break the carbon barrier. I’m ready.

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