TCS Daily

Falling Prey to Science Fiction

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - November 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Michael Crichton's new novel, Prey, revolves around nanotechnology. As is typical with Crichton's work, it's a cautionary tale in which a badly planned technological development gets out of control. This has produced some mild criticism, along the lines of Janet Maslin's in The New York Times:

Although the premise of Prey is that these particles supposedly have no memory capacity, there are certain collective behavior patterns that they definitely understand. They know it's time to go berserk in the story's third act, after its highly interesting lecture phase is over.

But this is a bit unfair. To be interesting, most stories require something unlikely to happen, and Maslin is hardly the first to point that out. (At the beginning of the Daffy Duck version of Jack and the Beanstalk, Daffy looks at the beanstalk towering over him and remarks, "Well, I better start climbin' this thing, or we won't have much of a picture.") A story that involved ordinary people doing predictable things with predictable results wouldn't be very exciting - it would be like Jerry Springer's show if he featured normal, well-adjusted people as his guests.

Stories, then, depart from reality by design. This shouldn't need pointing out, but when you consider the role that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - a 200-year-old tale written by a nonscientist, in which dramatic conventions guaranteed that the scientist and his creation wouldn't live happily ever after - has played in discussion of technology policy, perhaps it does. And so I'm going to point out something almost as obvious about Crichton's book: the factual situation that he relies on for his story is one that could only happen if the researchers in question were (1) stupid; (2) criminally negligent; and (3) willing to violate the consensus ideas about nanotechnology safety.

Crichton's nanobots are capable of evolution (at least in programming) and of surviving in the "wild" - that is, of making more copies of themselves from ordinary material found in nature. These are two big no-nos of nanotechnology. In fact, they're the first two no-no's of the Foresight Guidelines for Molecular Nanotechnology:

1. Artificial replicators must not be capable of replication in a natural, uncontrolled environment.

2. Evolution within the context of a self-replicating manufacturing system is discouraged.

You can't get much plainer than that. The Guidelines also include design principles, including the following:

MNT device designs should incorporate provisions for built-in safety mechanisms, such as: 1) absolute dependence on a single artificial fuel source or artificial "vitamins" that don't exist in any natural environment; 2) making devices that are dependent on broadcast transmissions for replication or in some cases operation; 3) routing control signal paths throughout a device, so that subassemblies do not function independently; 4) programming termination dates into devices, and 5) other innovations in laboratory or device safety technology developed specifically to address the potential dangers of MNT.

And there's also this:

Developers should attempt to consider systematically the environmental consequences of the technology, and to limit these consequences to intended effects. This requires significant research on environmental models and risk management, as well as the theory, mechanisms, and experimental designs for built-in safeguard systems.

I think it's fair to say that had the Foresight Guidelines been followed (full disclosure: I was one of their drafters) by the researchers in Crichton's book, he wouldn't have had much of a story. (Or, no doubt, much of a picture, since Crichton's novels generally wind up as movies.) But that's not a criticism of Crichton, who unlike some critics of technology seems to understand the difference between novels and the real world.

In an article written for Parade magazine this past weekend, Crichton stresses the likely benefits, as well as risks, of nanotechnology, and - quoting nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler - calls for discussion of appropriate regulation to start now. Naturally, I agree, and in fact have just published a paper to this effect under the auspices of the Pacific Research Institute. And I'm delighted to see that Crichton is using his novel to push for responsible discussion, rather than hysterical overreaction, to the issues raised by nanotechnology. Novels can raise awareness. But only a fool expects a novel to actually answer questions about the wisdom of new technologies.



TCS Daily Archives