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nanoscience : The Nanomeme Syndrome
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The Nanomeme Syndrome
Concerning mechanistic visions of control at a molecular scale
by Jim Gimzewski and Victoria Vesna
In both the philosophical and visual sense, "seeing is believing" does not apply to nanotechnology, for there is nothing even remotely visible to create proof of existence. On the atomic and molecular scale, data is recorded by sensing and probing in a very abstract manner which requires complex and approximate interpretations. More than in any other science, visualization and creation of a narrative becomes necessary to describe what is sensed, not seen. Nevertheless, many of the images generated in science and popular culture are not related to data at all, but come from visualizations and animations frequently inspired or created directly from science fiction. Likewise, much of this imagery is based on industrial models and is very mechanistic in nature, even though nanotechnology research is at a scale where cogs, gears, cables, levers, and assembly lines as functional components appear to be highly unlikely. However, images of mechanistic nanobots proliferate in venture capital circles, popular culture, and even in the scientific arena, and tend to dominate discourse around the possibilities of nanotechnology.
In this essay, we argue that this new science is ultimately about a shift in our perception of reality, from a purely visual culture to one based on sensing and connectivity.
The Experiential Short Circuit
Nanotechnology is more a new science than technology, and the industry being constructed around it predictably uses old ideas and imagery. During its current rise to prominence, a strange propagandist "nanometer" has emerged in our midst without being clearly realized by any of the participants. It is layered with often highly unlikely ideas of nanotech products that range from molecular sensors in underwear, smart washing machines that know how dirty the clothes are, to artificial red blood cells and nanobots that repair our bodies, all the way up to evil swarms of planet-devouring molecular machines. Sensation-based media happily propagates this powerful and misleading cocktail, combining scientific data, graphically intense visualizations, and science fiction artwork. In the past few years, mixed up nanomemes have emerged, wherein the differences between science fiction novels and the front cover stories and images of reputable journals such as Science or Nature are becoming differentiated by the proportion of fiction to fact, rather than straight factual content.1
One thing is certain however - as soon as we confront the scale that nanotechnology works within, our minds short circuit. The scale becomes too abstract in relation to human experience. Consequently, any intellectual connection to the nanoscale becomes extremely difficult. Scientists have tried to explain this disparity by comparing the nanometer to the thickness of a human hair - the average thickness of a human hair is 50,000 nanometres. Recently, Nobel Laureate Sir Harry Kroto described the nanometer by comparing the size of a human head to that of the planet earth: a nanometer would be the size of a human head in relation to the size of the planet if the planet were the size of the human head.2 But even that is difficult to intuitively grasp or visualize.
What type of perceptual shift in our minds has to take place to comprehend the work that nanoscience is attempting, and what would be the repercussions of such a shift? How does working on this level influence the way scientists think? In our opinion, media artists, nanoscientists, and humanists need to join forces together and envision such possibilities.3 Although nanotechnology is used widely to refer to something very tiny, this new science will eventually revolutionize and impact every single aspect of our lives. It will do this on all scales all the way up from the atom to the planet earth and beyond. The very modus operandi of science is already changing under its influence. Nanoscience not only requires input from practically every scientific discipline, but it also needs direct and intense collaboration with the humanities and the arts.
The STM: Visual to Tactile Perception
Up until the mid-nineteen eighties, scientists viewed matter, atoms, molecules, and solids using various types of microscopes or in abstract space (Fourier Space). These microscopes relied on lenses and the properties of light as a wave.4 Typically, human perception of a microscope is a tube-like structure through which one looks and sees reality magnified. In a deeper philosophical sense, while being strictly scientific, the concept of seeing is illusory. Nevertheless, when one looks through a microscope at a butterfly's wings, it is difficult to separate one's conscious mind and its interpretation from the information transmitted by ones' eyes. The eye itself contains a small part of the brain that already preprocesses the information received as light particles or waves. As the magnifying power of the microscope is increased, the average person looking through the lenses maintains his or her illusion of seeing a reality, and interprets the image in terms of common human experience related to the scale in which one normally observes the world.
The Scanning Tunneling Microscope or STM5 represents a paradigm shift from seeing (in the sense of viewing) to tactile sensing - recording shape by feeling, much like a blind man reading Braille. The operation of a STM is based on a quantum electron tunneling current, felt by a sharp tip in proximity to a surface at a distance of approximately one nanometer. The tip is mounted on a three dimensional actuator like a finger. This sensing is recorded as the tip is mechanically rastered across a material's surface, producing contours of constant sensing. The resulting information acquired is then displayed as an image of the surface topography. Through images constructed from feeling atoms with an STM, an unconscious connection to the atomic world quickly becomes automatic to researchers who spend long periods of time in front of their STMs. This inescapable reaction is much like driving a car - hand, foot, eye, and machine coordination becomes automated. Similarly, the tactile sensing instrument soon became a tool to manipulate the atomic world by purposefully moving around atoms and molecules and recording the effect. Indeed, using the word microscope is misleading, and this tool really should be called a tactoscope.
In science, commonly agreed human perceptions are constantly in question. Indeed, as the power of 20th Century microscopes increased, the images recorded progressively reflected not only patterns of waves determined by physical object form, but also how the light waves scatter and interfere with each other. The butterfly's blue wings no longer have color - one finds the color to be a beautiful illusion, where form, shape, and periodic patterns on the nanoscale manipulate light waves to provide us with the illusion of seeing blue.6 As the magnification increases, we can no longer rely on our common human perception. Rather we see how, in this case, nature has carefully duped us - through some magnificent evolutionary process, she has generated what is called nanophotonics.7 Nanophotonics is a way to manipulate light through shapes, not mirrors. Indeed, by just changing the physical structure of matter on the nanoscale, we can produce a mirror - a mirror that is perfect; a mirror that some time in the future, through voice command, will switch to become a window. As we increase magnification into the truly invisible realm, we change our perception to view the world around us as an abstraction, a pattern of light waves.
Both nanotechnology and media arts, by their very nature, have a common ground in addressing issues of manipulation, particularly sensory perception, questioning our reaction, changing the way we think. They are complementary, and the issues that are raised start to spill over into fundamental problems of the limits of psychology, anthropology, biology, and so on. It is as if the doors of perception have suddenly opened and the microscope's imperfection of truly representing object form forces us to question our traditional (Western) values of reality.
The Mechanist View: Molecular Nanobots
The term robot, as is well known, was first used in a science fiction book entitled
Valka s Mloky (War with the Newts), and a play titled R.U.R
(Rozuma Univerzalni Roboti), both written by Karel Capek in 1920. Capek
coined the word robot from a Czech word, robota, meaning drudgery,
or compulsory labor. This idea of the robot was assimilated into the science
world and developed to the point where robots now rove the terrain of Mars and
vacuum homes. Perhaps the most controversial persona in the robotic sciences
is Hans Moravec, whose visions no doubt compete with science fictions writers.
Moravec, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, projects that
in the next forty years of robot development, there will be a rise of super-intelligent,
creative, emotionally complex cyber-beings, and the end of human labor. He predicts
an absolutely mechanistic future trajectory in which, eventually, every atom
in the entire galaxy would be transformed into robotic space, with a full-scale
simulation of human civilization running as a subroutine, as depicted in the
1999 movie The Matrix.
A nanobot is commonly visualized as a derivative of the robot on a nanoscale. In the introduction to Engines of Creation (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1986), K. Eric Drexler turns to a dictionary definition of a machine as "any system, usually of rigid bodies, formed and connected to alter, transmit, and direct applied forces in predetermined manner to accomplish a specific objective, such as the performance of useful work", and asserts that molecular machines fit this definition quite well. Throughout the book, natural systems are interpreted as machines operating to Newtonian principles, and the nanomeme is firmly established in a mechanical engineering world-view. Proteins, ribosomes, RNA, DNA, and viruses are all part of a grand machine. In 1992, Drexler - an engineer by degree - went beyond predicting a general emergence of nanotechnology with another book called Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation (John Wiley & Sons), this time detailing technical particulars. Drexler's drawings of nanothings tend to resemble molecule-sized versions of mechanical counterpoints that have been around since the Industrial Revolution: gears, cogs, levers, and pistons. If these versions of nanomachines some day materialize, his engineer's calculations, which hold true in the world most people comprehend, will probably not be of much use in the molecular realm. However, futurist vision includes self-assembled armies of tiny robots that build greater armies of tinier robots, ad infinitum.
The creation of this nanomeme that is currently in circulation has certainly been promulgated by Drexler's work and later by the Foresight Institute Inc., a futurist organization based in Palo Alto. The concept of nanotechnology in the general public stems, in part, from the media's habitual reliance on the promotions and prognostications of Drexler and his Foresight Institute. The mechanistic nanomeme has taken on the sheen of authority, as one press clipping breeds another. Indeed, the nanomeme is similar to the self-replication of the nanobots themselves. Many articles have an inspired tableau of molecule-sized robots "grabbing atoms one by one" and then replicating armies of themselves. The Foresight Institute Web site asserts a lot of things, such as: within the foreseeable future, there will be a nanobox that manufactures items such as cell phones from a toner composed of "electrically conductive molecules"; in the long run we will turn dirt into food, ending world hunger; and some nanotechnology enthusiasts also believe it will give humans the power of telepathy.8
Weaving Fact and Fiction into Blur
If you want to think of it that way, a human being is actually a giant swarm. Or more precisely, it's a swarm of swarms, because each organ - blood, liver, kidneys - is a separate swarm. What we refer to as "body" is really a combination of all these organ swarms. We think our bodies are solid, but that's only because we can't see what is going on at the cellular level. If you could enlarge the human body, blow it up to a vast size, you would see that it is literally nothing but a swirling mass of cells and atoms, clustered together into smaller swirls of cells and atoms. (Michael Crichton, Prey; Harper Collins, 2002)
Michael Crichton's recent novel, Prey, provides an excellent example of contemporary science fiction that is based on current science. As an acclaimed author of best-selling novels that are almost always converted into blockbuster movies, there is no doubt that he influences the collective imaginary. Crichton draws together four separate fields: distributed processing for networked computing, nanotechnology or molecular manufacturing, biotechnology, and the behavioral science of socially organized insect communities (such as bees and ants). By tying in the evolution process, he comes up with a very plausible scenario and some possible "Particle Swarm Organization" applications.
As he says in his foreword: "Sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power."
Crichton includes in his novel many references to current histories and skillfully weaves them into the story, blurring fact and fiction. For instance, the main character who narrates the story describes how scientists (Don Eigler and co-workers) at IBM repositioned Xenon atoms with an STM tip to form the letters of the company logo. In his narrative, he also comments that this was more of a stunt than anything else, and that it would take much more to create new technology. The description of the building molecular assemblers in the book is directly inspired by Drexler's visions of nanobots. After laying down a foundation based on actual events, the author proceeds to tell the story of a company that succeeds in building molecular assemblers that eventually go out of control.
After referencing events, people, and companies that many of us are familiar with, we are taken on a horror ride that instills a real fear of nanotechnology. This and many other works of science fiction that have appeared in the movies, on TV programs, books, and PC games reflect the concept of nanotechnology as "more" than science or hard technology. It has actually evolved into a culture and art form in its own right. Even more than cyborgs, AI, or robots, nanotechnology truly traverses science and art as the dream of the future. This novel will first be read by millions, then will be watched in movies and played in games, until it finally becomes another part of the collective nano-consciousness.
Public conceptions of nanotechnology and the blurring of fact and fiction seem to go hand-in-hand more than in any other science. As nanoscience is being established, it is clear that the imagination is there to roam the many dark visions connected to the military's interest in nanotech, and soon we are also in the midst of a new type of war that will not only require new tactics, but also new technologies. The US Army is collaborating with MIT, having recently promised the university $50 million for a new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. The aim is to improve soldiers' protection and their ability to survive using new tiny technologies to detect threats, and automatically treat some medical conditions. The Army isn't the only branch of the military actively developing smart textiles. The US Navy funded a project in 1996 that eventually turned into the Smart Shirt, a product commercialized by SensaTex Inc. in Atlanta, with technology from Georgia Tech Research Corp. The T-shirt functions like a computer, with optical and conductive fibers integrated into the garment. It can monitor vital signs, such as heart rate and breathing of wearers, and will most likely be first put to use by law enforcement officers and military personnel.9
From Nanobots to Nanobods
Does it really make sense to extend the idea of a mechanical robot to software program bots and apply a Newtonian/industrial-age approach to work on the molecular level? More and more researchers working on this scale are looking closely at natural biological systems for clues and inspiration. In this vision of bio-inspired nanotechnology, the body and mind shift to another paradigm, and certainly appear much more appropriate to the new century we have just entered.
We should take a closer look at ourselves as magnificent nano-beings, connected and part of an entire living body of this Earth and beyond for inspiration - not look to machines of the past. DNA, proteins, and cells of all sorts already function at nanoscale in animals and plants, and they work at normal temperatures. In our view, the nanobots of the past with their mechanical structures, batteries, motors, and so on are evolving into nanobods - a closer reflection of our human condition in which living nanoscale chemical-mechanical elements are connected in ever increasing complexity along the principle of cells, the smallest general unit of life capable of autonomous replication.
Nano Fact and Fiction: Being In-Between
Nanotechnology works at a scale where biotech, chemistry, physics, and electrical and mechanical engineering converge, and thus has real potential to affect every aspect of our lives. We will see an impact on everything from our social systems to buildings, furniture, clothes, medicine, bodies, and minds. But most of all, where we believe it will make a fundamental shift is in our conscious and unconscious minds. As the perception of reality shifts to the collective level, we will find ourselves in an entirely new world, with very different values and motivations. However, we do acknowledge that any radical proposition with such enormous and global implications will undoubtedly have to face fierce opposition from those who have so much invested in the old, mechanistic, world-view. As we have witnessed in the 20th century, many great innovations have been squashed by corporate, industrial, and national interests - examples in transportation and energy being at the top of the list. It appears to us that resistance to a technology that will fundamentally change the way that humans think may be much greater, given the usual time period of 20-50 years that it takes for technology to penetrate into the general society. We are about to witness some great ideological struggles, much greater than what we have seen in past centuries. Indeed, the stage has already been set for this new era in debates over the right to own genetic code, exemplified by the patenting of genes and the cloning of human beings.
In nanotechnology, the blurring of fact and fiction is very much part of the developing narrative in the construction of a new science and industry. This blurring is not necessarily negative, and has a potential to connect media arts, literature, and science in many new and interesting ways. Art, literature, and science working together is certainly a powerful combination that should be nurtured in education on all levels. As common technologies are being used in arts, sciences, and practically all disciplines, borders are becoming increasingly indiscernible, and we have to be more conscious than ever of the metaphors being generated. The barriers between disciplines and people in them are more or less psychological. Currently, the vast majority of stories and imagery being circulated in the public realm are based on 20th century thinking that is largely centered on machines. Nanoscale science and media art are powerful synergies that can promulgate the 21st century emergence of a new culture embracing biologically inspired shifts, and new aesthetics and definitions.
Victoria Vesna [http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/] is a media artist and Chair of the Department of Design/Media Arts at the UCLA School of the Arts. Jim Gimzewski [http://www.chem.ucla.edu/dept/Faculty/gimzewski/index.htm] is a nanoscientist and professor at UCLA's Department of Chemistry. Their dialogue on nanotechnology began during a conference entitled From Networks to Nanosystems [http://www.calit2.net/events/2001/11-8_N2N.html] in November, 2001. Soon thereafter the pair initiated a number of projects whose goal is to make nanoscience knowledge more accessible to the public, and to
probe larger philosophical questions about the impact of this emerging science on the culture at large. Recent collaborations include the zero@wavefunction [http://notime.arts.ucla.edu/zerowave/] Web project (2002) and nano [http://nano.arts.ucla.edu/index2.php], a major new exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that began its
run in December 2003.
1. In June 2003 the UK Government
commissioned the Royal Society (the UK's
national academy of science) and the Royal Academy of Engineering (the UK's
national academy of engineering) to carry out an independent study of likely
developments in the field, and question whether nanotechnology raises or is
likely to raise new ethical, health and safety, or social issues which are not
covered by current regulation. The Nanomeme Syndrome was cited
generously as an alternative viewpoint to the predominant mechanistic imaginary
of how this science may manifest. The article presented here in HorizonZero
is an edited reprint of the original longer work. The Nanomeme
Syndrome was first published by the journal Technoetic Arts
in May 2003. Download the full-length original version here. [http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/publications/publications_frameset.htm]
2. H. Kroto, Nanoeterscale Architecture, in: The proceedings
of The Second International Symposium on Nanoarchitectonics Using Suprainterationics
(NASI2), University of California, Los Angeles, March 2002.
3. nano, a large scale exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) was conceived and developed by the authors together with a large interdisciplinary group that included participants from many disciplines. The exhibition was an attempt to start an open dialogue between the collaborators that would actively engage the public by placing itself in a public museum setting. See: [http://nano.arts.ucla.edu]
4. For more information on the history of microscopy, see: S. Bradbury, The Microscope Past and Present, London: Pergamon Press, 1968; E. Hunter, Practical Electron Microscopy: a Beginner's Illustrated Guide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; P.D. Brown, D. McMullan, T. Mulvey, and K.C.A. Smith, On the origins of the first commercial transmission and scanning electron microscopes in the UK, in: Proceedings of the Royal Microscopical Society, 21/32, 1996.
5. For more information on the STM see: F. Besenbacher, Scanning tunneling microscopy studies of metal surfaces, in: Rep. Prog. Phys., No.59, 1996; J.A. Stroscio and M.J. Kaiser (eds), Scanning Tunneling Microspectroscopy, No.27, San Diego: Academic Press, 1993.
6. See: H. Ghiradella, Light and color on the wing: architecture and development of iridescent butterfly mirrors, in: Applied Optics, 30, 1991.
7. See: J. Yablonovitch, Photonic Band-gap Crystals [Condensed Matter], in: Journal of Physics, 5, 1993.
8. See: www.foresight.org
9. See: T. Kary, "MIT to make 'nanotech' Army Wear", in: CNET News.com, March 14, 2002.