Wednesday, December 01, 2004

'Our Molecular Future': Two Books In One

"What happens to land prices when owners can construct palatial homes at low cost? And . . . what happens to real estate if the coastline ends up under a wall of water from a tsunami?” --page 251 (ellipses his)

Douglas Mulhall’s ‘Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics, and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Our World’ brings to my mind an author writing two books at once, when a bolt of lightning fused them into an abominable, though functional, servant of chaos. On the cover, as suggested by the title, this is a broad futurist technology survey ripped almost entirely from the headlines, with all the scrappy, shallow, contradictory urgency that you would expect from such an approach. But inside, it is also an alarmist warning about natural catastrophes—a theme hogging 10 of the book’s 23 chapters, stitched onto the technology debate with a discussion of global connectivity and a few glitzy visions of nanotech defenses.

Where technology trends are concerned, Mulhall gives a lay of the land that is as expansive as it is uninspiring—and not for lack of intriguing concepts. On the contrary, fatigue is induced by an unrelenting barrage of unelaborated proclamations that sound like the sensationalist headlines of popular tech magazines—which they probably were. It’s true that scientists can slow light to a stop and speed it up again. It’s also true that satellites now orbit the earth with the ability to repair themselves. But as one who has probably read the articles that followed these claims, I can almost guarantee you that the circumstances omitted by Mulhall render them far less impressive than the images they first bring to mind. To make matters worse, he often jumps ahead to discussions of the future described in present tense; if you weren’t paying enough attention when the switch was made, you won’t know what time-period he’s talking about—that’s how hyped his discussion of the present is.

This weakness is perhaps inevitable given Mulhall’s chosen approach. He cites his conspicuously short sentences with endnotes that read like an unpurged cache of the Google News Sci/Tech section. He introduces these notes by telling us that he purposely worked mostly from sources that are “one step removed from the highly technical realm of scientific journals,” the better to give lay readers access to the background material.

Not that there aren’t some plusses to Our Molecular Future’s journalistic parentage. The illustrations are numerous and eye-catching. Chapters are numerous and subdivided, increasing the accessibility of what could be an intimidating, 392-page tome (after appendices, notes, and index).

But, how did this natural disaster book get here? Mulhall’s background on the bookjacket begins: “sustainable development specialist and technology journalist.” I guess that’s as good an explanation as we need.

He introduces “Part 2: Nature’s Time Bombs” by citing the Nick Bostrom’s hierarchy of human-species-killing existential risks, seemingly failing to notice that natural calamities are at the very bottom. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis don’t make the list at all, but consume much of the next 90 pages, while the top-ranking “misuse of nanotechnology” gets hardly any space at all.

This is especially worrisome when Mulhall tells the story of a future where a mega-eruption in California, with its accompanying earthquakes, tsunamis, and stifling dust plume, is turned into a “dud” through the mitigating use of self-replicating nanobots. These nanomachines reproduce by the trillions all throughout the crust, oceans, and atmosphere by feeding on the molecules found naturally therein. It’s not that I don’t think it’s impossible to render such a scenario safe from mutating into runaway gray goo; and if any situation would warrant the use of such devices, it is this one. But, in a human society where the self-replication approach to nanotechnology is commonplace, there will be far too many individuals with the opportunity to insert a careless or malicious vulnerability into a replicator design that turns it into a fatal cancer of the biosphere.

The small-but-real risk of tomorrow bringing a natural existential calamity is increasing at an imperceptibly slow rate when compared to the increasing and accelerating risk of a disaster brought about through high technology. Mulhall’s discussion thus seems of relevance only in the context of weathering life on earth, over the very long haul, as classic Homo sapiens in a recognizably human civilization. It could happen, I suppose, but the deeper, more Singularity-conscious studies of futurists like Broderick, Moravec, and even Kurzweil, suggest that any such existence will be an Amish side-show compared to what will really be going on in our galaxy by then.

So, if you’re looking for a rational analysis of risk management for the coming decades, look elsewhere. But if you’re turned on by gargantuan tidal waves scrubbing the eastern seaboard of the United States, or are simply curious to see what interesting technology headlines you might have missed over the last decade, ‘Our Molecular Future’ is right for you. Just remember to Google for the fine print.


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