MIT researcher Eric Drexler expects the Breakthrough in the next 20 years, give or take a decade or two. He says advances in molecular engineering and artificial intelligence will result in a Genie Machine. "What you ask for, it will produce."
Eons of evolution and millennia of history have prepared this challenge and quietly presented it to our generation. The coming years will bring the greatest turning point in the history of life on Earth. To guide life and civilization through this transition is the great task of our time.
If we succeed (and if you survive) then you may be honored with endless questions from pesky great-grandchildren: "What was it like when you were a kid, back before the Break-through?" and "What was it like growing old?" and "What did you think when you heard the break-through was coming?"
Drexler is not—in spite of the astonishing assertions in his book Engines of Creation—a mystic on the fringes of modern science. His ideas have the backing of noted scientists, including Marvin Minsky, widely acclaimed for his work in artificial intelligence at MIT.
The breakthrough described in Drexler's book is nanotechnology: the ability to rearrange atoms, creating molecules at will. Little machines the size of enzymes will work by the millions under the direction of computers the size of a pinpoint. In less than a day, using ordinary air and dirt, they could build a seamless rocket engine by rearranging atoms of mud. This engine would be made of the most ideal materials: carbon turned into diamond, aluminum oxide rearranged into sapphire.
This engine would be 90 percent lighter than contemporary rocket engines, able to repair itself during flight, able to rearrange its shape (different shapes are optimal at various points along a trajectory), lighter than wood, stronger than steel. And best of all, the only cost would be for the dirt and water.
Where do we get these minute robots and computers? They are, according to Drexler, the inevitable result of current progress in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. This progress, he argues convincingly, does not depend on future scientific revolutions or undiscovered technologies. Instead, the development of this technology is proceeding rapidly and the few remaining barriers are more related to engineering than to scientific theory. You've doubtless heard that last year some scientists managed to cross tobacco with fireflies, creating, for some reason, plants that glowed in the dark.
It used to be that the best definition of life was "something that can reproduce itself." These molecular robots (Drexler calls them replicators) will destroy that definition. They can make anything, including copies of themselves. Once we create the first replicator, it will build its own offspring in about 15 minutes (using air or mud). Then the two of them will build two more children in the next 15 minutes. After about ten hours of this, there will be 68 billion of them working on their next generation. Obviously this sort of thing could get out of hand. After a couple of days they would outweigh the total mass of the solar system.
There is precedent for building huge things from molecular accretion: biological reproduction. This is, after all, how a whale sperm cell builds into a sperm whale. The biological building process is just slower by orders of magnitude than replicator building, in the same way that human thinking is enorously slower than computer thinking.
Drexler suggests inserting a loop counter which would shut replicators off after a certain number of generations. In fact, he spends the second half of his book exploring strategies to contain the unimaginable power of nanotechology.
There is indeed a dark side to this power. When anything can be built for free, when artificial thinking is far deeper and faster than the human mind can fathom, when invisible machines can transform a solar system in days—we'd better be on the lookout. The first replicators could doom human muscle and mind to irrelevance. Important new techologies have always replaced a previously human activity. Electric light didn't eliminate candlemaking, but candlemaking did become relatively meaningless. Replicators—able to do anything within the limits set by the laws of physics—could supplant all human endeavor.
Engines of Creation makes a compelling case, saying replicators "promise to bring changes as profound as the industrial revolution, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons all rolled up in one massive breakthrough."