Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Deus ex machina

The urban world may look quite different in the not-too-distant future:

Nanotechnology alone offers exciting and disquieting possibilities. Originally proposed by Nobel physicist Richard Feynman forty years ago, nanotech manipulates individual atoms and molecules to build things—anything, in fact. Experts anticipate that within the next few decades, large-scale objects, including buildings, could be fabricated using microscopic robots called assemblers, which would join to make a cybernetic glue, able to assume any shape and size. Such an instrument would eliminate traditional constraints of design and construction. Standard, irreducible components, such as the 2 X 4, the brick, steel shapes, nails and screws, will be replaced by microscopic parts. Form, texture, color, and strength would be defined at the cellular level. Orthogonal geometry, demanded for efficiency by standard frame construction, could disappear altogether.

This is not science fiction; nanoscience is quickly becoming reality. In the last year or two, IBM researchers have fashioned a computer circuit from a single carbon molecule, and Cornell scientists have built a microbe-sized motor, the first nanoscale machine. Eric Drexler, who coined the word "nanotechnology" in his 1986 book, Engines of Creation, expects dramatic benefits for design, manufacturing, electronics, medicine, and every other human endeavor. Everything we make will become better, faster, stronger, smaller, and cheaper. For architects, nanoconstruction could finally accommodate the restless search for new forms, allowing varieties never before achieved or even imagined. We will be able to construct anything we envision through a virtual wave of the wand. Buildings may be conceived and executed through computer programming by entering only a few parameters and requirements. How big is it? What does it feel like? BANG! Instant architecture.

But this assumes that designers will control the process. Nanotech’s opponents see it as an untamable force, because its potential for self-replication could get out of hand. Picture trillions upon trillions of invisible mechanical pests filling the environment and utterly consuming the earth. Assuming we can avoid catastrophe, an important question is whether architecture will require architects. Will expertise become unnecessary when anyone could punch her desires into a keyboard and produce her dream home? Moreover, a building may not necessitate anyone at all to summon it into existence. Spontaneous assembly could allow nanobots to go on auto-pilot. While Feynman saw nanoscience as arranging atoms "the way we want them," in actuality they could develop unpredictably, in ways we may or may not want.

Here's Bill Joy's original piece about nanotechnology, "Why the future doesn’t need us," referred to in the above article.

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