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Vol 3, No 13
2 April 2001
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Stanislaw Lem New Writing
A Challenging New World
An extract from
A Blink of an Eye

Stanisław Lem


In 1993, a study titled Technology of the Twenty-First Century was published in Germany under the auspices of one of the federal ministries. [1] Specialists working on the project for the ministry cited the following areas as most important for activities in the field of technology:

  1. Nanotechnology—molecular and atomic architecture that allows switches and fully functional mechanical parts to be made extremely small.
  2. Sensor engineering—the construction of microscopic sensors that imitate models in nature.
  3. Adaptronics—understood as a bridge between modern materials and systems displaying structural intelligence.
  4. Photonics—foreseeing that photons will replace electrons in collecting, processing and transmitting information, thus achieving a higher speed than current microelectronics.
  5. Biomimetic materials—the imitation of materials originating in live tissues, of which a commonly cited example has been recent attempts to reproduce spider silk artificially, a natural material that demonstrates a degree of elasticity and endurance exceeding everything our technology has been able to develop up to now.
  6. Fullerenes—the third elemental form of carbon, together with diamond and graphite. The brochure predicts that fullerenes will be utilized in the future—for example, in electronics.
  7. Neuroinformatics—aimed at developing artificial intelligence which will be able to take data processing a step further by actually creating knowledge.

It is worth noting that the brochure has no separate section on the revolution in the field of global communication (the World Wide Web) or biotechnology, which has stirred up interest in the ethics of technology. In fact, its authors do not even mention these issues. The above example shows how thankless a task predicting future technologies can be. Even more difficult is what Americans call "technology assessment," in other words, predicting the civilizational, social and cultural effects of new technologies.

In my current analysis of what has happened over the past forty years or so (since I wrote Summa technologiæ, and an earlier book, Dialogues), I will refer to various chapters of Summa—but not because I wrote it, or as an indulgence in self-praise. Readers should bear in mind that, during the half-century that is now coming to an end, I found myself in a terrible situation, cut off from information, scientific or otherwise, by the system in power in Poland at the time. Today, however, it seems that my way of getting around this was especially fortunate. I started by showing the similarities between two kinds of evolution, technological and biological. Then I began to consider the as yet unresolved problem of extraterrestrial civilizations, then turning later to a description of the development of "intellectronics" on Earth. My imagination gathered momentum, as the following chapter titles show: "Prolegomena on Omnipotence," "Phantomology," and "Creating Worlds." "Lampoon on Evolution" completed the work.

This work reflected my tendency to observe the past from a bird's-eye view. Maybe the distance in space and time was even greater for me. There was not much point, however, in a formulation that attempted to present future human endeavors in detail, together with the dangers that arise as a result. The innumerable predictions made in the second half of the twentieth century have been tripped up by attempts to describe the future in detail. Detailed predictions are simply impossible. I do not say this to defend myself, but rather because we know now about futurology's failures when attempts have been made to go beyond generalizations.

To demonstrate the difference between theoretical knowledge and practical human activities, I recall the words of an outstanding scientist, Richard Feynman, who worked in Los Alamos on the atom bomb project as one of a select few. In his memoirs Feynman noted that all the theoretical knowledge about atomic and quantum phenomena had proved insufficient to determine which elements would slow neutrons down. This is essential for initiating or halting the chain reaction process. In order to obtain such data, scientists had to examine the properties of a great many elements. Eventually, they discovered that one of the best absorbents of neutrons—especially those that accelerate an atomic reaction—is cadmium. It should be realized that there is still a huge gap in our knowledge, even today, between theoretical physics, which is able to construct an atomic model for a given element, and the chemical properties of that element, which are manifested in complex molecular structures.

For this same reason, however unwittingly, my work falls into two categories: general prognostications and science fiction. In the latter I could indulge in shows of audacious bravery. As I near the end of my life, it seems that I have thought and acted with respect for the principles of the natural sciences. Only rarely did I find myself at a dead end. Now it is time to confront my positions as essayist, those in Summa Technologiæ and in Dialogues—with the realities that face us on the threshold of the twenty-first century, and with the new areas of human activities and knowledge that are beginning to take shape. I do not mean to make myself out to be an omnipotent sage, just a writer who is free.


Man's "autoevolution," repainted to suit the times, has become a catchword.
When those two books of mine were published, they were met with a deathly silence. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the situation has essentially changed for the worse, since the problems that I discussed alone several decades ago have now been accosted, with particular alacrity, by hordes of laymen and ignoramuses ignited by the fire of fashion. Man's "autoevolution," repainted to suit the times, has become a catchword. We are dealing here with a flood of information, often coming from scientific charlatans. In such a situation, it is easy to get lost in the vast new field of biotechnology. These can no longer be limited to discoveries about genes, because an indisputable fact is the universal uniqueness of the genetic nucleotide code, always comprised of four nucleic acids in various combinations, which controls the origins and extinction of all living species in the biosphere. We are already talking here about macro-genetics, a field still only in its early stages. One of its specific tasks is to develop a map of the human genome, together with the minor changes in it that determine the formation and existence of the visible variety of phenotypes (characteristics that superficially differentiate an Eskimo from a black man, for example), as well as with the microgenetics that determines the constitutional makeup of particular human individuals. Because of the enormous complexity of life's determinants, ensconced in the genomes of all plant and animal species, I will only be able to mention a few select examples that are not directly linked to knowledge about the human genome.

Okamgnienie (A Blink of an Eye)Spiders (Araneida), for example, thanks to a group of specific genes, produce silk many times more elastic and tear-resistant than that of the silkworm—or than steel and all known synthetic polymers including nylon. Spider silk was already being used in telescopes a very long time ago. Certain genes are responsible for the synthesis of spidroins. An individual strand of that remarkable silk is comprised of a large number of these interlocking spidroin molecules produced by the spider's glands. Compared to spider silk, the material made from synthetic polymers turns out to have an unusually simple and primitive structure. Although it is extremely difficult for our technology to reproduce silk similar to that of spiders, a rich scientific literature on the subject has described the microfibrillar structure of the silk, thus enabling production of materials similar to the spider. The synthetic production of spider silk has at least one practical use. Any line released from an orbiting spacecraft to Earth would tear under its own weight. Learning from spiders, however, we would be able to create lines so light and strong that the spacecraft could use them to raise loads while in orbit, like an elevator.

This would be only one of the numerous effects of biotechnology's adoption of methods that nature had developed over tens of millions of years. The above example allows us to appreciate better the audacity of those who have called for the quick development of an "artificial brain." No one knows how many neurons an average human brain has. Once I was taught that there were ten billion of them, but now there are thought to be many times more. If we then consider that each individual neuron, via synapses, is in contact with hundreds of other neurons, and sometimes thousands, then we can see that the computer that beat Kasparov in chess, Deep Blue, is disproportionately heavy by comparison. The human brain appears to be "a reliable system comprised of unreliable elements," in the words of John von Neumann. Artificial intelligence enthusiasts still face a long haul ahead of them, fraught with obstacles and traps.

Perhaps it will be possible to construct artificial intelligence thanks to the development and implementation of nanotechnology. Scientists working in leading American laboratories are convinced that we are now at the threshold of a new era in electronics. Recently, they succeeded in constructing "logic Stanislaw Lemgates," the basic components of computer systems, from a single molecule. Thus, molecular electronics is no longer a vague prophecy—the first steps in this direction have already been taken. This success has been crowned, furthermore, with a new technique for making conductors only a dozen atoms thick. Molecular switches, or gates, must be appropriately linked by microscopic conductors. As a result, work is being done on RAM (Random Access Memory) systems that will not only be hundreds of times smaller than those currently produced, but will also have their cost of production drastically reduced. Components are being produced, based on silicon microelectronics, which are one-thousandth the thickness of a human hair, that is, about one hundred nanometers thick (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). However small that may be, molecular electronics will make it possible to reduce the size of components to a single nanometer. In five years or less, computer design will be based on an entirely new technology, which will mean an industrial revolution as big as the one that resulted from the move from vacuum tubes to transistors in the 1950s. If all difficulties are overcome, the new digital technology will find itself having to grapple with the principles of quantum mechanics. The outcome will be a veritable revolution that turns the global semiconductor industry upside down.

Up to now, chips have been produced by etching pieces of silicon. The dimensions of these chips are becoming inversely proportional to their production cost: the smaller the chips, the more expensive their production. It turns out that the huge manufacturing plants which use lasers to etch individual layers of connections on silicon bases are now outmoded. An entirely different kind of method is looming up before the specialists, one based on chemical reactions that will be able, at very low cost, to assemble numerous molecules into infinitesimal circuits. This could lead to the ruination of manufacturers, as their expensive production methods begin to resemble a candle-manufacturing plant rather than a fluorescent-lamp factory. The Clinton Administration has considered embarking on the "National Nanotechnology Initiative" early in the year 2000 in order to organize and supervise research in this developing specialist area of molecular architectonics. Perhaps "quantechnology," having no name other than the one I have coined myself, will soon move from laboratories into industrial plants.

The silicon era seems to be nearing its end. At the same time, this next phase in micro-miniaturization seems to suggest that we will be one step closer to the type of construction methods that have been employed by living beings for billions of years. The biological inheritance of structural traits is, after all, based on molecular nucleotide structures, which form the basis for the evolutionary transmission of all life forms. We must also take into consideration the fact that that no one knows as yet how life originated: current views range from the hypothesis that life had its origins in the inorganic molten liquid of the Earth's core, to the conjecture that prebiotic compounds were formed in freezing temperatures. Our situation, I would say, is analogous to that of a savage who, having discovered the catapult, thought that he was already close to space travel.

no complicated phenomenon exists which will not turn out to be even more complicated on closer inspection
There is a well-known saying in scientific circles that no complicated phenomenon exists which will not turn out to be even more complicated on closer inspection. The current talk of man's quickly taking control of his own evolution, which can even be heard even among philosophers of nature, is quite unnerving. When Dolly, the famous sheep, was cloned, after almost three hundred unsuccessful experiments, people began to imagine scores of mass-produced Einsteins and film stars. The savage mentioned above was actually closer to constructing his rocket than the self-styled bioengineer is to cloning people at will. Yet it was not only politicians, but also many other people in many different professions who were so taken aback by the specter of replicated human beings that legislative steps were taken to block the experimental use of those totipotent embryonic cells. Such measures are also as premature as would have been the case if the ancient Chinese had been forbidden to fly kites in the fear that this might lead to fatal collisions between supersonic jets.

There is also the issue of medical therapy based on current knowledge of genetics. From previously secret Soviet materials, now published, we learn that attempts were already being made in the Soviet Union in the 1920s to cross higher apes with humans. Fortunately, nothing came of this. True enough, there is only a two percent difference between the materials of chimpanzee and human genomes, but this difference still amounts to billions of nucleotide pairs. The question whether we can, may, or should remove genes whose developmental expression leads to genetic defects is quite in order. Yet there has been no definitive answer to this question up to now because we are already concluding that there can be no simple "yes" or "no" answer when it comes to human genetic defects.

It seems to me that there is an urgent need for a new, heavily revised edition of The Encyclopædia of Ignorance. [2] The previous edition was already outdated when it appeared twenty years ago: absolutely no mention was made in it of biotechnology, nor of the ethical questions arising from such experimentation. Transgenetic experiments allow us to cultivate many useful plants, though such experiments are accompanied by a fear of the unknown consequences of growing and consuming such modified plant products. One thing can be said with certainty: this entire field is unusually complex—so complex in fact that no one person alone is capable of comprehending it.

A new branch of medical therapy now in its experimental stages, like the spider silk, shows the kinds of innovations that can be expected to result from attempts to live up to the slogan "overtake and surpass life processes." This phrase, which I introduced in 1963, is no longer a deceptive dream. It is becoming a promising, though threatening, reality.

Phages several hundred times smaller than a single erythrocyte parasitize bacteria, such as the bacilli in our intestines. Biologists say that a phage is neither alive, nor dead. It is not alive, because there are no metabolic processes going on inside of it. Such a phage has a "head" beneath which, under magnification, thread-like "legs" can be seen. Having found an Escherichia coli bacterium, and recognized it biochemically, it thrusts its "head" into it. From that moment, the phage takes over the life processes going on inside the bacterium. By dominating it in this way, the phage manipulates the biochemical signals so that the bacterium produces hundreds of phages. Eventually, it bursts, whereupon the new phages set off in search of more "victims."

Many biologists believed a phage met its "bacteria victims" by chance. Nowadays, the processes behind this "hunt" are thought to be somewhat more teleological. A phage's basic path is similar to the zigzag-like path of a particle subject to Brownian motion. Bacteria, however, excrete metabolic waste into the fluid environment surrounding them. A kind of asymmetrical concentration of this waste then arises, which provides the clue which the phage is able to use in order to find the bacteria. Biologists are inclined to call this kind of phage an "inanimate chemical mechanism" that reproduces only inside bacteria cells, after taking over their metabolisms.

Biophysics attributes the phenomenon of phage behavior described above to Brownian motion, directed by weak asymmetrical poles. These processes can often be detected in conjunction with "fibrillar proteins." In a net of fibrillar fibers, live tissue undergoes a process of energetic charging. A "fermentation motor," as biologists call it, then moves along such fibers, guided by the genes of a micromolecule that exhibits a periodic asymmetry. Groups of this kind—measuring many microns and thus large in cellular terms—are able to transport various substances as genetic information is being built, such as ribonucleic polymers.

With this knowledge about the role of Brownian motion, we can form some idea of what future biotechnology will be like. It would allow us to introduce entirely new methods of transporting active compounds deep inside the body. It would no longer be wishful thinking, for example, to suggest that a vehicle filled with a substance the body needs could be transported via the circulatory or lymphatic system. The first rather simple versions of this microapparatus technology are already being developed.

Let us suppose, for instance, that these are gases transporting blood substitutes. They operate on the principle that very small molecules of
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fluorocarbon derivatives transport oxygen from the erythrocytes to the tissue. In the arterial blood supply, the erythrocyte, which is about one hundred times larger than the molecules in the emulsion, acts as a vehicle loaded with oxygen. Circulating periodically between the erythrocytes and tissue, thanks to the normal circulation of blood, the fluorocarbon molecules, which dissolve oxygen well, carry the gas from the erythrocytes to the blood vessels, from where the oxygen permeates the tissue.

This kind of biotechnology would allow us to send therapeutic substances into the body directly to the organs which need them. Up to now, medicines have normally been delivered orally, and thus distributed throughout the body in a rather random way. The new method will allow specific organs to be targeted for therapy, or to receive the vital support they need to continue functioning.

Although we are far from knowing the processes of biogenesis, we already know that in addition to nanotechnology, or molecular architectonics, something exists in the biosphere called picoarchitectonics. The prefix "nano" means one-billionth, "pico" means one-thousandth of one-billionth in the metric system. Thus, summing up this chapter, we must unfortunately conclude that everything is far more complicated than the human mind can comprehend—especially if we move away from experimental science and take refuge in the realm of philosophical thought instead.

Stanisław Lem

Translated by Christina Manetti

Special thanks to Stanisław Lem and to the journal Dialogue and Universalism for permission to publish this extract

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1. Technologien des 21. Jahrhunderts, Bundesministerium für Forschung und Technologie, Bonn, 1993.

2. Ronald Duncan and Miranda Weston-Smith, eds, The Encyclopædia of Ignorance, New York, 1978.


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