"Thinking outside the box" has joined the modern array of trite expressions, right up there with "right up there" and "at the end of the day." Yet my mind indulged in the use of this particular cliché during BayCon 2008 (a science fiction and fantasy convention) over the Memorial Day weekend. I served on two panels at BayCon in Santa Clara. One of them discussed the possibility of living off the land on Mars and the potential usefulness of a nanotech "anything box" on Mars or on earth.
The term "anything box" originally referred to the title of a short story written by Zenna Henderson in the 1950's. In Zenna's story, a little girl possesses a box only she and her schoolteacher can see, a window into a world where fond desires appear real. These days, "anything box" usually refers to a theoretical nanoscale device that potentially could construct anything, molecule by molecule. To operate, the device would be programmed with appropriate design instructions and fed basic raw materials, such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, etc.
I envision a molecular nanotechnology (MNT) device as a do-it-yourself kit in ultra miniature with some sort of macroscopic on-off switch. Each assembler would be the basic computerized workshop unit invisible to the naked eye. Inside the assemblers would reside manipulators--nanorobots on the assembly line. And the product? A chemically stable compound that refrains from thumbing its atomic nose at the laws of physics. To permit effective macroscopic product production, assemblers would copy themselves, that is, reproduce many, many times.
Some of today's production processes already manufacture products from nanoscale materials. Such products include, among other things, sunscreens and cosmetics. Yet we all still purchase these items from a store or via the internet. Anything box assemblers and manipulators remain confined to the pages of science fiction. And not because we're too honest to bootleg our favorite sunblock at home by pressing a button on a little black box ala Napster. My mother always claimed you can't get something for nothing, although my father used to make a lot out of nothing all the time.
Inventing nanoscale assemblers is not only a daunting task--it's scary. I used to be a microbiologist and could induce strains of bacteria to thrive and multiply without a basic nutrient they supposedly required. And remember Michael Crichton's novel, PREY, about those self-reproducing nanoparticles that were sprung from a laboratory prison? Sooner or later--to maintain safety and control--governmental regulators are bound to crash the MNT birthing party.
I worked for 27 years in the pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry and have encountered the slow-motion wheels of governmental regulatory machines. In business, time equals money. In government, time equals taxes. Complexity, caution and the scramble for funding will jointly slow the development of MNT and the anything box.
Which brings me back to Zenna Henderson's short story, "The Anything Box." That lonely little girl found comfort when staring into the box but nearly died when she tried to climb inside. Science, including nanotechnology, has a parallel. Scientists need to remain on the objective "outside" of their experiments, that is, to keep watchful eyes and open minds. We can peer into the MNT box of dreams, but had better stay outside those dreams and develop them from an objective distance.
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