This Technology Could Become an “Engine of Destruction”

The truth is darker than you imagine

Ella Alderson
Apr 11 · 5 min read

Pandora’s box — a term we now use to describe an object which brings great and unexpected consequences — was not a box at all. The original Greek story describes it as a terracotta jar. Pandora herself is, according to the Greek myth, the first woman on Earth. The Gods have bestowed upon her a bounty of blessings to the point where her very name means “the one who bears all gifts”. Nevertheless, it is Pandora who opens the jar, believing it to be filled with more good fortunes from the gods. In reality it becomes the source of all evil and hardship in the world.

There is in development a technology much like Pandora’s jar. On the surface it seems to be capable of solving all of humanity’s problems: it will extend our lives indefinitely, human labor will no longer be necessary, people will instantly have any object they need, international trade will no longer be needed, powerful rockets will arise, militaries will become increasingly efficient and more powerful, we’ll be able to produce energy abundantly, most diseases and bodily injuries will have a cure, and much, much more. All thanks to the same single technology. Its phenomenal potential is why engineer and researcher Eric Drexler called it, first and foremost, an “engine of creation”. Yet at the same time there was another side to this technology, a darker and more disturbing possibility many of us may not have considered.

It’s the reason why he also called it an “engine of destruction”.

A painting of Pandora and her jar by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

Drexler was talking about nanotechnology. It’s a label that’s so overused that many researchers are asking for stricter control of the term. As the father of nanotechnology itself, Drexler even complained that the word has lost its meaning because almost anyone could use it to make their products seem more cutting-edge and appealing. True nanotechnology describes molecular assemblers, or microscopic machines that can manipulate individual atoms. Nanotech is made of machines that, powered by sunlight or other fuels, can create anything from common materials. This is not dissimilar to how living organisms can make more of themselves from common materials. But while living organisms are bound by the limits of their DNA, nano-machines aren’t bound by any such limits. They can make any object they are programmed to make — including more nano-machines like themselves.

Drexler praised the many benefits these tiny machines could offer, but he isn’t the only one who also warns that they are just as dangerous, if not more so, than nuclear bombs and artificial intelligence.

Nanotechnology tends to be between 1–100 nanometers, or on the scale of proteins, DNA, and viruses.

Bombs can only inflict a very specific kind of damage. They detonate, blasting the land with a jolting dose of radiation. But nanotechnology is more subtle. More insidious.

To begin with, nanotech doesn’t need rare materials or large, expensive military bases for housing. The machines are small, light, and make use of the ordinary elements all around us. Because they are more accessible and are used in much wider applications, nano-machines could be utilized by the police force and the state to impose power over its citizens. Nano-machines could be used to infiltrate and seize territories, their microscopic size making them excellent invisible tools for surveillance.

Replicators — nano-machines that make duplicates of objects — will allow states to build vast arsenals of advanced weapons, or the machines themselves could become weapons by acting like germs and carrying out a kind of bio-warfare. Replicators might be programmed to copy advanced weapons and improve them by making them out of ever better materials. These nano-machines will work in conjunction with artificial intelligence. AI will meanwhile design, strategize, and fight in the state’s war. Working as a team, AI and replicators will achieve constant breakthroughs in technology.

Even more terrifying is the idea of using medical nano-tech to lobotomize or influence a population. After all, this is nothing more than an extension of something governments already do: using chemicals and drugs to influence behavior.

A government that leads in the field of nanotechnology will be able to build the world’s most powerful military force overnight, or otherwise at a remarkable speed. What a government might do with this kind of power is reason enough to worry. Governments have a history of acting as tyrants and oppressors. Though they are made of humans, they are not humans themselves and as such often act in inhumane ways.

If a government’s goal is to oppress a society and use them as nothing more than a workforce, then an even more disturbing truth unravels itself. A government won’t need people at all. AI can work to program and engineer new technology, and nano-machines will bring it to life. Sufficiently advanced AI could play a leadership role — could fill any number of roles from doctors to scientists and administrators. And it’s not just humans. All of life could be in competition with these new machines. “Plants” made of solar-collecting nanotech could replace real plants. Nanotech “bacteria” could spread just as easily as real microorganisms, devastating an environment. Of all the social questions which come with new technology the most important is this: how can we preserve life and freedom? If we cannot answer this question then none of the others will matter.

“The combination of nanotechnology and advanced AI will make possible intelligent, effective robots; with such robots, a state could prosper while discarding anyone, or even (in principle) everyone.” Eric Drexler.

This has so far sounded like a nightmarish future. But there are steps we can take to preserve life amidst the coming ages of super-powerful technology. It’s no wonder why mankind’s own creations — bombs, quantum computers, superintelligent machines, nanotechnology, manmade diseases — have been called one of life’s greatest filters. Drexler did address how humanity can stay safe from rampant nanotechnology. And, while our safety may never be fully guaranteed, he does make one important comparison. Life has been defending against invaders since its evolution. Nano-machines are not so unlike the eerie somewhat-alive, somewhat-dead viruses fought off by our cells.

We can ask why our defense would succeed, but the question could just as easily be, why would it fail? I’ll be covering how we’ll keep ourselves safe from nanotechnology in an upcoming article. For now, we end with this bit of insight: Pandora’s jar wasn’t opened out of malice or a wish for self-destruction. It was opened out of pure, innocent curiosity.

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Ella Alderson

Written by

Astrophysics student, writer for over a decade. A passion for language and the unexplored universe. I aim to marry poetry and science. ella.aldrsn@gmail.com

Predict

Predict

where the future is written

Ella Alderson

Written by

Astrophysics student, writer for over a decade. A passion for language and the unexplored universe. I aim to marry poetry and science. ella.aldrsn@gmail.com

Predict

Predict

where the future is written

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