Fortean Times, December 2002

Our molecular future: how nanotechnology, robotics, genetics, and artificial intelligence will transform our world
Douglas Mulhall
Prometheus Books 2002
HB, $28, pp392,illus, notes, bibl, index ISBN: 1 57392 992 1

Futurology can be a funny business. Like science fiction with an MBA, tomes such as 'Our Molecular Future' inevitably tell you more about the concerns of the present that the path of the future. They can often be at their most fascinating 10 or 50 years down the line, when you can marvel at how much they got right or, more usually, chortle at how wrong they were in their extremes of optimism or pessimism. And in many cases, there's a certain strain of quasi-religious revelation about the whole exercise.

Douglas Mulhall, a journalist and sustainable development consultant, sets out to be speculative rather than predictive, and dedicates the book to anyone 'who walks the perilous path between those who claim that technology will solve our problems, and those who say it will destroy us' - a suitably fortean ideal. Disappointingly, his own writing sometimes fails to live up to that standard.

'Our Molecular Future' is centred on the potential of molecular nanotechnology - the manipulation of matter at the molecular level, as popularised in the late 1970s by Eric Drexler. The first half of the book is a fairly straightforward prognostication of the potential benefits or problems of the technological vanguard. According to Mulhall, nanotech promises to revolutionise society and economy, deliver virtually free energy and the flying car, and save humankind from terrorism, earthquake, disease and asteroid impact.

Interlinked areas of robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and genetic manipulation also come into play. The book opens with the concept of 'singularity' - the point at which humans are effectively rendered obsolete by advancing machine intelligence, unless we decide to upgrade ourselves, of course. It closes 300 pages later with the assurance that nanotechnology can enable us to 'transcend our dark side and enter a new era'.

Although Mulhall displays some scepticism towards the more outré claims of the Extropian movement and suchlike techno-utopianists, there's an inescapable note of visionary evangelism in his own writings. Interestingly, he tells of how he was struck by a sudden realisation of the fragility of Earth civilisation while observing the Shoemaker-Levy comet crash into Jupiter in 1994, a moment of illuminating epiphany. The book is also informed by a post-9/11 sense of vulnerability.

The central section of the book details the many natural catastrophes that could cripple or destroy civilisation, and includes a detour into historical catastrophism and the fate of Atlantis, complete with appearance from the ubiquitous Graham Hancock. New technologies, of course, can deliver us from such fates. This juxtaposition of ideas did however make me ponder that perhaps Atlantis developed into a truly nanotech civilisation, and the reason its ruins have gone as yet undiscovered is because they're really really wee.

Mulhall has deliberately set out to write the 21st century equivalent of Alvin Toffler's 'Future Shock'. Various sections of his wilder speculation are likely to alienate technologist and environmentalist alike, and his rather excitable rhetoric doesn't always help - molecular nanotechnology is like 'a magma dome rumbling beneath the surface of society, ready to blast out from countless vents, burn away every obsolete technology, and establish a new substrate on which to build', apparently.

The other problem with books such as this is that they very rapidly become outdated. In the early chapters, Mulhall provides a rapid introduction to cutting-edge nanotech research, including the groundbreaking research at Bell Labs in the US. Since the book's publication, much of this research has been discredited following the discovery of fraud involving star researcher Hendrik Schön.

Nonetheless, this is an informed and provocative manifesto for a technological century. And forteans should be pleased to learn that the world could get a whole lot weirder and, Mulhall promises, more personally satisfying.