Let Us Prey

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Crichton’s book hit bookshelves November 2002

Like so many academics, I sometimes have a hard time telling non-specialists what I do. My parents are classic examples of such folks. Usually, they seem content to tell their friends “Our son’s a history teacher” or “He’s a writer.” I’m OK with either.

But back in 2006, when I was helping start a center that looks at nanotechnology’s societal implications, my dad surprised me with “Nanotechnology? Oh that…” Given that polls and surveys show that a relatively small percentage of people had heard of nanotech, let alone know what it is, this was startling.1 And then I put it together – when my folks visited me in 2004, my dad, looking at my bookshelf for some pot-boiling fiction, must have instead grabbed my copy of Crichton’s novel Prey.

Crichton, of course, was one of the most successful fiction authors of the late 20th century. Before his death in 2008 (at age 66), he wrote such classics as The Andromeda Strain and Timeline and, especially, Jurassic Park. The latter went on to become a Hollywood franchise – the first film in the series grossed almost a billion dollars – the basis for several amusement park rides, and the inspiration for a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody. (When “Weird Al” targets you, you know you’ve made it).

Prey appeared just before Thanksgiving in 2002. With the 10th anniversary of its release just having passed, I thought I’d reflect on its place in nano-history. This seems especially important because, if my father is an accurate gauge, Prey was how a good many Americans first learned anything about nanotech.

When I asked my dad what he thought nanotech was, his answer was basically: “It’s those tiny machines that scientists are trying to build. We have to be careful because they might take over.” This is a pretty good summary of more than one of Crichton’s novels. The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park, for example, all deal with rogue organisms of some sort (dinosaurs, alien microbes) generated/released by unscrupulous scientists/government agents. Seen in a positive light, they suggest the need to take a cautionary approach to novel technologies.

Prey takes a similar tack – an unscrupulous company called Xymos, operating out in the desert with secret military funding. Scientists at Xymos, including the protagonist’s wife, have developed the ability to make semi-sentient and autonomous nanobots. Coalescing into a predatory swarm, the nanobots attack and contaminate people until they are destroyed.

The ideas that animate Prey can be traced to the visioneering of nanotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. Starting in 1981 with a peer-reviewed article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Drexler vocally advocated a biologically-infused vision of what he initially called “molecular engineering.” Researchers’ ability in the future to design protein molecules could lead to the manufacturing of molecular-scale devices which, in turn, could make “second-generation machines” and the eventual “construction of devices and materials to complex atomic specifications.” Drexler insisted that what he called “exploratory engineering” was similar to John von Neumann’s work on the theoretical capabilities of computers c. 1950 or Konstantin Tsiolkovki’s design of rocket motors c. 1920.

With the publication of his 1986 book The Engines of Creation, he and his supporters regularly started using the n-word (i.e. nanotechnology). In Engines, Drexler famously suggested that out-of-control and self-replicating machines might pose a serious hazard – i.e. “grey goo”- that could, if not controlled, threaten the planet. Long on enthusiastic ideas but short on specific scientific details, Drexler’s books and articles offered an enthusiastic view of a technological future in which engineers had precise control over the material world.

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“When the world ends, will you be covered in grey goo?”

By the early 1990s, technology-oriented magazines like Mondo 2000 and Wired that catered strongly to the techno-cognoscenti provided positive coverage of the Drexlerian nano-future as did mainstream venues like Time, Fortune, and The Economist. However, the publicity and popularization of his ideas, compounded by the fact that Drexler wasn’t doing traditional lab research, made him a controversial figure. By the early 1990s, “the apostle of nanotechnology” had already become a lightning rod for praise and scorn from fellow scientists.”

Prey was, in essence, a fictionalized mélange of Drexler’s ideas. Crichton even provided his readers with an epigraph from Drexler, a short introduction to “artificial evolution in the 21st century” (it cited Drexler) and a multi-page bibliography that listed Drexler (twice). The book appeared on the Monday before Thanksgiving in 2002.

HarperCollins timed its carefully choreographed release to coincide with the holiday weekend. Crichton appeared on network talk shows, gave a seven-city book tour, and wrote about nanotechnology for the Sunday supplement Parade that millions read. Rumors circulated, after it became a #1 bestseller, that Hollywood would turn Prey into a major motion-picture which, if Jurassic Park (Crichton’s earlier tale of escaped, marauding techno-creatures) gave any indication, tens of millions of people would see. Reviews of the book were positive – one reviewer for the Times called said it might be Crichton’s “most ambitious techno-thriller yet” that, despite some absurd plot twists, brought renewed attention to the Drexlerian conceit of “grey goo.”

Crichton’s book hit every button that might stoke public alarm about nanotechnology: a greedy, high-tech firm; lack of government regulation; new technologies turned into military applications. Reality reflected this last aspect all too well. In 2002, for example, MIT announced it would establish a $90 million Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. To some watchdog groups, the idea of nano-enhanced soldiers sounded quite ominous.

Moreover, Prey appeared in bookstores in the midst of larger furor over the implications of “emerging technologies” like nanotechnology, robotics, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence. This started in 2000 when Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy broke ranks with fellow technologists and wrote an incendiary article titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” Joy’s venue for publication – Wired magazine – was especially poignant given its cyber-libertarian ideology that deified markets and disparaged regulation. In January 2003, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC), an unwieldy name for a small Canadian organization, released a report called The Big Down. ETC had previously led campaigns against genetically modified foods. Not surprisingly, their report savaged the idea of nanotechnology. Even Prince Charles and Royal Astronomer Martin Rees got in on the act and warned of the existential threats new technologies like nanotech posed.2 Given the global panic after the 2002-2003 outbreak of “severe acute respiratory syndrome” (SARS) and the existential fears about terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, statements such as Rees’ guaranteed headlines.

The timing of all this negative press regarding nanotech was dreadful for scientists and policy makers in the U.S. and Europe who were trying to build support and maintain funding for various national nanotechnology initiatives. The U.S. effort had been launched in 2000 as a Clinton initiative and its advocates were trying to see its research agenda codified as a law under the new Bush administration.

In response, mainstream scientists and science managers took some of the wind out the storm that Joy, Crichton,  et al. had helped stoke by supporting the need for more research on the societal and ethical implications of nanotechnology. In late 2004, the National Science Foundation announced it wanted to start a Center for Nanotechnology in Society and, a year later, funding was given for two such centers: one at Arizona State and another at UC-Santa Barbara (disclosure: I helped write the proposal for the UCSB center and currently lead one of its three research groups).

It would be overstating the case to say that Prey catalyzed a national effort to look more closely at the implications of emerging technologies like nano. By the same token, it would be an exaggeration to say that researchers wouldn’t be studying nanotechnology were it not for Drexler’s advocacy…they still would be it might be called something else and it might exist as a less coordinated research agenda.

However, the historical record is clear on the fact that policy makers and some scientists were very concerned about the possible effects that Prey might have on public perceptions of nanotech. I can recall going to several nano and society meetings c. 2005-6 and a regular topic of conversation around the coffee table was what effects a cinematic version of Prey might have on public views of nanotech.3

My Google-based forays shows that Prey doesn’t seem likely to be arriving in theatres any time soon (although I found an amateur version on YouTube…5 minutes of my life I’ll never get back).4  Nonetheless, Prey already had two main impacts – one was giving the millions of people who bought the book some sense, albeit one that was highly distorted and hyperbolic, of what nanotechnology is. The other was, even if only indirectly, to help propel scholarship that considers the societal implications of a host of new technologies.

  1. A 2006 survey done on behalf of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars showed that about 70% of Americans had never heard of nanotech (42%) or had knew just a little (27%). []
  2. An example of a headline from spring 2003; this was from an Edinburgh weekly. []
  3. Interestingly, one study showed just the opposite! Prey actually made people think nanotech’s implications would be more positive for society, not less: Michael Cobb and Jane Macoubrie, “Public Perceptions About Nanotechnology: Risks, Benefits, and Trust,” Journal of Nanoparticle Research, 2004, 6, 4: 395-405. []
  4. One version has it that Crichton gave up on a movie version after seeing the 2003 Hollywood version of his book Timeline. The drubbing Crichton took from scientists after his book State of Fear (in which environmentalists and eco-terrorists are portrayed as a threat and global warming a hoax) came out in 2004. Crichton himself died in 2008. []

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