The Next Twenty Years

(The Archer)


Ladies and Gentlemen, return your tray tables to their folded and locked positions and fasten your seatbelts; we’re taking off.

Just as an archer pulls back before he releases his bow, I must draw back into my own experience before I launch into a story of a future which, on first hearing, may sound completely implausible. However, this story - or mythology, if you will - rests on a firm foundation of ideas which I began to explore nearly twenty years ago.

During my brief stay at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I collided head-on with two revolutionary concepts - memes-in-the-making - which, at the time, I perceived as being entirely unrelated.

The first of these was the idea of The Architecture Machine. While I never used or even saw this device, my friends who worked in Nicholas Negroponte’s lab at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies - this, before the Media Lab had grown up - told me vivid tales about an office environment created in three-dimensional simulation, where you could get your documents by opening a "file-cabinet", could place them onto a "workspace", where you could manipulate them - all this as if it were real, of course - and conduct your business in this synthetic office much as you would one in reality.

The Architecture Machine was my very first exposure to a collection of concepts that would - in a few years time - be known as virtual reality. The idea of such a machine - even without my having seen it or played with it - left a permanent impression on my thinking. Something within me began to tickle at my sense of the real, blurring it with the synthetic constructions of reality which I knew would be the next domain of computers.

So, when the other shoe dropped, when Jaron Lanier announced the immanence of the virtual world and stuck his hand into it, I was ready, willing and able. I hand-built and coded the first VR system I ever used, from the spare parts of a few cheap video cameras and a brand-new 486. I got my head into cyberspace as quick a I knew how, but immediately I became aware of a more important ontological question; now that I could have the world anyway I wanted it, how did I want to have the world?

Which brings me back, in a loop, to that same beginning at MIT. You see, I fraternized with a rather hackerly set, who would occasionally amuse themselves in salons at the household of a recent MIT graduate by the name of Eric Drexler. Drexler, who had studied Feynman’s lectures on the physics of the very small, and talked with Marvin Minsky about the ends of manufacturing, began to float a curious set of ideas about the assembly of the physical world from the bottom up, atom by atom, a curious reversal of the industrial processes common in 1982, which he termed "nanotechnology".

In these salons, it was understood that this fundamental mastery of matter was a given, just a long-range engineering problem that could be divided into its constituent parts and wholly solved, that the realization of a fully synthetic dimension to the physical universe stood as close as we cared to make it, given our time and a few choice research grants.

Once again, I could feel something tickle at my sense of the real, as if, from these oppositional points some sort of closure could be achieved. These ideas, I intuited, related at some fundamental level. Over the next fifteen years, it would be the grand project of my own life to figure out how they came together, and what that union might imply.

I’ve drawn back my arrow, but as I release the tension built up upon the bow, let me stop in 1993, when something happened that changed the way I saw everything. In that year a team from the University of North Carolina created a device they called the Nanomanipulator. It’s really stunningly simple, a combination of three systems: a scanning-tunneling electron microscope, which is nothing more than a pin with a very sharp tip and a weak electrical charge; the UNC PixelPlanes simulation engine, at that time the most powerful virtual reality system in the world, and force-feedback device known as the Argonne Remote Manipulator, or ARM. From this simple combination of these devices, suddenly you could touch the surfaces of atoms, and - even better - push them around a bit, give order to the basic atomic structures of the universe.

Again, I have never seen or used the Nanomanipulator, but the idea alone was enough; in it I saw the clear blueprint of the future, of the next twenty years and well beyond.

At a lecture a few weeks ago, ethnobotanist and cultural historian Terence McKenna noted that the world looks almost precisely as it did in 1993, but everything, everywhere is different. We see the same desks, the same computers, but - in a flash - the meanings of those computers have radically refigured, a non-linear event which came along unexpectedly and is still racing along hurriedly. We’re caught in a vortex, a chaotic attractor of connectivity which - when we’re being thoroughly honest with ourselves - we admit we know very little about. Indeed, the metaphor of the surfer has become the dominant mythology of the age of the Web; dude, we’re on this tsunami-sized swell, hanging loose, doing our best to ride it in to an uncertain shore.

But this wave cuts through more than just the Internet; what we’re coming to understand is that a common braid connects the transmission of ideas across boundaries physical, biological and informational. In every one of these disciplines, researchers balance on their own surfboards, each becoming increasingly aware of a convergence, a common meeting point around the description of the universe as a field of information. Each discipline makes their own unique models of the universe, but - within the next twenty years - these models will begin to conflate, to expand until each description of the universe occupies precisely the same epistemological space as the others.

In just about thirteen years - give or take a few months - a group at NASA Ames’ Research Center will announce the successful completion of the Nanocomputation project, which, put simply, will produce computers built out of a tight weave of matter and energy, as small as a few tens of thousands of atoms, and capable of executing a billion billion instructions per second. One of the first things we’ll do with that computing power is instruct it to make more copies of itself. And so, in the moment we see the first nanocomputer, we also see the first intelligent nanoassembler, capable of accepting human direction, constructing any desired nanomachinery or nanostructure, including copies of itself to create more copies of itself, and so on.

In short order - and I mean very short order, as something like 72 hours is the figure currently envisioned - we’ll have repatterned the physical universe into an intelligent analog of its former self. But this universe will be linguistically pliable, capable of responding to our commands. How do we tell the universe how to be? We’ve grown up in a world that we assume - and are taught - is rather solid and fixed, not a world that is a plastic impression of the will of the individual. But the world itself is changing that, placing us front and center, and asking us to command it. Which brings me around again, full circle, as this arrow strikes its target.

You see, virtual reality is the training ground for what the physical world is becoming; in essence, the virtual is becoming virtually indistinguishable from the real. The fabric of reality is itself becoming a medium, and interactive media are the sandbox within which we learn how to play with what is real, before the keys of the universe are handed to us. Every experiment in interface, every new toy and technique, these are the words of a language which, when transmitted to the nanocomputational elements of a wholly-aware universe, translate themselves directly into the forms of being.

We are not - as yet - ontologically equipped to deal with a universe conformant to individual will, we have only begun to play at the edges of the interfaces to reality. We are like infants learning to discern the forms of objects and give them names, and occasionally we thrust out an unsteady hand to rearrange the letter blocks on the floor before us. Our job - in the next twenty years - is to acquire the language of the real, and go forth, and shape the world that will surely come.

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for flying Fast Forward Airways, and please remember that items in the overhead bins may have shifted during your flight. Have a nice day!

Santa Monica
10 Manik (24 August 1998)