KADATH: A VISION INTO THE AGE OF NANITES
Many science fiction writers have developed tales regarding mankind’s attempts to surmount the forces of nature that separate man from God. These works often portray the human species as a newcomer to Earth and as a brash and shortsighted community working feverishly towards its own demise. The history of this story has its modern roots in the late 1800s with the Transcendentalism movement in New England. Writers such as Edgar Alan Poe and Herman Melville, as well as their counterparts in England such as Mary Shelley, began examining the human spirit’s desire to conquer nature in their literature and the ramifications such an undertaking could entail. Throughout the 20th century, Moby Dick and Frankenstein’s monster have been replaced with robots and nanotechnology, but the underlying story remains; will mankind’s zealous pursuit for knowledge result in his rightful ascension to the throne of God or will nature whisk away his noisy, but insignificant existence? Kadath in the Cold Waste, a short story written in 1995 by Edward Keyes, tackles one of the newest facets of scientific progress, nanotechnology. The accuracy of the nanotech applications which Keyes describes, as well as the tone in which he writes, elucidates his view regarding nanotechnology as the next possible key in mankind’s pursuit of divinity.
Kadath in the Cold Waste follows the story of a young boy named Gavin who lives on a Martian colony in the year 2103. The Martian colony that Gavin lives on is home to the last surviving human population: an escape mission from Earth to avoid a plague which caused the extinction of humankind from the face of the planet in the year 2045. Gavin observes the Earth, in association with a mentor Dr. Johan, from the surface of Mars using telescopes. On a routine observation, Gavin notices an enormous metal ring in orbit around the circumference of Earth. Gavin and Dr. Johan are astonished as the discovery means that not only did humans survive the plague, but they are advanced enough to construct such an awesome piece of architecture. They steal a ship from the colony, as any sort of communication attempt with Earth is forbidden by the local leadership, and set off for Earth.
En-route, a small metal ball attaches to the hull of their ship and begins eating its way through the thick plastic composite. Gavin and Dr. Johan don space suits before the hull is breached, but the metal glob soon attacks and kills both of the characters. However, Gavin immediately regains consciousness and comes to discover that the metal clump that killed both himself and Dr. Johan was actually a cluster of nano-machines called Nanites, and upon consuming his brain, actually mapped and digitally duplicated its structure inside of a computer program. Gavin finds himself in a virtual existence, but one that is in every sense as real as what he had known while physically alive. Gavin learns that the plague that had caused the extinction of mankind from Earth was actually the result of self-replicating Nanites consuming and assimilating the minds of humans into their computer world. Gavin is guided throughout the computer world by a Kadathan named Calvin, a resident of the computer world who had been assimilated years before during the original Nanite outbreak. Calvin enlightens Gavin on the benefits of being a digital entity, from instant access to any knowledge available, to generating anything one wishes simply by commanding it.
The computer program, powered by the large metal solar collecting ring in orbit around Earth, links every mind that it has assimilated to every other mind into a large single entity called the collective. Gavin is able to meet with people by accessing their simulated location in the program, and he is escorted at his wish to the site where the original creator of the Nanites, Dr. Meredith, lives. After meeting with Dr. Meredith, who expresses great regret about the devastation that he unleashed upon the mortal world, Gavin decides that he would like his biological body reassembled and to be provided with a shuttle back to Mars. The computer system complies and reassembles Gavin, granting his request. However, upon being removed from Kadath, it is revealed that the entire existence that Gavin had known prior to being converted into a digital form was already a part of the system, but just a simulation to study the minds of people who were unaware of being part of the collective. The actual Martian colony that had existed years before had long since been destroyed before Gavin came into existence.
Kadath in the Cold Waste touches on many aspects of nanotechnology, including how it may be applied to assist humans in the future. Nanotechnology is characterized by the manipulating and manufacture of materials less than 100nm. By compacting everyday items into these proportions, large cumbersome objects can be streamlined and integrated into more efficient forms. An early example of this process is seen as Gavin and Dr. Johan wear small re-breathing and water collection devices while on the shuttle to Earth. Although nanotechnology isn’t explicitly mentioned regarding these tools, the idea of having microscopic devices that can perform functions like converting exhaled carbon-dioxide back into oxygen is precisely what nanotechnology may be able to accomplish. Devices such as water filtration systems that use nanotechnology to purify contaminated water are already on the drawing board for companies like KX Industries, the developers of Brita water filters.
Another facet of nano-technology was portrayed as Gavin and Dr. Johan prepare sensors to be deployed into the atmosphere of Earth before they discard their space suits and walk upon its surface. The sensors were designed to detect and inform Gavin and Dr. Johan of harmful toxins that may have accumulated in the air since humans left Earth. The technology of sensing chemicals on the nanoscale is on the forefront of nanoscience today. Currently proposed methods of this detection use highly sensitive nanotube electronic devices that are able to form very specific interactions with biological proteins (Chen 2003). These devices are being engineered to detect antibodies as well as other proteins in order to increase the accuracy and speed of disease diagnosis. This use of nanotechnology as a method for chemical identification is portrayed very realistically, as the use of such nano-sensors has already shown promise in biological settings.
The Nanites that attack and assimilate the two characters also has roots in current nanotechnology research, but Keyes develops this aspect of the science with an ominous tone and perhaps with some literary license. These self-replicators were able to supply themselves with building materials for replication by disassembling portions of biological structures and reassembling them into forms identical to themselves. The original catastrophic outbreak of Nanites in the story involved self-replicators being programmed to evolve and then being released into the environment. This “grey-goo” scenario, uncontrolled self-replication of nanomachines, is plausible, but current research points out that steps can be taken that can prevent self-replicators from becoming uncontrollable. Chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing Neil Jacobstein and law professor at the University of Tennessee Glenn Reynolds have collaborated on a paper titled Foresight Guidelines for Responsible Nanotechnology Development, which provides guidelines for government, professional and industrial nanotechnology use.
The focus of the paper revolves around specific actions that can be taken to avoid a situation where self-replicating nanomachines become out of control. They propose many insightful ideas that would limit both the ability of nanomachines to replicate as well as the designing of such machines. They suggest setting industrial guidelines which limit not only the displacement of self-replicators, but also the schematics of their design. This would create a sort of barrier to disallow self replicators access to the outside of a lab setting, including in the hands of potential terrorists. They also suggest limitations be set for the amount of onboard instructions that selfreplicators can possess. By remotely controlling the data needed for self-replication, with radio signals for instance, a safety switch is put in place which gives a great deal of power to human operators over nanomachines. I believe that the Kadath in the Cold Waste also overlooks the overwhelming complexities in writing a program which mimics evolution to the degree that would result in a sense of self-awareness in machines. Nanomachines would most feasibly be programmed like machines of today: with instruction sets designed to carry out focused tasks with great efficiency. A great deal of time and energy can be saved by developing numerous nanomachines for specific tasks than one nanomachine for a multitude of tasks. This trend is evident in modern forms of mass production involving automated systems.
In addition to physical characteristics of nanomachine implementation, Kadath in the Cold Waste examines the ethical and moral ramifications of integrating technology and biology. Gavin notices many things about being digital that were not present in his human form, such as the ability to access past memories instantly and with perfect clarity. The physical characteristics of metal surpass the biological brain’s ability to store and access information. Kadathan entities are able to do interesting things once free from the tether of biology, including the ability to communicate while avoiding the immense drawbacks of verbal communication. Gavin experiences others thoughts as well as their emotions just as they were being felt by the other individual. The ability to convey complete thoughts allows Kadath to be a very ethical place where the misunderstandings created across class and cultural lines are dissolved through education and complete human to human communication.
Gavin also relishes new forms of art in which the experience of emotions are coupled with unimaginable sensory stimulations such that he found himself, “experiencing the raw emotive concepts of the piece, at the level of thought and thought alone.” It was interesting to see a contrasting perspective to the general notion that integrating machines into a human body would detract from emotional experiences as well as the moral gain that experiencing such emotions could impart on the viewer. Gavin’s guide points out how much better art is when any possible barrier between the artist and his or her audience is removed, something that integrating nanotechnology into the brain may accomplish. The piece of art that Gavin experienced was written by a non-human source, which also has provides interesting insights into the ability of mankind to communicate directly with other biological forms in nature such as animals. The thought patterns of animals were valued and assimilated by Nanites into the collective, as these minds provided an even greater amount of information on which the Kadathan society was built. Keyes provides a balance to the negative aspects of nanotechnology by portraying unique and positive ethical and moral gains that may be available once the limitations of biology are overcome.
Kadath in the Cold Waste directs the reader to consider the shortcomings to society that may occur with nanotech integration. Keyes portrays the cummultive thinking of the construct as limited by many of the same things that make it so powerful. All of the individuals that are in the system are linked to each other in a way best described in the story as dreamers dreaming a common dream. However, new thoughts and different perceptions no longer exist between individuals, and this limits uniqueness of ideas. For this reason that above all, Kadathans value the people that are most different. The very reason for Gavin’s creation into an existence that kept him ignorant of being in the system was to benefit from his unique ideas. This process of sewing and harvesting thought patterns from people like a crop disregards the moral rights of people to exist as free entities. By generating people in a computer program, the true essence of human creativity is inherently undermined. I feel that although Gavin didn’t know about being in the system, the fact that he was still “wired” to it limits the successfulness of such an experiment. His ideas were still produced through a computer program and that alone under minds the concept of uniqueness.
However, this has some interesting implications considering that one could just as easily argue that real human thoughts are generated from the hardware that is our brain, and that this hardware is a result of the hardware that our parents possessed and “programmed” us with. Being connected to a huge number of other people also presents shortcomings that Gavin must wrestle with. As a member of the construct, he is susceptible to sharing his thoughts and ways of thinking with anyone whom wishes to access them. He feels violated that not even his thoughts can be kept private in a system that relies on the cumulative thoughts of everyone to exist. Inequities surprisingly still exists in Kadath as the speed at which Kadathans think is based on the physical computer that exists on Earth and its allocation of processor power to individuals. The more that an individual’s ideas are valued in Kadath, such as those of engineers and physicians, the more processor power is allocated to their minds compared to others whom are deemed less important. Its surprising how a community of such individual to individual interconnection could have what I believe to be the greatest ability to separate have and have-nots; the capability to limit the ability to think.
What I believe to be the most interesting and scary ethical and moral infraction on mankind created in the age of the Nanites was touched on with some of Gavin’s first thoughts upon regaining consciousness in the digital world when he considered, “…what kind of afterlife is this?” By becoming digital, Gavin becomes effectively immortal. He can no longer perish unless he chooses to be erased from the system and therefore commit suicide. By denying the right to die of natural causes and live a life governed by the laws of nature compared to the artificial laws of a computer program would have strong negative religious consequences for individuals that were also denied the choice whether or not to be apart of that system in the first place.
Kadath in the Cold Waste identifies both plausible and creative uses for nanotechnology in everyday circumstances, while also developing some very unique ethical benefits and shortcomings of nanotechnology use. Kadathan society evolved out of mankind’s desire to pursue a complete dominance over the laws of nature. By doing so, Keyes shows that mankind’s new role of God may cost too high of a price for its benefits, possibly even the right to be human.
1. Edward Keyes, Kadath in the Cold Waste.. Available online. (December 1995)
2,. Neil Jacobstein, “Foresight Guidelines for Responsible Nanotechnology Development.” Draft Version 6 Unpublished. (April 2006)
3. Robert Chen et. al, “Noncovalent functionalization of carbon nanotubes for highly specific electronic biosensors.”