Future Nerd

Getting small–very, very small–with Xerox’s Ralph Merkle.

As everyone now knows, a lot of the pieces of the personal computer–the mouse, the desktop box, the graphical user interface–were first invented by researchers at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. By the mid-1970s, Xerox had thought far enough into the future to fear (wrongly, as it turned out) that the computer would displace the photocopier. But they had not thought much about what to do with the personal computer once they had invented it. In a story told so often that it cannot possibly be entirely true, Steven Jobs visited PARC one day in 1979 and left with the Macintosh in his head. But true or not, the anxiety that fuels PARC today has an added layer. The Xerox Corp. now fears not only that someone might invent something that will moot the photocopier but that they themselves might invent something worth billions and fail to notice. Xerox continues to fund PARC, and PARC continues to generate all sorts of interesting inventions. But now its inventions, no matter how bizarre or obscure, have the aura of the Next Big Thing.

Which brings us to Ralph Merkle. I first heard about Merkle from John Seely Brown. Brown, who is the director of Xerox PARC, often finds himself having to explain exactly why a photocopier company needs a research division in Silicon Valley. His answer is the same as it was when PARC was first created: One day someone is going to come along and create something that renders the photocopier obsolete. “We want to be the ones who creatively destroy our own business,” Brown says. But now when he is asked what is likely to be the instrument of his destruction, he points to Merkle.

Merkle works in a field called molecular nanotechnology. You would never guess it from its name, but molecular nanotechnology is the science of building machines atom by atom. Its intellectual provenance dates back to a 1959 lecture given by the physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman played the same clarifying role in science as Warren Buffett does in finance, except that instead of investments, he blessed theories. Twenty years before anyone else thought much about it, Feynman blessed molecular nanotechnology: “The principles of physics, as far as I can see,” he said, “do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big.” Among his abundant gifts was Feynman’s ability to speak semicolons.

Apparently, there are great economies in building machines atom by atom, instead of in giant clumps of atoms as we do now. A molecular computer the size of a sugar cube, for instance, would be more powerful than all the computing power on Earth today. (Why, I have no idea.) It would also be able to replicate itself (ditto) and therefore ultimately be very cheap to manufacture. And, of course, once you create so much computing power cheaply you change Life As We Know It. You might put an end to death, for instance. Tiny computers could be implanted in our cells to reverse their natural deterioration. You might also put an end to work, since fantastically powerful computers will provide for all our needs. “Basically,” says Merkle, “people will have a lot more free time.” The catch is that it may be 50 years before this happens, depending on the serendipity of science and the presidential candidacy of Al Gore, who has shown some interest in funding nanotechnology research. “Spending anything less than the whole of GNP to develop this,” says Merkle, “is worth it.”

There’s no point in my trying to evaluate nanotechnology or, for that matter, anything Merkle said. One of the reasons Merkle is Big Man on Campus at PARC is that people like me will never be able to evaluate what he is talking about. To judge the plausibility of his ideas, I rely entirely on surface data: 1) The people who accidentally gave you the personal computer think he has great ideas; and 2) People with Nobel Prizes gather at conferences with him to discuss those ideas. So there must be something to them.

B ut to the layman, Merkle himself is an interesting nerd study. The nerd world has its own version of Freud’s narcissism of small differences. People who think about problems that might be solved in the next three months are looked down upon by people who think about problems that might never be solved. (And vice versa, probably.) Merkle defines the outer limit of what the market will pay nerds to think about. Compared with Merkle, says Brown, “Bill Gates’ vision does not reach the tip of his own nose.” Gates is a mere huckster. Merkle is “an artist” who “sees the future.” Merkle himself sounds actually proud when he says, “If you ask what the payoff of nanotechnology is in the next 10 years, I’d have to say ‘nothing.’ “

Because he has a hand in technological change, the ordinary nerd is widely perceived to be a visionary. In truth, the ordinary nerd views his mind as a roulette table, with the odds moving against him as he pushes further into the future. He stacks all his chips on red or black, the immediate future. In other words, the risk profile of the ordinary nerd isn’t very different from the risk profiles of the ordinary, socially well-adjusted conformists they have replaced at the top of American business.

Merkle is different. He has stacked all his chips on 00. He is a future nerd.

The future nerd is less a market phenomenon than a psychological one. Essentially, he is a person willing to take rational thought to an irrational extreme. Merkle is, for example, an Extropian. (See his elaborate Web site for a description.) He is also a cryonicist, which means he has paid to have his mortal remains frozen. On his wrist Merkle wears a silver chain with a dog tag that tells you whom to call if you stumble upon his dead body. There are only about 30 people hanging “in suspension,” as they say, but among them Merkle counts dear friends whom he fully expects to see again in better times. “In order for me to be unfrozen,” he says, “there must be a) truly spectacular medical technology and b) a future that cares enough about people to unfreeze them. And if both a) and b) are true, then it sounds good to me. I’ll go for that! Given the kind of future we’re looking at it would be really frustrating to miss out for some foolish reason like you get old and die.”

The point is that the man who is actually thinking about the Road Ahead and the man who makes money pretending to think about the Road Ahead are two different creatures. Maybe that’s just as well. John Kenneth Galbraith once remarked on how much safer we all were because the ferocious market animals who emerged each morning from the subway onto Wall Street did not channel those same energies into radical politics. The same might be said of the young wizards of technology who shun honest intellectual pursuits for money. They forsake the tiny chance to wreak havoc in the distant future for the much greater chance to make a fortune in the near future. The market actually does not support a lot of people like Ralph Merkle. Probably we are all a little saner for it.