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When Does Technology Become Magic?

August 3, 2011

A Nano Crab on a Nanotube

Nano crab on a nantube

In my novel, Nanomagica, we explore the relationship between technology and magic. This isn’t a new topic, many futurists, technologists, and philosophers have discussed the comparison. But in the light of the advent of nanotechnology, machines and materials invisible to the human eye, I thought we might revisit the topic.

So….when does technology become magic?

To consider this question, we must define some characteristics of magic that set it apart from technology.

  • Magic should perform a task employing processes and mechanisms that are hard for most people to comprehend.
  • The processes and mechanical functions behind magic must be totally or partially hidden to observers.

These two characteristics are my opinion. I am anxious to hear your thoughts.

But using these characteristics as a foundation, how do we answer our question? It is my opinion that technology has been evolving toward magic for centuries and that there are certain historical transitions that mark major milestones in this evolution.

The first milestone is the advent of technologies based on electromagnetism. Suddenly, the clear and visible workings of mechanical devices seemed simple compared with the invisible and subtle workings of these invisible fields. Imagine the awe of the first person to observe the operation of a Van der Graff generator or a television. Of course, the physics of these devices are well-known to scientists and engineers. Still, the mechanisms of these new devices took one step away from the understanding of the average person. As tubes became transistors and transistors became microprocessors, the comprehension gap widened. Indeed, most people use computers without any basic understanding of the operations that go on in the central processor.

Genetic engineering is another step toward magic, uncovering the basic code and operation of life, a process so complex that we are still interpreting what the code means. The human genome project was an immense project, reading the code of life and interpreting it. Efforts are just beginning on an even larger project to map the human proteome, a map of all of the proteins in the human body and their functions. The average person understands little beyond the vague promise of magical advances in medicine. There has even been suggestions that the technology could lead to immortality.

Now we stand on the brink of Nanotechnology. It is with the development of this technology that we may meet the requirement of the second bullet above, operations occurring with no visible equipment, mechanisms, or processeses. Consider nano-scale machines that build structures and materials atom by atom or molecule by molecule. How magical would it be to have nanomachines spread throughout the environment to remediate pollution, to perform maintenance on buildings and structures, or to kill pathogens in the environment? On the dark side, imagine nanoweapons that can kill the enemy without being seen, a kind of super chemical weapon with programmed robotic capabilities.

If we saw a person vanish in a cloud of unseen nano-scale robotic Piranha, or saw a building slowly assemble itself from unseen building blocks, would this not be magic to the average person?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.


  1. I was recently pondering nanotechnology, stem cell research, and accoustics. I was reading about idiopathic intracranial swelling and I allowed myself to get creative. Right now, the surgeries required to relieve the pain and drain excess fluid is very invasive.

    Imagine if a tiny hole could be drilled in the back of the head, where the sutures meet. An accoustic laser sends tiny but extremely focalized pulses that shake the bonds of the sutures loose. Think of it as targetting the molecular bonds that hold the skull together. A syringe full of bionanites specifically programed to bind the sutures back together again is injected into the tiny hole. They immediately target the sutures and form elastic, but strong bonds: allowing the the skull to expand and contract as necessary, eliminating the need for constant drainage surgeries.

    Here, you have a marriage between stem cells and nanotechnology, along with the use of an invisible pulse that shakes loose the bonds at the EM level of molecules.

    Whether or not the patient comprehends the complexity of it all, I think it would be like magic to cure something of that nature.

    Of course, I’m not a doctor or a theoretical physicist. I have no idea if such a thing could work, but it gets my imagination going.

    I imagine that there doesn’t necessarily have to be hidden components for it to seem like magic. If a human from medieval times saw a car and looked under the hood it would still be unexplainable because there weren’t comparable technologies back then. Perhaps it is the lack of being able to compare a technology to something familiar that makes it seem magical.

  2. I really like your speculative application of nanotechnology. The current wall that keeps applications like that from becoming reality is mass production of specific machines. However, there are some static applications available now…small hook shaped molecules on fabric that keep liquid molecules from entering the fabric (stain and small proofing on clothes)…and enzymes on the surface of gold microspheres that allow them to attach to cancer cells. Ultraviolet light is then employed to heat the sphere and kill the cancers. This will be a boon for cancers that have metastisized or are nonlocal.
    Still, a flexible method of mass production will be required to make more complex nanites. Stay tuned!
    I think you hit on a third attribute for magic…
    Technology can be considered magic if there is little connection to other technologies being employed in the society.
    Thanks for the comment!

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