The Horrors of Self-ReplicatingCybernetic Nanotechnology

by Dan Dinello

Set in a fire-scorched landscape of metallic ash and H-Bomb craters populated by mutated rats, Philip K. Dick's visionary 1955 short story "AutoFac" centers on human survivors of a nuclear war who battle wartime automatic factories that won’t cease postwar production. The computerized factories – supplemented by robotic trucks, surveillance cameras, and mobile humanoid robots – over-consume scarce raw materials needed for reconstruction and over-produce useless consumer goods for a population that is now mostly dead.  Numerous attempts to assert control of the system have proven futile and pessimism reigns among the humans: "We're licked, like always," says one of the survivors. "We humans lose every time." Designed, programmed and controlled by “The Institute of Applied Cybernetics,” the self-perpetuating factory network now undermines human autonomy and ultimately threatens the planet’s survival.  A vision of technological tyranny and ecological disaster, “AutoFac” criticizes the implications of mindless, cybernetic industrial production and its attendant social philosophy.

The forerunner of artificial intelligence and robotics, cybernetics formed in the crucible of World War II. Along with the race against German scientists to build an atomic bomb and the need to break the secret Nazi cipher machine codes, the urgency to improve England’s air defense was a major force behind the development of high-speed calculating machines, eventually leading to the supercomputer and cybernetics.

Incorporating radar and high-speed calculation that analyzed feedback data from the German bombers, mathematician Norbert Wiener developed a self-regulating, predictive missile guidance system that adjusted the weapon’s gun-sight to the speed, height and direction of the Nazi planes and thereby blasted them out of the sky.  Based on his insights into machine learning via environmental feedback, Wiener invented cybernetics: the science of communication and control of people and machines.

Feedback, for Wiener, was an essential characteristic of life: all living things function and learn by practicing some form of feedback reaction in adapting to their environment; therefore, all forms of life could be understood mechanically, as a response to external information or communication. In The Human Use of Human Beings a popularized version of his classic 1948 work Cybernetics, Wiener wrote, "Communication and control belong to the essence of man's inner life, even as they belong to his life in society."

Shifting from bombsight design to social engineering, Wiener believed the nervous system and the operations of complex electronic computers are fundamentally alike in that they are devices whose behavior is based on the processing of information.  In the cybernetic view, humans learned and behaved like machines; they could--for society’s and their own good--be controlled like machines. By manipulating and regulating information input; by programming, Wiener expected to govern and perfect the behavioral output of both machines and people. In fact, the word “cybernetics” is derived from the Greek word kubernetes, meaning “steersman” or “governor.” 

Cybernetics heralded the promise of a techno-utopian world that would result from a second industrial revolution when the “computing machine" became the “center of the automatic factory”--a vision of programmed automation fulfilling people’s needs while science-based social controls engineered happy, good citizens. Pursuing this vision, behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, in his 1948 book Walden Two, proudly depicted a cybernetic “utopia” that resulted from modifying behavior through controlled positive and negative reinforcement (feedback).  Far from popularizing the idea, he inadvertently demonstrated cybernetics’ totalitarian implications.

“AutoFac” counters the cyber-utopian vision with a dystopian prophecy of automatic factories that become evil in their inflexible self-sufficiency, autonomous expansion, and pervasive control. "Why can't we take over the machines?" screams a frustrated human, condemned to redundancy and humiliation. "My God, we're not children! We can run our own lives.” Dick questions the legitimacy of a cybernetic philosophy that views humans mechanically, as passively dependent consumer-automatons incorporated into a technological apparatus devised to furnish physical needs, but indifferent to spiritual ones.


The automatic factories cannot creatively alter their own programming in response to the changing needs of the humans they were built to serve; rather, they scrupulously, logically, and literally persist in fulfilling their now-destructive production objectives.  Forcing people to relinquish their freedom “for their own good,” these immutable robots illustrate the insoluble problem of designing a technology that accounts for the vast range of human variables and the impossibility of determining what is right or good for humanity in all circumstances. Ridiculing claims of cybernetic perfection, Dick envisions the dire political implications of a technological system so determined in its programmed agenda that an initially positive benefit turns into a human-threatening, techno-tyranny.

This ever-expanding cybernetic system also reflects the dehumanizing logic of late capitalism whose profitability depends upon the reckless overproduction of useless commodities, marketed to a public viewed as gullible and gluttonous. Dick implicitly criticizes an economic system based on the automatic expansion of production to continuously increase corporate profits, rather than a system designed to improve human utility, happiness and freedom.

“Autofac” also demonstrates that this unfettered epidemic of overproduction will ultimately prove fatal: the environmental destruction that results from this self-perpetuating cycle of production and waste threatens to devour the planet.  The helpless humans of “AutoFac” realize that “the damn network expands and consumes more of our natural resources,” that the system itself “gets top priority” while “mere people come second,” and that eventually no resources will remain unless the humans control factory output. Attempts to contact someone who might change the network’s programming, however, end in frustrated failure. The factory’s representatives are themselves programmed machines, reflecting today’s robotic bureaucrats and computerized phone systems that shield corporate owners from public scrutiny and accountability.

After further efforts to directly shut down the factories, the humans confront the machines with logically impossible information meant to confuse and freeze them; but this has the unforeseen result of setting off internecine warfare. When the shipments of goods finally stop, it appears that the factories have destroyed each other. Yet when humans investigate one such damaged facility, they discover that on a deeper underground level the factory functions in a new way, manufacturing something mysterious. The inspection team finds the exit valve of a conveyer tube. Every few moments, a pellet bursts from the valve and shoots up into the sky. Upon examination, the horrified humans realize that the pellet is a tiny metallic element consisting of "Microscopic machinery, smaller than ants, smaller than pins, working energetically, purposefully -- constructing something that looks like a tiny rectangle of steel.”

In a prescient conception of self-replicating nanotechnology, the automatic factory-- exhibiting a living entity’s survival instinct--spews out metallic seeds that germinate into miniature replicas of the demolished factory that spurt out more seeds all over the earth and maybe throughout the universe. As one despairing character says: "The cyberneticists have it rigged . . . they've got us completely hamstrung. We're completely helpless." "AutoFac" dramatizes Philip Dick's pessimistic vision of a technocratic ideology that values the system's smooth, self-regulating operation as an end in itself: serving its own needs, expanding its control, replicating exponentially like a contagious disease, devouring the planet and even the universe-- all to the detriment and possible extinction of humanity.



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