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Get Ready for Your Nano Future

We know that nanotech will change the world-it’s time to think about how.
May 4, 2001

Ever since Athena, goddess of industry and the arts, sprang full-grown from Zeus’s skull, technology has often taken its creators by surprise. The internal combustion engine gave us new freedom-and increased global warming. The mechanical cotton picker spurred a migration to northern cities-and the civil rights movement. Nuclear power produced cheap electricity-and a nightmare called Chernobyl.

As scientists learn to tinker with matter at the atomic scale, they are realizing that the social implications of nanotechnology will prove just as dramatic and at least as surprising.

“In ten to fifteen years, nanotechnology will enter our lives in a big way,” declares Mihail Roco, the National Science Foundation’s senior advisor for nanotechnology. Early payoffs, he predicts, will come in computing and pharmaceuticals, where powerful new tools and methods will benefit industries that already work at, or near, the molecular level.

Eventually, researchers foresee benefits across a wide range of industries, from manufacturing and agriculture to transportation and space exploration. Desalinization plants may one day use nanotech to provide fresh water to Los Angeles and Tel Aviv. Nano-engineered green technologies could soon reduce toxic emissions and someday help clean up Superfund sites.

And so-called “direct assembly”-the mechanical rearrangement of atoms to form anything from beef to buildings-may one day surround us with unlimited abundance. Hands-on manipulation of our genes could cure disease-and perhaps even aging.

The federal government is throwing serious money toward making these promises come true. Last year, President Clinton announced the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a $500 million, inter-agency effort to fund basic research and education in nanotech. Since then, more than thirty universities have announced plans for nanotech research centers. The most ambitious-a joint effort of the University of California and industry-plans to spend no less than $150 million on labs at UC Los Angeles and UC Santa Barbara.

Along with basic research and education, the federal initiative aims to foster “focused research on social, economic, ethical, legal and workforce implications of nanotechnology.”

Into the Unknown

The first word to come out of this research? The most significant implications may be unforeseen, and unforeseeable.

That’s the recently published conclusion of a group of nanotech researchers and social scientists who met last fall to discuss the social implications of nanotech. The report, edited by Roco and NSF science advisor William Bainbridge, summarizes presentations given last September at a National Science and Technology Council workshop. (An Adobe Acrobat version of the 280-page report is available online.)

No doomsayer, Roco is certain that nano research will yield huge benefits. “But,” he warns, “there are also second-order consequences that could be negative.” For example, he says, scientists could nano engineer more deadly biological weapons. Less directly, a nano elite could command unlimited wealth and power.

“When you introduce a new technology, it’s almost impossible to foresee what the consequences will be,” says Lester Lave, a professor of engineering at Carnegie Mellon and director of the school’s Green Design initiative who spoke at the conference.

One everyday example of unintended consequences, Lave says, may be sitting in your driveway. “The notion of driving vehicles designed to be off-terrain, and having 90 percent of those vehicles never leave the road, shows us people are using these things for a purpose they were never engineered for. That leads to the question: how are people going to use nanotechnologies?”

Lessons Learned (or Not)

“There are some disturbing similarities between biotechnology and nanotechnology,” says Paul Thompson, a professor of ethics at Purdue University and another speaker at the conference. Most disturbing, he says, is the possibility that scientists will let a genie out of its bottle. “This is a technology that, once it’s out there, can’t be called back.”

Thompson gives the biotechnology industry a “C+” for its efforts to anticipate social and environmental implications. One success, he says, was the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) project, an interdisciplinary effort within the Human Genome Project to understand the social impact of genetic research. On the other hand, he says, the biotech industry failed to involve the public in the development of genetically modified food and was blindsided by the negative response.

Nanotech researchers should build on the example of the ELSI project, Thompson suggests: “Take a hard look at potential ethical and cultural issues, but follow through much more carefully and get out ahead of the public.”

Such self-examination can pay off big, Thompson says, pointing to the information technology industry. Early on, gadflies and other concerned industry professionals spurred internal debates on societal implications-for example, the loss of privacy. Partly as a result, personal computers and the Internet enjoy widespread public acceptance and adoption. By contrast, he says, the nuclear industry devoted little discussion to societal questions and has paid a steep price in public acceptance.

Planning Beats Hindsight

The key lesson, Roco says, is to involve the public early in the process-before nanotech’s effects are felt.

“We look to the people who are raising [concerns] to address the issues sooner,” Roco says. “History shows that all breakthroughs in science and technology have brought societal changes and, sometimes, societal fears. But nobody should think about stopping research and development in this field [just] because there could be some risks.”

Some have suggested just that. Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, stirred up controversy last year with a Wired magazine essay in which he condemned self-replicating nanobots as more dangerous than nuclear weapons and urged scientists to abandon nanotech for the good of mankind.

Halting research carries its own risks, Roco says, giving the example of diseases that are beginning to resist conventional antibiotics. “We don’t want to find after twenty years that our drugs don’t work and we don’t know what to do.”

And, he adds, just because the U.S. stops nanotech research does not mean our competitors-and enemies-will follow suit. “There is a risk,” he says, “that someone else will develop these technologies and we won’t know how to counter them.”

Rumors of Nano

Nanotech already enjoys plenty of public discussion, informed or otherwise. For a rich sample, check out the alt.nanotech newsgroup, a bottomless well of blue-sky applications. Posters discuss implications from designer bodies (want to look like Cary Grant or Winnie the Poo?), to nano wars, to utopian anarchy, to human extinction.

When one writer suggests that nanotech-based birth control would launch a second sexual revolution, someone responds that concerned parents could use nanotech to delay the onset of puberty in their children. “So,” writes a third, “expect a black market in medical nano devices to reverse the effect of the suppressants.”

Sometimes speculation itself can be the problem, Bainbridge says. “Some people, enthusiasts or visionaries, have been giving the press and public a facile image of what’s going to be coming in the near future”-an image, he says, that inflates both hopes and anxieties out of proportion.

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