Nanotechnology, For Better or For Worse

When K. Eric Drexler popularized the word ‘nanotechnology’ in the 1980s, he was describing what we now call molecular manufacturing: building machines on the scale of molecules, a few nanometers wide — motors, robot arms, and even whole computers — far smaller than a cell. Drexler spent the next ten years describing and analyzing these projected advances, and responding to accusations that his ideas were science fiction.

Meanwhile, chemists and biotechnologists were developing the ability to build simple structures on a molecular scale. As nanotechnology became an accepted (and well-funded) concept, the meaning of the word broadened to encompass these simpler kinds of nanometer-scale technologies.

Most of the current work that carries the label ‘nanotechnology’ is not nanotechnology in the original meaning. It is, instead, a set of related fields making use of properties unique to the nanoscale, so that factories can produce nanofibers that are added to fabrics to increase stain-resistance, or nanoparticles that go into cosmetics to improve absorbency, or coatings for glass to keep it cleaner longer. All of these are arguably valuable, but none are especially revolutionary.

A useful way to think about the difference between today’s nanotechnology and tomorrow’s molecular manufacturing is that the former uses big machines to make small products, while the latter will use small machines to make big products. Similarly, nanoscale technologies bring only incremental advances in product performance, while molecular manufacturing will offer powerful new products and spectacular, revolutionary benefits. On the downside, while nanoscale technologies bring only familiar risks related to chemical toxicity, molecular manufacturing will introduce a whole new class of unfamiliar problems. The current issue of h+ is devoted to “solutions” offered by emerging technologies. I’ve titled this column “For Better or For Worse” because for every exciting solution molecular manufacturing might deliver, there is an equal and opposite negative challenge to be overcome.

Nanotechnology is sometimes referred to as a “general-purpose technology.” In its advanced form, it will have significant impact on almost all industries and all areas of society. It will offer better built, cleaner, safer, and smarter products for the home, for communications, for medicine, for transportation, and for industry in general.

Nanotechnology, For Better or For WorseLike electricity or computers before it, nanotechnology will offer greatly improved efficiency in almost every facet of life. But as a general-purpose technology, it will be dual-use, meaning it will have commercial uses and also military uses, making far more powerful weapons and tools of surveillance. Thus it represents not only wonderful benefits for humanity, but also grave risks. On the positive side, we can look forward to the development of new infrastructures for clean, inexpensive power, with the emphasis likely to be on solar energy. Today’s solar collectors are not as efficient as desired and they degrade rather quickly, making the industry only marginally able to compete economically. But atomically precise manufacturing should enable far higher rates of conversion of solar energy from sunlight to electricity.

Many experts believe that molecular manufacturing will make access to outer space far easier and less expensive than in the present day. Predictions are that we should see the costs of space access drop as low as 10% of what they are now, or maybe even 1%. Building large solar collectors in space offers the promise of abundant low-cost energy, while the technology also opens up the possibility for practical and productive mining of the asteroids. Of course, there is the worry that such ready access to space may lead quickly to the spread of a nano arms race into orbit. That’s one clear example of nanotechnology’s better-worse dynamic: will the opening of new capabilities in space lead to abundant sustainable energy for all, or will it be diverted into dangerous military conflicts?

The same technology that could provide trillions of dollars of abundance also could trigger a vicious scramble to own everything, pitting powerful corporations and governments against one another. The same technology that could provide networked computers for everyone in the world also could be used to make hundreds of billions of dust-mote-size networked cameras so governments are able to watch our every move. The same technology that could provide lifesaving medical robots to enter the bloodstream and destroy cancerous tumors, repair tissue damage, or clean out clogged arteries, also could be used to produce millions of tons of untraceable weapons of mass destruction.

Will you take nanotechnology, for better or for worse?

Mike Treder, executive director of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, is a professional writer, speaker, and activist with a background in technology and communications company management.


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