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The Future Dances on a Pin's Head

Nanotechnology: Will it be a boon -- or kill us all?

November 26, 2002|Julia A. Moore | Julia A. Moore is a public policy scholar at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

It's official. The nanotechnology debate is underway. Michael Crichton's alarmist book, "Prey," with its menacing swarms of molecule-sized robots, hits bookstores this week, with a Hollywood spectacular soon to follow.

Nongovernmental groups, scientists and industry are lining up for a major public relations battle over the good and evils of nanotechnology. The opposing sides are asking whether nanotech will fill the world with self-replicating microscopic "nanobots" -- a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair -- that will wipe out humanity, or whether nano is a silver bullet that promises a cure for cancer, an end to crop shortages and the solution to cleaning up pollution.

Nanotechnology uses individual atoms or molecules as components of tiny machines, measured by the nanometer, or millionth of a millimeter. (A millimeter is equivalent to 0.039 of an inch.) Today's computer chips pack about 40 million transistors onto a silicon wafer no bigger than a postage stamp. The National Science Foundation foresees a future of computer chips that store trillions of bits of information on a pinhead-sized gadget.

Nanotechnology's applications go far beyond the realm of semiconductors and computers, potentially affecting virtually every aspect of people's lives and promising us new clean energy sources, pollution control systems, and nanoscale sensors and drug delivery tools working inside the human body to detect and treat disease.

Yet in 2000, Sun Microsystems scientist Bill Joy was so worried about the possibility of terrorists using masses of uncontrolled and self-replicating nanobots to selectively kill people who are genetically distinct or in a certain geographic area that he wrote an article for Wired magazine warning that robotics, genetic engineering and nanotechnology threaten to make humans an endangered species.

Whether nanotechnology research results in the ultimate doomsday machine or in mankind's salvation is up to us. In the mid-1980s, there was considerable opposition to the now-celebrated Human Genome Project. The increased availability of genetic information raised difficult questions about how the information is used by insurance companies, law enforcement agencies, schools and employers. There also are big issues regarding commercial exploitation -- for example, who owns genes and other pieces of DNA, and what can be patented?

The founders of the Human Genome Project acknowledged that they did not have answers to these significant societal questions. So they set aside 5% of the project's annual budget for a program to define and deal with the ethical, legal and social implications raised by this brave new world of genetics -- creating one of the largest such efforts ever.

Societal concerns about new technologies demand real action by government, the science community and industry, not just public relations "spin." The public knows that any new technology brings pluses and minuses, and it is willing to accept some risks connected to new technologies -- particularly medical breakthroughs -- if the benefits are significant enough.

But increasingly, people want hard evidence that scientists, government and corporations have examined and addressed the potential risks associated with scientific breakthroughs and new technologies. They're looking for concrete measures aimed at building public confidence in 21st century progress.

Such steps include governments maintaining strong oversight and regulatory systems and dealing with concern over the growing commercialization of science and financial conflicts of interest.

Most important, citizens want to have a say in making individual choices and the societal trade-offs related to the application of new technology and science.

Breakthroughs today in nanotechnology mark a tremendous milestone for science, but they pose even bigger challenges for science policymakers in the future.

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