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Nanotechnology – The Next Revolution

In a New York Times article from September 2003, the authors presented the idea of a "Nano Space Elevator" that would allow cheaper, faster and safer trips to space using nanotechnology. In 2003, the U.S. government spent $774 billion on the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Hundreds of new companies have emerged carrying the word "nano" in their name. The newest pants from Eddie Bauer are called "nanopants" and are promised to be both wrinkle and stain resistant. But what is "nanotechnology"? What implications evolve from its development? Where do the dangers lie? What will the effects on the society be?

There are almost as many definitions of nanotechnology as there are institutions dealing with it. In general, however, a distinction is made between two main types of nanotechnology. The National Science Foundation (NSF), most of the US government, and many others define nanotechnology as a "set of tools, techniques and unique applications involving the structure and composition of materials on a nanoscale." ("Nano" stands for "nanometer" which is a billionth of a meter.) The original definition that came from Richard Feynman in 1959 and Eric K. Drexler in 1986, on the other hand, relates to molecular nanotechnology (MNT) and describes a manufacturing method - "the ability to fabricate a wide variety of complex parts with molecular precision" (Chris Phoenix, CRN). Basically, the idea is to be able to build with every molecule in its specified place, much like using LEGO pieces, instead of manufacturing a product from other materials. As soon as personal assemblers or even "nanofactories" are developed, products can be assembled much cheaper and faster than they are now. Although there are not yet many practical applications of MNT, there are several products that already contain materials on the nano-scale, such as in tennis rackets, car parts and semi-conductors. Despite the fact that MNT does not typically receive as much funding as "nanoscale technologies," it is MNT that, as soon as it has advanced far enough, will revolutionize technology and society in general.

Nanotechnology will be omnipresent in everyday life, changing essential aspects of society through its potential effects on developing countries, the environment, medicine and the military.

The effects on developing countries could be tremendous. Clean and abundant energy, medical diagnostics and nanotech water filtration devices would be basic improvements for people in developing countries. According to Eric Werwa, legislative assistant to Congressman Michael Honda, developing countries could compete more easily using nanotech than they do at present, as this "new way of manufacturing [would] not require large factories." But Chris Phoenix, Director of Research and Co-Founder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) doubts that developing countries will be allowed access to this technology, as it will be seen as too dangerous to "afford the possibility of foreign economic competition." Therefore, the question is how to assure that developing countries will benefit more from the nanotechnology revolution than they did from the information revolution.

Nanotechnology will also affect the environment. Some people say that in being able to produce more efficient products, wasting less material, and developing environmental remediation techniques such as "oil-eating nanobots," (see movie "Agent Cody Banks") nanotechnology could be helpful. Others, such as the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group), fear that small nanoparticles will contaminate food and drinking water and ask governments to halt development of nanotechnology. Still others, like Mr. Phoenix, say that although we will be able to produce and live more efficiently, we will want to use more of it. "So more than ever, it will be our choice whether to preserve the environment or trample it."

In the field of medicine, major progress will be made using nanotechnology. Small machines or robots could be implanted in humans to cure all kinds of diseases. Furthermore, physiological immortality is thinkable in the long run, through different methods of cell repair. Having the ability to cure more diseases is almost indubitably seen as a good thing. However, a technology that enables humans to live forever raises ethical questions like the one Mr. Werwa asks: "Do we really want a world where those who can afford the technology can live forever and be always healthy while those who are less fortunate financially cannot enjoy such benefits?" In addition, is it realistic to believe that if the technology existed it would be possible to prevent people from using it?

To estimate the anticipated effect of nanotechnology on military devices, one has only to look at last year's US government spending on nanotechnology. In 2003, almost one-third of the money spent by President Bush's National Nanotechnology Initiative went to the Department of Defense.1 In the short term, the better protection of soldiers through smaller, stronger and more efficient devices built with nanotechnology (for example, better armored uniforms, equipped with sensors to monitor the soldier's health) is the most important goal. But in the long run, Phoenix says, "MNT will be an incredible force multiplier," meaning that new, extremely powerful weapons could be developed. A new arms race, even a pre-emptive strike by the country that develops the first "nano-bomb," is a possible scenario.

Nanotechnology will have a tremendous impact on society. It will not only produce a new "nanotech industry," but will also have impacts on all existing technologies, making them both more efficient and cheaper. There will be as many great benefits (cleaner energy, improved health, etc.) as there will be dangers from misuse (new, stronger weapons, ecological dangers, etc.). In addition, new ethical and moral issues, such as immortality and controlling access, will have to be discussed openly to prepare for nanotechnology's inevitable arrival.

This brief includes interviews with experts and four articles that will present the different perspectives on this issue, as well as three ethical questions that exhibit the scope of this debate. Finally, a list of suggested books, web sites, articles, speakers and movies provide further research on the subject area.

Nikos Nikolidakis, University of Free Berlin, 2003 Fall Intern