"The best way I can describe it is if you close your eyes and dream. You could never be hungry, never be sick, have all the energy you need, all the water, all the food and no diseases. There is no aspect in the world economy or your personal life that is not assumed to be transformed by this new technology."
The amazing development that is supposed to usher in this utopia is nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the molecular and atomic level. But the man who made these wild-eyed, pie-in-the-sky claims was not nanotech prophet Eric Drexler, author of The Engines of Creation, the 1986 book that popularized the concept, and founder of the Foresight Institute, dedicated to working out its implications. Nor was it Neal Stephenson, the visionary science fiction writer who imagined a future transformed by nanotechnology in his 1995 novel The Diamond Age. And it wasn't Richard Smalley, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, director of the Rice University Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and co-discoverer of the novel carbon molecules called nanotubes and fullerenes, whose strength and electronic properties are at the heart of future nanotech applications.
No, the speaker expounding on the wonders of nanotechnology was Roy Pat Mooney, a longtime anti-globalization activist who directs the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC Group). His nanotech vision was part of a talk he gave at a November 2002 conference in the Philippines. The funny thing is that Mooney and his allies want to impose an immediate, comprehensive global moratorium on the development of nanotechnology. That's right: Mooney wants, at a minimum, to delay the arrival of technologies he himself believes could banish hunger, disease, and material want forever.
The ETC Group, which issued its call for a moratorium in a January 2003 report, wants to stop nanotech until "civil society" has a chance to catch up. "In the future," its report declares, "molecular manufacturing poses enormous environmental and social risks and must not proceed -- even in the laboratory -- in the absence of broad societal understanding and assessment." The ETC Group "proposes that governments declare an immediate moratorium on commercial production of new nanomaterials and launch a transparent global process for evaluating the socioeconomic, health and environmental implications of technology." Since "emerging technologies require scientific, socioeconomic, and societal evaluation in order for governments to make informed decisions about their risks/benefits and ultimate value," the group advocates an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies. ETC is not alone in demanding a nanotech moratorium. In an editorial in the September 2003 issue of smalltimes magazine, Greenpeace UK's chief scientist Douglas Parr writes: "Greenpeace has not called for a ban on nanoparticles, but a moratorium until the hazards are characterized and understood."
Mooney and his fellow activists cannot be lightly dismissed. They have been leaders in the largely successful global campaign against plant biotechnology. And Mooney already has the support of major organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation. The prestigious Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation helped organize and pay for a conference on nanotech last year at its headquarters in Uppsala, Sweden. The ETC Group and like-minded activists are backed by a coalition of foundations known as the Funders Working Group on the New Technologies, based in San Francisco. "They have more money to organize against nanotech than we have to promote it," complains Mark Modzelewski, executive director of the NanoBusiness Alliance, an industry group.
The advocates of a nanotech moratorium are apt to find a sympathetic audience among the "nanoethicists" who are emerging as a result of the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The NNI, launched in 2000, has grown to be a $774 million federal program, of which about $28 million has been allocated to study the social implications of nanotechnology. Writing in the February 2003 issue of the journal Nanotechnology, bioethicists from the Joint Center for Bioethics at the University of Toronto note that as nanotech expenditures have increased, so have calls for regulation. "These two trends seem to be on a collision course towards a showdown of the type that we saw with GM [genetically modified] crops," they write. "As the science of NT [nanotechnology] leaps ahead, the ethics lags behind....The ethical issues fall into the areas of equity, privacy, security, environment and metaphysical questions concerning human-machine interactions."
The article concludes: "The call by ETC for a moratorium on deployment of nanomaterials should be a wake up call for NT. The only way to avoid such a moratorium is to immediately close the gap between the science and ethics of NT. The lessons of genomics and biotechnology make this feasible. Either the ethics of NT will catch up, or the science will slow down."
Nanotechnology excites both extravagant hopes and deep fears, sometimes in the same people. While there are grounds for caution, the tremendous promise of nanotechnology will never be realized if we allow fear to rule us and give in to those who insist upon zero risk as a condition of progress. The manageable hazards associated with nanotechnology are small compared to the danger posed by the burgeoning movement to stop its development until all objections have been satisfied.
In congressional testimony on May 12, 1999, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley argued that "the impact of nanotechnology on health, wealth, and the standard of living for people will be at least the equivalent of the combined influences of microelectronics, medical imaging, computer-aided engineering, and man-made polymers in this century." And nanotechnology is coming on fast. "For the first time in history, a technical revolution will approach the abruptness of a political event," writes technology analyst William Atkinson in his 2003 book Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming From the Inconceivably Small. "No one in any age has heard, seen, or felt anything like it. But you will." He adds, "A.D. 2003 will seem antediluvian not in fifty years but in fifteen."
At a recent nanotechnology conference in Washington, D.C., Commerce Undersecretary Philip Bond predicted: "Nanotech will produce materials 100 times stronger than steel with a fraction of the weight. The Library of Congress can be stored in a memory module the size of a sugar cube. Nanotechnology will enable clean, pollution-free manufacturing; do something about global warming; provide a sensurround education; [make] information technology...a utility accessible everywhere; [produce] more-efficient renewable energy; and [offer] bioengineered tissues to replace damaged ones. These predictions are not just pie in the sky....Almost every frustration we deal with in this Vale of Tears will be touched by this technology."
As these predictions suggest, nanotech is not one thing; it is more a conceptual breakthrough than a specific technology. Nanotechnology arises from the insight that it is possible to manufacture objects by placing individual atoms and molecules in precise locations.
A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Ten hydrogen atoms lined up would fit within a nanometer. Our DNA molecules are 2.5 nanometers wide. A typical bacterium, say E. coli, is a thousand times bigger, measuring between 1,000 and 2,000 nanometers, while a virus like the ones that cause the common cold measures around 20 nanometers. The width of the dot above this letter i is approximately 1 million nanometers. From the point of view of the nanocosm, the tiny etchings on our densest microchips are vast highways.
Nanotechnology cuts across every business and industry, from information processing, telecommunications, and computers to industrial materials and pharmaceuticals. Every industry can benefit from smaller, more efficient products. At an April conference sponsored by the National Nanotechnology Initiative, Mihail Roco, the nanotech guru at the National Science Foundation, noted, "Developments in nanotechnology are going much faster than expected; in fact, development time is less than half that we expected." Roco also flatly declared, "If a company does not enter nanotechnology now -- in five years it will be too late -- it will be out of business."
The NanoBusiness Alliance's Modzelewski estimates there are already 1,200 nanotechnology startups in the United States alone, and he predicts that number will double in the next 18 months. Roco, who chairs the National Science and Technology Council's Subcommittee on Nanoscale Science, Engineering, and Technology, points out that 75 percent of the 7,000 or so nanotechnology patents are held by Americans. The budget for the National Nanotechnology Initiative has grown from $270 million in 2000 to $774 million in 2003 and is expected to rise to $850 million next year. According to Roco, private nanotech R&D funding is at least three times the government's spending.