By the middle of the century, the inventor Ray Kurzweil suggests in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, human beings will live in perpetual clouds of nanobots, molecule-sized robots that spend each moment altering our micro-environments to our precise preferences. Over the longer term, he imagines that nanotechnology—the manipulation of matter at the molecular level—will let us change our shape and appearance, become immortal, and transfer our minds with ease between far-flung planets.
By contrast, the thriller writer Michael Crichton describes nanobots running amok in his 2002 novel Prey. With his signature mix of tech savvy and paranoia, Crichton imagines the tiny automatons forming “nanoswarms,” clouds that visually mimic human beings in order to infiltrate and destroy us—sort of microscopic, sentient super-kudzu.
Both our hopes and fears regarding nanotechnology have been extreme from the beginning, if we take as the beginning K. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book Engines of Creation. Drexler, an engineer, described nanotech as the ultimate fulfillment of humanity’s dynamic, self-transforming tendencies: the ability to create whatever we want, whenever we want it, combined with an imperative to take this godlike new power to the stars and turn the universe into our playground. Drexler also described the dark twin of this vision: the “gray goo” scenario. Self-replicating nanobots, which proliferate by turning surrounding matter into copies of themselves, would go out of control, turning the entire Earth into themselves—the most homogeneous imaginable version of the apocalypse. In the words of a technophilic but precaution-prone acquaintance of mine, a computer programmer who has his wristwatch set to alert him if a tsunami approaches Manhattan: “The gray goo scenario should at least give one pause.”
Such disaster fears are already fueling calls for regulation, even with the technology barely out of the cradle. Nanotech-related products will soon account for $2.6 trillion in sales each year, according to a London School of Business/Rice University study. The current applications are concentrated in products that benefit from highly efficient filtering or surface-application processes, such as microchips, car wax, and sunscreen. But down the road, the likely applications include molecule-perfect wound-healing, flawless cleaning processes, quantum computing, far easier bioengineering, much more efficient photon and electrical transfer, and much more. In a June 2007 press release, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, noted that nanotechnology “promises to be the most important innovation since electricity and the internal combustion engine.” At the same time, it called for more testing and oversight, warning that some nanotech applications “might pose substantial risks to human health and the environment.”
Although Consumers Union concedes that “no confirmed cases of harm to humans from manufactured nanoparticles have been reported,” it adds that “there is cause for concern based on several worrisome findings from the limited laboratory and animal research so far.” It worries that particles that are nontoxic at normal sizes may become toxic when nanosized; that these nanoparticles, which are already present in cosmetics and food, can more easily “enter the body and its vital organs, including the brain,” than normal particles; and that nanomaterials will linger longer in the environment. All of this really comes down to pointing out that some particles are smaller than others. Size is not a reliable indicator of potential harm to human beings, and nature itself is filled with nanoparticles. But the default assumption of danger from the new is palpable.
Anti-nanotech sentiment has not been restricted to Consumers Union’s relatively short list of concerns. In France, groups of hundreds of protesters have rallied against even such benign manifestations of the technology as the carbon nanotubules that allow Parkinson’s sufferers to stop tremors by directing medicine to their own brains. In England members of a group called THRONG (The Heavenly Righteous Opposed to Nanotech Greed) have disrupted nanotech business conferences dressed as angels. In 2005 naked protesters appeared in front of an Eddie Bauer store in Chicago to condemn one of the more visible uses of nanotech: stain-resistant pants.
These nanopants employ billions of tiny whiskers to create a layer of air above the rest of the fabric, causing liquids to roll off easily. It’s not quite what Kurzweil and Crichton had in mind, nor is it “little robots in your pants,” as CNN put it. But nanotechnology arguably embraces any item that incorporates engineering at the molecular level, including mundane products like this one.
Just as the nano label can be broadly applied to products for branding and attention-grabbing purposes, so too can critics use the label to condemn barely related developments by linking them to the (still hypothetical) problems of nanopollution and gray goo. But there’s a danger in thinking of nanotech only in god-or-goo terms. People at both extremes of the controversy fail to appreciate the humble, incremental, yet encouraging progress that nanotech researchers are making. And focusing on dramatic visions of nanotech heaven or hell may foster restrictions that delay or block innovations that can extend and improve our lives.
In a Small Country
To get a look at some of the real nanotech re-search, neither divine nor gooey, I went on a junket to one nanotech hotspot, visiting researchers in Glasgow, Dundee, and Edinburgh. (Scottish Enterprise, a public-private economic development agency that promotes international awareness of such researchers and other Scottish ventures, paid for the trip.) I also made a quick visit to the Edinburgh grave of Adam Smith, a reminder that the Scots are proudly, even pugnaciously, entrepreneurial and inventive—“punching above our weight,” as many people in that nation of only 5 million like to put it before rattling off a list of the famous inventors who have come from Scotland.
One of those famous Scots was the 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Today, thanks to nanotech, one of his countrymen may be on the verge of creating a workable version of a system that Maxwell first imagined. “It’s a little bit frustrating when people talk about nanobots and gray goo, because it’s not as exciting as what we’re really going to be able to do,” says Edinburgh University chemist David A. Leigh. Leigh believes nanotech might allow us to create a system physicists call Maxwell’s Demon. With virtually no expenditure of energy, it could sort all the warmer particles of gas in a chamber to one side and all the cold particles to the other. It would be almost like getting heat from thin air, an immense source of energy at virtually no cost. Maxwell recognized that such a process would border on violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states, in essence, that entropy wins in the end, that things tend not to assume a more complex, orderly form unless energy is added to them. Since filtering—a far cry from robotically conquering the world—is what nanoparticles currently do best, Maxwell’s Demon is not such a far-fetched application.
In the meantime, Leigh contents himself with miracles like making water droplets run uphill, thanks to tiny, twisting “motors” created by simple chemical reactions between a few atoms. Similarly, the Livingston-based company Memsstar is creating more efficient surfaces for industrial coatings and wafers by, for instance, finding ways to keep them dry with microscopic gyroscopes. Leigh recognizes that this is “complete sci-fi stuff,” but he suggests it’s a wonder we haven’t made more use of such processes before. “Nature uses molecular machines to do everything…every single biological process,” he says. “We used controlled molecular motion for nothing. Nature isn’t using it for nothing. When mankind learns to make molecular machines, it’s going to change everything.” He expects that revolution within a decade.
Being able to design surfaces at the molecular level increasingly means being able to alter them on cue at the molecular level. “You can make surfaces that change their properties, so you can drag objects toward you just using light,” says Leigh. “One day, you might walk into your house to find that the kids have made some big mess, and you just turn on some lasers that put everything back in place.” After years of using nanotech for micro-level processes such as more efficiently sorting chemicals, Leigh says, his water droplet stunt “showed that you could use microscopic machines to do things in the real world, the big world.”
The staff of Leigh’s Edinburgh lab, perhaps as a reminder to remain humble, has put up a poster of actor/singer David Hasselhoff that reads, “ ‘I tried to save the world and I forgot to save myself.’ —The Hoff.” Leigh is mindful that for all our fantasies of transforming the outside world, our own bodies are an important locus of nanotech potential. “Nature carries cargo throughout the cells using molecular machines,” he says, and that opens up all sorts of possibilities for manipulating the system.
Medical uses offer some of the most immediate benefits of improved molecular manipulation. Adam Curtiss, a professor of cell biology at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Cell Engineering, has shown that by restructuring molecules on the surface of stem cells—just altering the roughness of the surface, without making chemical or biological changes—scientists can determine what sort of tissue the cells will grow into. Scott Wilson, a senior project manager with Scottish Enterprise, enthuses that nanotech may soon allow the easy transfer of signals between wires and nerves. That could be useful in many cybernetic and medical devices, such as more versatile prostheses. A step farther removed from the human body, ArrayJet, a company based in the Midlothian town of Dalkeith, is quietly improving the quality of scientists’ microscope slides by using inkjet-like technology to place samples on them with unprecedented accuracy. Meanwhile, the Intermediary Technology Institutes in Glasgow, taking a page from the comic book character Wolverine with his adamantium-plated skeleton, are studying potential reinforcement coatings for osteoporosis-ravaged bones.
In the past people were content simply to imagine such things, says Brendan Casey, chief executive of the Glasgow-based company Kelvin Nanotechnologies, but now “people expect delivery.” Delivery, in the case of Casey’s company, means fabricating materials in an ultramodern, stray-particle-free “clean room” in an old Victorian building at the University of Glasgow (where, Casey says, you become very adept at recognizing people in their jumpsuits and hoods). Sometimes clients know precisely what materials they need, he says, while other times they’ll say, “I’m not even sure if this is possible, but can you do this for me?”