I May Be Small But I'm Also Little

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New at Reason: Think small, says Ron Bailey, and consider how transformative nanotechnology may be.

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  1. I think we need a better definition of “nanotechnology” to start with. Like the word “digital”, it looks like it’s getting misused by people trying to sell stuff. Some of them seem to think it just means “really small stuff”, in which case, I already wash my dishes with nanotechnology, because detergent molecules are pretty small. Uh-oh, better make sure the soap doesn’t take over the world! (Hmm – “gray goo” == that scum in the bottom of the soap dish?)

  2. I think nano-tech really means assembling machines, motors, or stuff at the atomic level.

    I can hardly wait to have a car that weighs 100 pounds, yet is stronger than a brick wall.

  3. Shane, good luck driving that thing on the ice!

  4. Excellent article. Already had me wondering the implications on my career field (programming/database admin). Of course, that’d be largely moot, since I don’t live in India now.

  5. Good article, Ron.

    I’m getting my Ph.D in physics, and some of my work is related to nanotechnology. My brief take on the 3 categories of concerns are as follows:

    1) Health risk of small particulates: I work with small particulates all the time. It’s already known that small particulates can cause lung damage, so people already take lots of precautions with small particulates. Of course, as new particles are developed it makes sense to do a little work to find out if new particles pose additional hazards, but those types of studies are done all the time for all sorts of substances, so as long as one proceeds with care and common sense there’s nothing to get bent out of shape over, and certainly nothing intrinsic to nanotechnology.

    2) Nanobots taking over the world: Still sci-fi. Incredibly unlikely to ever happen. Right now this is a field where speculation and hand-wringing is out-pacing innovation. If the rate of innovation ever outstrips the rate of ethical development, maybe (just maybe) I’ll worry. But I think we’re about as likely to see the world taken over by the black oily alien substance from the X-Files.

    3) Dramatic improvements in prosperity and technology causing massive social disruption: This concern has been with us since some really smart ape figured out how to make tools. Of course, some say that nanotech is a much more extreme version of that concern, but I like what Bart Kosko said about fuzzy engineering (a field that uses “fuzzy” algorithms so machines can make decisions based on the data they encounter in complex situations). He said that if fuzzy engineering yielded all of its benefits in one day, the world would be disastrously turned upside down and it would suck. But technologies inevitably take time, not only time to develop but also time to permeate the market. And as new technologies permeate the market over time, people cope. They find new jobs, they create new jobs, they get used to new lifestyles, whatever.

    Anyway, I like the way that Ron put the fears to rest. Good article.

  6. I’m amused at the whines of those who fear nanomercantilism. Should such a process come about, how long would it take for some slashdotters to release their own GPL’d versions of various useful products? Or for hackers to create nano-warez?

  7. From Ron’s article:
    …nanotech is not one thing; it is more a conceptual breakthrough than a specific technology…(it)cuts across every business and industry, from information processing, telecommunications, and computers to industrial materials and pharmaceuticals.

    Which is why a moratorium or other government restrictions would be so harmful to the material progress of human kind. Throughout history, crucial technological innovations have oftened waxed and waned in reaction to the heavy hand of the state. Soviet agriculture was tragically throttled because the Commies decided that Mendelian genetics did not jive with the Marxist line.

    Not too much time went by between the time the Salk polio vaccine was found to be efficacious and when it went it to market. How sad it would have been had we had ,back then , the kind of FDA engendered delays in bringing a drug to market that we have now.

    Merry Christmas everyone!

  8. Oops! This is why I’m not an engineer, but a curious onlooker. 😉

  9. EMAIL: master-x@canada.com
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    DATE: 02/27/2004 10:40:38
    Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.

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