Nanotechnology: Hell or Heaven?

Perhaps a little bit of both


When it comes to the possibilities of nanotechnology, it can be hard to know what to expect: glittering visions of abundance and long, healthy life spans; fears of out-of-control world-destroying devices, pervasive surveillance tyrannies, and devastating nanotech wars; or maybe all of the above. The Foresight Institute's First Conference on Advanced Nanotechnology held last week across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., offered hope, fear, and audacious scenarios for the future.

First, the fabulous visions. Sociologist Bryan Bruns, a research associate at the Foresight Institute, talked about "Applying Nanotechnology to the Challenges of Global Poverty." Some 2.7 billion of our fellow human beings now live on less than $2 per day, with 1.1 billion of them living on less than $1 per day. Two billion have no access to electricity.

To illustrate what nanotech progress might do for the world's poor, Bruns imagined a potential Whole Earth Catalog for 2025, loaded with nanotech devices. He found low energy ultra-efficient water filtration systems that could purify any contaminated or saline water into fresh water suitable for drinking or irrigation. (An earlier presentation by Gayle Pergamit described a water filtration system using nanopore membranes now being developed by Aguavia, in which a six-inch cube of membranes could purify 100,000 gallons of water a day.)

Even the world's poorest could shop this 2025 catalog for cheap solar roofing panels. The sturdy plastic panels are composed of "failsoft" nanocells that automatically reroute electric flows if the panels are cut, nailed, or damaged. As evidence that such panels are possible, Bruns cited the work of Konarka, a company developing cheap solar panels that come in rolls like Saran Wrap.

This 2025 catalog would also offer "comsets"—extremely powerful energy-sparing computers that would fit entirely inside the frames of eyeglasses or in jewelry. The comsets would come complete with 120 courses for learning different skills.

Nanoclinics will be a popular choice in 2025 for those living far from hospitals and doctors. Nanoclinics the size of suitcases, powered by those cheap solar panels, will contain a full range of diagnostics and therapeutics, along with preventive and restorative treatments.

"Turn trash into treasure," reads the 2025 catalog copy for nanorefineries that can break down any unwanted consumer items, sewage sludge, and any other waste. The nanorefineries could be linked directly to nanofabs to provide feedstocks for producing new consumer goods.

Chris Phoenix, director of research for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, talked about "Clean Molecular Manufacturing," whose slogan could be "No Atom Left Behind." Nanotech manufacturing means doing chemistry mechanically—building products with each atom precisely placed, in which all molecular bonds are strong enough to survive at room temperature. Phoenix also believes that nanotech manufacturing will tend to use the lighter elements, such as nitrogen and carbon, at the top of the periodic table. Consequently nanotech products will be less toxic and easy to recycle. You could, for example, just burn your laptop to dispose of it cleanly.

Molecular computers produced by nanotech manufacturing will be one million times smaller than today's; motors could be just 50 nanometers across. (A nanometer is about the length of ten hydrogen atoms lined up.) These fabrication miracles will be achieved through autoproductive manufacturing. A nanotech factory can build new factories, leading to exponential increases in manufacturing capability in very short order.

Phoenix foresees the computing power of today's Earth Simulator available in a cubic millimeter run on two watts of electricity. Nanomaterials will be 100 times stronger than steel, making possible the 10-pound airplane, yacht, and car. (For comparison, a hang glider today typically weighs 60 pounds.) "This sounds outrageous," said Phoenix, "But it's completely plausible."

In a presentation on "The Top Ten Impacts of Molecular Manufacturing," Phoenix predicted that products made using a mature molecular nanotechnology would cost $1 per pound to make. After nanotech factories hit their stride, molecular manufacturing will provide more manufacturing capacity than all the world's factories offer today. We will see the advent of cheap solar power and cheap energy storage, and inconceivably cheap high-powered computers the size of wristwatches. The components needed to put a kilogram of material into orbit would fit inside of a suitcase. Nanotechnology would make it possible for 100 billion people to live sustainably at a modern American standard of living, while indoor agriculture using high-efficiency inflatable ten-pound diamond greenhouses would help restore the world's ecology. The ultimate limit to economic growth seems to be heat pollution, the waste energy radiated away from nanotech devices.

According to Robert Freitas, the medical nanotech guru at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing, not only will nanotechnology provide us with a lot of cool stuff and eliminate global poverty, it will also help us live a really long time. In his lecture on "Nanomedicine and Medical Nanorobotics," Freitas predicted that we would see in the next five years biologically active nanoparticles used as diagnostic sensors. He also described a project at the University of Michigan to use tecto-dendrimers, complex tree shaped molecules that could be designed to simultaneously sense and destroy cancer cells.

But Freitas' vision and true passion is medical nanorobots. He has designed respirocytes composed of 18 billion precisely arranged atoms, consisting of a shell of sapphire with an onboard computer. It will be embedded with rotors to sort oxygen from carbon dioxide molecules. These respirocytes would be able to hold oxygen at 100,000 atmospheres of pressure. Just five cc's of respirocytes, 1/1000th the volume of the body's 30 trillion oxygen and carbon dioxide carrying red blood cells, could supply enough oxygen to keep alive for four hours a person whose heart had stopped.

The nanotech future sketched above sounds truly glorious. But nanotech dystopia also beckons.

After all, the Foresight Institute was primarily established not to celebrate the advent of nanotechnology, but to address concerns about the possible catastrophic misuse of it. The dystopic nanotech vision was summed up by the problem of "gray goo," in which nanotech self-replicators either escape or are deliberately released and convert the entire biosphere into copies of themselves in a matter of days.

However, nanotech savants like Eric Drexler at Foresight and Chris Phoenix no longer believe that efficient molecular manufacturing will involve self-replicating nanobots. Instead they foresee self-contained desktop nanofabs under the complete control of operators. They would function somewhat like photocopiers do today—producing copies of products on demand from various feedstocks supplied by operators.

Still, it would be surprising if such a powerful suite of technologies couldn't be used for ill as well as for good. Chris Phoenix worried about tensions between consumers and corporations since "the value of nanotech products is 1000 times greater than their manufacturing costs." Evidently, he believes that corporations will try to push the prices of their products up to obtain super high profits. As a corollary, Phoenix thinks that this will lead, at least initially, to higher concentrations of wealth.

Unless there is just one super powerful corporation with sole access to and complete control over nanofabs, this scenario seems highly implausible. Competition between firms will drive down prices as it always has. If nanofabs build themselves and are as general purpose as nanotech boosters believe they will be, inventors will likely just give them away, and economics based on scarcity and rationing by prices will disappear. How the economy will be structured once material scarcity disappears cannot now be known, but a post-manufacturing, post-job economy will certainly not be dominated by giant corporations.

I suspect that human needs for status, hierarchy, and competition will move away from the economic arena to art, scientific research, and politics. For example, handmade items, e.g., paintings and genetically modified orchids, will become much more expensive relative to consumer goods like cars and computers. Bryan Bruns foresees the growth of an "experience economy" in which novel experiences, not mere objects, will be sought after.

Nanotechnology begets more worrisome concerns in the area of civil liberties and human rights. Phoenix notes that nanotech enables the creation of cheap ubiquitous sensors for surveillance. Imagine the East German Stasi with microscopic television cameras in every home, office, car, and on every piece of your clothing.

Phoenix also notes, "Any unrestricted nanofactory could become a WMD factory." (A restricted nanofactory would be one that can produce only certified pre-programmed designs.) In a nano world, it would be incredibly hard to find out what other countries are doing and/or verifying treaty commitments when it comes to weapons. The temptation to pre-empt a possible attack by launching yours first may become irresistible.

Small high-performance nanoproducts could also aid in freelance criminal attack and spying. In the future you might receive a call in which a voice tells you, "I have embedded something near your heart. Wire some money to this Swiss bank account or else I'll kill you in an hour."

Brad Templeton, the chair of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, talked about "The Automation of Good and Evil," discussing privacy concerns raised by nanotech. The future will likely see cheap ubiquitous sensors using micropower supplies linked to cheap ubiquitous networks in both private and public hands. Surveillance might be undetectable because, instead of using radio or laser pulses to send out information, the sensors might just crawl out of your house or office to be collected by their operators.

Templeton doesn't believe laws can stop such surveillance, though perhaps there might be a nanotech arms race between would-be watchers and those seeking to guard their privacy. Perhaps social conventions would evolve so that people simply don't watch one another in certain circumstances. He did point out that surveillance by oppressors has never been a complete success (though nanotech seems to offer a technical solution that allows unprecedented ubiquity).

Is there any way to manage such possible nanothreats? The Foresight Institute has been devising guidelines for the safe development of nanotech. The Institute released its new 4.0 Version of the guidelines earlier this year. One of the chief guidelines is that the creation and use of self-replicating systems should generally be avoided.

Phoenix evidently believes (or perhaps just hopes) that concerted, planned human foresight can maximize benefits and minimize risks. However, our species' record for the type of long-range planning Phoenix implies we need frankly sucks. Even with the devoted efforts of a bunch of really smart people like those at the Foresight conference, it's not likely to get much better. "The alternative is to accept drastic change that we can neither predict nor change," declares Phoenix. That's been true for all of human history and it's not going to change for the nano-bio-info-cognitive technological era now dawning.

The hopeful news is that while technological advances could in fact make humanity worse off, that has not been our record so far. Every technological advance has produced downsides, but so far the benefits have far outweighed the risks. It's my bet that that will also be true of nanotechnology. We are unlikely to descend to nanotech hell. But it is probably inevitable that some of us will be scorched by a bit of nanotech hellfire as we ascend to nanotech heaven.