Nano Technology : why it matters and why we should be concerned

Nano Technology : why it matters and why we should be concerned

By Nigel Cameron
Executive Chairman, BioCentre

Even allowing for the hype with which the more enthusiastic advocates, and more astringent critics, of nanotechnology have pressed their respective cases, there does not seem to be any "perhaps" about it: The technological revolution that will result from the driving down of discovery, invention, and engineering to the nanoscale is set not only to reframe every sector of industry, and to raise profound questions for our notions of privacy and defence, but potentially (and disturbingly) to threaten the human project itself. As so often, there is a thin line separating promise and threat.

Is Nanotechnology a Technology?

1. The essential question that needs to be noted is of course that "nanotechnology" is not a "technology" like others. The reference of the term is to scale, and it is already used to embrace everything from particulate matter to dramatic innovations such as carbon nanotubes and nanoshells -- to the prospect of "molecular nanotechnology," the code-word for Eric Drexler's futuristic vision of molecular "assemblers" (celebrated in different ways in Neil Stephenson's fine 1995 novel The Diamond Age and Michael Crichton's more recent thriller Prey, and resembling nothing less than the achievement of a new alchemy). While molecular nanotechnology has not so far been considered for funding by the US National Nanotechnology Initiative, a change in policy is one of the more interesting (and bizarre?) recommendations of the National Research Council's Congressionally-mandated triennial review (just published).

The focus on scale is one reason why discussions of nanotechnology have been bedevilled by the lack of a generally-accepted definition of the term (must the scale apply to one dimension, or more? What is the relevancy of nanoscale particulate matter? One phrase widely used by the National Science Foundation in grant offerings focuses on "active nanostructures and nanosystems"). It is to be hoped that the several standards agencies will soon resolve this among other definitional questions.

In fact, the term "nanotechnology" has begun to function less as the name of a particular technology than as that of a brand. While it may simply die out at some future point (when so much is done on the nanoscale that the term becomes redundant), the several elements of risk already present in particular applications of the technology have this added: that they are linked together by powerful branding. The recent German "Magic Nano" scare (a bathroom cleaner sent people to hospital, though it would seem it was no more nano than it was magic) offered a welcome reminder of the problems that this brand development may cause (especially in the post-GMO market-place well-known to Europeans, though surprisingly little-known even to well-informed US observers).

Public Science under Scrutiny

2. At the same time, we may note changing patterns and needs at the interface of public funding, research, and industry that are focused by developments in nanotechnology. They are not of course specific to nano, though the high levels of directed nano spending that have in some measure resulted from the hyped claims of enthusiasts have themselves drawn the attention of policymakers to issues of product development and, relatedly, claims of specific beneficial applications (such as the US National Cancer Institute's claim, extraordinary by any account, that by 2015 cancer will be at worst a chronic condition). Policymakers are aware that the last great public science project - the mapping of the human genome - has not led to the kind of clinical applications that had been forecast. It is inevitable that as budgets come under increasing pressure - especially for demographic and healthcare reasons - research expenditures will tend to be tied more closely to outcomes.

Those in the academy will find this unpalatable, but it may be that the massive post-War expansion of public science (associated in the US especially with the work of Vannevar Bush), while in no danger of ending, may be expected to shift more of its resources to focused outcomes. The comparatively recent ability of university researchers to profit from their IP, while it has proved to have merit, may finally prove to have helped destabilize the public science model. In democracies in which increasing expenditures and hopes are being directed at publicly-funded science, the post-War model of government as VC of last resort (dramatically illustrated by current nanotechnology initiatives, especially in the US, European and Japan) may take on new forms, one of which may prove to be a creeping dirigisme.

A parallel concern is presented by the problem of hyped claims and expectations: as Nobelist Sir Paul Nurse noted of the NCI 2015 claim in a recent issue of the New Yorker, when this promise fails (as, he suggested, it surely will) public confidence in public science will be undermined. This, like other highly specific future claims being made (in the US, by some leaders of the National Science Foundation) could threaten the entire public-science model (there is even a book - a long book - with the title Nano-Hype). If it is the case, as some of us believe, that issues of science and technology policy will become increasingly prominent in the politics of the next generation, much will depend on our capacity to reshape the post-War model in ways that are not deleterious to the interests of long-term research.

A Nano-Divide?

3. One of the greatest uncertainties about the impact of nano may be simply put: Will the nano revolution enhance globalisation and flatten the planet further, or will the so-called "nano-divide" result in a further accretion of competitive advantage to existing industrial powers and a heightening of present global inequities of income and opportunity? I was recently taking part in an international workshop on the societal implications of the technology; someone made the point - often made on these occasions - that we may soon have nanoscale technology solutions for the problem of clean water, with the prospect of an end to one of the grimmest of all global inequities. The more naïve nano-implication discussions tend to take this form. My response was that (a) the provision of clean water is a policy issue for the developed nations: with political will it could be resolved in large measure now; and (b) what if the researcher who comes up with the magic bullet decides to exercise his or her IP rights and squats on the patent for 20 years? Technology contributes to solutions; it does not generally provide them. Whether this technology levels the globe or leads to further orogenesis is entirely unclear; as things stand, immigrant researchers notwithstanding, it is likely to develop in the existing social and economic context and strengthen rather than subvert the status quo. Which is not to suggest that we should work for subversion, but to draw attention to the need to develop approaches that transcend, and not rely on "technology" to solve our problems of political will and social responsibility.

Grey Goo, Transhumanists, and other Threats

4. No nano discussion is complete without reference to the so-called "grey goo" scenario (in which molecular-scale machines run out of control and end up turning the planet into, well, goo). This scenario was popularised by Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy in his (in)famous and remarkable essay in the April, 2000 issue of Wired, "Why the Future doesn't need us." Alongside the "grey goo" scenario he posited another, which many of us found more convincing and certainly more troubling: that artificial intelligence will either create superior beings who will become our masters, or that we will "enhance" our intelligence using a machine model in which our essential humanity is left behind. The emergence of "transhumanists" (sci-fi enthusiasts, some with serious intellectual credentials) who believe our prime task is to transform ourselves into a post-human form of existence, has had the effect of adding further risk to the nano "brand" (since they claim it as their own).


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