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The potential of nanotechnology

The potential of nanotechnology is nigh infinite, with possibilities in such fields as construction, engineering and medicine. For some, it holds fantastic promise for augmenting the human anatomy, realizing the transhumanist dreams of many futurists. Nanotechnology is a collective term used to refer to those technologies that are a result of the convergence of various disciplines of engineering which enable scientists to manipulate matter on a microscopic scale.

Those who advocate nanotechnology differ on how soon it will become commonplace, with predictions ranging from the next two decades to the next half-century. Regardless of the time frame in which nanotechnology becomes commonplace, its emergence, Alex Steffen opines, is “likely to be as disruptive as the … Industrial Revolution. ” This disruptive potential is precisely why it is important to give critical thought as to how nanotechnology can be applied responsibly. Steffen charges that simply opposing the technology – whether on moral grounds or ethical ones – would be a mistake.

Furthermore, as the possibilities of nanotechnology begin to get recognized by governments and corporations, it will be important for their various implications to be distinguished properly. As Cascio notes, “not all nanotechnologies are alike. ” The most well-recognized risk presented by nanotechnology is the grey goo doomsday scenario. Based on the popular image of nanotechnology by engineer and nanotech theorist Eric Drexler, the grey goo threat supposes that self-replicating nanomachines consume resources and terrain to drive this replication, in a perpetual cycle that results in a terminal destruction of the environment.

It’s been argued by some that designing a grey goo nanomachine is unlikely due to the inherent impracticality of the design, as nano-construction designs will most likely turn towards nanofactories: “So-called grey goo could only be the product of a deliberate and difficult engineering process, not an accident […] Far more serious is the possibility that a large-scale and convenient manufacturing capacity could be used to make incredibly powerful non-replicating weapons in unprecedented quantity.

This could lead to an unstable arms race and a devastating war. ”(Phoenix & Drexler 869-872) Still, it is a concern that maintains currency in discussions of nanotechnology. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology maintains that the grey goo risk will lie not within the corners of unregulated military and commercial designs, but rather as a terrorist tool for blackmail as “cleaning up a single grey goo outbreak would be quite expensive and might require severe physical disruption of the area of the outbreak.

” Grey goo could also result from irresponsible hobbyist design, a risk comparable to catastrophic viruses designed by benign yet careless software virus hobbyists. Another risk outlined by the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is that nanotechnologies have potential in criminal and terrorist activities. The same properties which enable improvements to medical treatment and diagnosis can be applied to the development of chemical and biological weapons, as well as making them much easier to conceal.

Nanotechnology could also be used for the purposes of remote assassination, allowing individuals or groups to be targeted with greater precision but at a scale that is much more difficult to detect. Even security regulations would be difficult to implement without a geographically broad installation of detection technologies: “If nanofactory-built weapons were available from a black market or a home factory, it would be quite difficult to detect them before they were launched; a random search capable of spotting them would almost certainly be intrusive enough to violate current human rights standards.

” (CRN 2008) Even the most benevolent nanotechnology designs carry risks of their own. With regards to their application in medicine, a particular area of concern lies in the realm of toxicity. Garber notes that this concern is twofold: First, by operating on the molecular scale, any possible oversights in the development of nanomedicinal technology could interfere with the human body’s biochemical processes.

Health and environmental problems also pose a dilemma to nanomedicine’s future: Whatever the diagnostic or therapeutic application of nanotechnology, designers must confront is the need to design nano particles that can remain safely within the human body without any harm or side effect, if not dissipate safely into the environment without any adverse effects on ecology or other individuals. Jamais Cascio argues that many of the risks which arise from nanotechnological applications such as those outlined above are not entirely novel.

Rather, the problems facing a nanotech future are not entirely new risk scenarios, but familiar ones occurring on an exponentially accelerated level: “It’s not that we don’t know how to deal with toxic particles or readily-obtained weapons; it’s that we’ve never lived in a world in which the particles could result from such a wide variety of common products, and the weapons could be so hard to detect and yet so powerful. […] What nano-scale engineering, […] does is to make those risks happen much more swiftly, more cheaply, more easily, and in greater abundance.

The core lesson we need to learn has less to do with how to respond to individual threats than with how to grapple with an environment in which the threats arise [sic] orders of magnitude more quickly than ever before. ” Despite these risks, it would be unwise to rule out the future potential of nanotechnology entirely. While they provide significant cause for concern, the best strategy to respond to such concerns is the use of responsible engagement to help craft effective social policies and legal frameworks to address their inevitable emergence.

Brand opines that opposing and outlawing emerging and controversial technologies leaves them entirely in the hands of those less likely to properly subject them to scrutiny. As such, the proper place of questioning nanotechnology is to ensure that policies of transparency and responsibility are used to regulate them. (Brand 2005, Treder 2008) Like geo-engineering and GMOs, nanotechnology is better approached from the perspective of critical engagement.

Technologies ripple beyond the confines of national borders now, especially when a college professor 8,000 miles away can unleash a discovery that can be in your hands in 48 hours, and render decades of government technological policies obsolete. The best way to regulate suspect technology is to embrace its inevitable emergence, lest it remain solely with proponents who find nothing questionable about it. (Steffen, 2007) Speaking in more concrete and geo-political terms: even if First World countries decide to oppose nanotechnology, this would do nothing to address the way by which they would emerge in other countries.

Environmental purists might oppose the use of nanotechnology, but this would not prevent its adoption by those who don’t, and towards questionable ends. Without a unilateral consensus on the potential of nano technology and geo engineering, the future will hold the same level of uncertainty that has mired technologies of the past.

Works Cited

Steffen, Alex. “Regulating Nanotechnology and Designing the NGOs of the Future. ” Worldchanging. 29 January 2007. Retrieved on November 13, 2008 from: http://www. worldchanging. com/archives//005910. html

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