Nano In Brief By Gina Miller June 11, 2003
Nanotechnology is an emerging science, meaning there are nanoscale products that have already been developed but there are potential future applications that would revolutionize the world that society lives in. Nanotechnology was first highlighted by physicist Richard Feynman in his 1959 talk at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman suggested that we begin to think about manipulating atoms "we can arrange the atoms the way we want; the very atoms, all the way down! What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them". In 1986 MIT engineering graduate K. Eric Drexler published the book Engines Of Creation which described the unbelievable applications of nanotechnology and brought the topic to a controversial forefront.
Nanotechnology is a scale or size much in the way that micro technology is thought of. A nano meter is a thousand times smaller than a micro meter. Three to five atoms fit inside of one nanometer. A nanometer is so small that not just any microscope can be used to see and work at this level, but only special types of microscopes, called scanning probe microscopes. While nanotechnology is already being used in fabrics, sunscreen and other materials, Drexler's nanotechnology has the goal of being able to build with molecules to make systems of molecular machines.
Drexlerian nanotech suggests that with molecular machines it would be possible to build almost anything that could be imagined that the laws of physics allow. This would mean that molecules could be arranged into any pattern desired. Engineers would be able to design and build machines that would be every bit as intricate as the marvelous machinery of living cells. This would bring about invisible microscopic machines that could roam inside the human body to repair cells damaged by disease or aging.
Super strong materials, invisible computers, and pollution free manufacturing. These machines could make copies of themselves as cheaply as a tree grows, and would in fact, assemble themselves to build larger structures. This low cost would mean that people could live a high standard of living without environmental strain.
During the President Clinton's second term the National Nanotechnology Initiative was established providing close to 400 million dollars to fund nanotechnology research. In April, 2003 at the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee meeting experts witnesses were called to discuss the risks and benefits of nanotechnology as part of a proposed bill to increase nanotechnology funding. There are major risks involved with nanotechnology. Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems has expressed his fear of the dreaded gray goo scenario in which self replicating nanobots take over the world and eat it up. The recent release of the science fiction book Prey by Michael Crichton plays into this fear. To avoid any nasty complications policy, security and safety guards would have to be implemented.
A technology this powerful would cause many social changes and disruptions so it is to be expected that people will have fears. The challenge will be to foster this technology responsibly so that society can gain the benefits and avoid the potential problems. In the past as new advances have been made with technology there has been fear of change. When the personal computer began it's rise, there was controversy and speculation that computers would take over the world and there would be no need for living teachers by the year 1985. That year has passed and the forecast has not come true. Of course there are glitches with computer use, privacy and security issues. Laws and society are learning to adapt to the new technology. Society is willing to make the changes, because it is believed that the benefits are worth it. The same would be true for nanotechnology. Disease, hunger and chemical pollution becoming non existent through the use of nanotechnology would be worth the education and new policy regulations required.