Even if Drexler is wrong, nanotechnology will have far-reaching impacts

What are the possible impacts of nanotechnology? The answer you get depends on which of nanotechnology’s warring camps you ask. On the negative side, the supporters of Drexler paint a chilling picture of economies dislocated, overwhelming military hegemony for the technology’s developers, and at worst global catastrophe. The nanotechnology mainstream in science and business doesn’t accept that Drexler’s vision is feasible; given this there’s a tendency in these circles to downplay the seriousness of nanotechnology’s potential negative consequences. In this, quite widespread, view, there may be some worries about the toxicity of nanoparticles to be investigated, but by and large we can expect business as usual. I think both views are wrong.

As I’ve made clear in many places, I doubt that Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology will come to pass. But when we come to discuss the impacts that nanotechnology might have, this matters less than one might think. I disagree with the analysis of Drexlerian groups like the Centre for Responsible Nanotechnology on many economic grounds as well as scientific ones, but there are a surprising number of places where I think that what they predict as impacts of Drexlerian nanotechnology will happen anyway. In fact, quite a few of these impacts are underway right now.

The debate about the social consequences of nanotechnology is becoming polarised in exactly the same way as the technical debate. This is unhealthy and unnecessary; many of the impacts of technology are independent of the precise form that the technology takes. If computing power, in 30 years, is much cheaper and much more ubiquitous than it is now, then the social consequences that follow from that don’t depend on whether those computers are powered by molecular electronics, quantum computing or Drexler’s rod logic.

Nanobusiness and nanoscientists need to raise themselves above their next grant proposal and funding round and start to think through the ways in which nanotechnology will be changing the world on a 20-30 years timescale. Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future (to quote Niels Bohr). But we do need to be thinking about bigger issues than how to regulate the disposal of nanotube enabled tennis rackets, important though it is to get those things right. The development of ubiquitous and ambient computing, the blurring of the line between human and machine; these are big issues that do deserve attention. And on the positive side, it’s going to be increasingly difficult to sell the huge outlays of taxpayers money by referring to the benefits of better cosmetics, important markets though those are. It’s not as though humanity isn’t facing some big challenges, and nanotechnology, if directed appropriately, could make some big positive impacts. Moving to a sustainable energy economy is one of our biggest challenges, and this is an area in which Richard Smalley has been rightly emphasising the transformational contributions incremental and evolutionary nanotechnologies can make .

Meanwhile, followers of Drexler are in danger of finding themselves in denial about the potential impact of ordinary, evolutionary nanotechnology, because of their devotion to their brand of nanotechnology’s one true path. As they continue to insist that the development of true nanotechnology is being thwarted for short-sighted political reasons, they may overlook the far-reaching changes that evolutionary nanotechnology will bring. It would be ironic if, in thirty years, the Drexlerites find themselves still waiting for a revolution that’s already happened.

4 thoughts on “Even if Drexler is wrong, nanotechnology will have far-reaching impacts”

  1. Would you agree that a number of the issues being raised by the potential impact of nanotechnology seem desperate for comparison with the field of nuclear physics of the 1940s and 50s. From the abstract theoretical work of Rutherford through to Meitner and Frisch to the very public applications. With the practical development of nuclear reactor technology, there became a public hype equivalent to that which now surrounds nanotechnology. And just as with nanotechnology today it wasnt the nuclear science that was to be feared, it was the application. Ask anyone today Is Nuclear Technology to be feared and the answer is yes, because of the bomb, one application out of thousands. But these bombs are an application of nuclear science, and should be feared as such, nuclear science shouldnt be feared but the potential applications. The same applies to nanotechnology; it isnt the nanoscience or the nanotechnology itself that should be feared but the potential applications.
    Do you believe that even with the best intentions, scientists working in the field of nanotechnology will never be able to prevent all the potentially dangerous applications from one day emerging into the public domain, much like the transition from nuclear technology only being accessible to the combined talents of the great physicists in the Manhattan project, to now being available to any well funded terrorist organisation or unfriendly state.

  2. The comparison with nuclear physics is interesting but there are, I think, important differences. To name two, nuclear physics was a much more tightly defined subject than nanotechnology, making it much more clear what the important issues were likely to be. Secondly, I think it was much easier in the case of nuclear physics to sustain a difference between the pure and applied branches of the subject. One of the most interesting cultural aspects of the growth of nanotechnology has been that even in the most academic centres, nanotechnology has always been developed with applications in mind (even if the academics’ views of what a practical application might be have not always been realistic). In this sense, I don’t think we can identify any subject which we could call “pure” nanotechnology.

    But the last part of your comment is absolutely right; scientists won’t be able to prevent dangerous applications from emerging simply because it is so difficult to anticipate all possible applications.

  3. I think the main impact of “nanotech” (which ever flavor you think possible) will be the reduction in cost of most manufactured products. This is already happening with electronic goodies (TVs, PCs, music systems, etc.). This same progression is likely to happen in biomedical and normal manufactured products as well (cars, houses, etc.). I don’t think this means that everything will be free, just low cost.

    More and more of the economy will be based on services and leisure (travel, entertainment).

    In essence, “nanotech” is simply a continuation of current economic and technological trends by other means. Its more evolutionary than revolutionary.

    I also think that “wet” nanotech (the stuff thats doable) will ultimately do 80-90% of what the proponents of “dry” nanotech talk about.

Comments are closed.