Unbounding the Future:
the Nanotechnology Revolution
Safety, Accidents, and
Some truisms: Almost any technology is subject to
use, misuse, abuse, and accidents. The more powerful a technology
is when properly used, the worse it is likely to be when abused.
Any powerful technology in human hands can be the subject of
manufacturing will be no exception. Indeed, if molecular
manufacturing replaces modern industry, and if its
nanotechnological products replace most modern technologies, then
most future accidents will have to involve nanotechnology.
Another truism: In a diverse, competitive world,
any reasonably-inexpensive technology with enormous commercial,
medical, and military applications will almost surely be
developed and used. It is hard to envision a scenario (short of
the collapse of civilization) in which nanotechnology will not
make its appearance; it seems inevitable. If so, then its
problems, however tough, must be dealt with.
Like trucks, aircraft, biotechnology, rockets,
computers, boots, and warm clothes, nanotechnology has the
potential for both peaceful and aggressive uses. In peaceful uses
(by definition), harm to people occurs either by accident or as
an unintended consequence. In aggressive uses, harm is
deliberate. In a peaceful context, the proper question to ask is Can
fallible people of goodwill, pursuing normal human purposes, use
nanotechnology in a way that reduces risk and harm to others?
In an aggressive, military context, the proper question to ask is
Can we somehow keep the peace? Our answer to the first
will be a clear yes, and to the second, an apprehensive maybe.
Throughout this discussion, we assume that most
people will be alert in matters concerning their personal safety,
and that some will be alert in matters concerning world safety.
During the 1970s, people awakening to the new large-scale,
long-term problems of technology often felt isolated and
powerless. They naturally felt that technology was out of their
control, in the hands of shortsighted and irresponsible groups.
Today, there are still battles to be fought, but the tide has
turned. When a concern arises regarding a new, obvious
technology, it is now much easier to get a hearing in the media,
in the courts, and in the political arena. Improving these
mechanisms for social vigilance and the political control of
technology is an important challenge. Current mechanisms are
imperfect, but they can still give a big push in the right
Though we assume alertness, alertness can be a
scarce resource. The total amount of concern and energy available
for focusing on long-term problems is so limited that it must be
used carefully, not squandered on problems that are trivial or
illusory. Part of our aim in this chapter is to help sort out the
issues raised by nanotechnology so that attention can be focused
on problems that must be solved, but might not be.
The next few sections deal with accidents of
conventional sorts, where safety benefits are obvious. Later
sections discuss more novel problems, some tough enough that we
have no good answers.
Safety in Ordinary
As countries have grown richer, their people have
lived longer despite pollution and automobile accidents. Greater
wealth means safer roads, safer cars, safer homes, and safer
workplaces. Throughout history, new technologies have brought new
risks, including risks of death, injury, and harm to the
environment, but prudent people have only accepted new
technologies when they offered an improved mix of risks and
benefits. Despite occasional dramatic mistakes, the historical
record says that people have succeeded in choosing technologies
that reduce their personal risks. This must be so, or we wouldn't
be living longer.
Molecular manufacturing and its products should
continue this trend, not as an automatic consequence, but as a
result of continued vigilance, of people exercising care in
picking and choosing which technologies they allow into their
daily lives. Nanotechnology will give better control of
production and products, and better control usually means greater
safety. Nanotechnology will increase wealth, and safety is a form
of wealth that people value. Public debate, product testing, and
safety regulations are standard parts of this process.
In common home accidents, a dangerous product is
wrongly applied, spilled, or consumed. Homes today are full of
corrosive and toxic materials, for cleaning drains, dissolving
stains, poisoning insects, and so forth. All too often, children
drink them and die. With advanced technology, none of these tasks
will require such harsh, crude chemicals. Cleaning could be
performed by selective nanomachines
instead of corrosive chemicals; insects could be controlled by
devices like ecosystem
protectors that know the difference between a cockroach and a
person or a ladybug. There will doubtless be room for deadly
accidents, but with care and hard work, it should be possible to
ensure that nanotechnologies for the home are safer than what
they replace, saving many lives.
It is, of course, possible to imagine safety
nightmares: nanotechnology could be used to make products far
more destructive than anything we've seen because it could be
used to extend almost any ability further than we've seen. Such
products presumably won't be commonplace: even today, nerve gas
would make a potent pesticide, but it isn't sold for home use.
Thinking realistically about hazards requires common sense.
We've already seen how post-breakthrough
technologies can eliminate oil spills by eliminating oil
consumption. A similar story could be told of almost any class of
industrial accident today. But what about accidentsspills
and the likewith the new technologies? Rather than trying
to paint a picture of a future technology, of how it could fail
and what the responses could be, it seems better to try a thought
experiment. What could be done to deal with oil spills, if oil
were still in use? This will show how nanotechnologies can be
used to cope with accidents:
If there were a spill and oil on the shore,
advanced nanomechanisms could do an excellent job of separating
oil from sand, removing oil from rocks, and cleaning crude oil
from feathers on birds and the feathery legs of barnacles. Oil
contamination is a pollution problem, and nanotechnology will be
a great aid in cleaning up pollution.
But why should the oil reach the shore?
Economical production would make it easy to stockpile cleanup
equipment near all the major shipping routes, along with fleets
of helicopters to deliver it at the first distress call from a
tanker. Oil cleanup equipment built with nanotechnology could
surely do an excellent job of scooping oil from the water before
it could reach the shore.
But why should the oil leave the tanker?
Economical production of strong materials could make seamless
hulls of fibrous materials far tougher than steel, with double,
triple, or quadruple layers. Smart materials
could even make punctures self-sealing. Hulls like this could be
run into rocks at highway speeds without spilling oil.
But why should anyone be shipping crude oil
across the sea? Even if oil were still being pumped (despite
inexpensive solar energy and solar-derived fuels), efficient molecule processing systems
could refine it into pure, fluid fuels at the wellhead, and
inexpensive tunneling machines could provide routes for deeply
Any one of these advances would shrink or
eliminate today's problem with oil spills, and all of them are
feasible. This example suggests a general pattern. If
nanotechnology can provide so many different ways to avoid or
deal with an oil spillone of the largest and most
environmentally destructive accidents caused by today's
industryit can probably do likewise for industrial
accidents in general.
The most direct approach is the most basic: the
elimination of anything resembling today's bulk industrial plants
and processes. The shift from messy drilling activities and huge
tankers to small-scale distributed systems based on solar cells is characteristic of the
style in which nanotechnology can be used. The chemical industry
today typically relies on plants full of large, pressurized tanks
of chemicals. Not surprisingly, these occasionally spill,
explode, or burn. With nanotechnology, chemical plants will be
unnecessary because molecules can be transformed in smaller
numbers, as needed and where needed, with no need for high
temperatures, high pressures, or big tanks. This will not only
avoid polluting by-products, but reduce the risk of accidents.
Medicine can be safer too. Drugs often have side
effects that can do permanent damage or kill. Nanomedicine will
offer alternatives to flooding the body with a possibly toxic
chemical. Often, one wants to affect just one target: just the
stomach, or perhaps just the ulcer. An antibiotic or antiviral
treatment should fight specific bacteria
or viruses and not damage
anything else. When medicine achieves the sophistication of immune machines and cell-surgery devices, this
will become possible.
But what about medical accidents and side
effects? Molecular manufacturing will make possible superior
sensors to tell medical researchers of the effects of a new
treatment, thereby improving testing. Better sensors will also
help in monitoring any negative effects of a treatment on an
individual patient. With care, only a few cells would be damaged
and only small concentrations of toxic by-products would be
produced before this was noticed and the treatment corrected.
The resources of nanotechnology-based medicine
would then be available for dealing with the problem. With
biostasis techniques available, even the worst medically induced
illnesses could be put on hold while a treatment was developed.
In short, serious medical mistakes could be made far rarer, and
most mistakes could be corrected.
The conclusion that follows from these examples
of oil spills, chemical plants, and the effects of medical
treatments is straightforward. Today our comparative poverty and
our comparative technological incompetence press us in the
direction of building and using relatively dangerous and
destructive devices, systems, and techniques. With greater wealth
and technological competence, we will have the option of
accomplishing what we do today (and more) with less risk and less
environmental destruction: in short, being able to do more, and
do it better.
With better-controlled technologies, and with an
ample measure of foresight and concern, we will even be able to
do a better job of recovering from mistakes. It won't happen
automatically, but with normal care we can arrange for our future
accidents to be smaller and less frequent than those in our past.
The previous section discussed ordinary accidents
that would occur during the use of nanotechnology by generally
responsible, yet fallible, human beings. Nanotechnology also
raises the specter, however, of what have been termed
"extraordinary accidents": accidents involving runaway
self-replicating machines. One can imagine building a device
about the size of a bacterium but tougher and more nearly
omnivorous. Such runaways might blow like pollen and reproduce
like bacteria, eating any of a wide range of organic materials:
an ecological disaster of unprecedented magnitudeindeed,
one that could destroy the biosphere as we know it. This may be
worth worrying about, but can this happen by accident?
How to Prepare a Big
The so-called "Star Trek scenario"
(named after an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation
that featured runaway "nanites") is perhaps the most
commonly imagined problem. In this scenario, someone first
invests considerable engineering effort in designing and building
devices almost exactly like the one just described:
bacterial-sized, omnivorous, able to survive in a wide range of
natural environments, able to build copies of themselves, and
made with just a few built-in safeguardsperhaps a clock
that shuts them off after a time, perhaps something else. Then,
accidentally, the clock fails, or one of these dangerous replicators builds a copy
with a defective clock, and away we go with an unprecedented
This would be an extraordinary accident indeed.
Note well, though, that this accident scenario starts with
someone building a highly capable device that is almost disastrously
dangerous, but held in check by a few safeguards. This would be
like wiring your house with dynamite and relying on a
safety-catch to protect the trigger: a subsequent explosion could
be called an accident, but the problem isn't with the safety
mechanism, it's with the dynamite installation.
Do we need to build nanotechnological dynamite?
It's worth considering just how little practical incentive there
is for anything even resembling the dangerous replicator just
described. (Note that our topic here is accidents; deliberate
acts of aggression are another matter.)
How to Avoid It
With our present technology, which is simpler to
builda car that runs on gasoline, or one that forages for
fuels in the forest? A foraging car would be very hard to design,
cost more to manufacture, and have more parts to break down. The
situation is similar with nanotechnology.
Ralph Merkle of Xerox Palo Alto Research Center
discussed this issue at the First Foresight
Conference on Nanotechnology. He explains, "It's both
uneconomical and more difficult to design a self-replicating
system that manufactures every part it needs from naturally
occurring compounds. Bacteria do this, but in the process they
have to synthesize all twenty amino acids and many other
compounds, using elaborate enzyme systems tailored specifically
for the purpose. For bacteria facing a hostile world, the ability
to adapt and respond to a changing environment is worth almost
any cost, for lacking this ability they would be wiped out.
"But in a factory setting, where adequate
supplies of all the needed parts are provided, the ability to
synthesize parts from scratch is not only unneeded, it consumes
extra time and energy, and produces excess waste. Even if we
could design artificial self-replicating systems as flexible as
existing natural ones, an inflexible and rigid system is better
adapted to the controlled factory setting in which it will find
itself than a more complex, more adaptable, less efficient
What is more, the Desert Rose Industries scenario
showed how an expandable factory setup could operate with no
self-replicating machines at all: molecular manufacturing doesn't
require them. If they are used for some purpose, they will most
likely resemble automobiles in their finicky requirements. A
machine built for industrial purposes (and made as simple as
possible) would float in a container of specially selected
chemicals. As with the automobile, the best chemicals to use will
probably be chemicals not commonly found in nature, and it would
be easy to make that a design rule: Never make a replicator
that can use an abundant natural compound as fuel.
If we follow this rule, the idea of a replicator
"escaping" and replicating in the wild will be as
absurd as the notion of an automobile going feral and refueling
itself from tree sap. Whether for replicators or cars, to design
a machine that could operate in the wild would not be a matter of
a flick of the draftsman's pen, but an intense, sustained
research-and-development effort focused on that objective.
Crashes and explosions occur in machinery by accident, but
complex new capabilities don't.
A simple psychological error frequently occurs
when someone first hears about nanotechnology, and hears mention
of "molecular machines," and "replicators,"
and "nanomachines that operate in nature." The error is
this: The person makes a single new mental pigeonhole for
"nanotechnology," throws everything into it, and stirs.
After some mental fermentation, the result is the mythical
nanomachine that does everything: it's a replicator, it's a
supercomputer, it's a Land-Rover, it slices, it dicesand on
reflection, this imaginary nanomachine sounds uncontrolled and
dangerous. With enough effort, a do-it-all nanomachine could
perhaps be built, but it sounds difficult and there's no good
reason to try.
There are advantages to making systems
of molecular machinery that can use inexpensive, abundant
chemicals, and devices that can operate in nature, but these
machines needn't be replicators. A facility like Desert Rose
might be designed to use little but electric power from solar
panels and molecules from the air, but a setup like this isn't
going to slip away. Nanomachines built for cleaning up pollutants
and other outdoor tasks could be manufactured in facilities run
like Desert Rose and then spread or installed where they're
Extraordinary accidents deserve attention, but
with a little care they can be completely avoided. The incentive
to build anything resembling a Star Trek-scenario replicator is
negligible, even from a military perspective. Any effort toward
building such a thing should be seen not as a use of
nanotechnology, but as an abuse. Other abuses seem more likely,
however, and are quite bad enough.
The Chief Danger: Abuse
The chief danger of nanotechnology isn't
accidents, but abuse. The safety benefits of nanotechnology, when
used with normal care, will free some of our attention to grapple
with this far more difficult problem. As Lester Milbrath
observes, "Nanotechnologies have such great power that they
could be used for evil or environmentally destructive purposes as
easily as they could be used for good and environmentally
nourishing purposes. This great danger will require a level of
political control far beyond that which most nations know how to
exercise. We have a prodigious social learning task that we must
Thus far, we've focused on how increased
abilities can serve constructive ends. Not surprisingly, the
potential consequenceswith the huge exception of social and
economic disruptionare overwhelmingly positive. Inherently
clean, well-controlled, inexpensive, superior technologies, when
applied with care, can yield far better results than inherently
dirty, messy, costly, inferior technologies. This should come as
no surprise, but it is only half of the story. The other half is
the application of those same superior technologies to
Readers feeling that all this may be too good to
be true can breathe a sigh of relief. This problem looks tough.
Molecular manufacturing will lead to more
powerful technologies, but our current, crude technology already
has world-smashing potential. We have lived with that potential
for decades now. In the coming years, we will need to strengthen
institutions for maintaining peaceful security.
If most of the political power in the world, and
with it most of the police and military power, sees that the
course of self interest lies in peace and stability, then
solutions seem possible. (The prospect of an arms race in
nanotechnology is terrifying and to be avoided at almost any
cost. As of this writing, the end of the Cold War offers a better
hope of avoiding this nightmare.) James C. Bennett, a high-tech
entrepreneur and public policy commentator affiliated with the
Center for Constitutional Issues in Technology, explains the
goal: "Advanced technologies, particularly as far-ranging a
capability as nanotechnology, will create a strong demand for
their regulation. The challenge will be to create sufficient
controls to prevent the power-hungry from abusing the
technologies, without either smothering development or creating
an overbearing international regime."
In the coming decades, preventing major abuse of
nanotechnology will take the form of regulation, arms control,
and antiterrorist activities. In the field of arms control,
nanotechnology should present strong motivation for international
cooperation and for intimate mutual inspection in the form of
joint research programs.
The sheer productive capabilities of molecular
manufacturing will make it possible to move from a working
weapons prototype to mass production in a matter of days. In a
more exotic vein, dangerous nanomachines could be developed,
including programmable "germs" (replicating or
nonreplicating) for germ warfare. Either development could bring
war. With peace looking so profitable and an arms race looking so
dangerous, arms control through cooperative development should
look attractive. This does not make it easy, or likely.
Terrorism is not an immediate concern. We have
lived with nuclear weapons and nerve gas for decades now, and
nerve gas, at least, is not difficult to make. As of this
writing, no city has been obliterated by terrorists using these
means, and no terrorist has even made a credible threat of this
sort. The citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like the Kurds in
Iraq, fell victim to nuclear and chemical weapons wielded by
governments, not small groups. So long as nanotechnology is
technologically more challenging than the simple chemistry of
nerve gas, nanoterrorism should not be a primary concern.
To keep dangerous nanotechnologies unavailable,
however, will require regulation. If anyone were free to build
anything using molecular manufacturing, then someday as the
technology base improves and designs become available for more
and more nanodevices, someone, somewhereif only out of
sheer spitewould figure out how to combine those
nanodevices to make a dangerous replicator and turn it loose.
There will almost surely be warning signs, however: In the
natural course of events, causes attract protesters before
stone-throwers, and produce letter bombs before car bombs. Abuse
of nanotechnology is likely to be visible long before it is
devastating, and this at least gives some time to try to respond.
Abuse of this sort can be delayed, perhaps for a
long time, by proper regulation. The goal here isn't to make
regulations so tight that people will have to violate them to get
anything done. This would encourage holdouts, underground work,
and disrespect for the law. Instead, the goal is to draw
boundaries loosely enough to cause little difficulty for
legitimate work, while making dangerous activities very difficult
indeed. This is a delicate balance to strike: those fearful of
risk naturally try to apply crude and oppressive regulations, and
companies naturally try to loosen and avoid regulation entirely.
Nonetheless, the problem must be solved, and this seems the best
direction to explore.
In one approach, nanomachines could be divided
into two classes: experimental devices and approved
products. Approved products could be made widely available
through special-purpose molecular manufacturing systems. Thus,
once an experimental device had passed regulatory inspection, it
could become inexpensive and abundant. In this way, popular
demands for a product could be satisfied without anyone needing
to break safety rules.
Approved products could include devices like (but
superior to) the full range of modern consumer products, ranging
from personal supercomputers with 3-D color displays, through
smart construction materials, to running shoes with truly amazing
features. The main cost of such goods might be the royalty to the
designer. In Engines of
Creation (the first book to examine this topic), this
strategy for producing and distributing approved products is
called a "limited
Note that both approved products and the limited assemblers that build them
would lack the ability to make copies of themselves, to
self-replicate. Ralph Merkle sees this ability as the one to keep
an eye on: "Self-replicating systems can and should be
appropriately regulated. There seems no need, however, to have
any more than normal concerns for devices which cannot replicate.
While we might, as with any device, need laws to ensure their
appropriate use, they pose no extraordinary problems." For
most products, normal medical, commercial, and environmental
standards would apply; the regulatory bureaucracies are already
There are great advantages to permitting nearly
free experimentation in a new technology, allowing creative
people to try ideas without seeking prior approval from a
cumbersome committee. Surprisingly, this, too, seems compatible
In the world of nanotechnology, one cubic micron
is a large space, with room enough for millions of components.
For many purposes, a few cubic microns would amount to a large
laboratory space. To a device on a micron scale, a centimeter is
an enormous distance. Surrounding a micron-scale device with a
centimeter-thick wall would be like surrounding a human being
with a wall kilometers thick, and just as hard to penetrate.
Further, a micron-scale device can be incinerated in an instant
by something as small as a spark of static electricity. Based on
observations like these, Engines of Creation outlined
the idea of a sealed
assembler lab, in which a researcher could build
anything, even something deliberately designed to be dangerous,
and yet be unable to get anything out of the microscopic sealed
laboratory except for information.
With a good communications network, a researcher
or product developer in Texas could equally easily perform
experiments in a remote Maine laboratory run with the security
and secrecy of a Swiss bank. A lab would have a responsibility to
its customers to keep proprietary work confidential, and a
responsibility to regulatory authorities to ensure that nothing
but information leaves the laboratory. Researchers could then
perform any small-scale experiments they wish. Only approved
products, of course, would be built outside the sealed
laboratories. While this may not be the best pattern of
regulation possible, it does show one way in which freedom of
experimentation could be combined with strict regulation of use.
By providing a clear separation between legitimate and
illegitimate activity, it would help with the difficult problem
of identifying and preventing research aimed at damaging ends.
A sensible policy will have to balance the risk
of private abuse of technology against the risk of government
abuse of technology and regulation. Low-cost manufacturing can
make surveillance equipment less expensive. Increased
surveillance can reduce some risks in society, but the watchers
themselves often aren't very well watched. Placing bounds on
surveillance is a challenge for today's citizens as well as
tomorrow's, and lessons learned in the past can be applied in the
In the long run, it seems wise to assume that
someone, somewhere, somehow, will escape the bounds of regulation
and arms control and apply molecular-manufacturing capabilities
to making novel weapons. If by then we have had several decades
of peaceful, responsible, creative development of nanotechnology
(or perhaps a few years of help from smart machines), then we may
have developed both ecosystem protectors and sophisticated immune
machines for medicine. There is good reason to think that
distributed technologies of this sort could be adapted and
extended to deal with the problem of protecting against novel
nanoweaponry. Failure to do so could mean disaster. Nonetheless,
building protective systems of this sort will be by far the
greatest challenge of any we have discussed. The chief purpose of
regulatory tactics like those we have described must be to buy
time for those peaceful developments, to maximize the chances
that this challenge can be met before time runs out.
(Any critic declaring this to be an optimistic
book hereby stands charged with having failed to read and
understand the above paragraph.)
Guide It, or Stop It?
Potential accidents richly deserve the attention
they will get, and we have confidence that this attention will
suffice to make nanotechnology a force for improved human and
environmental safety. Abuse is the greater danger, and harder to
deal with. When considering a proposed policy, the first question
should be, "How will this affect the long-term likelihood of
Guiding Means Making Many
Guiding a technology is a complex task. It means
grappling with myriad decisions regarding which applications are
beneficial and which harmful in such complex areas as medicine,
the economy, and the environment. It means making such happy
choices as which of several good approaches to apply in cleaning
up toxic-waste dumps and reversing the greenhouse effect. It also
means making more difficult choices in planning ecosystem
restoration and environmental modification.
These problems will confront us with a range of
choices better than we have today, yet choices that throw values
into conflict. Which is a better use for a particular piece of
landthe slow restoration of a wilderness ecosystem, or
development as a recreational park? Either may be far better than
pavement, strip mines, and dumps, but the choices will be
Likewise, in medicine, we will have a choice of
developing many different ways to cure cancers, many different
ways to cure heart disease, many different ways to cure AIDS. But
the technologies that can be used to rebuild damaged heart muscle
could be extended to rebuild muscle and connective tissue
structures elsewhere in the body, without the harmful side
effects of steroid drugs. The range of choices open to people
will be enormous, and again will be cause for great debate.
When a new medical technology is discussed today,
a frequent comment is, "This procedure raises ethical
questions." This is often taken as a signal to delay its
use, neglecting such ethical questions as "Is withholding
this lifesaving treatment while we ponder akin to murder?"
When a choice raises ethical questions or throws values into
conflict, it is time to make an ethical decision or to step aside
and let others choose for themselves. Deciding to avoid whatever
raised the question is itself a decisionand often ethically
indefensible. New technologies will face us with uncomfortable
decisions, but so does life itself.
Setting up rules for nanotechnology development
will be challenging: finding ways to maximize research freedom
while preventing serious abuse and making this stick
worldwide is a social challenge of the first rank. Beyond
this are decisions regarding rules for its application, and the
challenge of maximizing freedom of choice and action while
preventing serious abuse, again worldwide.
To guide nanotechnology means grappling with a
set of decisions that could ultimately remake much of the
worldfor the better if we are reasonably wise, or for the
worse if we are too blundering and incautious. To avoid this
responsibility (if we could) would be tempting, yet given the
environmental and human stakes, it would, perhaps, be a wrong of
Trying to Stop Means
The simplest imaginable approach to
"guiding" nanotechnology would be to stop it. The
easiest trip to plan is the trip that goes nowhere.
This would have a certain appeal, if it were
possible. Because of its enormous potential for abuse,
nanotechnology has the potential of doing great harm. If we
believe that human beings and human institutions are too
incompetent to deal with nanotechnologythat they are too
likely to turn it to aggressive military use, or too likely to
make it freely available to madmenthen the option of
stopping the development of nanotechnology may seem attractive
indeed. But the ethical question that must guide human actions is
not "Would it be better to stop?", but "Would
attempts to stop make things better?"
One option is to push forward, emphasizing the
need for caution but also the potential for good applications.
The promise of medical, economic, and environmental applications,
joined with the threat posed by a new arms race, provides a
powerful motive for international cooperation. With positive
goals and an inclusive stance, international cooperation is a
promising strategy; it could provide a basis for guiding the
development and application of nanotechnology.
Another option would be to emphasize the
downside, to focus debate on potential abuses in support of a
campaign to halt development. In following this strategy, an
activist group would want to downplay the civilian applications
of nanotechnology and emphasize its military applications. Horror
stories of potential abuse (including abuses that regulation
could easily prevent) would help to make the technology seem
strange and dangerous.
This strategy might succeed in suppressing
civilian research in many countries, though probably not all.
Unfortunately, it would also guarantee funding for classified
military research programs in laboratories around the world, even
in the most morally honest countries, because of their
then-inevitable fear of the consequences if someone else
developed nanotechnology first. In a hostile public atmosphere,
research would be pushed into secret programs, and in secrecy the
prospects for broad international cooperation would disappear.
Attempts to stop nanotechnology for fear of a new, unstable arms
race become self-fulfilling prophecies. Afterward, the advocates
of this view could then say, "We warned you!" as the
world slid toward a war they themselves had helped to prepare.
Attempting to stop technological development is a
simple but dangerous idea. The greater its success, the greater
the polarization it would cause between technology advocates and
technology critics. A moderate success would push research out of
the public universities and into corporate and military research
labs. A greater success would push research out of the corporate
laboratories and into heavily classified programs. A truly
amazing success would end most of these, leaving the only
remaining military programs in the hands of those states with
thoroughly repressive governments or alien ideologies. This,
presumably, is not how one would prefer nanotechnology to be
The only genuine success would be a total
success, and this would mean banning research not only in the
United States, and Germany, and France, and the rest of Western
Europe, and Japan, and the Soviet Union, and the People's
Republic of China, and Taiwan, but in Korea, South Africa, Iran,
Iraq, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, and the part of
Colombia controlled by the Medellín Cartel. Later, as computers
improve, as chemistry advances, as more and more proximal probe
microscopes are built by high school students, total success
would require banning kids from tinkering in suburban garages in
Competitive pressures are pushing technology
toward thorough control of matter, and we have seen that this
goal can be reached by many different paths. Preventing one area
of research would not prevent the advance, nor would stopping
work in one country. When the United States delays drug
development through strong regulation by the FDA, drug companies
simply switch research overseas, or non-U.S. companies pull
ahead. Orbital-launch capability and nuclear weapons capability
are other examples. Very seldom has one country given these
abilities to another, yet at least eight nations are able to
launch satellites to orbit independently, at least seven have
detonated nuclear devices, and another two are suspected to be
within easy reach of nuclear capability. India and Israel have
built bombs and launched satellites, though neither is considered
a great power or a leading force in world technology.
Where nanotechnology is concerned, many countries
are capable of doing the required research, and more will be in
the future. South Korea has both the needed educational levels
and the ambition; visitors from the People's Republic of China
ask about nanotechnology. A decision at the top directing the
resources of a nation could get results almost anywhere. The
United States is only gradually being shaken from its illusion
that it rules the world of technology. This illusion is a poor
basis for decisions and action.
For all practical purposes, nanotechnology seems
inevitable. With work, it can be made beneficial, but only if we
exercise ordinary care in avoiding accidents and extraordinary
care in preventing abuse.
It's hard to get people to take future
technologies seriously. Present-day problems dominate
discussions, and ideas about future possibilities take effort to
judge. Because of this inertia, broad international regulation of
nanotechnology won't be possible until nanotechnology already
exists, until people begin to see its results. And then, for
regulation to be most effective, researchers and governments in
many countries will need to cooperate and be on speaking terms
with the technology's critics.
What, then, is the socially responsible course of
action, the approach most likely to avoid serious abuse of
nanotechnology and most likely to deliver some of its potential
benefits? It is, we believe, to point out potential dangers and
abuses and how they can be avoided, but also to emphasize the
civilian applications in medicine, the environment, and the
economy. It is these benefits that provide grounds for advocating
open civilian development programs, and for international
cooperation that can provide a basis for effective international
To guide nanotechnology will not be simple. We
will be confronted with a range of choices greater than we have
faced before in history. It is only by grappling with those
choices that we will be able to affect them for the better.