A lengthy article in the Winston-Salem (North Carolina) Journal ("Small Miracles: Micromachines are being developed that may offer mankind great benefits – or threaten its very existence", by Kevin Begos, 14 April 2002) rehashes much of the mass media shorthand on nanotech weíve seen so often before: "Many researchers, government officials and venture capitalists are saying that over the next few decades, the effect of such inventions on society may dwarf what has happened in the computer or telecommunications revolutions. Skeptics see a dark side to such a future. Humans may well be able to make such products, they say — but may not be able to control them after they're unleashed on the world." We get warmed-over visions of advanced nanotech applications, Bill Joyís worries over human obsolescence, government funding, venture capitalists ñ the usual stew.
Read more for some of the more interesting bits. Some interesting bits:
The article contains extensive and relatively thoughtful quotes from two academics at North Carolina State University: Gerald Iafrate, a professor of engineering, and Denis Gray, a professor of psychology who's involved because even nanotechnology's strongest supporters agree that there are moral and ethical issues to consider. Both are part of a review panel that plans to report to the National Academies of Science this summer on progress and problems in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (see Nanodot post from 30 October 2001).
Neither NCSU professor favors Bill Joyís recommendation for ìrelinquishingî certain types of scientific research: "We don't know what's going to come out of the pipeline, but if you start getting people thinking about (things) now, debating them, and looking at what the implications might be, your chances of not being surprised and not having some bad outcomes are better," Gray said. Iafrate agreed that "the most important things to concern yourself with are ethical issues," but said that doesn't mean that stopping research makes sense. "You know, that's not a practical way to approach investment in science and technology, because one's conjecture about what may happen in 20 or 30 years is never right," he said.
The article also contains a number of quotes from Nobel laureate Richard Smalley of Rice University:
- "Because we know that everything is ultimately made of atoms, when you put the atoms together in the best possible way, you will get an object which will have the best possible structure and behavior," said Richard Smalley.
- Regarding the increasing interest and media hype related to nanotech, "Smalley said that some of the hype needs cooling down. 'Most of this is going to take 20, 40 years to evolve. It takes great patience,' he said."
- Perhaps the most interesting passage is one in which Smalley, who has often been portrayed as being highly skeptical of advanced molecular nanotechnology, discusses the potential for medical nanorobots:
Smalley, who has cancer, said that the idea of injecting millions or trillions of tiny machines into the body isn't out of line compared with some of the problems humans face. "On my worst days there are something like 10 to the 11th-power cancer cells in my body, and lately, now, it's down to maybe 100 million," he said. "For diseases like this, there is only one solution. And that is you have to somehow take something, and in that something will be trillions of little nano-objects." The objects have to be free to roam the body and distinguish cancer cells from healthy ones, and then kill each diseased cell. "Cures to virtually all diseases will be had on the nano scale," Smalley said, adding that developments are many years away.