World History 6
May 1, 2005
Of Nanotechnology and Men
Nanotechnology is a relatively new field of science that has near limitless potential; potential that could reshape and redefine the human experience. According to many experts and news reports, nanotechnology has the potential to: devour all carbon dioxide in the air, thus ‘solving’ global warming (“Mixed Media”); the ability to create materials atom by atom (Smalley); be used as artificial viruses or other potent weapons by militaries around the world (“Military Uses”); perpetuate Moore’s Law, that is, continue to double the power of computing technology every year (“Nantero Nabs”); create self-replicating machines and electronics (Choi, “DNA”); prevent cellular aging and even reverse the affects of aging (Kurzweil, “Alcor”); control chemical reactions within the body (Choi, “Nanocatalysts”); engulf the world in a devastating war for control of the technology (Phoenix); help humanity attain ‘permanent health’ (Kurzweil, “Alcor”); and forge more effective machines for life processes than biology ever could (Kurzweil, “Debate”). The feasibility of nanotechnology is also incredibly sound. In particular, the feasibility of molecular manufacturing (that is, the ability to manufacture tiny machines and other materials at the scale of atoms) is proven by natural systems. Indeed, if molecular manufacturing were impossible, life too would be impossible (Kurzweil, “Debate”). While many of the things that nanotechnology will usher in would be beneficial, they are mutually exclusive to some of the other effects of the technology. For example, immortality is mutually exclusive to nanotechnology destroying our species by means of being used as a biological weapon. Careful steps must be taken in order to ensure that nanotechnology does not spell the end of the world for our species, that much is apparent (Phoenix). But in order to truly understand the impact of nanotechnology, one must first look specifically at its incredible capacity for good and for ill.
Nanotechnology has many practical applications that do not require much research or projection to appreciate fully. In particular, nanotechnology will give mankind the ability to clean the atmosphere of carbon dioxide (via use of nanobots, tiny machines comprised of a handful of atoms) and effectively prevent or reverse the effects of global warming (“Mixed Media”). Unfortunately, nanotechnology is also already in use for ill: many millitaries around the world are developing weapons using nanotechnology. Most weapon designs typically involve the use of nanobots in a way that a virus might be used in a chemical weapon (“Military Uses”), but nanobots are much easier to control than viruses (Kurzweil, “Debate”). Currently, computers are being improved through the benefits that nanotechnology can provide. Nantero, a company that produces computer memory, recently received $15 million in order to build computer parts utilizing nanotechnology (“Nantero Nabs”). Nanotechnology could be used to create desired enzymes or other molecules inside the body, a huge advancement over current medical practices (Choi, “Drug Discovery”). Nanomachines could be developed that sort through particles in food to find dangerous pathogens, thus greatly increasing food safety (“Breakthrough”). However, these technologies just scratch at the surface of what nanotechnology, and in particular, molecular manufacturing are really capable of.
Molecular manufacturing is a branch of nanotechnology that will allow mankind to manufacture nano-scale products as efficiently as we can currently manufacture macro-scale products. The benefits of this are extraordinary, and “even the initial products of an MNT [molecular nanotechnology] nanofactory would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars” (Phoenix). The capability to manufacture nanomachines at such a cheap price and quick pace will revolutionize many industries, and in particular the field of medicine will be drastically changed. In the future (a mere decade or two from now), nanobots may live inside a man’s body and constantly maintain him in a way exponentially more efficient than any biological structure could (Freitas Jr.). Experts, including Robert Freitas (as demonstrated in his article “Death is an Outrage”) and Ray Kurzweil (in his article “The Alcor Convention on Extreme Life Extension”) believe that ultimately, nanotechnology could spell immortality for the human race. (For more of an in-depth look at how nanotechnology will lead to immortality, please refer to the essay “Immortality: Within Our Grasp,” which features additional research and insight in other fields.) Clearly, the changes that nanotechnology will bring to mankind are earth shattering. Could a more fundamental change to the human experience exist than the ability to live forever? However, for every advantage that nanotechnology could bring, a disadvantage looms in the distance.
One particularly disconcerting disadvantage of nanotechnology is the misuse of it. In particular, mismanagement of the technology could lead to the impoverished of our world never seeing its benefits. Some nations refuse to properly fund the technology and to encourage its developments, thus preventing the poor from ever seeing the improvements that nanotechnology could bring. Keep in mind that the poor make up over “80 percent of the global population” (Choi, “Nanotech May Not Reach Poor”). Ironically, overzealous nations who are too protective of the technology and will not cooperate with other nations in developing nanotech may launch the world into global upheaval (Phoenix). Chris Phoenix is one author who has written much on the potential dangers of nanotechnology in his paper “Molecular Manufacturing: Start Planning.”
As previously discussed, molecular nanotechnology (or MNT) manufacturing will be an amazingly powerful technology. However, with the potential for great benefit comes the possibility of terrible devastation. “One obvious risk is an unstable arms race,” Phoenix begins. “Weapons could be more powerful and far ‘smarter’—imagine the combined capability of a million unmanned aerial vehicles with on-board pattern matching and navigation capability.” Phoenix describes a veritable laundry list of potential problems: a prestrike scenario that ends in one country dominating the world, a “less dangerous than all-out war with MNT-built weapons” terrorist scenario where nanotechnology is used to invade and harm everyone, regulation and control problems (postulating that “attempts to restrict proliferation may generate oppressive or even abusive regulation”), and a scenario investigating how poverty might be intensified if MNT technologies are not utilized correctly. Again, it is clear that MNT technologies will bring many sweeping, fundamental changes to humanity. The only question is whether or not these changes will be beneficial or harmful. The answer to this question lies within humanity’s hands, or so Phoenix implies.
The benefits and risks of molecular nanotechnologies (MNT) have been fully explored; now it should be examined how best to go about minimizing the dangers and capitalizing on the advantages of this “inevitable” technology. Chris Phoenix has offered up an argument on how to do this. The core of Phoenix’s argument is thus: “it may be that the safest course is a single, international development effort, leading to a technology that can be widely distributed and carefully administered….” Certainly, a global effort in such an amazing field would be a huge, fundamental change in foreign policy for every nation on the face of the planet. “A single technology with the programmability and speed of digital computers, the chemical flexibility of biotechnology, the military potential of nuclear technology or airplanes and the utility of very advanced rapid prototyping, will bring many changes,” Phoneix decrees.
The variety of potential problems, in economic, military, political, humanitarian and environmental spheres, indicates that no simple solution can work. A balance must be struck between national defense and arms control; between capitalist practice and social needs and between unrestricted private use and oppressive restriction. These issues will not be easy to solve (Phoenix).
Indeed, they are tough issues to solve, but this is due to the fact that solving them would require a fundamental revision of human behavior. Mankind has warred and fought since the dawn of time. To unite now would be an amazingly difficult departure from the norm. Phoenix is not the only author to hold the opinion that a global effort is necessary; Christine Peterson also wrote of it in her article “Societal Implications of Molecular Manufacturing.” In particular, the article states “The best way to reduce risks from molecular manufacturing would be an open, international R&D program with broad cooperation by the democracies, including a parallel arms control verification project.” One sentiment shared by many (and here vocalized by Peterson) is that policy makers need to begin planning for the advent of the technology now to minimize the risks involved.
Nanotechnology will bring about a fundamental change in the human experience, that much is certain. The only question is whether or not this change will be a beneficial one. On one hand, nanotechnology could lead to immortality for the human race and the eradication of natural death (Freitas Jr.). On the other, it could lead to global devastation and terrorism like none seen before (Phoenix). The direction that nanotechnology will lead won’t be decided in 20 years; that is when the technology will be in use and the direction already set in stone. Rather, whether or not nanotechnology will lead to good or ill is being decided now. For it to be beneficial, that requires a fundamental change in that nations across the world will need to come together and cooperated in an unprecedented manner (Peterson). For a negative change that will fundamentally reshape the world (by perhaps eradicating mankind or doing untold damage to mankind or the earth), the nations around the world need only continue to drag their feet and disagree (Phoenix). Which of these is the more likely scenario depends on the outlook of the reader, but the path that nanotechnology will take seems rather obvious to the author.