TCS Daily

The Promise of Tomorrow

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Recently, John Brockman posed a query to readers in the form of an imaginary memo from President Bush. The memo invited readers to play Science Advisor to the President, and asked readers to suggest the most pressing scientific issue confronting the United States and the world, and how the White House can best address that issue. There's a strong case that nanotechnology should top the list.

Nanotechnology has received a fair amount of public interest in recent years, and rightly so. It could very well revolutionize manufacturing capabilities, and introduce path-breaking ways to deal with a whole host of technological quandaries. Through nanotechnology, material is created one atom at a time, with the ultimate aim of the technology being to create self-replicating materials that could, among other things, either build or fix just about anything automatically.

For example, self-replicating entities could be used to dramatically cheapen the costs and time associated with the creation of large buildings. Such entities could also be used to immediately repair broken hulls in supertankers to avoid and prevent large oil spills, or could be used to clean up whatever oil spills occur. Nanotech devices could help fix structural problems during the course of an airplane flight that would otherwise mean disaster for the flight, or on a shuttle mission that would otherwise doom the astronauts and the craft to destruction.

Nanotech also has vast military applications, from micro air vehicles (MAVs) capable of assisting the military in targeting sites for attack and all sorts of reconnaissance capabilities, to microelectromechanical devices (MEMs) capable of directing munitions to targets, and determining the timing of weapons detonations.

Nanotech could even potentially be used in order to repair damage to internal and external portions of the human body that would have otherwise required invasive, painful and even dangerous surgery. It can accelerate and improve the human immune system's response to AIDS, as well as be used to dramatically improve cancer treatments. The applications and benefits could dramatically reduce health care costs, health insurance premiums, and patient discomfort resulting from treatment. We may look back on the practice of medicine prior to the development of nanotech as a period resembling the Dark Ages.

But what can the President do to address it?

One thing that the Bush administration would do well to keep in mind is that the last major scientific discovery project-the mapping of the human genome-was accomplished via a significant contribution from the private sector. Indeed, the genome sequencing project speaks very well to the private sector's capability to handle important and cutting-edge scientific inquiries, and the administration would be well-served if it could encourage a serious private sector effort into harnessing the power and potential of nanotechnology.

This, of course, does not mean that government cannot have a role in developing nanotech. On the contrary, some of the most impressive advances in technology have come as a result of government innovation. For example, the creation of the Internet is largely attributable to the work done by a government agency - DARPA. To the extent that it is helpful, and assuming that it does not slow down or inhibit the work of the private sector in the creation and development of nanotechnology, governmental agencies like DARPA should be involved in research on this important issue.

Through public events, the administration could emphasize the importance of nanotech development. President Bush should speak to the issue of nanotechnology in speeches, and in technology conferences and roundtables with private sector industry and engineering leaders. The Clinton administration followed this strategy regarding the development of the Internet, and thus successfully identified Internet development as a project that was important for American businesses to follow and pursue. The same attention should be given to nanotechnology. Much as President John F. Kennedy helped make it a national priority to get an American to the moon, and return safely to earth, President Bush could use his bully pulpit to make the development of nanotechnology a similarly important priority.

Finally, the administration should also make sure that it implements a safe and verifiable laboratory protocol that does not allow nanotechnology to be used for dangerous or harmful purposes. Poorly designed research protocols can make the development of nanotech something to be feared, instead of an achievement to be savored and celebrated. In a previous article on nanotechnology, Glenn Reynolds pointed to the Foresight Guidelines on Nanotechnology, which serve to provide rules to be followed in the course of nanotechnology research. The administration will be able to dramatically lessen the possibility that nanotechnology development will have negative consequences by ensuring that the Guidelines are strictly followed by all entities involved in nanotech development, and by soliciting advice from the public and private sector on how the guidelines might be improved in light of any new information that comes out regarding nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology's potential is too important to ignore. Its vast applications in both the military and civilian sphere make the development of this technology a priority. One hopes that in the near future, the benefits of nanotechnology will be made clear at the highest levels, and that action will be taken to realize those benefits as soon as possible. Some projects are just too important to put off.

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