TCS Daily

NanoDynamism vs. NanoTimidity

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Nanotechnology is likely to be as important in the twenty-first century as rocketry, or nuclear physics, were in the twentieth. The United States has a fairly competent nanotechnology research program, though many feel its efforts are misdirected. Europe has a substantial but comparatively muted one. Other countries seem very interested indeed.

In the United States, and especially in Europe, research into nanotechnology is facing growing resistance from the same forces that have opposed biotechnology -- and, for that matter, nuclear energy and other new technologies. The claim is that concerns about the safety and morality of nanotechnology justify limitations on research and development. Even Prince Charles has weighed in against nanotechnology, although Ian Bell wonders if the real fuss is about something other than the science:

"That, indeed, may be at the heart of technofear: we suspect it's not science that's defective, as such, but us. The Prince of Wales, that noted expert, has recently written to the press to voice his fears about nanotechnology, the use of molecule-sized parts to create tiny devices. Thus far it has been used for sun screens and stain-proof trousers. Charles is afraid that the science could, yes, run amok, with miniscule robots reproducing themselves and proceeding to turn the world into 'grey goo'.

"Many might suspect that the only grey goo we have to worry about is between the ears of HRH, but scientists fear that the prince could do to them what he did to the reputation of contemporary architecture. Charles, clearly, can have no way of knowing what he is talking about, but the fear he expresses is common: do any of us really know what we are doing when we follow where science leads?"

The real problem isn't a distrust of science. It's a distrust of people. And viewed in this light, these fears are likely to be strongest where pessimism about humanity is strongest. It looks that way, too, with Europe (perhaps understandably pessimistic, in light of its past century) leading the way in throwing some people's only favored invention -- the wet blanket -- over nanotechnology research.

In the more-optimistic United States, there are concerns, but they haven't yet led to a strong interest in regulating nanotechnology. They have, however, led to a certain ostrich-like approach to dealing with the realities of the technology, as scientific and corporate types try to shift the focus to short-term technological developments while pooh-poohing the prospects for genuine molecular manufacturing, what I've elsewhere called "spooky nanotechnology". There are some promising developments otherwise, both at the National Nanotechnology Initiative and within the nanotechnology industry itself, but it's still too early to tell whether this turnaround will really take hold.

In the meantime, other cultures -- perhaps not suffering from the remnants of post-lapsarian thinking that infect even the most secular Westerners, or perhaps simply less comfortable and more anxious to get ahead -- are showing far less reluctance.

We're already beginning to hear alarms raised about Chinese interest in military nanotechnology, and China is already third in the world in nanotechnology patent applications.

India's president Abdul Kalam is also touting nanotechnology; and, as a recent press account captured, he's quite straightforward in saying that one reason for treating nanotechnology as important is that it will lead to revolutionary weaponry:

"He said carbon nano tubes and its composites would give rise to super strong, smart and intelligent structures in the field of material science and this in turn could lead new production of nano robots with new types of explosives and sensors for air, land and space systems. 'This would revolutionise the total concepts of future warfare', he said."

Yes, it would. Westerners tend to forget it, but it was a few key technologies -- primarily steam navigation and repeating firearms -- that made the era of Western colonialism possible. (See Daniel Headrick's The Tools of Empire for more on this).

It is, no doubt, as hard for American and European mandarins to imagine being conquered by Chinese troops equipped with superior weaponry as it was for Chinese Mandarins to imagine the reverse, two hundred years ago. Will our mandarins be smart enough to learn from that experience? That's the question, isn't it?


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